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Harvesting the Bounty

Oysters

Chesapeake Bay oysters were first introduced to the English settlers by the local Powhatan tribes. In 1609, Captain John Smith sent members of the Jamestown colony to live with the Kecoughtan for the winter. Smith stated that the colonists ate so many oysters that their skin peeled.

Using tongs to oyster on the York River in a log canoe. Oyster Tongs Deadrises tonging for oysters
Using tongs to oyster on the York River in a log canoe. Oyster Tongs Deadrises tonging for oysters

Oysters were originally harvested by the Powhatan or colonist by wading into the water and picking them up off of the oyster bar, but as the number of people eating the oysters increased, boats were needed to collect them from bars farther out into the rivers and the Bay. Hand tongs were developed to pick up the oysters from a boat. Hand tongs are a long scissor-like tool with metal rakes on the ends. The waterman stands on the side of his boat, opens the tongs, and reaches to the bottom of the river. He closes the tongs, scooping the oysters between the rakes. He then lifts the tongs into the boat and dumps the oysters onto the culling board. The river might be fifteen or more feet deep. The tongs are very long, heavy, and hard to manage.

Culling Oysters
Culling Oysters
The contents of the culling board are sorted. The oysters sometimes grow on each other, large and small. The waterman uses a culling hammer to separate the individual oysters. The hammer handle also has a measuring gauge. Any oyster smaller than three inches must be returned to the oyster bed. Empty shells are also returned, since the baby oysters attach to larger shells as they grow. Anything else brought up is thrown back into the water.

Hand tonging is hard, slow work. Sometimes each "lick" of the tongs brings up only a few oysters. Even so, most of the oyster harvest from the Chesapeake is taken with hand tongs.

A more modern method is patent tonging. The patent tong is similar to the metal part of hand tongs, but they are larger. They are hinged so that they open as they are lowered and close as they are lifted. They are attached to a cable instead of wooden handles. A motor aboard the deadrise raises and lowers them. The patent tongs allow the watermen to gather a larger amount of oysters in a shorter time.
Oyster Dredge
Oyster Dredge
Oyster Dredging
Oyster Dredging

When the dredge appeared on the Chesapeake Bay it completely changed the oyster industry. The oyster dredge was developed in England and adopted by New England oystermen. When the northern oyster beds were showings signs of depletion the "Yankee" waterman moved their dredges into the Chesapeake Bay. Local watermen had been tonging for oysters and saw the number of oysters brought in by the dredge and quickly began to adopt that method of oystering. The year was 1854 when Maryland legalized the use of a "scrape" in the waters of Somerset County. Even at this time, watermen and the government alike understood that the dredge destroyed the oyster beds. By 1865, laws were passed in Maryland to allow dredging but by sail power alone. Dredging crews would have to raise and lower the heavy catch by hand and eventually a gas-powered wench was invited.

The dredges are especially good at harvesting large numbers of oysters very quickly. But dredges can also harm the oyster bed and prevent the small oysters from growing larger. Because there are fewer and fewer oysters in the Bay and its rivers, this is a concern. To protect the oysters, there are strict laws about when and where oyster dredges can work.

Buying oysters on the lower Potomac River, Virginia, 1904.
Buying oysters on the lower Potomac River, Virginia, 1904.
Buy Boats laidened with oysters
Buy Boats laden with oysters
Buying Oysters
Buying Oysters


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