Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Onancock and the Oyster Wars

Written by Joe Valentine

Onancock seems like a peaceful little town, so who would think that an Onancock resident would declare war on Marylanders and sink their boat? Well it happened in 1889 and it didn't even make the front page of the local paper, it was a page two article! Check out the forerunner of the Eastern Shore News, the Peninsula Enterprise issue from November 30, 1889 … . The Peninsula Enterprise reports that on November 27, 1889, Onancock resident Charles R. Lewis hired Capt. William S. Russell to operate his tug boat, the Ida Augusta, and sink any boat that should poach oysters on his grounds off Hog Island in the mouth of the Potomac.

To provide a little background, in the 1850’s, Chesapeake oysters were being shipped to New England where the local watermen had depleted the New England oyster beds by using very efficient dredges. New Englanders soon started sending their boats down to the Chesapeake to harvest more oysters. Competition for the oysters started to become very stiff. Maryland and Virginia started to put constraints on the harvests. In 1868, Maryland founded the Maryland Oyster Navy to enforce their laws and keep outsiders from harvesting Maryland oysters. Virginia was lax in enforcing their laws. After the Civil War, the oyster business became big business. Virginia made its own attempts to fight illegal oystering. In the 1870s, Virginia imposed license fees, seasonal limits, and other measures to prevent over harvesting and preserve the oyster population. The demand for oysters continued to grow, and by the 1880s, the Chesapeake Bay supplied almost half of the world's supply of oysters. Meanwhile, violence broke out between oyster tongers and more efficient oyster dredgers. Finally in 1879, Virginia banned oyster dredging.

The abundance of oysters started to diminish, and in 1899, Virginia allowed watermen to lease private grounds with hopes that they would reseed them with oysters. This caused a lot of controversy as some of the grounds were jointly claimed by Maryland and Virginia. Charles R. Lewis, an oyster dealer from Onancock, had leased just such grounds located off Hog Island near the mouth of the Potomac.

When the governor of Maryland proclaimed that the area around Hog Island to be the common property of both Maryland and Virginia, the Smith Island watermen began to move in around Hog Island. Charles Lewis was determined to protect his leased oyster grounds from the raiders from Smith Island. He hired Captain William Russell, a deputy of the Virginia Oyster Militia, and gave him command of his steam powered tug, Ida Augusta. He told Captain Russell, “If them damned Smith Islanders try to loot my oyster beds, then sink their vessels.”

On November 27, 1889, Captain Russell steamed out of Onancock bound for Hog Island. When he got
Saxis Oystermen circa 1930's from the ESVHS's
Roberston Collection.
there he spied a Smith Island oyster boat, the Lawson, dredging over Mr. Lewis’s grounds. He proceeded to follow Mr. Lewis’s orders and took aim at the Lawson. One of the cullers on the Lawson looked up to see the tug and hollered “By Jesus, she’s fixing to ram us!” The tug hit the Lawson with a glancing blow when Captain Evans of the Lawson yelled “What in the hell are you doing?”

Captain Russell brought the tug around for a second run at the Lawson, this time crashing through the hull. When the Lawson began to sink, the well armed crew on the tug “invited” the Smith Islanders to come aboard.

The tug made its way back to Onancock with the angry crew of the Lawson. Charles Lewis met Captain Russell and the Smith Islanders at the dock in Onancock. He declared that no governor of Maryland could issue a proclamation by which he would be robbed. The Smith Islanders departed the next day stating that they would return to Hog Island, but would be well armed and would shoot anyone trying to take their boat. Later that month, Captain Russell attempted to capture another Maryland boat but was met with a hail of bullets. In the winter of 1989, a dozen men were killed on the Hog Island oyster beds.  The Oyster Wars on the Chesapeake started around 1865 and lasted until the 1950’s.

Peninsula Enterprise, November 30, 1989
The Oyster Wars of the Chesapeake Bay, by John R. Wennersten
Leslie Drummond interview, by Dr. Harry Holcomb

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why you shouldn't cross a man like General John Cropper, Jr.

