Maryland’s Oyster Wars: Battles between Dredgers, Tongers and the Oyster Police

Cool fall weather brings the sound of migrating waterfowl and gunshots up and down the rivers and out into the Chesapeake Bay as the fall hunting season opens and hunters pursue their elusive targets. One hundred and thirty years ago even more gunshots were heard in local waters. Waterfowl hunters were out there but one could also hear gunshots from men who shot at one another during the battles of the Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake.

Dredgers had overharvested the oyster beds in deeper waters. With oysters still in high demand, dredgers started poaching the plentiful oysters in shallower waters, called “forbidden ground,” reserved for local resident hand tonging. Larger sail powered dredge boats invaded the forbidden ground, overpowered the smaller tonging boats and illegally took as many oysters as they could. Gun fire from battles between the police and oyster pirates or between rival oyster harvesting groups could sometimes be heard as far away as Baltimore. It was a common occurrence to see a local dredge boat or two docked with bullet holes in sails and damaged rigging while crewmen recovered from gunshot wounds received during these frequent battles between oyster pirates and the police. The boats and crew were quickly patched up and returned to dredging.

The Maryland oyster police were understaffed, ineptly managed, outnumbered and outgunned as explained in other articles in this series. The pirates became overly confident that they “ruled the roost” because they were able to drive off so many attempts by the oyster police to enforce the law and keep pirates off the local oyster beds.

The pirates had better weapons and more ammunition than the oyster police. Maryland law specifically limited the number of weapons and the amount of ammunition supplied to the oyster police so “shots would not be wasted hunting waterfowl to supplement crew rations.” Ironically, the same law that prohibited the oyster police from better arms permitted and encouraged the pirates to carry many firearms to “supplement their rations with abundant waterfowl” while they dredged up and down the Chesapeake Bay.

Reports of oyster war battles were widely published in the press. Some large newspapers stationed their “war correspondents” in hot spots like Cambridge and aggressive editors often sent reporters out on oyster police steamers to gather first-hand reports on the battles. Many stories were collected at local saloons where free drinks encouraged the retelling and embellishment of recent battles with the oyster police. Within days of any battle, you could read stories in large and small-town newspapers across the country. Just as oysters were popular, stories about the Chesapeake oyster wars were equally popular and avidly read nationwide.

Here is a report from the New York Sun, December 25, 1885.

Capt. Griffith of the Oyster Police steamer Gov. Thomas arrived at Annapolis today, bringing the first definite news of an encounter between the state force and a fleet of piratical oyster dredgers.”

“The captain says that he had placed three of his men for several days on Poplar Island (west of Easton and just north of Tilghman Island) to get the names of vessels illegally dredging on that oyster bar. On Tuesday night, the wind being light, his men took to their yawl to head off certain vessels which were illegally dredging. As they started out, the state police sloop Frolic, commanded by Capt. K Irwin, joined the Gov. Thomas. The wind springing up, the two police boats, the steamer and the police sloop under sail, started toward the scene of action, following in the wake of the Gov. Thomas’s yawl boats. The dredgers, seeing the police boats, boldly began to act on the offensive.”

One of the oyster policemen described the scene as follows: “The night was foggy, and the first we knew of our approach to the oyster pirates was a blaze of light which lit up the bay and called every man on deck. The report from a hundred rifles, muskets, and pistols, all blazing away at once, was enough to astonish anybody. We returned the fire with vigor, and the air was full of rifle bullets. Nobody was hurt on our boat, and I haven’t heard of anybody being injured on any other boat. My standing and running rigging was badly damaged and my sails considerably cut up. Some sails were furled during the battle, and many bullets went through half a dozen or more thicknesses. I found lots of lead on deck. I think this war has only begun, and I am sure that it won’t end until somebody gets hurt. I won’t say whether it will be a dredger, tonger, or policeman. After fighting in this aimless manner for about two hours, the dredgers escaped in the darkness.”

Oyster police steamers were very effective in enforcing the law. They could sail everywhere but were often used for political junkets. Police sloops were small sail powered craft and carried light armament. Pirate dredge boats were larger, outnumbered the police boats and carried more and better armament than the oyster police. It took a brave captain and crew to try to oust oyster pirates from forbidden ground.

New York Sun, December 25, 1885. “Another account said that the dredgers made it hot for the police steamer until her captain opened up on them with his cannon. This silenced their fire and put the oyster pirates to flight. The pirates started off sailing down the bay, harried along by the police steamer firing cannon shot as it chased the pirates away from the prohibited oyster beds. They all passed out of sight of the spectators on the shore (of Talbot and Dorchester counties), many of whom had been aroused from sleep by the noise of the battle.”

There was a serious arms race between the pirates and the police. Pirates had bigger boats, more crew, newer and better weapons and more ammunition. Outgunned and loosing battles, the State of Maryland had to borrow cannons from the U.S. Navy to rearm their smaller boats to prevent from being captured or driven off by better armed more aggressive oyster pirates.

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

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

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