Maryland’s Oyster Wars: Battles at Bishops Head, Part 2

Battle at Bishops Head, Part 1

The People of the Oyster War, Part 1

The Battle of the Little Choptank, Part 1

This is the second 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.

In Part 1, we learned about the battle between the oyster pirates illegally dredging the oyster beds of the Honga River, the police sloop Julia A Hamilton retreating, and Captain Insley accused of cowardice for sailing away from the much larger force of pirate boats.

The battle upset residents of the coves and creeks of Bishop’s Head, affecting both tongers and dredgers, honest law-abiding citizens and unscrupulous oyster pirate alike. However, the battle of the Honga River off Bishops Head did not end with the scattering of the pirate fleet. Here is the rest of the story as featured in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper and in newspaper articles from 1884.

February 8, 1884: The Baltimore Sun reporteda delegation from the lower part of Dorchester County were in Annapolis before the Board of Public Works today in reference to the depredations of the dredgers in Honga River and Fishing Bay.” The Board of Public Works was administratively responsible for the Oyster Police.

The delegation strongly defended Captain Insley’s character and stated that “he was a brave man, powerless to enforce the law because half his crew had deserted, and the remaining crew had few weapons and little ammunition.” New arms were immediately ordered from Baltimore for the oyster police.

 The Infamous Cannon Family

Dorchester County had two infamous Cannon families. Patty Cannon, innkeeper, murderer, slave catcher, lived in Reliance, on the border with Caroline County and Delaware. This geography made it easy for her to be somewhere else in a hurry. The family of HP Cannon were all oyster dredgers living on Bishop’s Head in the southern part of Dorchester County about 30 years after Patty Cannon’s notoriety.

By February 10, The Baltimore Sun reported on the incident as the “Dorchester Oyster War.” It appealed that a big New York paper got the scoop on the Honga River battle. The Annapolis newspaper caught up and started reporting on the battle and aftermath, separating their usual editorial criticism from the actual news of the day.

February 10: According to the Baltimore Sun, “As the police steamers Leila and Gov. Hamilton were heading to Fishing Bay, they came upon two schooners, the Martha Moore and Frank and Mary McNamarra, vessels from Baltimore but owned by Levin McNamarra of Cambridge. They were acting suspiciously when first seen.

“The Hamilton steered for them. In the meantime, the rifles were loaded and the decks were cleared for action. In the wake of the Hamilton came the Leila. The brass 12 pounder in the bow was uncovered. On approaching the two dredgers, the Hamilton lay to and the first officer, in the captain’s gig, boarded the dredge boats.

“The Moore was found with her dredge and decks wet and the presumption was that she had been dredging. On the McNamarra, the deck was soiled and partially covered with oysters. The captains were arrested and charged with dredging on Sunday and the vessels were taken to Goose Creek to await hearing by Justice Robinson. The police steamers found the (captured) Julia Hamilton at anchor and set her free.

“Captain Insley, recently resigned from the Julia Hamilton (told reporters) that he had been having problems with the pirates for some time and that ‘last December he attempted to board the schooner Tangier from Baltimore but the captain and several crew attacked him with hatchets, handspikes and other weapons and threatened to kill him.’ He returned to his schooner and when he reached her the dredgers opened fire and he (Insley) reciprocated. No one was injured on either side, the dredger got away and no arrests were made.

“For many months, violations of the law, especially at night, were frequent in Tedious Creek (today’s Crocheron), and a number of arrests made. Among those to be arrested was Milburn Cannon of the Straights District. His brother Sylvester Cannon, it is charged, threatened to shoot Captain Insley if he boarded Milburn’s boat.

“The Cannons were quite the characters. Sylvester had narrowly escaped death after being shot pirating oysters. His brother Alexander, after an argument, stripped one of his crew and placed him on deck during the winter where his frozen corpse was found. Milburn and Charlie, the other brothers, had also been involved in several shooting cases while pirating oysters.”

 The Baltimore Sun reported that “A week later, another of the Cannon clan, a tonger named Jasper, volunteered to assist Captain Insley in arresting Milburn Cannon. While Jasper was helping Captain Insley, Sylvester Cannon ran over and sank Jasper’s log canoe rendering it useless. Milburn Cannon was tried and fined $30 but appealed. It was noted that Milburn’s father, HP Cannon has been arrested several times for illegal dredging.”

 Adding to the colorful character of HP, it was reported in an Annapolis newspaper that “One time, HP Cannon went to Crisfield and procured three repeating rifles and ammunition. On HP Cannon’s return, the Cannon brothers started from their home off Fox Creek (Wingate) on an oystering expedition firing warning shots for the police and tongers to stay away. On reaching the tonging ground they anchored and, as a breeze came up, the Cannon brothers started dredging and continued to dredge all night. An oyster police boat came within about 100 yards and shortly after they anchored the dredgers opened fire which drove Captain Insley off. That night, a meeting with tongmen in the neighborhood was held at which the resignation of Captain Insley and his crew were presented, and two delegates were appointed to proceed to Annapolis to ask for help in beating off the pirates.

“In response to that plea for help, the steamer Gov. Hamilton and Lelia arrived and were greeted by a fleet of tongers in their canoes. Both steamers were expected to participate in a raid on the Cannons, who were allegedly the ringleaders of the oyster pirates in the area.”

