Clem Cheseldine didn't pay too much attention to the shots fired at his boat until a bullet almost knocked the rope out of his hand. Back then, in the 1940s and '50s, he and some other watermen worked at night to get around the rules, and authorities would shoot at the boats to warn them.
But that bullet came too close, the 89-year-old retired waterman said. "I don't know whether they meant to hit me or scare me." He lit out for home.
A collection of interviews and photographs compiled by St. Mary's College of Maryland professors and students tells the story of those outlaw days on the Chesapeake Bay, known as the Oyster Wars. SlackWater: A Journal on Environmental and Cultural Change in the Southern Maryland Tidewater, Vol. IV, combines oral history, essays, maps and photographs. The journal is published on an irregular schedule by the college.
Oysters were chosen as a theme this time because the industry, which had been so important to the region, has collapsed. "It's sort of as though we know the end of the story that began in the 19th century," said Andrea Hammer, now of Cornell University, who started producing the journals as an English professor at St. Mary's.
"I was moved by how complicated the issues were and how beautifully people talked about leading the life," Hammer said. "Men would say that they went into the river when they were 12, and they stayed there their whole lives. That's the kind of phrasing they'd use."
Some watermen believed the resources of the river were there for the taking -- that they had a right to whatever they could catch. Many were desperate to make a living and feed their families. A few were daredevils, laughing the next day about what they got away with.
People had been fighting over water rights in the region for centuries, with an agreement reached before the U.S. Constitution was written. Because Virginia controlled Cape Charles and Cape Henry -- the points of land that form a gateway into the Chesapeake Bay from the Atlantic -- a 1785 agreement gave Virginia fishing rights in the Potomac River in exchange for not charging a tariff on Maryland boats entering the bay.
To pass any law governing the river, both states had to enact the same legislation, said A.C. Carpenter, director of the Potomac River Fisheries Commission.
In 1931, both states outlawed dredging for oysters, a technique that was so efficient that they worried about overharvesting the river. The yield had dropped drastically from the turn of the century, when most years watermen pulled more than 1 million bushels of oysters from the Potomac, to about 25,000 bushels before the ban was enacted, Carpenter said.
But in 1933 Virginia repealed its law, and from then on, there was trouble.
Maryland authorities enforced the rules on the river back then, and by Maryland law, dredging was illegal. Virginia watermen pointed to their state law and did it anyway.
After the Depression and World War II ended and the river filled with watermen again, the situation heated up. Virginia watermen were dredging, so Maryland watermen wondered why they weren't, too.
In St. Mary's County, a bunch of young watermen started sneaking out at night to dredge. They used fast little boats to outrun the police, so they were nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet.
There were 20 or 25 men who used to go, Cheseldine said. "Most of them were young -- the old ones were too scared."
He would navigate by the stars or trees he recognized or the lighthouses that used to be there. "Oh yeah, I got caught like all the rest of them," he said. "It's hard to live exactly up to the rules. It's like driving into Washington. You're supposed to not go through the stop sign -- don't cross the white line, the yellow line -- it's the same thing."
He'd get a small fine or maybe just a slap on the wrist from an understanding judge. But he kept going. "Back then you couldn't make no money," he said. "The farm was just as bad as the river. . . . They were all trying to make a living; it wasn't for the fun of it. Nobody ever had no fun being shot at."
In 1959 a Maryland patrol boat shot at a Virginia boat and killed a Colonial Beach man named Berkeley Muse.
Cheseldine remembers it. "There were three policemen in the boat. One of the three did it. No clue which one did it."
The death shocked people enough that a Maryland lawmaker proposed a Potomac River compact, which would create a citizen board to regulate the river. The agreement was approved by both legislatures, but Maryland watermen collected enough signatures to put the matter to voters. It won voter support and was sent to Congress for ratification. President John F. Kennedy signed the compact in 1962, creating the Potomac River Fisheries Commission, which now sets the rules. A commission slogan is: "A new beginning . . . in the peaceful management of a once troublesome body of water."
"That's all behind now," Cheseldine said. "Now they got airplanes, speedboats, telephones, ship-to-shore. Every move you make now, they can tell where you're going, where you've been."