The oyster war in Chesapeake Bay, Harper's Weekly illustration (Library of Congress)
Along with the skipjack fishing boat, watermen, and the Bay Bridge, one of the most enduring symbols of the Chesapeake Bay is the oyster. Both a delicacy and a keystone in the health of the bay and rivers, the oyster has long played a critical role in life along the Chesapeake. It’s been a food staple for Native Americans, a key component in aquatic habitats, and helped drive and create many economies in the region. And from the mid-19th century through the 1950s, it was the cause of ongoing skirmishes, fights, and battles that came to be called the Oyster Wars.
This almost-forgotten history is peppered throughout Virginia and Maryland and the waterways that link them. Historian Dakota Springston looks at these sometimes-violent disputes among oyster pirates, legal watermen, and authorities waged with weapons that included Civil War cannons, knives, fists, oyster tongs, and legislation in state houses. Links to the Oyster Wars lie in half-sunken wrecks of Oyster Police boats, cannons used by the “State Oyster Navy”, the remains of oyster villages, and in the legends of communities along the waterways. Springston examines how the war for the oyster led to its near extinction, and eventually, protection for this small but significant emblem of the Chesapeake Bay.
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