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Those headline words all come from a federal government report about the state of the oystering on the Chesapeake Bay in 1887. This was, as many regular readers here will know, the height of the “Oyster Wars” in our region. Just in case you need it: Here is a 200-word refresher of an introduction to those wild times.

Fear and greed fueled the Chesapeake Oyster Wars. Newfangled dredge boats came on the scene after the Civil War year, scraping up oysters from the bottom of the bay in previously unfathomable numbers. Meanwhile, the appetite for oysters in big-city markets seemed insatiable.

Dredge boat owners and captains started rolling in dough. Many historians compare the atmosphere that sprung up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia to the gold rushes out West in that same rough period. But how long would this oyster gold rush last? Those newfangled dredge boats had scooped New England waters clean of bivalves, destroying a profitable fishery by overharvesting.

How long before all the Chesapeake oysters were gone, too?

Better get that gold-rush money while you can!

State legislators in Maryland and Virginia tried to apply the brakes. They passed laws limiting dredging to certain waters and setting others aside for old-school oyster tongers and scrapers, whose work was more “sustainable” in the modern environmentalist sense of that work. But neither state had the money or manpower to enforce those laws.

That gold rush-level money, especially combined with the fear that it might dry up soon, was too tempting. New laws be damned: All hell broke loose, especially near the Maryland/Virginia border, where devious captains could run across state lines any escape the oyster police from one state or the other.

Prepared by the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, the report I’ll be quoting from here was titled “The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States.” The work is credited to George Brown Goode, an assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, but he relied on inside knowledge for his Chesapeake oystering chapter on an enterprising, diligent Baltimore journalist named Richard Hathaway Edmonds.

Mr. Goode regarded Mr. Edmonds as “a most competent observer” who delivered a “hard but … entirely just judgment upon his fellow citizens” who worked as oystermen.

Those “Depraved” Dredgers

Oyster Dredging on the Eastern ShoreAfter lamenting that the oyster beds of all Chesapeake Bay were fast being destroyed, Mr. Edmonds begin his report with a general indictment of the moral character of the oystering workforce.

“Dredging in Maryland is simply a general scramble, carried on in seven hundred boats, manned by fifty-six hundred daring and unscrupulous men, who regard neither the laws of God nor man. Some of the captains and a few of the men may be honest and upright, but it is an unfortunate fact that such form a very small minority.”

“It is now rarely the case that a dredger can be found who will admit that he believes there is any wrong in disregarding the oyster laws, and such a thing as being disgraced among his fellow workmen by imprisonment for violating the laws is totally unknown.”

“In the above facts will be found sufficient reasons why it has been impossible for the oyster police, since its first organization, to enforce the laws. Seven hundred well-manned, fast-sailing boats, scattered over such a large space as the Chesapeake Bay, are rather difficult to watch, and especially at night.”

“Unscrupulous” Captains and “Lawless” Crews

Then Mr. Edmonds digs a little deeper in exploring where the responsibility lies for all of this lawlessness.

Chesapeake Oyster Wars Oyster Navy in Pursuit“All blame for violating laws does not, however, attach to the boat owners, as some of them are prominent gentlemen of the most upright character. It is the misfortune of such men that their captains have often been trained by less honest employers, and having once acquired a love of ill-gotten gain it is difficult to keep them from continuing in the same course. … [W]hile the boat owner may be opposed to breaking any laws, his captain may think and act otherwise.”

“The unscrupulousness of the captain is well assisted by the character of his men. These men, taken as a class, form perhaps one of the most depraved bodies of workmen to be found in the country. They are gathered from jails, penitentiaries, workhouses, and the lowest and vilest dens of the city. They are principally whites, many of whom are foreigners (almost every European country being represented), unable to speak more than a few words of English.”

Edmonds then explains how that labor market worked. Most dredge boats operated with a crew of eight. Boat owners and/or captains found their laborers through a shady network of “shipping agents,” mostly working out of big cities. The agent got paid $2 for every worker they delivered.

“[The agent] gathers these men wherever they may be found, drunk or sober. As one large boat owner expressed it to me: ‘We don’t care where he gets them, whether they are drunk or sober, clothed or naked, just so they can be made to work at turning a windlass.'”

“With such a crew as this, who neither know nor care for laws, the captain is of course able to work wherever he desires to,” regardless of rules, regulations, and laws.

Even if those recruits were immoral men, however, they still deserved a little sympathy. The working conditions on oyster boats were horrendous.

Oyster Dredge

Oyster Dredge

“As may be supposed, the life led by these men on board of the vessels is of the roughest kind. When sleeping, surrounded by vermin of all kinds; when working, poorly clad and with every garment stiff with ice, while the wind dashes the fast-freezing spray over them, hour after hour winding away at the windlass, pulling a heavy dredge, or else stooping, with backs nearly broken, culling oysters.”

