Maryland’s Oyster Wars: Battles on the Choptank and Chester Rivers

Many battles between oyster pirates and the Maryland oyster police took place throughout the 1880s. Past articles published in these pages cover battles ranging from Bishops Head in southern Dorchester County, to the Little Choptank River in the western part of the county. Other stories are more about the life of the people – the dredgers, scrapers, tongers and packing house workers who earned their living when the oyster was king of the Chesapeake Bay. Oystering was, and still is hard work, and past stories also included some description of the hardships suffered in pursuit of the Chesapeake Bay oyster.

One of the last widely published battles in Dorchester County waters took place off Cook’s Point at the mouth of the Choptank River.

According to the New York Tribune, December 7, 1888: “The Choptank River oyster police sloop Eliza Hayward, Captain Thomas F. Bridges, commander, was defeated yesterday afternoon in a battle with dredgers off Cook’s Point in the Choptank river. The Hayward then beat a retreat to Oxford, where she now lies, with forty-one rifle-ball holes through mainsail and jib, a large number in the hull and deck-work, and her rigging damaged. Captain Bridges thus tells the story of the fight:”

 “I left the Third Haven (Tred Avon) River yesterday morning for Harris Creek, where I made an arrest. Coming back out we saw a fleet of 14 illicit dredgers at work at Cook’s point, being in the Choptank is forbidden ground to them. Several times before we had seen dredgers off these grounds, one time we drove a fleet of twenty-one out into the bay. I changed the course of the Hayward toward the dredgers, expecting to drive them off, and hoping to capture one of them, if possible. When about a half mile off, a large pungy of forty or fifty tons, opened fire on us, but the balls fell short. She advanced toward us, firing all the time. One other dredger following her lead but was not firing.

 “We kept on our course, but we had to withhold our fire, as we did not have much ammunition and did not want to waste any of lt. We had drifted off somewhat to the leeward and seeing that the plan of battle of the dredgers was to wound us with their crossfire, surround and sink us, I put the Hayward about, got windward and kept there, out maneuvering them. This enabled me to save my vessel. We began firing when within about 400 yards, and the boats kept approaching each other until they were not more than 500 feet apart. We had only three guns that could fire, and two of these were so worn that when fired the empty shell had to be shoved out of the chambers with a ramrod. This made for slow work for so hot a fight. The enemy’s fire was terrific and incessant, their guns being repeating rifles, of which two were always loaded and firing at us.

“In the battle we never saw a man on the attacking vessel. They were all under cover. The wheel and the sheets were operated by rigs run into the cabin, and the repeating rifles seemed to be fired from port holes made through the trunk of the cabin. I kept our men under cover as much as possible. Capt. Bridges and the mate worked one main sheet. In doing this we were exposed, and a rifle ball passed right through the mate’s whiskers. None of our men showed any fear, though they had never been under fire before, and the balls were whistling apparently within a few inches of their heads. I think our assailant’s first job was to cut down our rigging and render us helpless.

“Had our jib stay not been wire he would have succeeded, as we could constantly hear the balls pinging against the metal stay. The Hayward worked well but there were fourteen of them against us, every one of them twice the tonnage of the Hayward and some larger than that, and they could eventually have taken or sunk the Hayward. Seeing that our ammunition was getting low and that we had made an impression upon the enemy, my mate and I determined that having made the best fight we could, our duty to the State now was to retreat. So, we reluctantly turned the Hayward toward the Talbot side of the river. The dredger pursued us and kept up his fire, but seeing he was not gaining on us, he turned back.”

The poet laureate of the Washington Post published a poem, which told the story of Captain Bridges in a poem called “The Battle of the Choptank.” “Rifle balls passing through the mate’s whiskers” became a popular description of the intensity of these skirmishes and the phrase can be found in several other accounts of battles between oyster pirates and the police.

Much smaller than any of the pirate vessels, with inadequate arms and a limited amount of ammunition, the oyster police sloop Hayward had no choice but to retreat. But retreating to safety was relative as pirates sometimes sought out and attacked police vessels at anchor or tied to their dock as related in the next story.

According to the Baltimore Sun, December 10, 1884: “The oyster police sloop Carrie Franklin, Capt. John Wingate, was stationed on ground reserved specially for Somerset County tongers near the mouth of the Wicomico and Nanticoke rivers (south of Bishops Head in Dorchester County). Despite the efforts of Captain Wingate to keep the dredgers off the rich oyster beds, they succeeded in illegally taking many bushels of oysters from the forbidden ground. While the police sloop was off chasing one pirate boat away, other pirates sailed in and dredged on the forbidden ground. The Franklin carries only one gun, an old swivel cannon. The pirates both outnumber the police and have better weapons to fight the oyster police.

