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Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars

The Oyster Wars were a series of sometimes violent disputes between oyster pirates and authorities and legal watermen from Maryland and Virginia in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac River from the late 19th century until about 1959. In 1830, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation which authorized only state residents to harvest oysters in its waters. Maryland outlawed dredging, while Virginia continued to allow it until 1879. In 1865, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that required annual permits for oyster harvesting.

After the Civil War, the oyster harvesting industry exploded. In the 1880s, the Chesapeake Bay supplied almost half of the world's supply of oysters. New England watermen encroached on the Bay after their local oyster beds had been exhausted, which prompted violent clashes with competitors from Maryland and Virginia. Watermen from different counties likewise clashed. In 1868, Maryland founded the Maryland Oyster Navy, predecessor of the modern Natural Resources Police. It was headed by Naval Academy graduate Hunter Davidson and responsible for enforcing the state's oyster-harvesting laws, but it was an inadequate force to compete with the more heavily armed watermen.

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. However, the cash-strapped commonwealth had limited enforcement capabilities—especially after it sold its three-vessel maritime police fleet at auction. After violence broke out between oyster tonguers and more affluent oyster dredgers, Virginia banned oyster dredging in 1879. When armed and organized dredgers, many from Maryland, violated the ban, Virginia Governor William E. Cameron found an opportunity to boost his popularity by taking on the pirates. Cameron personally led an expedition against the illegal dredgers. On February 17, 1882, Cameron's force, consisting of the tugboat Victoria J. Peed and the freighter Louisa, engaged pirates at the mouth of the Rappahannock River. The governor's raid resulted in the successful convictions of forty-six dredgers and the forfeiture of seven boats. The raid represented the high point of the governor's term. When Cameron's popularity sunk and dredgers returned to the bay, the governor undertook a second expedition. Cameron once again used the Peed but the steamer Pamlico became his flagship. Cameron's second expedition was not very successful. Captured dredgers were acquitted or escaped indictment in court. The opposition press also mocked the governor for failing to capture the Dancing Molly, a sloop run by three women who managed to outrun the governor's ships. The Norfolk Academy of Music lampooned the governor's expedition in an April 1883 comic opera, Driven from the Seas: or, The Pirate Dredger's Doom. In 1884 Cameron initiated a less theatrical attempt at controlling oyster dredging. He established the "Board on the Chesapeake and its Tributaries," which led to improved law enforcement and better fishery management.

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