Maryland’s Oyster Wars: The Battle of the Little Choptank, Part 2

When the Pirates Ruled the Roost

Battle of the Little Choptank, Part 1

In the first part of the story of the Battle of the Little Choptank, the police sloop Groome had been captured but was recovered the next day. An urgent plea for help had been telegraphed to Annapolis and Dorchester County residents anxiously waited for police steamers and re-enforcements to arrive and drive the pirates from the rich Little Choptank oyster beds.

To better understand the people and politics of the oyster wars, read the article “People at War” in the July and August editions of Attraction magazine or online at Here, we reread the words written in 1888 by newspapers and supplemented by modern explanation and context.

Annapolis Evening Star, November 24 – “Dispatches from the Little Choptank river state that since the shooting of the dredgers the other day in the encounter with the police sloop Groome, their pirate companies have been up in arms, swearing vengeance against the police. They are so desperate that the people living along the river have become terrified. On James Island, which is close to where the battle occurred, the people became so frightened that they abandoned their homes and sought refuge on land. Yesterday a hundred sail of the dredgers were lying on the best oyster beds of the Chesapeake, the tongers unable to save their property and the so-called oyster navy totally inadequate to protect them.”

Annapolis Evening Star, November 27 – “The dredgers are armed and supplied with plenty of ammunition. They have joined forces and openly defy state authorities. The river off of James Island, on which are the best oyster beds in the state, is dotted with large bay vessels and the Eastern Shore men fear that before the pirates are driven off, they will have destroyed their beds. The pirates are taking no chances. They work systematically and their forces are so distributed that in case of an attack (by the police) they can either separate and sail away or combine and show a fight.”

Baltimore Sun, November 27 –“the oyster pirates of the Little Choptank river have not only put to flight the vessels of the oyster navy, but they have so cowed their crews that many of the men have resigned, and though every inducement has been offered no others could be found who would take their places. The “tongers”, whose grounds are thus unprotected, are the greatest sufferers. They are afraid to go to work and some are offering to sell their canoes for trifling amounts. Many of them who were at work on the river during the last fight were shot at repeatedly and compelled to lie flat in their boats to escape the bullets.”

The bravery and commitment of poorly paid local oyster police crewmembers had its limits. Some captains and crew members resigned when faced with danger or threats to themselves and their families, others persevered and remained committed to fighting the oyster pirates. Sometimes the fight became quite personal when some adversaries were personally known to pirates or opposing police crew members. Threats especially against oyster police boat captains were quite violent and many attempts were made to kill or injure the oyster police.

“All through Thursday and Friday the crews of the stranded pirate dredgers worked to get their boats free from the bar. They failed until Saturday morning. Meantime the tongers on shore waited impatiently for relief in the shape of added police boats or assistance from Dorchester County sheriff Mace. The loss of the Groome was reported by telegraph (to Annapolis) soon after it occurred, and the assistance of a police steamer was asked for by Capt. Marshall. When he came into Cambridge to dispatch a detailed report, the people of Taylor’s Island and James Island, near which the fight occurred, expected that he would return with the Sheriff and a posse to arrest the pirates on board the grounded dredgers”.

James Island once held a thriving waterman’s village, but today is less than 5 acres of pine and marsh land eroding into the Bay as water levels continue to rise.

“Sheriff Mace publicly expressed his readiness to undertake the matter if he was requested to, but no demand for his services was made (by the state), and eventually the pirates took their boats away without interference”.

Crimes committed in county waters were not necessarily under the jurisdiction of local law officials. Involvement by the local sheriff had to be specifically requested.

“About fifty sail (of oyster pirates) worked there on Friday and Saturday, and one swift schooner cruised about the mouth of the (Little Choptank) river to give warning by signal of the approach of a police steamer. This sentry boat was provided with oysters by contributions from those at work pro rata, according to their tonnage. It looked as if the entire Maryland navy had been defeated for the Captain and crew of the Groome were demoralized, the boat disabled and without arms. No word came from Commander Plowman, (Head of the Oyster police) and no rescuing steamer hove in sight”.

Baltimore Sun, November 26 – “The pirates were rapidly getting all the oysters reserved for the tongers when the great storm of Sunday, the 25th set in. For two days the weather prevented any oystermen from working, and it led the people here (in Cambridge) and at Little Choptank, twenty miles away, to suppose that one or both of the police steamers had gone aground.”

Annapolis Evening Star, November 27“The people of the state are thoroughly aroused over the mismanagement of the state navy especially the oyster protecting contingent and unless the service is speedily improved and proper protection afforded the people propose to tale the law into their own hand.”

There were instances when tongers borrowed cannon and actually shot at pirate dredgers. Pirate dredgers also shot at tongers or ran down their small canoes to clear the beds for their piratical harvests.

November 27 – “Mr. Billings Steele, secretary to Commander Plowman, arrived here (from Annapolis). He had instructions to await the arrival of the police steamer McLane and to hire a new crew for the Groome. The plan of this campaign as mapped out for him included the retention of the McLane in the vicinity of the Little Choptank supporting the Groome for several days. The McLane was to bring new supplies of arms and ammunition”.

“As time went by, Mr. Steele became anxious about the situation. No steamer appeared, Commander Plowman had no means of communicating with either of them, the storm blow itself away, and the pirates returned to the forbidden grounds”.

Commander Plowman had not thought it necessary to establish a formal line of communications with his oyster police vessels. Annapolis was haphazardly informed by, and communicated with, other oyster police vessels only when a vessel happened to stop in Annapolis to report in or drop of captured vessels and crewmen. Annapolis could communicate with patrolling vessels only if a vessel was available in Annapolis to send out to find the vessel needing new instructions. Telegrams were sometimes sent to port cities like Cambridge to command actions by local oyster police vessels, but this was not yet common practice.

