“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”
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 through 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.
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.
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
Instead 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 News, 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
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.
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”
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!
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 – ChesapeakeLiving.com 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).