Among the many books that have been written about the Chesapeake in general and watermen in particular, few have explored beyond the popular picturesque and romanticized view of life on the bay. In a new book, however, John R. Wennersten has ventured into some largely untapped territory and brings us a short but intriguing story of violence and mayhem in "The Oyster Wars of Chesapeake Bay."
Drawing from a combination of newspaper reports, personal interviews and government studies, Wennersten examines the conflicts and violence that have plagued the Chesapeake oyster industry ever since oysters passed from "hardship food," as perceived by the earliest settlers, to an expensive and profitable commodity. The results of this study stand in stark contrast to our vision of the watermen's worst enemies as cold water, iced-in harbors and poor markets. For much of the second half of the 19th century, watermen were their own worst enemies.
Spurred by a booming demand for oysters following the Civil War, the Chesapeake became the scene of a sweeping "oyster rush" that compares to a startling degree to the great gold rushes of the Old West. In their quest for oysters and profits, dredgers fought tongers, Maryland watermen fought Virginia watermen, and factions from all sides battled the Maryland Oyster Navy.
Aimed at a broad reading audience, the book is most effective in presenting an excellent overview of the principal issues involved, the technological and marketing developments that launched the "rush," and in describing many of the more dramatic confrontations that occurred. Historians and more knowledgeable readers will be disappointed, however, to find that the book is not footnoted. The author has included an excellent bibliography, but it is impossible to identify the source of specific accounts or quotations. This drawback is more than compensated for by the wealth of obscure and previously unavailable material, richly illustrated with contemporary advertisements, photographs and drawings.
The crux of Wennersten's study begins in the mid-19th century, when a new steam canning process and greatly improved transportation combined with a flourishing post-Civil War economy to transform the oyster from a mostly locally consumed food to the focus of a booming industry. Maryland oyster production rocketed from slightly more than a million bushels annually in 1850 to more than 14 million bushels in 1874. In the two decades that followed the end of the Civil War, the Chesapeake Bay was transformed into a battleground with competing factions intent only on reaping profits, regardless of the cost to future production or human life.
In an effort to place some control on the burgeoning industry, the Maryland legislature passed regulations restricting the use of dredges to deep water, placed size limits on the oysters taken, and in 1868 chartered an "oyster navy" to enforce regulations.
The watermen were a wild and independent breed, however, and dredge boat captains were quick to exploit the more accessible oyster beds in shallower water. This brought them into direct conflict with the law and, more importantly, the hand tongers. Blatant violations were backed up with firearms, and the conflict quickly escalated into open warfare. By the early 1870s, "the Chesapeake resounded to gunfire, and a Baltimore Sun reporter noted that something new was floating in the Chester and Choptank Rivers -- the bloated bodies of dead oystermen."
The war between the "drudgers" and the hand tongers was further aggravated by boundary disputes between Maryland and Virginia that left watermen from both states fighting over oyster beds throughout the lower bay and Potomac River.
These broad conflicts tend to obscure the less-publicized issues of race and labor. The author suggests that hard work and shared danger limited racial prejudice on the water, a concession that was not extended to immigrant laborers hired through agents in Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York. Strapped for crewmen to run the brutal hand windlasses that brought in the oyster dredges, captains hired immigrant labor with promises of good pay, plentiful food and hard work.
For many of these immigrants only the latter promise was kept, and men were often imprisoned on the work boats for weeks at a time, locked in the forepeak at night and fed the barest rations. If and when payday came, some men were "paid off at the boom," that is, sent up on the cabin for a task and knocked into the bay by a sudden jibe.
By the 1890s, exploitation had taken its toll and the industry entered a rapid decline. The race for the smaller harvest only intensified, but by the early years of the 20th century the economic shake-out had greatly reduced the competition and in 1906 the development of a gasoline-powered windlass cut the size of dredging crews in half.
If the conflicts among competing watermen declined in the 20th century, the war with the Oyster Navy only escalated. Disputes between Virginia watermen and the Maryland oyster police erupted into open warfare on the Potomac River. Until the 1950s, patrol boats were armed with heavy machine guns and casualties in both boats and men were not unusual. Public pressure to end the violence finally brought matters under control in the late 1950s, but in recent years the increasing tension between tongers and oyster divers using scuba gear promises more trouble in the future.
In an epilogue titled "The Vanishing Oystermen," the author looks at the present state of the oyster industry. He paints a pessimistic picture of diminishing harvests and increasing pollution, aggravated by bureaucratic indifference to the watermen's point of view. In the future, the rugged individualists will fall victim to new, more efficient methods of "oyster farming." "While there will always be oysters," Wennersten concludes, "there soon won't be watermen to hunt them. The oystermen of the bay country are being overwhelmed by the problems of an urban technological society; and their passing will scarcely be noticed."