Oyster Wars


A sample of oyster shell recovered at the Cumberland site (18CV171), a Native American palisaded village in Calvert County.

When most people think of Maryland seafood, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the blue crab, steamed to a bright red and fragrant with Old Bay seasoning. But the “lowly” oyster played just as significant a role in Maryland’s maritime history and economy. Although it may have been a “bold man that first ate an oyster” (Swift 1738), any initial squeamishness toward the bivalve was quickly overcome by humans, who have dreamed up more ways to serve an oyster than Forrest Gump’s business partner envisioned for shrimp. And it also happens that the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries have historically provided the appropriate water temperatures and salinity levels that allowed Eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) to thrive (NOAA 2013).

Native Americans in the Chesapeake consumed vast quantities of oysters and the discarded shells are a standard discovery for archaeologists working in the region (Figure 1). And indeed, like the tobacco pipe fragments that were the catalyst artifact for the previous blog, the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab collections contain oyster shell from archaeological sites across the state.

Among the most interesting episodes in Maryland’s oyster history were the Oyster Wars that began during the nineteenth century and continued for almost a hundred years. This conflict was brought about in part by changing technologies in the food industry. The rapid spoilage rate of seafood meant that for hundreds of years, enjoyment of fresh fish and shellfish was largely restricted to coastal areas. But the advent of new technologies for food preservation, in particular canning, allowed shipment of Maryland oysters across the world. By the 1880s, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay supplied almost half of the world’s oysters annually (Kimmel 2008:4). A study of the fishery industry published in 1881 estimated there were almost 5,800 oystering vessels based out of Virginia alone (Moore 1982:367).

A waterman hand tongs oysters. Print from Victor Animatograph Co. lantern slide, courtesy Calvert Marine Museum. http://somdthisisliving.somd.com/archive/vol8num2/infamous_oyster_wars.html

A waterman hand tongs oysters. Print from Victor Animatograph Co. lantern slide,
courtesy Calvert Marine Museum. http://somdthisisliving.somd.com/archive/vol8num2/infamous_oyster_wars.html

The desire for Chesapeake Bay oysters and the economic benefits to be gained from their harvest led to fierce competition and even violence among watermen, especially after end of the Civil War. Waterman from New England, having overharvested oyster resources there, ventured south into Virginia and Maryland waters, understandably causing friction with watermen there (Kimmel 2008). Tensions also escalated between Maryland and Virginia watermen as a result of different laws governing harvesting. Two methods were used in harvesting oysters. Tonging was a method of removing oysters using metal rakes on long wooden handles fashioned into a tong (Figure 2). A new method of removing oysters from deep water—dredging—was devised in the early nineteenth century (Warren 2013). A mesh basket or net fronted with metal teeth was dragged from the boat, scraping oysters from the bottom (Figure 3). Larger numbers of oysters could be harvested with less effort, but dredging proved more damaging to the oyster reefs.

Sailing vessels dragging oyster dredges.  Source: The Natural History of the Oyster by Samuel Lockwood.  Popular Science Monthly, (November 1874).

Sailing vessels dragging oyster dredges. Source: The Natural History of the Oyster by Samuel Lockwood. Popular Science Monthly, (November 1874).

Virginia legislation allowed dredging of oysters, while Maryland had outlawed the practice, permitting the shellfish to only be harvested through tonging. Virginia oysterman would travel over into Maryland waters, often under cover of night with blackened sails, to dredge illegally (Figure 4). The poaching activities were not restricted to watermen from rivaling states, however. In Maryland, watermen would also poach in the rivers of neighboring counties (Kimmel 2008). A number of individuals were killed over who had rights to oysters and how they should be harvested during this controversy which spanned almost a century, between 1865 until the late 1950s (Wikipedia).

Scientific studies undertaken as early as 1878 concluded that oysters were in danger of being overharvested in the Chesapeake Bay. Legislators and other individuals sought to impose restrictions on oystermen in terms of the amounts and sizes of oysters could be harvested, but these restrictions were difficult to enforce and were largely ignored. In 1882 and 1883, Virginia’s governor, William E. Cameron, led raids against oyster pirates, but was largely unsuccessful in his efforts (Moore 1982). The Maryland Oyster Navy, a forerunner of today’s Maryland Natural Resources Police, was formed in1868 to regulate the activities of the oystermen, as well as the violence that was occurring between the watermen (Kimmel 2008).


Oyster pirates dredging on the Chesapeake Bay under the cover of night. Image from Harper’s Weekly March 1, 1884. http://www.marinersmuseum.org/sites/micro

The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries still suffer today from the effects of the overharvesting of the nineteenth century. Overharvesting, combined with increased sedimentation in the Bay and low dissolved oxygen levels, have led to current oyster populations that are at less than one percent of what they once were (NOAA 2013). Oysters play an important role in removing algae from seawater. Scientists estimate that the Bay’s historic oyster population could filter the volume of water in the Bay every three to four days—something it would take over a year to do today (DNR 2013). Oyster renewal efforts by organizations such as the St. Mary’s Watershed Association and the Patuxent Environmental & Aquatic Research Laboratory (PEARL) at Morgan State University are working to restore native oyster populations to levels that will once again provide significant improvements to the water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.


Kimmel, Ross M.
2008 Oyster Wars; The Historic Fight for the Bay’s Riches. The Maryland Natural Resource. Winter 2008: 4-6.

Lockwood, Samuel
1874 The Natural History of the Oyster. The Popular Science Monthly. Volume 6. Accessed July 5, 2013 at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Popular_Science_Monthly/Volume_6/November_1874/The_Natural_History_of_the_Oyster_I.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
2013 How do oysters help improve water quality in the Bay? Website accessed July 5, 2013 at http://dnr.maryland.gov/mydnr/askanexpert/oysters_water_qual.asp.

Moore, James Tice
1982 Gunfire on the Chesapeake: Governor Cameron and the Oyster Pirates, 1882-1885. The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography. Volume 90, No 3:367-377.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
2013 Oyster Reefs. http://chesapeakebay.noaa.gov/oysters/oyster-reefs. Accessed July 3, 2013.

Swift, Jonathan
1738 Polite Conversation in Three Dialogues. Printed and issued by Charles Whittingham & Co. at the Chiswick Press, London. Available at http://archive.org/stream/cu31924013200898/cu31924013200898_djvu.txt.

Warren, Kathy
2013 The Infamous Oyster Wars. Southern Maryland This is Living. Website accessed July 3, 2013 at http://somdthisisliving.somd.com/archive/vol8num2/infamous_oyster_wars.html.

Wennersten, John R.
1981 The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake. Tidewater Press, Centreville, Maryland.

2013 Oyster Wars. Website accessed 6-19-2013 at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oyster_Wars.


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