A copy of a portrait of General
Cropper painted by Charles
Wilson Peale on display at
Ker Place. The original is at
the Smithsonian.
Written by Randy Stuart as part of the On-Line Lesson Plans

One of the Eastern Shore’s prominent early Americans was General John Cropper. He was born on December 23, 1755 at the family plantation, Bowman’s Folly in Joynes Neck, Accomack County, Virginia.  John served in the Revolutionary War as early as 1775, training in Accomack County. At age 20, he married Margaret Pettitt, whom he called Peggy, on August 15, 1776 at Accomack Co. Also in 1776 he was commissioned captain of a Shore company of the 9th Virginia Regiment, which in December left to join General Washington at Morristown. Sadly, both of his parents died that same year.

In 1777 he was commissioned major of the 7th Virginia Regiment and, in September, suffered a bayonet wound in the thigh at the Battle of Brandywine in Pennsylvania. The flag bearer had been shot so John Cropper pulled the ramrod out of a musket and tied a red bandana to it. He then raised and carried it as the regiment’s flag. He led his men back to General Washington. In 1778 General Lafayette appointed him lieutenant colonel in command of the 11th Virginia Regiment and in June he participated in the Battle of Monmouth in New Jersey. Cropper served with the Virginia troops during the hardships of the winter at Valley Forge. Cropper became devoted to his commander-in-chief, George Washington, and the two men remained friends until Washington’s death in 1799.

In September of 1778, John Cropper requested leave to return home to check on his family and his
Bowman's Folly. Picture credit:
property. This was a common practice of officers and soldiers during the Revolutionary War. He returned to Accomack County to find Eastern Shore families had been under constant attack from British raiding parties who sailed up the creeks, landed, ransacked and robbed homes, and sometimes burned down the houses. In fact, according to his diary entry of February 12, 1779:

A group of British raiders from the Thistle Tender rowed up Folly Creek with muffled oars. They had crept quite close to his house, Bowman’s Folly, and then burst through the doors as he and his family were in their beds. Cropper was taken by the raiders to a room and left there guarded by two men holding loaded muskets. The remainder of the raiding team found the wine cellar began drinking heavily and then ransacked the house. Cropper listened to the ever growing level of noise and deduced his guards might have become distracted. He quietly lifted the door latch, pulled open the door, and jumped past the two startled raiders. He ran two miles in his bedclothes to a neighbor’s house. Armed with three old muskets, they raced back to Bowman’s Folly. When they were in earshot of the loudly drunken raiders, Cropper’s neighbor became afraid and ran away. Cropper, armed with two muskets, sneaked up near the house and shot off both guns. He then yelled at the top of his voice, “Come on, boys, we have got them now.” This trick fooled the raiders and they ran to the boats and rowed away. Cropper went to search for his wife and two year old daughter.

He had been just in time. The raiders had been laying a track of gunpowder from the house to the creek. But where were Peggy and little Sarah? He found them in the privy. He had saved his wife, child and house, but they had been robbed of many possessions and the house had suffered some structural damage including a number of broken windows.

Fearing another raid, Cropper moved his family to another house he owned which was in the town of Accomac. But John Cropper was a determined soldier and was infuriated by this ungentlemanly and unmilitary attack on his home. In two weeks time, he had mustered men and weapons. With the help of “brass four pound guns” placed on Parramore and Cedar Islands, Cropper and his men opened fire on the Thistle Tender and her sister ships. Cropper had the satisfaction of seeing the ship which held the raiders of his family and property sink with all hands on board.

Concerned about his young wife and daughter, his neighbors, and the precarious situation on the Eastern Shore at this stage of the war, Cropper wrote a letter resigning his commission in the Continental Army. The letter was never accepted officially and Cropper served subsequently as Colonel of Virginia Militia in Accomack County until the war ended.

In addition to his military possessions on exhibit at Ker Place, the Cropper Bed and the Cropper Cradle may be found in the master bedroom. We hope you will return to Ker Place and learn more about John Cropper, including his service during the War of 1812.

