150 Years Ago This Month: December 1870

By December 1870 citizens of Havre de Grace had seen enough of Captain Davidson’s Oyster Navy patrolling the Bay and the Susquehanna Flats that they began speaking out. The December 3rd, 1870 edition of The Cecil Whig describes a letter written by Robert Vandiver of Havre de Grace calling on the Governor to end the Oyster Navy’s enforcement of the wildfowl laws that prohibited using sink boats for duck hunting. Sink boats were a popular tool for many market hunters that lived in the town. Mr. Vandiver doesn’t argue that the wildfowl law is invalid but his analysis does suggest that the Oyster Navy does not have standing to enforce the wildfowl law.

The American of Monday last publishes the following letter from Havre de Grace, on the “Duck War”:

“There is in this town a population of three thousand people, all of whom are directly or indirectly interested in the taking of wild fowl. The (so-called) officers of the law have been trampling rough-shod over every right and privilege which belongs to the people at this point. As a Democrat I regret to say that the Democratic press is closed against any communication which would convey to the public eye a sense of the distress in this neighborhood, or would operate in any manner to the interests of this people, while it readily publishes any defamatory article replete with such terms as “thieves,” “poachers,” and “river pirates.”

I append a letter to the Governor, based upon the opinion of an eminent lawyer of Maryland, which I desire the people here to see.

The letter to the Governor above referred to was written by R. R. Vandiver, Esq., of Havre de Grace, and which we are compelled to omit on account of its length.—After giving a sketch of the exploits of the Oyster Navy, charging Captain Davidson with over-stepping his authority, the writer states the law for the protection of “ Wild Fowl ” to be as follows :

In defence of these proceedings it was slated that the Legislature, at its last session, had made it a part of the duties of the “Oyster Police Force” to enforce the law relating to “Wild Fowl.” Upon an examination of the proceedings of that body, I find there is no such law in force. There was an act (chap. 296, approved April 4th, 1879,) amending section 41 of chap. 406 of the laws of 1868, entitled “Oysters,” which made it a part of the duties of the commander of the said “Oyster Police Force” to enforce the provisions of article 98 of the Code, relating to “ Wild Fowl.” This enactment had only four days’ existence. It was subsequently destroyed by chapter 364, approved April 8th, 1870, which repealed chapter 406, and everything pertaining to it. Chapter 364 is now, as I understand it, the “Oyster Law” of Maryland. There is not a single line in it which makes it the duty of Commander Davidson to cruise in the waters of the Susquehanna River and head of Chesapeake Bay. The fleet is a creature of the “Oyster Law,” and to misapply its force so as to interfere with a law that provides its own enforcements, is a usurpation of authority, which, I think, every person, even if they be violating article 98, has the right to use the same force in resisting, as they would against anyone who attempted an assault upon their person.

Article 98 authorizes any “sheriff, constable or commissioned militia officer of the county wherein the provisions of this article relating to water fowl may be violated” to make the arrests, and none other.

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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