Category Archives: History

Oyster Wars, 1632–1962

Oyster Pirates  Dredging at Night
“The oyster war! The oyster war!
The strangest sight you ever saw;
The Armada sailing up the Bay,
The oyster pirates for to slay.

They to the Rappahannock turn
To fight like Bruce at Bannockburn
And give the oyster-dredgers fits,
Like Bonaparte at Austerlitz”


Only thirty-eight when elected governor, W.E. Cameron had already been severely wounded at Second Manassas, and again later in a duel.

Only thirty-eight when elected governor, W.E. Cameron had already been severely wounded at Second Manassas, and again later in a duel.

The action that took place at the mouth of the Rappahannock River in February 1882,  while at the heart of comedic verse and satire lampooning Virginia Governor W.E. Cameron, was in reality only a dot on the timeline of the long-running Oyster War of the Chesapeake Bay.

The roots of the Oyster War lie in the land granting policy in the American Colonies under England. In 1632 King Charles I granted all of the Potomac River, and all of the the upper Chesapeake Bay, to Cecil Calvert for the newly established colony of Maryland, an unusual departure from convention. Typically, when two colonies bordered a river, the river was split down the middle, allowing both parties access. Virginia demanded rights to part of Chesapeake Bay as compensation for the loss of rights to the Potomac, and for a time, both parties  suffered an uneasy truce with each colony – and later each state – flexing its political muscle King Charles Ithrough regulation of “their” sections of the tidewater region. The stage was set for the Oyster War.

Battles were waged repeatedly in the Chesapeake Bay as a mark of the inchoate governance of the colonies from England. After the Revolution, the former Colonies were essentially lawless, and the escalating Oyster War clearly demonstrated the need for some organization. The Colonies proposed sending delegates to a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of drafting and approving an American Constitution to create laws which could be used to resolve just such issues.

A method to bring in oysters from the shallower water of the rivers and coves in the Chesapeake Bay.

“Tonging” was an early method to bring in oysters from the shallower water of the rivers and coves in the Chesapeake Bay.

In the 1820′s the nature of the Oyster War shifted and escalated. First New England watermen who had exhausted the oyster beds in their local waters sailed into the Chesapeake, angering Maryland and Virginia watermen who considered the Bay off limits to outsiders. Shots were fired, people were killed. Then Maryland and Virginia watermen went to war with each other. Ultimately watermen from individual counties went to war with watermen of rival counties, each poaching in the others’ rivers as the oyster supplies dwindled.

The perils of oyster tonging on the Chesapeake Bay: Tides, Winds, Storms, Weather, Pirates

The perils of oyster tonging on the Chesapeake Bay: Tides, Winds, Storms, Weather, Pirates

Along with territorial rivalries a new method for collecting oysters known as “dredging” came into favor. This new contraption with its metal teeth, and mesh style basket could be dragged from a sailing vessel and reeled in, yielding a much larger catch with less effort. Violence soon erupted between the oyster-dredging sailboats and the smaller operators of oyster tong boats. It was apparent to all that the beds were quickly being depleted. From a harvest of 15 million bushels in 1884, the number declined by over a third in a mere five years.

Enter the Pirates

German ImmigrantInstead of grappling with each other, Maryland and Virginia found themselves confronting the “Wild West” culture and lawlessness of oyster “pirates”—not just New Englanders migrating down the coast, but also newly freed slaves, whites, and immigrants. Captains commonly shanghaied crewmen from saloons and flophouses and forced them to endure severely deprived conditions working the oyster boats. The crews were well-armed and well-organized and defied the laws equally in Maryland and Virginia.

Maryland had acted early in the 1800′s to limit oyster harvesting to protect beds and Virginia came along in the 1880′s limiting the use of dredging. Oyster pirates, known as the “Mosquito Fleet”, largely ignored the new laws and continued to dredge, mostly under the cover of night. Both states became serious about enforcement of their regulations, but were overmatched and underfunded. To confront pirates each state authorized sea interceptions by a state-funded “Oyster Navy”.