1. Memoir of General John Cropper of Accomack County, Virginia. Barton Haxall Wise. Eastern Shore of Virginia Historical Society, 1892; 1974.
2. Eastern Shore of Virginia 1608 – 1967. Susie M. Ames, Ph.D. and James Egbert Mears. Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1950. (& additions)
3. 5 November 2013.
4. Kitchens, Smokehouses, and Privies: Outbuildings and the Architecture of Daily Life in the Eighteen Century Mid-Atlantic. Michael Olmert. Cornell University Press, 2009.
5. Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Ralph T. Whitelaw. Peter Smith, Gloucester, Mass., 1951.
6. Tangier in the American Revolution. - Gail Walczyk.​tangier_1.htm 3 February 2014. (Barnes, Alton Brooks Parker, Pungoteague to Petersburg, Vol I, Eastern Shore Militiamen Before the Civil War 1776-1858, (A Lee Howard Book: A Parker Barnes.)
7. 12 February 2014.
8. "Society of the Cincinnati" 27 February 2008. <> 14 February 2014.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The First European Settler on the Eastern Shore of Virginia

Crossword Puzzle from ESVHS's
free on-line lesson plans.
written by Randy Stuart (ESVHS Education Director) as part of the On-line Lesson Plan curriculum

Thomas Savage is considered by many historians to be the earliest permanent settler in any of the thirteen colonies whose descendants are known and record. His family origins and place of birth in England remain a mystery.

Ensign Thomas Savage set sail from England in 1607 aboard the John and Francis. Christopher Newport captained the ship. Thomas, recorded aged 13, may have been a cabin boy on this supply ship headed for the Jamestown Colony.

In A True Relation of such occurrences and accidents of noate (1608), John Smith recounted how an English delegation presented Powhatan with "a Boy of thirteen yeares old, called Thomas Salvage,” as Captain Christopher Newport’s son. Savage remained with Powhatan and his people for three years, learning their language and customs. His talents were put to use most effectively in the successful negotiations to end the First Anglo-Powhatan War.

Thomas later was returned to Jamestown and then sent to the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There he met the leader of the native people, King Debedeavon. His titles included ‘Ye Emperor of Ye Easterne Shore and King of Ye Great Nussawattocks” and “the Laughing King.” These two men worked together to keep the colonists at Jamestown informed concerning events which would lead to the massacre of 1622.

King Debedeavon granted Thomas Savage large tracts of land which today comprise Savage’s Neck in
Word search from ESVHS's
free on-line lesson plans.
Northampton County. In 1624, according to depositions in the General Court Minutes, Savage facilitated the delivery to James City of a significant quantity of corn from the Eastern Shore. Savage continued to manage his lands and act as interpreter throughout his life.

Savage married Hannah (Ann) Elkington circa 1623 and they had one son, John.

His date of death is not of record but occurred sometime between 1631 and 1633. To honor his contributions to America’s history, a memorial tablet was placed in the Jamestown Church on May 31, 1931.

Eastern Shore of Virginia 1608 – 1967. Susie M. Ames, Ph.D. and James Egbert Mears. Lewis Historical Publishing Co., Inc., New York, 1950. (& additions)
Jamestown Narratives: Eyewitness Accounts of the Virginia Colony. The First Decade: 1606-1617. Edited by Edward Wright Haile. 1998
The Story of Virginia’s First Century. Mary Newton Stanard. J. B. Lippincott Company, 1928.
The First Seventeen Years: Virginia, 1607-1624. Jamestown Booklet No. 1. Charles E. Hatch, Jr. University of Virginia Press, 1957.
Indians in Seventeenth-Century Virginia. Jamestown Booklet No. 3. Ben C. McCary. University of Virginia Press, 1957.
The Accomac and Accohannock Indians from Early Relations. C. A. Weslager. Hickory House, 2001.
A Land As God Made It: Jamestown and the Birth of America. James Horn. Basic Books, 2005.
Invented Scenes for Narratives/Virginia Historical Society. 9/19/2013.
Plaque Dedication to Thomas Savage. 9/19/2013.
Chesapeake Bay – Colonial Period – The Mariners’ Museum. 9/26/2013