From prehistoric times until the early 1960s, in The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay, John R. Wennersten explores the interrelationship between humans and oysters. He focuses on the waters and residents of the Chesapeake Bay and Potomac River region, and the oyster wars they endured. The political forces involved in the disputes were Maryland and Virginia, who share those waters, and the Federal Government, who oversaw disputes between the two states.
After briefly discussing oyster-related history in other parts of the world in the first part of the Prologue, Wennersten shifts to Chesapeake and Potomac region. He quickly walks the reader through the colonial period, followed by the revolutionary war and development of the society along the Bay, such that “by 1820, the waterfront societies of Chesapeake Bay had reached their maturity and would remain relatively unchanged into the twentieth century.” Oddly, although the Potomac is a key part of the story, the title of the book mentions only the Chesapeake.
In the beginning
Chapter 1 kicks-off the rest of the book in November 1867. During the Civil War, many of the watermen had made a living smuggling. With the Civil War over, the watermen returned to fishing, crabbing and harvesting oysters. The bivalves were like gold, and the rush was on to gather as many of them as possible, as fast as possible. The Maryland harvest prior to the Civil War was 3.5 million bushels in 1858. By the end of the war in 1865, the harvest had climbed to 4.879 million bushes. The oyster harvest in 1884 was 15 million bushels.
Then began the decline. In 1889, the number shrank to 9.945 million bushels, and continued to decline, falling to back to the pre-war level of 3.5 million bushels in Maryland by 1910. Thereafter the harvest continued to shrink (despite occasional brief upticks), with the additional pressure of disease, storms, and pollution. At the end of the 1950s, the harvest was down to less than 2 million bushels, and by the mid-1990s, less than 1 million bushels of oysters were harvested in Maryland.
This book then covers the “oyster wars” from 1867 until their end in 1962. The greatest part of the book (pages 13 through 95), though, covers 1867 until 1900. The 60+ years after 1900 gets only ∼11 pages. The “oyster wars” entailed disputed-access to the oyster beds in Virginia and Maryland. Fighting occurred between:
• Maryland and Virginia watermen, on the water, in saloons, and in brothels
• watermen and various branches of law enforcement
• tongers and dredgers
• watermen and townsfolk
The Oyster Wars people
Tongers vs. Dredgers
The dredgers could take oysters off the bottom far faster than the tongers. Dredging in the rivers was outlawed. The problems began in the early 1870s when the dredgers entered the rivers anyway. Too much money was at stake to bother with the niceties of the law. That’s when the guns came out, and bodies started to float in on the tides.
The Maryland legislature chartered the Oyster Navy in 1868, and charged it with enforcing the law. As might be expected, there were questions about its funding, size, and staffing. Patronage came into play and monies and boats were often insufficient. Such problems continued for years. Some version of the Oyster Navy existed until the 1960s. The boat’s size, speed, and armaments were upgraded over the years. By the 1950s, they Oyster Navy had even acquired a PT Boat — a design famous for its use in Word War II.
Second class citizens
The work was hard and the weather at times awful. Irish, Italian, and German immigrants came to harvest oysters. Some willingly, some shanghaied. Black men found work on the water. A number ran their own boats, after learning the trade by crewing on boats owned by whites. The blacks had much more independence on the water than ashore. Black women also got work shucking oysters.
The Oyster Wars end
The last death reported in the Oyster Wars was that of Berkeley Muse, of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Muse went out on the Potomac River to dredge for oysters with his friend Harvey King before dawn on April 8, 1959. King had a fast boat, with two 70-horsepower outboard motors, and he thought he could outrun and outmaneuver any police boat. Unfortunately, the oyster police had sent out two boats that morning to lie in wait: the patrol boat Honga River, and military-grade PT-Boat, McKeldin (depending on how the PT Boat was configured, it might have three engines, each of 1,350 horsepower).
Once the oyster-men spotted the police boats, they made for home. The Honga River police boat soon was dead in the water, after burning out a bearing in its engine. They were still able to fire upon the fleeing oyster-men. Muse, shot in the chest, bled in King’s arms. King, with the PT-Boat McKeldin in pursuit, ran his boat up on the beach to escape. But Muse died before the rescue squad could arrive.
That incident forced changes on Maryland’s Oyster Navy. Going forward, new officers were selected by tests, and not appointed. Maryland State Police trained new oyster-police officers for 18 weeks in “in community relations, the investigation of crimes, and the responsibility of firearms.” Negotiations between Virginia and Maryland also intensified. They hoped to avoid spilling more blood.
Peace finally came about in 1962, with the involvement of another individual associate with PT-Boats. Lieutenant Junior Grade John F. Kennedy was commander of PT-109 when it was cut in half by the Japanese Destroyer Amagiri while on patrol in the Solomon Islands on August 2nd, 1943. Surviving the incident, Kennedy later became the President of the United States. He signed the Potomac River Fisheries bill into law, on December 5th, 1962, thereby ending the Oyster Wars.
The great portion of this book covers the period from the end of the Civil War until the beginning of the 20th Century. It offers an east coast version of the Old West. Instead of cattle rustlers and range wars, though, there were oyster rustlers, pirates, and wars. Just like the Old West, there were saloons, bawdy houses, and gambling, too.
While the history included gun play, cops and robbers, and murder-most-foul, it isn’t told with the flair of a dime novel. Wennersten’s approach is academic in tone; long on substance and fact, but short on style and dash. It makes for an interesting, if not entertaining, read. ♦