The Oyster Wars
While you are probably familiar with the Gold rush that took place in the American West and its legendary San Francisco 49ers, are you aware we had a similar, larger rush that took place right here in the Chesapeake Bay over oysters instead of gold? That rush to capitalize on what was believed to be an inexhaustible supply of “oyster rocks” found in the Chesapeake Bay led to some fairly unsavory behavior. That period is commonly referred to as the time of the “Oyster Wars”.
This little known period of American history involved pirate ships, gun battles between oyster tongers, skipjack dredgers, and a ramshackle marine navy trying to bring order to the Wild West-like lawlessness of the Chesapeake Bay oyster fleet. Men who could not “hold their liquor” at the local bar (term that comes from an ability for an oyster to clamp shut and hold its liquor so that it did not dry out) were often shanghaied and put into forcible slave labor on oyster boats. These unfortunate souls were sometimes held in hidden, wooden pens located in countless, labyrinth like marsh “guts” and only allowed to see the sun when it came time to work the oyster dredges. It was also commonplace for workmen to be knocked overboard by “lowering the boom” and left to drown by their Captains so they could confiscate their share of oyster harvest profits.