Violence between oystermen escalated, particularly in the vicinity of the Rappahannock River, and several deaths were reported in the Warsaw Northern Neck NewsOyster Poster, January 16, 1880. The efforts of both states’ “oyster navies” were new, untested, a long way from settling the conflict. Furthermore, support among civilians on both sides of the Bay for an unfettered livelihood for the watermen made the matter a political knot.

Oyster War Comes to the Rappahannock

The Victoria J. Peed engaging oyster pirates at the mouth of the Rappahannock River

The Victoria J. Peed engaging oyster pirates at the mouth of the Rappahannock River

On Friday, February 17, 1882, at one o’clock in the morning, the tugboat Victoria J. Peed and the small freighter Louisa, headed out of Norfolk harbor into rough seas and high winds. Their destination was the Rappahannock River and a nest of oyster pirates. Well-armed with three days’ rations and an “abundance of ammunition,” the Louisa carried the troops and militiamen who volunteered from as far away as Richmond. On board the crowded Virginia J. Peed was the Virginia Governor himself, W. E. Cameron.Oyster Dredgers

What would drive a governor of Virginia to personally lead an assault against oyster dredgers in the chilly waters of the Chesapeake? Part of the answer lies in Governor Cameron’s personality. He liked to give a good show, whether in action or in speech, and probably drew inspiration from his acquaintance with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) while the two worked together on a steamboat in Missouri in 1859.  The Mariners’ Museum

 Local authorities had placed a battery of long-range Whitworth guns at the mouth of the Rappahannock and a company of the Richmond artillery was presumably en route to the scene. All hoped that the oyster dredgers would surrender peacefully when confronted with a show of force more concrete than the vague threats and legal procedures that had gone before.

As the Peed and the Louisa approached the Rappahannock they spotted a sloop and six schooners. These vessels were spread out between Stingray and Windmill Points, and seemed completely unaware of the Louisa and the Peed. Employing a ruse de guerre, Governor Cameron directed the Louisa to act as if “in tow” by the tugboat Victoria J. Peed, and sent all troops below decks. They drew in close enough without detection to attack, and the Louisa was able to block escape. The action led to the conviction of 46 dredgers and the forfeiture of seven oyster boats.

The Second “Oyster War”

Oyster boats in Baltimore Harbor

Oyster boats in Baltimore Harbor

A year later the effort had to be repeated because of reports of some 50 or 60 oyster pirate ships off Smith’s Point. This “Second Oyster War” was embellished in print by an embedded press corps: Governor Cameron was again on the Peed, and welcomed three newspapermen. The other vessel was the steamer Pamlico. On arrival at Smith’s Point only eight oyster schooners were sighted.


“Twenty-four cannon shots were fired and some 300 musket shots….[but] No vessel was hit, though some close shots were made.” wrote a news reporter. None of the oyster schooners fired back, and only one was captured: the Maryland was unable to outrun the Pamlico, although her captain and mate escaped into Maryland waters in a row boat. The frightened seven-man crew surrendered without incident.

Upon their flight, the men on the Pamlico opened fire with musket and cannon, and though the men armed with muskets “had a picnic [they] didn’t bring any gore.”

The Pirate Brides

The second expedition became a joke – fueled by press reports disclosing all the embarrassing details. One such report detailed an encounter when the Pamlico failed to capture a little craft called the Dancing Molly in an inlet close to the Eastern Shore. She appeared to be unmanned:

Thinking to take the unmanned craft as a prize, the crew of the Pamlico bore down upon the vessel. The vessel, though unmanned, was not unwomanned. The captain’s wife and two daughters were still aboard, and when their cries for help went unheard by the crew on shore, they unreefed the sails themselves and made their escape. As the Pamlico raced to block the mouth of the inlet the Dancing Molly strained at its sails to escape. The women were “equal to the emergency.” All three “were skilled in handling the sails and were determined not to be taken.” Despite solid shot flying past them, the three women continued on their way and reaching the open waters of the Bay, easily escaped into Maryland waters with a stiff breeze behind them. According to the Norfolk Virginian of March 4, 1883, spectators along the Virginia shore, though opposed to dredging, “really wished for the safety of the tiny craft when they saw it was simply manned by three women, and when the Dancing Molly got safely out the group of Virginians chivalrously gave three cheers for the pirate’s wife and daughters.”