“Capt. Wingate came to Baltimore a week ago to conduct business leaving the Carrie Franklin in charge of another officer. The dredgers got wind of the captain’s absence and attacked the sloop. They drove her up a creek, and part of her crew got scared and left her. On Capt. Wingate’s return, he collected his crew and prepared to meet the pirates again.”

Oyster police captains held temporary appointments and it was not uncommon for the captains to leave their police boat to conduct personal business during the heat of the oyster war. It was also common for pirates to seek revenge and attack police boats or to try to intimidate captains and drive off the police crews so they could work undisturbed by the law. Several police boats were captured during battles and their crews temporarily held captive. Some police crew members were roughly treated, but all were eventually set free. Police boat captains and their families faced death threats made by the more notorious and violent oyster pirates. As a precaution, oyster police boat captains seldom slept on the boats, preferring the relative safety of their own homes should pirates seeking revenge attack.

This next story features the flagship of Maryland’s oyster police, the steamer Governor McLane in action during an attack on oyster pirates in the Chester River.

According to the New-York Tribune, December 12, 1888: “At about midnight the steamer McLane, Captain T. B. C. Howard, came upon a small fleet of dredging craft in the Chester River (just north of the Bay Bridge and Kent Island). The steamer was armed with a cannon recently acquired from the United States Navy. The pirates showed fight as usual, and for two hours a fierce battle raged. The one big gun on the steamer poured in heavy shot on the pirate craft dodging about to get out of the way, all the while the dredgers were using their rifles against the police steamer.

“Captain Howard put his entire crew into action fighting the pirates and started to steam through the fleet of dredging boats that surrounded him. The night was dark, and rain was pouring down in torrents. A mist overhung the river and bay, and the boats could be made out by only the flashes from the rifles handled by the pirate crews and the lanterns they carried. As the steamer went at best speed, suddenly there was a crash and a crunching sound of breaking timbers. Above the noise of the firing the cries and curses of men in the water. The steamer in the darkness had run down two of the boats – the Mahoney, Capt. Gus Rice, and the Julia Jones, Capt. John Wentz.”

The New York Times on December 12, 1888, interviewed Captain Howard, who tells the story this way:

“I met these boats and gave them the signal to haul down their jibs. I got no answer. I ordered rifles fired across their bows. They promptly returned fire. I then hauled right across their bows, barely avoiding collision. I was afraid of getting tangled up in their bowsprits. I fired a cannon loaded with grape and cannister and the shot struck half-mast high, doing great damage to spars sail and rigging. As soon as I fired, the pirates opened fire on me, and I had to keep my men down below the bulwarks to prevent them from getting shot.

“The McLane has an iron bow and we hit the Julia Jones on the starboard quarter. I backed out carrying one dredger who had climbed aboard me to save his life. I ran windward of the other pirate dredgers and struck the J C Mahoney on her port quarter but hung up and could not back out. I went ahead on her, full steam ahead, turned the Mahoney on her beam ends then came back to full steam ahead and cleared her. In the meantime, the Jones had sunk, and the other eight dredge boats were pouring broadsides into us as my crew returned fire as fast as possible. We backed off and the dredgers dispersed. Each pirate looked out for himself and escaped in the darkness. I was afraid to shoot as I could have hit innocent persons on boats legally anchored off Hales Point. The Mahoney sunk after I rammed her, and the crew crawled upon my bow calling ‘for God’s sake save us.’ They had had enough of dredging. There were eight of them and after feeding them supper I put them in jail at Centreville. I returned to the scene of the action and saw no one else illegally dredging for oysters.”

The New-York Tribune, December 12, 1888, continues:

“Early this morning the steamer McLane put in at Centreville, Md., and Captain Howard telegraphed from there to Commander Plowman (Commandant of the oyster police) for assistance as the pirates were reinforcing their numbers and were preparing for another battle. The captain also reported that he had sunk two boats, secured the papers of three others, and rescued some members of the sunken boats. The mate of the steamer, Charles Frazier, was shot through the left arm and one other of the police was slightly wounded by pirate bullets. The steamer Gov. Thomas was immediately dispatched from Annapolis to assist the McLane. Carpenters and machinists went along on the Gov. Thomas to mount another big navy cannon which had just been received. The authorities declared their intention to break up the oyster piracy, no matter what the cost.

