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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

Oystering Methods

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Oystering Methods
Working the Beds of Annapolis
Working the Beds of Annapolis

In the late nineteenth century, oystermen used several methods for harvesting Chesapeake oysters. The most common method in Virginia, and the least destructive, was the use of tongs. "Tongers" or "tongmen" used tongs for gathering oysters from the floor of the Bay. These tongs ranged between seven and twenty-four feet in length and looked like two garden-rakes with very long handles, with the tooth-side of each rake facing each other.
Oyster Tongs
Oyster Tongs
Tongmen, using small canoes or skiffs, could make an adequate living plying the shallow waters of the Bay during temperate weather. Census reports from the nineteenth century revealed that out of an eight-month oyster season, Chesapeake tongers were able to work an average of only 120 days. Inclement weather, typical for the majority of the oyster season (September through April), severely curtailed the activities of the tongman. The depth of water likewise limited the tongman, for harvesting oyster beds deeper than twenty-two feet with tongs required both skill and strength to be successful. Therefore it was important to the tongmen of Virginia to protect their shallow-water beds from overuse.


Oyster Dredge
Oyster Dredge
By far the most destructive method of harvesting the oysters was with the dredge. According to Ernest Ingersoll in his 1881 work The Oyster Industry:

Dredges are bags made of iron rings linked together, forming meshes similar to those of an ordinary seine, the mouth being held open by an iron frame, from the four corners of which project four iron bars converging to a point at a distance of a few feet from the mouth; to this point a short chain is attached, and joined to the chain is a long rope which winds around the windlass. Projecting downward from the bar, attached to the lower edge of the mouth, are iron teeth, which, as the dredge is drawn over the bottom, scrape up the oysters and guide them into the bag.

This invasive procedure was useful for bringing in oysters from areas too deep for tongs, and even beneficial in breaking up old beds and spreading them out so that oysters living there would have more room to grow and be in less competition with one another for food. But oystermen who had the means to own a dredge and sailing vessel did not always use the dredge properly or conscientiously. Because a greater number of oysters could be harvested by means of the dredge, oystermen began dredging in shallower waters as well, thus encroaching on the oyster beds generally used by tongers.


Constant dredging not only took away livelihood from the tongers, but it also permanently destroyed many oyster beds, and reduced the number of oysters available in Virginia waters. The possible loss of revenue from the taxing of oysters urged the Virginia Assembly into action, and in 1879 the Assembly abolished dredging on natural rocks. Feeling that the law was enough to discourage potential dredgers, Virginia disbanded its maritime "oyster police." In the winter of 1879-1880, nearly forty dredging

boats entered the Rappahannock to begin their illegal work. The local tongmen, upset at this attack on their livelihoods, tried to drive the dredgers away. The dredgers were well armed, however, and opened fire on the tongers. For weeks the mere sight of a tongman brought a volley of gunshot from the dredgers. The tongmen complained to the legislature, who decided to provide the tongmen with artillery, rifles, and ammunition. By the time these arrived, however, the dredgers had quit the area, done with their work.

More important to the legislature, however, was the loss of tax revenue from unlicensed and "foreign" dredgers. The total amount of money collected in 1879 from oyster licenses amounted to only a few hundred dollars when it should have been several thousand. Compounding the problem was the lack of concrete information on the number of boats and men legally engaged in the oyster business in Virginia.

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