The Oyster Wars: A Real Thing That Happened, feat. the Dancing Molly Pirate Posse
Let me set the scene
Why did oysters matter enough to have a war? Well, after the civil war, the global oyster industry exploded. Oysters were a food of the people in the 19th century, not at all boojee, and in the 1880’s, the Chesapeake Bay supplied almost half of the world’s oysters. This came with all the usual suspects of poor environmental stewardship: dredging, dwindling oyster populations, etc., etc.
What went down? In 1830, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation outlawing dredging (yay environmental stewardship!) and attempting to part the waters, stating that only Maryland state residents could harvest oysters in Maryland waters (somewhat contentious). 35 years later, Maryland doubled down on the oyster industry — which was huge in 19th century— passing a law requiring annual permits for oyster harvesting. This effectively started the Oyster Wars, and started the highly lucrative, highly illegal oyster piracy situation.
Three years on, and frankly nobody gives a damn about permits, so the good folks of the Maryland General Assembly found the Maryland Oyster Navy. (Fun Fact: The Maryland Oyster Navy turned into today’s Maryland Natural Resources Police!)
When the New England fisherman predictably exhausted (read: destroyed) their own local oyster beds, they started encroaching on the Chesapeake Bay, leading to proper violence between watermen from New England, Maryland, Virginia, and different counties.
These skirmishes were something the Oyster Navy (again, a real thing!) led by Naval Academy graduate, Hunter Davison, was grossly unprepared and completely inadequate to handle considering that often the watermen were way more heavily armed.
In the 1870’s, Virginia decided to step up their game and issue licence fees, seasonal limits, and other completely sensible and reasonable measures to prevent the over-harvesting of their oyster beds. I assume they were simultaneously throwing serious side-eye at New England. Predictably however, the cash-strapped commonwealth couldn’t compete with the pirates, especially after selling it’s 3 vessel maritime police fleet at an auction (great job, Frank. I don’t know that this was anyone named Frank’s decision, but it seems like a Frank thing to do and Frank was the 6th most common name in the US in the 1880’s, so the odds seem pretty decent).
So, after Daft Frank got rid of their 3 boats, which were likely bought by oyster pirates, and violence between oyster tonguers and more affluent dredgers broke out, Virginia straight up banned dredging in 1879.
When armed and organized dredgers, including many from Maryland, said whatever the American equivalent of “Yeah, nah” is and violated the ban, Virginia’s Governor William E. Cameron found an opportunity to shine a little light on himself and boost his popularity by taking on the pirates. He personally led an expedition against what I’m going to start calling the Pirate Posse.
Shit went down on February 17th, 1882 — Cameron’s force (a tugboat called Victoria J. Peed and a freighter named Lousia) took on the Pirate Posse at the Rappahannock River Mouth, and their efforts led to the conviction of 41 dredgers and the forfeiture of 7 boats.
So, Cameron’s understandably riding pretty high for a while, but obviously the Posse returned to the bay, and Cameron says “guys, hold my beer. I got this!”
Like most of our inebriated friends, Cameron didn’t ‘got this’.
This is my favourite part
While it would be enough for me to be amused and a bit bewildered that there had been an actual Oyster War, history gives us a special treat in the story of the Dancing Molly.
There was a feisty little sloop pirating that day called the Dancing Molly. While all of the men had disembarked, the Captain’s wife and two daughters were still aboard the ship. When they saw Cameron’s crew approaching, they tried to yell at the fellas to get back to the boat with no success. None of the men could hear them from ashore. So the women, being resourceful, smart, sailing pirates, pulled up anchor and out-sailed Cameron back to their own waters.
According to the Norfolk Virginian of March 4, 1883, spectators along the Virginia shore, though opposed to dredging, “really wished for the safety of the tiny craft when they saw it was simply manned by three women, and when the Dancing Molly got safely out the group of Virginians chivalrously gave three cheers for the pirate’s wife and daughters.”
It was pretty embarrassing for Cameron. The opposition press mocked the Governor for being outran by the Dancing Molly. The Norfolk Academy of Music lampooned the whole debacle in an April 1883 comic opera called “Driven from the Seas: or, the Pirate Dredger’s Doom”, which I would 100% pay to see today.
Clipping found in The Burlington Free Press in Burlington, Vermont on Mon, Mar 5, 1883. 1883 Oyster War- Dancing molly…www.newspapers.com
Later, Cameron established a board that improved law enforcement and better fisheries management and things calmed down. The conflict didn’t properly end until an incident in 1959 when the Potomac River Fisheries commissioner, H.C. Byrd, ordered the fisheries police disarmed after an officer killed a Virginia watermen who was allegedly dredging. That’s right: the Oyster Wars technically ended less than 60 years ago
It’s also worth mentioning that the pirates did a lot of really bad pirate-y stuff, killed and abused a lot of people, and were generally really destructive to the Chesapeake Bay area. Cameron, though sort of unsuccessful on his second attempt, was really pushing for positive change for the area. It just happens that I absolutely love that they got out-sailed by three women on a small sloop.
I leave you with this great little jingle about the Pirate Brides:
But tho’ we licked the Pirates bold,
Their pretty wives and daughters
Cannot be beat by all the troops
That sail Utopia’s waters
With fearless hand they guide the prow
That cleaves the rushing tide.
With both our boats we failed to catch
One single Pirate’s bride!