Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Oyster Wars

For many years oysters were harvested in coastal North Carolina with hand tongs. These consisted of wide rakes with attached "baskets" that were mounted on the ends of wooden tongs up to 20 feet long. The tongs were worked in scissor-like fashion from sloops and other sailboats. (Do an Internet search to see images of traditional oyster tongs.)

I don't have access to any vintage photographs of North Carolina watermen using oyster tongs, but this photo from Florida is typical.

Oyster Tonging in Florida

(Photo courtesy, State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/6894)

In the late nineteenth century oyster dredgers were brought into Pamlico Sound. Skipjacks (or oyster sloops) could harvest as many oysters in an hour as a tonger could collect in a day. This led to the Oyster Wars of 1891, when local watermen, armed with rifles and shotguns, drove the dredgers out of the Sound.

James Horatio (Raysh) Williams, Jr. was eighteen years old when the Oyster Wars irrupted. He wrote a song commemorating the islanders' victory. Most of the song has been forgotten, but these few lines survive:

"It was just about night,
They sank the ships out of sight,
And drove the Core Sounders away."

Our latest Ocracoke Newsletter is a 1921 letter written by a former slave, Harrison Williams, to Ocracoke native, Martha Ann Howard Wahab. You can read it here: http://www.villagecraftsmen.com/news112113.htm.


  1. Anonymous8:49 AM

    Would it have been okay for the oyster tongers to shoot some one dead? Also, a NC watermen group is collecting oyster shells to put back into the water in hopes of fostering new oyster beds. When did they come to this conclusion? An otter eating abalone dumps the shell back into the water....

    1. I think shooting someone dead because of a feud over oysters would qualify as vigilante justice. Probably not okay! Oystermen have been returning shells to the sounds and bays for hundreds of years to provide places of attachment for spat.

    2. Anonymous12:52 PM

      In regard to the term Oyster Wars there is some information on the internet regarding the NC state legislature, new laws and outfitting a boat with a howlitzer cannon in order to deal with the dredgers. It was an interesting read. I suppose more rules are in place to protect the oyster beds these days. Rules are one thing ,enforcement is another thing.

    3. Would be interested in having the address of the Internet article you refer to.