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

No comments:

Post a Comment