Oyster Wars

An Engagement in the Oyster War on the Chesapeake — F. Cresson Schell (1886)/Harpers Weekly.

Oyster Wars

In the 22 October 1870 edition of The Cecil Whig reports from a meeting in Baltimore on a move to create an executive committee to support enforcement of a state law forbidding the shooting of wild fowl from sink-boats. The report makes plain the group interested enforcing the law own land on the shores of said water. The group sought and appears to have succeeded in enlisting the help of the Maryland Oyster Police Force or “Oyster Navy” to enforce the sink-boat law. Interestingly The Oyster Police Force is the predecessor to the Maryland Natural Resources Police and were originally commissioned to help cope with Oyster poaching from outside states which is generally known as the Oyster Wars.

From the article:

“A meeting was held in Baltimore on Monday night last, composed of persons interested in duck shooting in this State, principally the owners of shores of the Chesapeake and its tributaries. The object of the meeting was to organize measures for enforcing the law which has remained a dead letter on the statute books since its passage, forbidding the shooting of wild fowl in the waters of the State from sink-boats or sneak-boats. The law was resisted the first season after its passage by the Havre do Grace gunners, and no attempts since then have been made to enforce it. The land-holders of the shores determined at the last meeting of our Democratic Legislature to enact a supplemental law for the enforcement of the old law, and obtained an act requiring a detachment of the “Oyster Navy ” to be sent to cruise about the mouth of the Susquehanna and other rivers, and capture the sink-boat gunners who have monopolized the business of duck shooting, effectually preventing the birds from approaching the shores, and by an organized system of shooting from sink-boats, are fast exterminating the ducks. The gunners who follow the sink-boat shooting are professional sports men, and heretofore have almost entirely excluded the amateurs, who are principally the land owners along the shores.

It will be a heavy blow to Havre de Grace, where the principal part of the gunners reside; and who gather a harvest of ducks from the flats every season amounting to several thousand dollars.

Among the reported proceedings the following was adopted:

All persons interested are now assured that the law will be rigidly enforced, and thus timely notice is given them, that they may not make preparations and encounter expenses which will certainly prove a total loss to them.

Mr. S. Knox, of Harrisburg, said “if the law was enforced the poor men’s families of Havre de Grace would have to suffer.—The law is not constitutional, because it confiscates the property of citizens. It was a hard matter to deprive poor folks of the means of living.” After some further remarks Mr. Knox was called to order.

The motion to appoint an executive committee was then adopted, and the chair appointed Messrs. Nicholas Penniman, of Baltimore, Robt. Smith, of Harford, Henry Cowden, of Cecil, Jas. Webb, of Baltimoae, and Chas. Jessop, of Baltimore county.

Captain Samuel Cropper, (commanding the oyster boats in the absence of Captain Davidson,) expressed his willingness to promptly execute the laws of the State as far as his authority extended. Mr. August Wagner said he had received the assurance of most of the oyster commissioners that the law should be carried out.

Dr. William A. Cox said he had known 5,000 ducks to be killed in one day, and 600 taken by three skiffmen in one day. He advocated the formation of a sportsmen’s club.

The meeting then adjourned, subject to the call of the executive committee.

It is evident, under existing circumstances, that the gentlemen have the duck

business in their own hands, and are fully determined to drive the sink-boat“ poachers,” as they term them, from the Bay.”

The Historical Society of Cecil County will remain closed through the end of 2020. Please visit www.cecilhistory.org for news and updates.

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