Maryland’s Oyster Wars: Battles at Bishops Head, Part 1

The Battle of the Honga River, February 1884

This is the first in a series of articles about oyster pirates using original stories written while battles with oyster pirates were taking place back during the Oyster Wars of the 1880s. The words written at that time are supplemented by explanation and context.

Driving past the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, one will eventually reach the “T” intersection at Gootees Marine in southern Dorchester County – the head of the Honga River. Turn left and head toward Bishops Head and the left bank of the Honga; turn right and travel toward Hoopers Island with an even better view of the Honga River and Bishops Head.

One hundred and thirty years ago, these Dorchester waters alone yielded over a million bushels of oysters a year. Oysters were a big business, immensely popular and profitable. Local and national newspapers of the day were eager to publish stories of the depredation to local oyster beds caused by oyster pirates and the ensuing violence caused by those fighting over the delicious bivalves. War correspondents from national newspapers sailed with the oyster Navy and visited hot spots along the Bay with many bylines coming from correspondents incamped in Cambridge during the oyster dredge season. Articles and opinion pieces filled newspapers all across the nation.

Here, in the words of the day, and pieced together from several contemporary newspapers, is the story about the Battle of the Honga River.

February 7, 1884: The New York Tribune reported that: ‘The state Oyster police sloop Julia A Hamilton, Capt. John Insley commander, had a hot fight with a fleet of oyster pirates working illegal ground in the Honga River yesterday. The pirates mustered 100 men armed with rifles, muskets and pistols. They were all quietly at work when the police sloop bore down on them and called for them to surrender.’

‘The crews of the 20 oyster pirate dredge boats laughed derisively, and when Capt. Insley threatened to give them his broadside, they responded with a terrific volley of their own which drove the police below deck. The rigging and woodwork of the Hamilton was cut to pieces, and several of the crew were wounded.’

‘The policemen, discovering they had stirred up a hornet’s nest, were preparing to defend themselves with the six pounder in their bow, but the pirates boarded and took possession after a sharp contest in which the crew of the police boat fought desperately. As one of the pirates reached the Hamilton’s hatchway, he received a rifle ball thru the shoulder from the entrenched cabin. Dodging behind a small deckhouse, the boarding party exchanged shots with the crew for half an hour.’

In the ensuing stalemate, ‘Capt. Insley consented to withdraw without further molesting the pirates. The defiant oystermen then returned to their vessels and the Hamilton left the creek. Returning to Cambridge, Capt. Insley telegraphed his report to Annapolis and was immediately charged with great cowardice in the matter as he immediately deserted and refused to again attack the pirates.’

The pirates outnumbered Capt. Insley by 20 to one but Annapolis expected him to prevail in any encounter with the pirates. Other oyster police captains, perhaps with more political influence than John Insley had, retreated under similar circumstances but were not punished. A committee of worried Dorchester officials held a meeting and drew up an appeal asking for immediate aid from the state of Maryland.

February 7, 1884: The Baltimore American Special reported that Dorchester County sent the following telegram to Annapolis: ‘Dredgers in possession of Fishing Bay and Honga River. One hundred armed dredgers at work on forbidden grounds. Oysters ruined. Send steamers at once, put a (good) man in command.’

Upon receipt of the telegram, the governor ordered the police steamer Leila to the scene and appointed G.H. Roberts to command the Julia A Hamilton. Meanwhile, the pirates continued to work the forbidden ground and any attempt to dislodge them would surely lead to a serious fight. Captain Roberts had to recruit a new crew in Cambridge and get the Julia A Hamilton ready to do battle again with the oyster pirates.

February 8, 1884: A New York Sun war correspondent reported that “Maryland was sending an armed fleet to drive the pirates from the Honga River.”

‘An organized fleet of pirates invaded the Honga River beds and began working day and night to strip the beds of all oysters. The sloop Julia A Hamilton had been beaten back by the pirates and retreated to Cambridge where the captain resigned his position saying he would not risk his life trying to arrest the pirates.’

Other articles report that Captain Insley had been fired and was replaced by a political appointee.

