Magazine article Humanities

Oyster Wars

Magazine article Humanities

Oyster Wars

Article excerpt

MARYLAND IN 1884, MARYLAND WATERMEN HAULED fifteen million bushels of oysters out of the Chesapeake Bay. The slippery little bivalves once deemed only suitable for the poor man's pot had grown so popular in the years after the Civil War, they "created a boom reminiscent of a gold rush," says John R. Wennersten. "And where there is a boom, there is greed."

Greed combined with guns to make the Eastern Shore a rough-and-tumble place. Poaching was common and more than a few men died violently in the headlong rush to make money.

The author of The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay and a lecturer for the Maryland Humanities Council's Speakers Bureau, Wennersten recently regaled the Culinary Historians of Washington, D.C., with oyster tales from colonial times to the present. The settlers at Jamestown, who "didn't recognize what they had," described themselves as "reduced to eating oysters." Later, farmers used oysters as fertilizer, and slaves subsisted on them. But the Civil War created a lot of disposable income, and people started to look for status foods. The Chesapeake Bay region could meet the rising demand thanks to the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad and the development of canning.

After John Crisfield, the president of the Eastern Shore Railroad, got a railroad spur to town, "Crisfield became a city of oysters." In The Oyster Wars, Wennersten wrote that in 1872 the town "had the largest oyster trade in the state and provided employment for over six hundred sailing vessels." It teemed with oystermen, merchants, immigrants, and - to the dismay of proper society - gamblers and prostitutes. A local saloon's boxing ring was the site of "no-holds-barred conflict" between watermen from Virginia and Maryland's Smith Island. One colorful character was Haynie Bradshaw, a Smith Island Methodist, who "fell from grace" during the oyster season to become "one of the scrappiest dockside brawlers on the Eastern Shore and the staunchest defender of Smith Island's honor."

Marylanders did not just fight with Virginians; there was sharp competition between those who tonged and those who dredged. Tongers worked in shallower waters, and their boats generally carried a couple of men, one who would use long tongs to gather the oysters and one who would cull. …

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