The Battle of the Little Choptank, Part 1

Dorchester County Oyster War Stories

Oyster wars were fought throughout Dorchester County waters during the 1880s. The year 1888 was especially active with Battle of Bishops Head followed by the battle of the Little Choptank, which attracted nationwide attention to this remote part of Dorchester County. Newspapers across the nation reported on the battle and its aftermath. In previous editions of Attraction magazine this year, you may have read about the battle at Bishops Head or about the types of people involved in the oyster industry and the oyster wars.

Here, the Dorchester oyster war now shifts to the Little Choptank River. Let’s get oriented: the Little Choptank River lies to the west of Cambridge and Church Creek and can be seen on the right as you drive west towards Madison and Taylors Island. The oysters in the Little Choptank were reserved for tongers, but it became prime ground for unscrupulous oyster dredgers when deeper oyster beds became overharvested. Part one of this story tells of the battle between the pirates and their attack on the police sloop Groome. Part two in the October issue will talk about the politics and the aftermath of the battle.

Here, in the words of 1888 and pieced together from several contemporary newspapers, is the story about the Battle of the Little Choptank. The words written at that time are supplemented by explanation and context.

Evening Star, Annapolis, November 20 – “A moonlight battle was fought in the Little Choptank river, an inlet in the southwestern part of Dorchester County. Toward evening of that day, a fleet of thirty dredges entered the river and anchored. They were seen by Capt. John Marshall of the police boat E.B. Groome. Suspecting that they meant to dredge for oysters after nightfall, he slipped in behind Ragged Point and waited. Sure enough, when the moon had risen, the sound of clanking chains was heard, an indication that the pirates were casting their dredges and working the windlasses. The Groome made for them quietly, but this time the enemy did not try to run. The dredgers refused to surrender, and returned the shots of the Groome very noisily, but without any further effect than wasting ammunition on both sides. The police fired upward of 300 rounds, and then had to retreat because they had no more powder and bullets, while to all appearances the enemy was as well off as at the beginning”.

New York Times, November 22 – “The police sloop E.R.  Groome was engaged invading dredgers in several small skirmishes during the first half of November, and succeeded generally in dispersing the enemy, for the fleet of pirates was small. Nevertheless, they returned after every fight and kept the police busy. On Wednesday, the 21st, about a hundred sail entered the river and went to work illegally dredging for oysters. The Groome, with about 300 rounds of ammunition on board, went out to attack them. Capt. John Marshall was in command, and with him were the regular crew: Mate Chas. B. Cator, Frank Navy, Sam Jarrott, Chas. Hubbard, and Geo. Biggins. Before the Groome was within range of the enemy, she opened fire. A demonstration of this kind has been known to set the pirate fleet flying, but on this occasion the enemy methodically hauled up their dredges, disposed of things about the decks in an orderly fashion, and when the Groome was near enough to hit, the oyster pirates fired back”.

“The bullets pierced the sails of the police sloop, splintered the woodwork a bit, and scratched the water harmlessly all about. It seemed to Capt. Marshall that he was over matched, as indeed he was, and he retired to make better preparations. The pirates laid aside their rifles and resumed dredging.”

The New York Times had war correspondents stationed in Cambridge and sometimes there were correspondents on-board the oyster police steamers. Unfortunately, the Groome was by itself, the more capable and better armed oyster police steamers were occupied in other locations. As hard as they may have tried to drive the pirates off the forbidden oyster beds, the Groome, smaller than the pirate dredge boats and equipped with a few old rifles and a small amount of ammunition, was no match for their larger more determined and better equipped adversary.

New York Times continues: “This encounter was watched by a good many anxious tongers on shore, most of whom dared not go out for fear of being driven off or shot at by the dredgers. They were naturally deeply enraged to see the big Bay vessels tearing up the oysters reserved by law for themselves, and the Government in a retreat. Some of them, led by Capt. Goodman Bramble, volunteered to go out on the Groome and help drive the pirates away. Capt. Marshall hailed this offer with satisfaction. He lives in the neighborhood, and he had arranged to spend that particular day and several following in removing his household goods to a new dwelling.” 

Oyster police captains operated with little or no support from their headquarters in Annapolis. With more important personal business and nearing the end of his commission, Capt. Mitchell probably thought this was just another skirmish with the pirates, so he turned the Groome over to Capt. Bramble who actually fought the afternoon battle. The oyster police operated under strict “rules of engagement.” They were told to fire high to disable the pirate boats and to avoid injuring the crew. Unfortunately, the pirates had no rules, constraints, or reservations. Some families had members operating on both sides of the law and individual watermen changed sides often as opportunities arose. Oyster police crew members captured by the pirates were threatened and roughed up but were not usually killed or severely injured. Oyster police captains were in more peril. Captains faced death threats and several pirate crews sought out and attacked police boats seeking to kill the captain in retribution for injury or the death of an oyster pirate.

“That afternoon, as the Groome went down the Little Choptank river the second time, the pirates opened fire first. The police waited until within 200 yards of the enemy, and then banged away with their cannon and rifles. Nobody knows where the cannon balls went, but the rifle shots made it uncomfortable for the crews on the boats nearest the Groome and for a few minutes it looked as if the police were going to set the whole pirate fleet in retreat. Some of the dredgers were scooting about trying to get behind the Groome. And others were trying to get out of immediate range, all of which tended to weaken the resolution of such pirate captains as preferred flight to arrest.”

“But about that time, John Castis, seaman aboard the Thomas B Schawl, commanded by Capt. Hitchins, fell mortally wounded. It was thought he was dead and Capt. Hitchens placed his flag at half-mast. From that moment there was no doubt as to the issue of the fight. The pirates made desperate efforts to surround the Groome, but she evaded them and kept up an incessant firing, during which two other men are known to have been wounded. The crew of the Groome fired until every last cartridge had been used.”