Oyster dredging boats arriving in Baltimore today from the scene of last night’s battle reported that several men had been killed or drowned when the steamer ran down the two dredgers. Capt. Gus Rice of the oyster dredge sloop Mahoney, one of the sunken vessels, tells a chilling story of the battle. He says his crew of nine men were on the forward deck when the steamer bore down on them. He declares his vessel was not engaged in piracy but was only seeking a harbor from a night outside in the bay. He believes that all his crew were either drowned or crushed to death. Rice claimed that nine men were drowned from two boats. A dispatch from Centreville tonight states that all but two or three men were saved. However, Capt. Rice insists that all his men were killed.

“Capt. Rice claimed that Capt. Howard purposely ran the steamer on his boat, even while firing his cannon. The forty or more dredging craft, manned by desperate fellows all armed to the teeth, were getting the better of Capt. Howard. The dredgers fought like tigers. They made several attempts to get alongside the police steamer with the intention of boarding her and murdering the Captain and crew. The dredging craft swarmed in the river like bees and at one time Capt. Howard feared they would compel the McLane, cannon, and all, to run. The hull and cabin of the McLane are riddled with bullets. The people of neighboring towns along the Chester River were roused from their beds and the sound of gunfire and booming of the steamers cannon caused great excitement.”

Angry with oyster police interference, Gus Rice planned to murder Capt. Hunter Davidson, the Commander of the Maryland Oyster Navy. The attempt failed, but Rice remained a menace. He recruited crew from the Baltimore jail and from homeless drifters who gathered in shore towns like Oxford and Crisfield desperately looking for work. He engaged in frequent shootouts with the Oyster Navy, most notably in late December 1888 when 70 dredge boats were reported to have battled a police boat armed with a howitzer. Rice tried to ram the police boat with twelve dredgers lashed together with chains, but ultimately, on this day at least, the pirates were outgunned and retreated.

The tongers on the Chester River who were watching their oysters illegally harvested got so desperate they mounted two cannons at the river mouth. Rice retaliated by organizing a nighttime raiding party. They found one lone watchman guarding the cannon and stripped him, forcing him to run naked along the shore as a warning to his fellow tongers.

The oyster police added more ships, including the sloops Avalon and Mary Compton and steamer Gov. McLane was armed with stronger firepower. However, the oyster pirates remained bold and brazen.

Stories about the oyster wars were widely circulated and picked up by large and small newspapers throughout the country, even newspapers on the western frontier carried stories of the oyster wars.

 The Dakotaian, Yankton Dakota Territory, December 11, 1888 (reported from New York newspapers) that: “on the foggy night of December 10 around 7:30 pm, steamer Corsica of the Chester River steamboat company carrying passengers and mail from Baltimore to Chestertown passed by a large fleet of dredgers at anchor. When the steamer passed them, the dredgers started to yell. One of the passengers on the steamer answered with a whoop. Then the dredgers opened fire and riddled the Corsica with bullets and buckshot. There were about thirty passengers including women and children.

Gus Rice thought he heard the oyster police steamer McLane attempting to interfere with his illegal oyster dredging activities. He opened fire on the unseen steamer. It was reported that “terror filled the innocent passenger steamer as women and children scrambled to the cabin floors narrowly escaping the pirates relentless spray of bullets.” With the general public now enraged by his behavior, Gus Rice promptly disappeared from public view until the furor over his outrageous actions died down.

When the violent exchange of gunfire after Gus Rice’s attack on the innocent steamer Corsica, and battles moved to the courtroom.

 Annapolis, March 13, 1889: “Mrs. Laura J Webb, owner of the schooner JC Mahoney, filed a libel in U.S. District court yesterday against the Maryland Board of Public Works and Capt. TC B Howard. Of the oyster steamer Governor Robert C McLane, claiming $4,000 damages for the sinking of the Mahoney by the police steamer on 10 December last year. The libel claims that the schooner was stationary at the time in the Chester River and was run into by the steamer in an effort to sink the Mahoney which did indeed sink afterwards. The libel claims $3,500 for the schooner, $1,000 for the cargo of oysters on board and $100 for the loss of the dredging license. The steamer is blamed for the collision, which, the libel claims, resulted from want of proper skill or care, or from malice.”

Mrs. Webb eventually lost the case against the Department of Public works (the oyster police were an administrative unit within the DPW). Visit www.attractionmag.com for other articles in this series.

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 during the next sailing season.

Nathan of Dorchester  www.skipjack-nathan.org

Rebecca T Ruark    www.skipjack.org

H M Krentz   www.oystercatcher.com

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