February 14: The Baltimore Sun reported that “Captain Mitchell, commanding the Leila and acting as commodore of the Maryland oyster police squadron operating in Fishing Bay, proceeded to the Honga River Monday afternoon to capture Sylvester Cannon, said to be one of the leaders of the recent raids on the tonging grounds. On entering Fox Creek (near today’s Crapo), police found three sloops belonging to the Cannon Brothers lying close together. These men are sons of HP Cannon who is popularly credited with being the master spirit in the recent raid against the oyster police sloop Julia A Hamilton. Sylvester Cannon was not on board his boat and the police sailed on.”

February 14: The New York Times and Frank Lesley’s Illustrated Newspaper both continued the story. ‘The Leila returned to Fishing Bay (and at night) captured the pungy Maud Muller dredging for oysters. The captain, Sylvester Cannon, escaped capture and hid along the shore watching his boat taken to Justice of the Peace Robinson at Goose Creek (Toddville). Sylvester’s father, HP Cannon had been justice of the peace, but was now self-declared ‘King of the Oyster Pirates.’

Newspapers describe HP Cannon as “a man of wiry build, with small glittering eyes and a nervous temperament. He was somewhat picturesquely costumed, and his wide leather belt bristled with revolvers and bowie knives.”

“HP Cannon said that he became an oyster pirate because ‘within the past two weeks (Honga River battle), I have seen $100,000 worth of damage done to oyster beds in Fishing Bay which might have been prevented but for the cowardice of Captain Insley.”

HP reportedly said that he had assisted Captain Insley on the Julia Hamilton in a night attack on pirates from Deal Island. When the dredgers started firing at the oyster police and Cannon’s waterborne posse, Insley was said to have hove to and let HP absorb all the gunfire. HP said that Captain Insley disappeared and was not seen again.

“Having been a one-time magistrate, HP was quite familiar with the law. Learning that there was no warrant out for his arrest, HP boldly walked onboard the Leila and argued that the oyster police could not impound his son’s boat due to the technicality that Sylvester had not been captured on it.”

The Annapolis newspaper reported, “Some violent words were passed, and it was thought that another battle was imminent. The trouble blew over however without any actual fighting and the Leila dropped down river to an anchorage at Norman’s cove (on the Honga River across from Goose Creek on lower Bishops Head ) where she remained with the Julia Hamilton and Maude Muller near at hand.”

The Maude Muller was subsequently released. HP Cannon quickly boarded the Muller and set sail to get as far away from the police as he could, as quickly as possible. Maryland oyster law stated that a boat could only be impounded if the captain was captured at the same time the dredge boat was boarded by the oyster police. Otherwise, fines could be imposed, and crew jailed, but the boat was free to be put back in service by the owner. Legal battles were often as intense as the actual events themselves with pirates winning their share of court cases and sometimes receiving damage payments for injury to their crew and boats incurred during their running battles with Maryland’s oyster police.

Oyster Police captains were either publicly fired for violating the rules of engagement (i.e. accidentally shooting someone who was shooting at them) or exonerated as the cases were decided in Maryland courtrooms.

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated continued the story, “When Sylvester saw his boat sailing away, he was convinced that his boat had been seized (Sylvester must have had a very guilty conscience). He reportedly started shooting at the police steamer Leila. Captain Mitchell, from the oyster police, sent some armed crew members ashore to find out who was shooting, but Sylvester escaped. Sylvester then ran to the home of Justice Robinson where he broke windows, smashed china and terrorized the women in the family. Sylvester threatening to kill Justice Robinson who was still onboard the Leila at the time.

“Sylvester then enlisted help from his brothers and they all started shooting at the Robinson house and at the Leila. Thinking that there was a riot ashore, Captain Mitchell sent even more armed men ashore, but the pirates, seeing the police approach, escaped into the marsh.”

In the 1880s, Maryland had no statewide law enforcement agency. Local militias and sheriff’s posses were formed as needed to keep the peace and to enforce the law in rural areas. Oyster police boat captains hired their own crews and recruited volunteer reinforcements, as necessary.

“Now there was a bitter feud between Justice Robinson and his law-and-order supporters the Cannons and their oyster pirate friends. Both sides were heavily armed and threatened to shoot each other on sight. Several volleys were exchanged the next night. The Dorchester County sheriff was called upon to summon a special posse to serve writs on the Cannons and members of the armed posse had to stay at Goose Creek (Toddville) and patrol the Bishop’s Head area until tempers cooled off and the threat of violence subsided.

“During this turmoil, there were rumors that Captain Insley had arranged to fight a duel with Sylvester Cannon, but Cannon never showed up. Leila stayed for a few days then had to resume her patrol and try to apprehend more oyster pirates.”

Captain Insley and the Cannon family were neighbors living within a mile or so of each other. Pirates and law in order supporters were both family members and neighbors living in the small isolated communities of Bishop’s Head. When tempers finally cooled, Bishops Head returned to a quiet sleepy rural area of Dorchester County. The oyster beds of the Honga River and Fishing Bay were returned to the tongers and eventually lawfully opened to dredging. Descendants of those early watermen continue to harvest oysters from those same beds to this day.

Bud Marseilles is the 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 visiting the maritime museum or book passage on a local skipjack:

Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester:

Skipjack Rebecca T Ruark:

Skipjack HM Krentz:

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