“The Groome retreated and escaped by sailing across a bar over which the deep draught dredgers could not pass. The Schawl and pungy Wm Mcnamarra, attempting to follow Groome, ran aground on the bar. The Groome went to Slaughter Creek and tied up at Taylor’s (Island) Bridge to repair damages and wait for ammunition. Capt. Bramble went home to supper, leaving Mate Cator in charge.”

“Cator and his crew were at supper in the cabin, when they were startled by the sound of men climbing aboard from the water side. The police hurried to the deck to find themselves confronted with rifles and pistols.”

Baltimore Sun – “All were Captains of pirate craft and among them these men, all from Baltimore, were recognized: John Burns, George Hitchins, Sam Cox, and Sam Bussell. It is grimly entertaining to hear the tongers in the neighborhood talk about those men, especially Sam Cox. What they say will hardly bear printing.”

Laws were so weak that known oyster pirates remained free to keep on working without fear of arrest or, if captured, they were quickly freed after paying a modest fine. Oyster pirates killed in battle were often hailed as heroes or victims and the oyster police were harshly criticized for the “murder” of “innocent” men illegally harvesting oysters while shooting back at the police. The oyster police boat captains were often sued for damages and lost income when pirates were arrested and their dredge boats confiscated. After court hearings, oyster police captains were publicly “exonerated” by the Maryland Board of Public Works or were held liable for damages done to pirate vessels.

New York Times – “Sam Cox and his companions had the police entirely at their mercy. Not a round of ammunition was on board (the Groome) except what was contained in the pirates’ weapons. Surrender was inevitable, but it was entirely informal. The boarders demanded savagely that Capt. Marshall be produced. They said they intended to kill him in return for the death of Castis. They were not satisfied that Marshall was not aboard until they had searched the entire sloop.”

‘“Who commanded the Groome this afternoon?” they asked? Cator explained the part that Capt. Bramble had taken in the battle. “Then, we’ll kill Bramble the first time he shows his head on the Bay!” said one of the pirates.”

“After that, the crew, except mate Cator, were ordered below. They were huddled into the cabin, with a man holding a repeating rifle on guard. The crew was told that as soon as the sloop could be sailed out into the river every of them would be bound in turn to the mast and shot. There was not the slightest doubt in the minds of the crew that this threat would be executed, and some of them fell to praying in a frenzy.”

“Meantime, the sails (on the Groome) had been raised and the lines let go. Cator was stationed forward and a man on each side of him held a pistol to his head. He was told to pilot the craft down the creek and across the bar, and at the first intimation that he had run her aground they would shoot. Cator made no error on that trip. When well out in the middle of Little Choptank, the seven men in the cabin were ordered on deck. With Cator, there were eight of them, three being volunteers from the afternoon fight. They were all put into a little boat, which nearly swamped under the load, and were cut adrift.”

“As the Groome faded quickly away in the darkness, they (the oyster police crew) heard the pirates declaring that they were going to attack the steamer McLane and capture her too. Cator and his companions were in a predicament where the use of the oars would capsize their boat, and where staying still was even more dangerous. By careful, slow work, they came within a few hundred yards of land. About midnight, something caused the boat to careen a little more than usual and two men jumped overboard. They thought the boat was capsizing, but their involuntary sacrifice righted her and the others got to the shore without further difficulty. The men overboard were good swimmers and escaped with nothing worse than a cold dunking.”

New York Times, Thursday, November 22“the Groome was seen anchored not far from the place where Cator was set adrift. No vessels of the pirate fleet were in sight save the two that had grounded on Holland Bar. Local tongers went out to the Groome and towed her in. She could not be sailed, for the pirates had disabled her before they left her. Her sails were cut into shreds. and her rigging slashed at every point where a cut would work injury. All supplies had been taken from the cabin and kitchen, the cannon was gone, and most of the small arms. Whether the cannon was thrown into the Bay or taken to the dock of a (pirate) dredger is not known, but it is pretty certain that none of the small arms was wasted.”

Ft. Worth (Texas) Daily Gazette, November 25 – For the third time this season, the oyster police have been routed by the piratical dredgers. The fight took place yesterday afternoon near the mouth of the Little Choptank river. Several dredgers were shot, one of them G Castis of North Hampton County Va. He was brought to a hospital in Baltimore.”

The battles between the oyster pirates and the police quickly became featured articles in many of the country’s newspapers. Along with extensive publication of this story in the big eastern newspapers, it was referenced in the Bismarck (Dakota Territory) Tribune newspaper alongside a report of troubles with Indians refusing to stay on their reservation. The story of the Battle of the Little Choptank was published in a Sunday edition of the Salt Lake City (Utah) Deseret News within two weeks of the battle.

This vintage picture is of members of the oyster police.

Captain Mitchell traveled to Cambridge to send a telegram of his report of the defeat of the Groome and the capture of her crew. There was a long delay before the state responded or took any action. New York newspapers headlines reported this delay as the time: “The Pirates ruled the roost.”

In the next article in this series about battles between the oyster police and the oyster pirates on the Little Choptank River, we will pick up with the state’s response to the battle of the Little Choptank and the request for help. Visit www.attractionmag.com for all the articles in this series.

The Battle of the Little Choptank, Part 2

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 Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.

Skipjack Nathan of Dorchester  www.skipjack-nathan.org

Skipjack Rebecca T Ruark    www.skipjack.org

Skipjack H M Krentz   www.oystercatcher.com

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