Moved to song, the pundits framed the story with sardonic mirth:

But tho’ we licked the Pirates bold,
Their pretty wives and daughters
Cannot be beat by all the troops
That sail Utopia’s waters

With fearless hand they guide the prow
That cleaves the rushing tide.
With both our boats we failed to catch
One single Pirate’s bride!

Oyster Women




1947 – from The Washington Post: ‘Already the sound of rifle fire has echoed across the Potomac River. Only fifty miles from Washington men are shooting at one another. The night is quiet until suddenly shots snap through the air. Possibly a man is dead, perhaps a boat is taken, but the oyster war will go on the next night and the next.”

1959 – The Potomac River Fisheries Commissioner H. C. Byrd ordered the fisheries police disarmed after an officer killed a Virginia waterman who was illegally dredging. The move was credited with bringing an end to the violent conflicts. Wikipedia

1962 – President John Kennedy signed the Potomac Fisheries Bill. This bill reaffirms the governing of the Potomac River by a bi-state commission.

2010 – from The Washington Post: This year’s oyster war is being fought with cellphones, glow sticks, fast boats and night-vision technology. March 23, 2010 edition

2011 – from the Daily Press: Worried that Marylanders will buy up precious James River oyster seeds — juvenile oysters referred to as spat — Virginia regulators have taken the unusual step of capping the amount that watermen are allowed to sell. November 4, 2011

2014 – Oyster Wars: “There is no excuse for any amount of oyster poaching, let alone what happened here. A blatant disregard for our fishery is a slap in the face to responsible watermen, and all Marylanders,” said Department of Natural Resources Secretary Joseph P. Gill (upon the arrest of a Virginia truck driver transporting oysters to market).



The Capture of the Harriet De Ford, 1865

A steamer of the type of the Harriet De Ford

The events in this story began off of Windmill Point and ended at the head waters of Dymer Creek. This was the last, bold Confederate exploit on the Chesapeake Bay in the Civil War. Although a significant Confederate success, it was overshadowed by the assassination of President Lincoln and the surrender of the Confederacy.

In spring of 1865 General Robert E. Lee was searching for a way to provide his army with supplies. A proposal was presented to capture a steamer near the Northern Neck, unload the supplies, and move them to Petersburg under the direction of Colonel Mosby. Captain Thaddeus Fitzhugh was selected to head up this mission.

On March 31, 1865, under the cover of darkness, Captain Fitzhugh, and 29 men left Windmill Point in three open boats with sails and oars.  Near the mouth of the Potomac the winds and strong currents kept the party on shore – a three-day delay.


Cedar Point at the mouth of the Patuxent River

On April 3rd they were able to continue up the Bay to Cedar Point, where they hid. Captain Fitzhugh selected nine of his best men and headed for the wharf. Posing as wood choppers who wanted passage to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the group was able to gain passage on the Harriet De Ford.

Harriet deFord sketch1


The Harriet De Ford was less than a year old. She was a one-masted propeller-driven vessel, considered one of the fastest steamers on the Bay.

When the De Ford was five miles away from the dock, Fitzhugh took over the pilot house and signaled his men to secure all of the boat’s passengers and crew. The steamer returned to Fair Haven where Fitzhugh picked up the rest of his men. They cut the telegraph line, released the passengers, and headed down the Bay toward the Northern Neck.

Two days later Union Commander F.A. Parker, stationed at St. Mary’s, Maryland, was informed by a telegraph about the capture of the De Ford. Parker was instructed to “use your best exertions to recapture the steamer or overtake the rebel party”. Parker immediately set out with a fleet of ten gunboats.

