Maryland’s Oyster Wars: The People of the Oyster War, Part I

Battle at Bishops Head, Part 1

Battles at Bishops Head, Part 2

This is 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.

From our 21st century viewpoint, it can be hard to understand why police and oyster pirates battled so often. We wonder why pirates were set free to continue their rampage while police boats were fired upon and sometimes captured, and no one was held responsible. We are amazed when we read of the sheer audacity of oyster pirates, and the violence among dredgers and tongers and their almost universal dislike of the oyster police.

This vintage picture is of members of the oyster police.

Times have changed and today the entire oyster harvest in Maryland is counted in tens of thousands of bushels of oysters a year, a far cry from Maryland’s total harvest in the 1880s, which ran between 5 and 10 million bushels of oysters each year. It was 130 years ago that a million bushels of oysters was harvested in just Dorchester County’s Choptank and Little Choptank waters alone.

Oysters were big business. Several thousand boats ranging from ocean going schooners to small two person canoes were used to harvest oysters. Along with the 20,000 people employed on the water harvesting oysters, there were another 20,000 working along the shore shucking and packing oysters for shipment to worldwide markets. The demand for oysters was high, and the profits from the oyster industry were great, risks of being caught were low and the temptation to break the law was strong.

Most of the material for this article, which will appear in two parts, comes from the New York Sun. The December 9, 1888 edition features a full page eight column article that comprehensively describes the battles fought over Chesapeake Bay oysters in 1888. The Sun headline reads as follows:


An Extraordinary Warfare on the Chesapeake Bay,


Poor Cannon, but Efficient

Repeating Rifles.

New York Sun, Cambridge Md. – “This is the seat of the war. The pirates have actually put the government to rout, captured a vessel and its crew, (see last month’s story about the battle at Bishop’s Head) and sunk such of its munitions of war as they could not carry off, into the bay. In the words of government officials of this State ” things are getting serious.”

“There have been nearly a dozen desperate engagements this year, and readers who only know the oyster as an inoffensive edible may have wondered what all the fuss was about. That pirates could flourish anywhere in this country and defy the laws for years is reasonable cause for astonishment, but it stands worse than that. Not only do they defy the law and public sentiment, steal oysters, and ” shoot to kill,” but they are known by name and residence. For they are not black masked strangers, but citizens of Maryland. Most of them belong in Baltimore, others in neighboring shore counties, and even some of the otherwise reputable residents of this ancient town (Cambridge) are suspected of indulging in piratical practices when nobody is looking.”


“In 1868 the Legislature resumed control over the oyster beds of Chesapeake Bay and all its estuaries, channels, creeks, and rivers. Even at that day the growth of the oyster business threatened to destroy the oyster beds faster than they could naturally be replenished. The law was designed to protect the industry by placing it under governmental supervision. The oyster gatherers were divided into three classes, and the territories within which each class might operate were defined as sharply as possible.”


“First in the order of origin are the tongers. They take their name from a big pair of rakes (baskets) with long handles joined together by a bolt hinge near the lower end. The teeth of the rakes are set facing each other, so that when the handles are brought together the teeth shut up like a pair of jaws, and whatever is grasped by them has to come up. Tong shafts are of various lengths, but they seldom exceed 20 feet, which is the extreme depth of water, in which tongers can work. The tongers are the poorer members of the community.

A man may go tonging in a rowboat, and here in Cambridge one may see solitary workmen grabbing at the oysters within 15 feet of the shore, as well as two or three miles out in the Big Choptank river, but, in a rule, two men constitute the crew, and they go out in canoes, sloops, small pungies and bugeyes.

The canoe looks much like a log hollowed out and pointed at both ends, and it is rigged with two masts, each carrying a triangular sail. There is no jib. The pungy is built somewhat on the model of a schooner, with a keel, but its two masts are inclined sharply backward. It carries a bowsprit and jib. The bugeye is an unnatural looking craft, pointed at both ends, long, deep, and narrow. It has two masts, with triangular sails, and oystermen say it can sail like thunder.”

 Surviving log canoes exist today as stylish racing craft carrying light rigging and a huge amount of sail. The log canoe was constructed from one to three logs. The bottoms of pungys and bugeyes were made from five to nine carved logs bolted together to fashion the curved bottom of the boat. This practice of boat building was popular before the advent of steam or gasoline powered sawmills when sawn planking became widely available.

The article continues: “If a tonger strikes it lucky with respect to weather and a good bed or reef, he may by hard labor gather 15 bushels of oysters in a day. These will bring him at the home market, and the tonger never goes elsewhere, from 20 to 30 cents a bushel.”