The choices those men make at the end of that ordeal will come as no surprise:

“Returning from a trip, the men take their little pay and soon spend it in debauchery, amid the lowest groggeries and dens of infamy to be found in certain portions of Baltimore.”

Eastern Shore Oystermen: Not as Quite as Bad as Those Big-City Crooks

Mr. Edmonds did offer one bit of solace for the Eastern Shore:

“It is a gratifying fact, though, that even amid such surroundings as these there are some few who are respectable and honorable men. This is more especially the case on the boats owned in the lower counties of Maryland. The crews of these are often gathered from the surrounding neighborhoods, and even as a class are not as degraded as those on Baltimore vessels.”

Oyster Tonging and ScrapingMost men were paid by the month, at rates between $10 and $12. Others signed on for a share of profits—those gambling types might make $15 a month if the weather and the harvests and the price of oysters all worked out in their favor. Edmonds estimated the labor costs incurred by dredge boat captains in Maryland at a little less than a million dollars a season–in 1887 dollars. In today’s dollars, that would be $33 million.

Mr. Edmonds was kinder as well to two other types of oystermen, the scrapers and the tongers. First up, the scrapers:

“Scraping, which is simply dredging on a smaller scale, both as to the size of the boat and the dredge, is conducted only in shallow water; and, while dredge licenses are issued by the State, scraping licenses are obtained from the counties, and hold good only in the local waters of the county in which issued. Dorchester, Talbot, and Somerset are the only counties in which scraping licenses are issued.”

“The crews of these vessels average about four men each, the majority of whom are able to return home after each day’s work, as the boat does not go out of the county waters, except to make an occasional run to a neighboring market.”

“Socially and morally the scrapers are somewhat superior to the dredgers.”

Oyster Dredgers with Underwater DredgesFinally, the tongers. Here, the kind words that Mr. Edmonds has to offer are offset by criticism that Chesapeake tongers were lazy and unambitious.

“The men engaged in [tonging] are of a better class, are better remunerated for their labor, and are less prone to evade the laws than the dredgers. While this much may be said in the tongmen’s favor, it is yet an unpleasant truth that they, like all others engaged in the oyster trade, either as catchers or shuckers, are, as a class, indolent and improvident.”

“The majority of them live near the water, often owning a small house and an acre or so of land (the value of which depends upon the proximity of good oyster and fishing grounds), and a canoe or an interest in one, used in winter for oystering and in summer for fishing. Having secured a house, their ambition seems to be satisfied, and but little time or money is spent in beautifying or improving it.”

“It is too often the case that tongers, especially many of the negroes, who comprise about one-third of the total number, will work only one or two days at a time, and then remain idle until necessity forces them again to earn a few dollars.”

“By others, however, tonging is pursued as steadily and systematically as the wind and waves will allow, and when this is done I think it may safely be said that the remuneration is equally as fair as in other trades. Those who pursue tonging in this way form the most intelligent class of oystermen in the State.”

From Bay Bottom to Big-City Market

Mr. Edmonds then gives a lengthy explanation of how the business works, especially among those old-school tongers. Two hundred boats served as “runners,” his term for what most modern Chesapeake-history aficionados would call “buyboats.” When tongers filled their ships to the brim with oysters, they would find their way to one of these larger vessels and unload their harvest without returning to land. The “runners” would then take the haul from several tonging boats to big-city markets.

One scene Edmonds describes offers a glimplse at just how big the oyster industry was in those days.

“The runner will anchor near some tonging ground, and an empty basket or a small flag will be hoisted to the masthead as a signal that she is ready to receive oysters. In one or two days she will be loaded and is at once off for a market. On some occasions half a dozen or more runners may be seen in the same locality, surrounded by forty or fifty canoes. As soon as a tonger has caught as many as his small boat will carry, he sells out to the runner and returns to work.”

Eventually, those oysters would find their way to the restaurants, hotels, and oyster carts on the streets of Baltimore and other big cities.

–posted by Jim Duffy for Whimbrel Creations LLC and Secrets of the Eastern Shore in January 2024.

NOTE #1: I found my way to “The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States” here on the Internet Archive.

Richard Hathaway Edmonds PortraitNOTE #2: Richard Hathaway Edmonds seems like quite an interesting character. His family had deep roots on the western shore of Virginia, but he moved to Baltimore with his parents as a child. He finished two years of high school and then, at age 17, became an errand boy for a Baltimore business publication called The Journal of Commerce. The errand boy then commenced a high-speed climb up the ranks—wrapper, mailing clerk, bookkeeper, and assistant editor. By age 21, Edmonds had developed a national name for himself as a business journalist. He went on to co-found a publication called The Manufacturer’s Record. Over a long career he wrote several books and prepared a good number of important reports, stories, and statistical business evaluations, mostly focused on the economic situation in the Southern states.

 

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