“The whole county was getting exasperated by the delay, and the indignation at the state of things made its way all along both shores. Mr. Steele fought under Moseby during the rebellion, but he had learned to obey orders, and it was not until Wednesday (November 28) that he took the matter somewhat into his own hands. He informed his commander how matters stood, asked for and received instructions to borrow arms and ammunition. He refit the Groome with new rigging, and hired officers, and crew. Capt. Marshall’s commission had but thirty days to run, and there was little doubt that he would resign”.

“Before he went down to get Marshall’s resignation (on Taylors Island), Mr. Steele arranged to borrow arms and ammunition of the Lloyds Guards, (a local Cambridge based militia group) and found a man willing to assume command of the Groome in Captain Ben L. Keene.” 

“When Mr. Steele stopped in front of Captain Marshall’s house on Taylor’s Island he was informed that the Captain was in the field, and he sent a small boy to tell the Captain to come up. Captain Marshal returned word that if the gentleman wanted to see him, the gentleman might come down to the field. Mr. Steele smiled and went down. Marshall explained that he had received so many threats from the pirates that he suspected that this was a trick to get possession of him (on his way back to the house)”.

‘ “Oh yes, I’ll resign,”’ Marshall said. ‘ “It’s what I’ve been wanting to do. I’ve had enough of being Captain on a ship. I think I’d rather stick to farming!”’ So, the commission was turned over to Captain Keene, and he set about securing a crew, not an easy task in view of the general fear that the pirates had aroused.”

“And all this time, when the emergency demanded prompt energetic action, where were the police steamers? The Thomas was out of reach cruising along the east shore. The McLane was off on a junket somewhere up the Potomac. State Comptroller Victor Baughman was aboard and with him were J.W. Brady and R. Goldsborough Keene. This party had been planning the expedition for some time and Friday, the 23rd, was the day fixed upon for departure”’.

“When Commander Plowman, head of the Oyster police, was questioned about this incident, he replied: ‘”Yes, I know about the Little Choptank matter, but I didn’t think it was so serious!”’

Commander Jacob Plowman was an inept political appointee. He was often criticized for using the police steamers for political purposes rather than for pursuing the oyster pirates.

Baltimore Sun, November 28 – “…the McLane under Captain Howard, (after dropping off the politicians and collecting arms and ammunition, finally (left Baltimore for the Little Choptank River. As the McLane was steaming down the bay, hundreds of boats were seen going to the (Little Choptank) oyster rocks or sailing up the bay from them to the markets in Baltimore. Many boats were heavily loaded. The McLane rendezvoused with the steamer Governor Thomas which had been patrolling the Chester River and had recently been armed with a naval cannon from the state patrol sloop Eva Baughman”.

November 29 – “Nine days after the capture of the Groome, both the steamers Thomas and the McLane appeared in the Little Choptank. The steamer Governor Thomas anchored at the mouth of the Little Choptank, while the McLane proceeded on to Cambridge where Mr. Billings Steele waited with new arms lent by the Lloyd Guards (local Militia) for the men on the sloop EH Groome whose guns had been taken by pirates when captured on the 21st. The McLane delivered the arms to Captain Ben L. Keene, new commander of the Groome.”

“No (pirate) boats were at work on the scene of the late trouble. It was apparent that the dredgers were on the lookout for the state steamers. A large number of them were at work near the mouth of the river industriously and innocently scraping the fruitless bottom of the main bay (where it was legal for them to dredge). They could easily slip back over the bar into the forbidden grounds in the event the steamers did not appear”.

“An ironic fact is that Captain Thomas B. Howard of the McLane is universally looked upon as the best man in the oyster navy. He is noted for his courage, for a disposition that spoils for a fight and the pirates actually respect him, if they do not fear him.”

The Baltimore Sun, November 29In conclusion:“The dredgers, well informed of what is going on, may hold off from belligerent action for a time and in any event they are likely to take their business elsewhere than in the Little Choptank: but they ‘must have oysters.’ Though the season is yet young, and when the navy presumes to overcome the pirates, it will face over 800 dredgers (boats) cruising over the Chesapeake, a large proportion of which are included in a piratical organization. They are armed desperados, and doubly determined not to be captured because of the long array of lawless deeds credited to them in the past. No matter where the pirates go, the steamers will follow. A vigorous and careful watch will be kept by the officers and men of the oyster navy, who seem determined to put an end to the violations at any risk. The feel confident of their ability to do so.”

There had been much debate and delay in the oyster police asking the US Navy for cannon to better equip their police boats. The pirates had better weapons and their boats matched the sailing capabilities of the smaller police sloops and schooners. When finally asked, the US Navy quickly responded supplying Maryland with cannon, new rifles, and ammunition. After an unfortunate accident where a cannon exploded on one police boat, the Board of Public Works authorized the training of oyster police to use of the cannon. Badly in need of boiler work, the McLane was withdrawn from service at the height of oyster war battles.

In December, the governor telegraphed the navy secretary requesting emergency use of two Naval Academy steam launches, one equipped with a howitzer and the other equipped with a gatling gun. Captain Howard of the temporarily disabled steamer McLane would take command. The launches would be used to rescue the oyster police sloop Folly said to be surrounded by 40 dredging schooners, but that is another story.

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 working 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 visit the museum or book passage on one of our local skipjacks.

Nathan of Dorchester

Rebecca T Ruark

H M Krentz

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