‘The governor sent the state oyster police steamer WM J Hamilton to Baltimore to “arm his vessel with rifles, revolvers, and ammunition from the state armory and also to equip the oyster sloop Julia Hamilton and to protect the oyster beds from predators.’

‘The old police steamer Leila from Annapolis and the sloop Julia A Hamilton with her new captain and three additional crew from Cambridge would join the Wm J Hamilton at the Honga River and the three boats would demand the unconditional surrender of the 30 pirate boats and nearly 200 men.’

Commissioner Plowman of the oyster police was reluctant to supply police boats with new guns and ammunition. He reasoned that more than a minimum amount of ammunition would tempt police crews to waste ammunition hunting sea ducks when they were supposed to be patrolling for illegal dredgers. Three hundred rounds of ammunition and a couple of old war surplus single shot rifles was assumed to be enough for the oyster police to do their work. Unfortunately, the pirates had been supplied with newer and better repeating rifles and unlimited amounts of ammunition.

The Oyster Navy had two steamers and 12 sloops to patrol 4,000 miles of shoreline and over 230,000 acres of oyster beds. Police sloops were about 45 feet long. Oyster pirate schooners were two or three times the size as the police craft.

February 9. 1884: – According to a New York Sun article: ‘The pirates were well organized and burned floating torches to illuminate the beds as they worked all night. More pirate boats joined in and each covered their nameboards so they could not be easily identified. The well-organized pirates established a depot at Deal Island where they transshipped oysters to a fleet of pungys that sailed to Baltimore where the prices for oysters were very high.’

‘The number of illegal dredge boats in the Honga River increased and tensions continued to grow as watermen from Bishop’s Head and Hoopers Island watched their oysters being harvested by the pirates. Some of the displaced Dorchester tongers from Bishop’s Head and Hoopers Island who had been driven off their oyster beds took out their anger and frustration by shooting at any pirate that was careless enough to drift within rifle range of the shore.’

February 10, 1884: The New York Tribune published: ‘The Julia A Hamilton arrived first and in a short skirmish was promptly captured by the pirates and towed up Fishing Bay. When the steamers Leila and WM J Hamilton arrived, they captured the Frank and Mary McNamara owned by Levin McNamara of Dorchester and they also captured the Martha E Moore from Baltimore. The pirate fleet was scattered and the illegal dredge operation by oyster pirates was halted.

The cannon and rifles borrowed from the state armory in Baltimore did the trick and only the McNamarra put up a short fight before being captured. The two oyster police gunboats then headed up Fishing Bay and released the Julia A Hamilton and her crew from captivity.’

Oyster police sloops and schooners that were captured by pirates were stripped of useful gear, then had sails slashed and rigging cut. The police boats were then set adrift. Oyster police crewmembers that were captured by pirates during the many battles on the Chesapeake Bay were usually not seriously injured (Some were brothers or cousins of the pirates). Many captured oyster police were temporarily put to work hauling pirate dredges or locked below decks until they could be put ashore at some remote location or exchanged for captured vessels or pirates. Oyster police captains were often threatened with death and several unsuccessful pirate attacks were launched to kill police captains in revenge for damage to pirate vessels. In one instance, pirates attacked a police sloop moored in Annapolis harbor itself! Fortunately, the captain was ashore when the pirates attacked.

February 11, 1884: Another newspaper reported…‘The three oyster police vessels were off blockading Eastern Bay where they held some 200 piratical craft in the upper waters of the Chester River.’

The Oyster police were very busy moving from one hot spot to another during the oyster harvest seasons of the 1880s. The oyster navy steamers were most effective in capturing pirates but the steamers were often used for political junkets not for patrolling and protecting oysters. With fixed patrol schedules, pirates simply waited until oyster police left before raiding forbidden grounds. Most police boats were small sailing sloops, half the size of the boats used by the pirate dredgers.

Bud Marseilles is past president of the Dorchester Skipjack Committee and has sailed on the skipjack Nathan of Dorchester out of Cambridge for 15 years, as a sail crewmember and docent. He also volunteers at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels. To get a better understanding of oysters and dredging under sail, Bud recommends that you book passage on one of our local skipjacks and visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

 Nathan of Dorchester:

Rebecca T Ruark:

H M Krentz:

Battles at Bishops Head, Part 2

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