Oyster Wars

“The family was planters and watermen from the 1600’s.
My father came up with the family from the lower part of the county
down in the Herring Bay area, way before WWI to make a livelihood
out of seafood industry. Oystering, fishing. During severe times, he’d
take other types of work, craftsman types of things like painting,
carpentry, or anything like that. Severe times was when you could not
get out. When the boats would get frozen in, they were frozen for the
season, because the winters seemed longer and harder. They could
not, did not, break the ice. They waited until it melted. My father told
stories of skating from Herring Bay all the way up to Annapolis in his
youth.

My father was a mate in the State Conservation Fleet, back in the days
of the Oyster Wars. The skipjack captains from the other shores would
come over and poach on the western shores here. See, all the counties
had different fishing regulations and the fishing was restricted to
citizens of each county. My father tells the story of him being a young
man and seeing the bodies of people who were shanghaied out of the
Port of Baltimore and ‘paid off by the boom.’ They would just knock
them overboard. He tells about the time where he went aboard and
they held him hostage too. Then, that type of thing really existed- a
guy had a gun on him and was going to blow him off the boat. And
his crew rescued him … and this was common back in the beginning of
the 1900’s right here in this part of the Bay. They existed all the way
down the Bay and up into the Potomac- oyster wars, yeah.

The Bay was so rich and full back then. Dan was a tonger
would catch maybe 100 bushels of oysters a day. Now they only bring
in 30-40 bushels and feel they’ve had a day of it. He sold his oysters for
10 cents a bushel right here in the packing houses. Then they had a
fleet of “buy” boats which would come from different areas- Virginia,
Pennsylvania, Delaware River, the Potomac.

It was an early rising thing every day, long hours of the day, and
of course, usually until nightfall, they were on the water- fishing or
oystering. The watermen of old, oh, how they would suffer … they
went out under any conditions, except when they couldn’t move. They
would stay out there until they got as much of the supply as they
could. And it was worth practically nothing. If the market was glutted,
they would only get a few cents a pound for fish, and you practically
couldn’t give the oysters away!”

As told in 1990 by Lester Trott to Mame Warren for Remember Inc.

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