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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

Oystering Methods

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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

The Press

Eating Oysters on Deck
Eating Oysters on Deck
The presence of the press on board the two steamers during the "war" turned the whole event into a spectacle. Unlike the first expedition, which had been considered a success in the press by all but those enraged watermen of the Eastern Shore, the second expedition became a joke, and both the press and the public began to assault Governor Cameron's character from all sides. The stowaway Norfolk Virginian reporter was likely the one responsible for these attacks. His eyewitness reports left out none of the embarrassing details that differentiated the otherwise identical second expedition from the first. Excerpts from these articles made their way into other Virginia newspapers and inspired writers across the state. The Lynchburg Advocate published an editorial poem lampooning the raid, while a Norfolk poet wrote and performed a lighthearted musical entitled Driven From the Seas: or, The Pirate Dredger's Doom which was received well by the audience that attended its single performance in early April 1883. The play related the story of how King Artaximinous Kameron of Utopia sent out troops armed with hardtack, cod-fish balls, and barrels of rum to capture the pirate Rappahannock Bill. The king and his court persuade the pirate to quit his "dredgeful trade" and join their ranks. The pirate agrees in song:

'Tis far better to live and die
in a big, fat office, high and dry
Safe-housed along with Major Jim,
Than sail the bay
A Pirate King.
No more on the foam-swept deck I'll stand,
But plant my feet on solid land,
Cock of the walk in a revenue ring,
And quit the trade
Of Pirate King.

Given different circumstances, Cameron's oyster wars might only have warranted a footnote in Virginia's late nineteenth century history. Had there been no press on board during the second expedition in 1883, public censure of Cameron might not have been so great. But Cameron's impetuous personality led him to allow the stowaway reporter to remain on board, and he even invited other reporters to join him. The results were disastrous, and Cameron became an object of derision in the press following the second expedition. While Cameron was able to later reinstate an "oyster navy" in Virginia waters through the work of the Board on the Chesapeake and its Tributaries in 1884, his popularity had faded, and with it the possibility of continuing in power.

Cameron's oyster wars were not the first such "wars" waged on the Chesapeake, nor would they be the last. Both Maryland and Virginia have retained "oyster navies" or bay patrols until the present day, in order to maintain law and order among watermen. But not since the 1880s has a governor of Virginia manned the artillery in the name of preserving peace on the Bay.

'Twas off the Rappahannock
(sung to the tune of "'Twas off the Blue Canaries")

From James F. Duncan, Driven From the Seas: or, The pirate dredger's doom: to the surviving "bottle-scarred heroes" of the late oyster war this little travesty is respectfully dedicated. (N.p., 1883)

'Twas off the Rappahannock's mouth,
About the break of day,
We saw with sails all gleaming white,
The Pirate Dredgers lay.

With steamers 'Peed' and 'Pamlico,'
About four knots an hour,
With rifled guns and jugs of rum,
The seas we'd come to scour.

Oh! It was glorious fun
To see the rascals run
From the City Guard and Norfolk Blues
And five big jugs of room [sic].

They hoisted sail and quickly fled,
Their heels they showed that day;
From bursting shell and rain of lead
The cowards ran away.

The 'Palo Alto' crossed our bows,
Oh! Little did he reck,
With champagne-corks and cod-fish balls
We'd quickly sweep his decks.

Chorus: Oh! It was glorious fun, etc.

But tho' we licked the Pirates bold,
Their pretty wives and daughters
Cannot be beat by all the troops
That sail Utopia's waters.

With fearless hand they guide the prow
That cleaves the rushing tide.
With both our boats we failed to catch
One single Pirate's bride!

Chorus: But it was glorious fun, etc.

Continue to: Oystering Methods



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