Harriet deFord locationAfter learning of Lee’s defeat at Petersburg, Captain Fitzhugh turned the De Ford into Dymer Creek. His men, under the direction of Confederate Captain Henderson, unloaded the ship’s supplies plus some contraband, and headed with the goods to Kilmarnock where they sold what they could. The money was then to be sent to General Lee.

After unloading, the Confederate troops set fire to the De Ford. Around 4:00 PM Union gunboats were sighted coming up Dymer Creek. The Union gunboats at first headed for Indian Creek where they hoped to recapture the De Ford. When they learned that the De Ford was in fact in Dymer Creek they began to shell that shoreline from a distance to prevent counterattacks.

Residents along Dymer Creek thought it was the most exciting and perilous time of their lives. Many homes and outbuildings were shelled, causing residents to flee into nearby fields and ravines.

In 1996 Brainard Edmonds, 93, recorded this “second person” oral history about the shelling and burning of the steamboat Harriet De Ford on Dymer Creek as it was told to him by “Aunt Betsy” Brown, who was a 12-yr-old slave girl at the time of the attack. Credit: Steamboat Era Museum, Irvington, VA

Upon reaching the Harriet De Ford, union troops found that she was burned to the waterline. They finished her off by firing a large number of rounds into her. The residents of Kilmarnock returned the goods they had bought after being threatened with their lives.  On April 9, 1865, the same day that General Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Captain Henderson was captured and sent to the prisoner-of-war camp at Point Lookout.

Harriet deFord report

And the fate of Captain Fitzhugh? On the April 16, 1865, he wrote his report outlining the attack. At that time he was in Fredericksburg. It is believed that he escaped the area and moved to Kansas, where died in the early 1900s.

Addendum: from a Comment August 23, 2014:

Very nice article. I am a great grandson of Thaddeus Fitzhugh and wanted to add some clarification to the statement, “It is believed that he [Thaddeus] escaped the area and moved to Kansas, where died in the early 1900s.” Thaddeus was placed under house arrest by the US government for a short time after the war and his signing the oath required of other confederate soldiers. After several years as a physician in Virginia, he lived in Indianapolis IN, Fort Worth TX, then Kansaa City until his death in 1914.  ~ Kirk Fitzhugh

Note from David Herndon: In the mid-1990′s, Dymer resident Jeff Chase found an unexploded artillery shell in his field at Chase Farm.  Explosive experts were brought in to detonate the shell.  The explosion was could be heard miles away.  It also shook the ground for at least a mile away.  The shell is believed to have come from the Union gunboats shelling the De Ford.  Many historians believe that this was the last naval battle of the civil war on the east coast.  Lee surrendered to Grant a few days after this naval action.  Contact Jeff Chase to get additional information on the artillery shell.  Contact Stuart Painter to obtain information on the exact location of the sunken Harriet De Ford. Stuart found some of the ribs of the vessel in the mud near his home.

[Many thanks to the students at Lancaster High School and to the Steamboat Era Museum for the research and artwork that went into this article. More stories can be found on the Museum’s website]

Addendum from Dymer resident Mickey Kendrick,  September 5, 2014

Joy:  That’s really cool having the Confederate capture of the Yankee ship Harriet DeFord on the DCEPA web page.  Stuart (Painter, resident of Dymer Creek) gave me the file that he has on this, including a number of military telegrams that were sent regarding the engagement.

Some of the information on our web is not quite accurate.  As an example, it was not Colonel Mosby who transported the goods off the DeFord but a Major Robinson of the quartermaster’s department who handle that part of the operation.

In addition, the telegrams provide some interesting stories where private land owners asked Union naval officer Lt. Cmdr. Edward Hooker not to bombard his house. Hooker agreed but he told the owner:

“You will distinctly understand, however, that when scoundrels commit depredations innocent people are liable to be made to suffer and that when Fitzhugh and other rascals of his stamp get the opportunity to bring Federal vengeance upon innocent persons they are only too greatly rejoiced to do so, hoping thereby to alienate some neutral-minded persons from the old flag.  If necessity requires that I should punish a community, I shall do so without regard to age or sex or any other consideration.”
~ Mickey Kendrick