Scrapers and Dredgers

“Next to the tonger are the scrapers, and the only difference between them and the dredgers, who constitute the third class, lies in the tonnage of their boats. Their methods are the same, but scrapers work in shallow waters and their boats and equipment are built upon a smaller scale. The scrape or dredge consists of a heavy rake (with basket). A net is attached to it in such a way that whatever is torn up by the teeth is caught in it. In place of the handle a long rope runs from the rake to the deck of the boat and to a windlass.”

Hand scrapes are small dredges weighing about 40 pounds empty and about 80-100 pounds when full of shell and oysters. They are pulled in by hand or with a small winch. Full sized dredges are about four feet wide and weighed about 150 pounds empty and fully loaded could weigh over 500 pounds. Large winches were used to haul full size dredges onboard.

“Every boat carries two dredges, with a windlass for each. They are thrown off at the side while the boat is in motion, and hardly have they touched bottom when the men at the windlasses begin to turn the crank, and up comes the dredge with its net full of oysters. They are dumped on the deck, and while the dredge goes over again the work of culling is undertaken. To cull oysters is to knock off with a hammer old shells, young oysters, and such other rubbish of the bottom as the purchasers might be unwilling to pay for by the bushel. The law requires that the cull shall be thrown overboard at once. The object of this provision is to leave the young oysters something to cling to, and to prevent the destruction of such spat as may have become attached to the shells and stones. If it were not for this the scrapers and dredgers would delay culling until they had reached port in order to lose no time in selling their catch.

Oystermen say that it requires considerable training to throw a dredge over correctly. The boat must have a certain headway no less, no more in order that the rake shall yank the oysters from the reef and a greenhorn generally manages to throw it so that the teeth point upward, which is far from advantageous.”

The dredge is thrown off the windward side of the boat sailing at about two to three miles an hour. Sails are lowered or reefed to control the boat speed, regardless of how hard the wind may be blowing. Sail too slowly, the dredge will act as an anchor and stop the boat, sail too fast and the dredge will skip along the bottom and not collect oysters. Dredge boats (skipjacks today) have large sails for the power to haul a heavy dredge in light winds. Tension on the rope or cable holding the dredge to the boat indicates whether the dredge is biting into the oyster bed or running along barren ground. Vibrations in the dredge line indicate few if any oysters and tension indicates the dredge is biting into oysters or shell.

To cast the dredge and make a run over the oyster bed is called taking a “lick.” Homemakers adopted the watermen’s phrase “to give the house a lick and a promise.” The watermen use the term as: to take a quick pass over the oyster bed and hope to catch lots of oysters, promising good pay for work done. Homemakers use the term for: a quick dusting of household furniture and a promise of a more thorough cleaning next time.

Continuing from the article: “A boat that measures over 10 tons is rated as a dredger: all under that tonnage are scrapers or tongers. Dredgers are permitted to operate in the main waters of Chesapeake Bay, and under no circumstances may they enter the “forbidden ground” of the rivers or minor inlets for oyster gathering. Dredgers take out a license from the state for which they pay $3 a ton, custom house measurement. The fee goes to the state treasury. The scrapers take out their licenses from the county where they work. The rate is $8 for all boats of five tons and under, and $2 a ton for all boats measuring over 5 tons. No boat of more than 10 tons may gather oysters in county waters.

Laws are being evaded in every possible way. The owners of big boats, wishing to dredge in the richer beds of the inlets, have gone up to the Custom House with false bottoms in their boats and bribery money in their pockets, and by one means or another have secured a certificate of less than 10 tons measurement. Baltimore people have gained licenses in the names of Cambridge residents, and so on until the court officials have been driven wild; but all these matters would be incidental to any law, and they bear upon the growth or piracy only as they have led to the most stringent regulations.”


“The tongers pay for a county license, from $2 to $5, according to the lengths of their boats (up to 25 feet). Their season for work extends from September 1 to April 21. The scrapers and dredgers may work from October 1 to April 1. All receipts from scrapers’ and tonger’s licenses are turned over to the county school fund. Receipts from (African American) tongers go to their segregated schools; from white tongers to their white (segregated) schools. In Dorchester County, the fees for this season (1888) will amount to more than $8,000. Since the business of gathering oysters in the Chesapeake began there has been an uninterrupted increase of men, boats, and capital engaged in it.”

Oyster shuckers, both young and old, were predominantly female and many were African American.

The next story picks up with the land-based oyster shuckers and oyster police and their role in the oyster harvests and oyster wars.

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 book passage on one of our local skipjacks and visit the Maritime Museum.

Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester

Skipjack Rebecca T Ruark

Skipjack H M Krentz

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