Oystermen on the Bay

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OYSTERING-bottom

Seventeenth-century travelers coming to Chesapeake Bay were constantly amazed at the quantity, size and quality of its oysters. With a combination of shallow water, firm bottom, plenty of nutrients and a mix of salt and fresh water, the bay was ideally suited for making oysters. Lots of them. Native Algonquins called the vast waterway Great Shellfish Bay, and Europeans quickly realized why.

As one visitor wrote: “There are banks of them and ships must avoid them.” The average Eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) was as much as four times the size of an English one. “I often cut them in two,” a connoisseur said in amazement.

Settlers soon caught on, and oysters became an important food source for America’s growing immigrant population. People fished or farmed in the warmer months, then went oystering in the winter, stretching their food supplies and, for some, providing a modest income.

Saturday was the day for harvesting oysters, Henry M. Miller wrote in the article “The Oyster in Chesapeake History.” There were two early methods of gathering the mollusks: raking and tonging. The hand rakes and tongs were used in shallow water, while oystermen in small craft worked deepwater beds with tongs as long as 25 feet.

Soon, Maryland oystering centers such as St. Mary’s City, Crisfield and Oxford grew. Shipped from those places fresh in their shells or pickled, oysters started selling in growing cities such as Baltimore, Maryland, and Norfolk, Virginia.

What began as a local food source grew into a nationwide industry. By the late 1800s, thanks to dredge harvesting (which scraped vast numbers of oysters off the bay bottom) and better preservation methods, oysters were being harvested in record numbers—17 million bushels in one year—and shipped to all corners of the country. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 issue.