An Oyster Wars relic
By Lt. Gregory L. Bartles
Shortly after Civil War smoke settled, another conflict broke out along the Mid-Atlantic Coast. Chesapeake Bay oysters became a bustling and competitive commerce causing cannons to fire once more. Oystermen who ravaged shellfish beds for a treasure trove of edible goods became territorial and violent in their quest for riches. Such behavior created the Chesapeake Bay Oyster Wars.
Battles ensued as men fought over prime sites. Fleets of poachers and pirates roamed the estuary. Violence soon escalated among the oystermen and the popular folk saying surfaced: Get it today! Hell with tímar. Leave it tímar, somebody elseíll get it!
Millions of oysters were taken without thought to sustaining this important natural and economic resource. Researchers described an industry in trouble. Maryland instituted laws in 1830 to prohibit over-harvesting and established licenses in 1865 for watermen to legally tong and dredge for oysters.
In 1868, the Maryland Oyster Navy Police was commissioned by the legislature to enforce the law and reduce violence. Confederate Civil War veteran and Naval Academy graduate Hunter Davidson became its first commander. Two years later, Davidson described to the General Assembly his frustration with the courtís judgment of violators, and observed a need for better education regarding natural resource laws.
ďNearly all of these cases have first to go before the Justices of the Peace, whose total want of education, in some instances, renders them unable to comprehend a case, or pronounce an intelligent judgment,Ē said Davidson. ďIt is, therefore, a matter for consideration, how to perfect such a law as we require, at the same time placing its enforcement in the hands of capable persons, who can be reached without causing unnecessary expense, in time and labor, to the State, or to the arrested parties in time, and the probable loss of perishable cargoes.Ē
Davidson realized Bay law enforcement needed tools usually reserved for actual wars and national security. Specifically, one of his first acts was to request that the Tredegar Iron Works of Richmond, VA, supply his police force with a cannon.
A Dahlgren 12-pounder Light Boat Howitzer was cast and installed on the iron-hulled, side-wheel steamer made for the newly authorized Maryland Oyster Police. This vessel, a paddle-wheel steamer named Leila after Davidsonís daughter, supplemented the forceís fleet of sailboats consisting of six sloops, four schooners and two additional steamers.
New life for cannon
Following a stint enforcing Marylandís oyster laws, the cannon changed hands throughout the next century. Today, the cannon for conservation is recognized as the perfect ambassador for the Department to promote 21st century preservation efforts.
Current and retired DNR employees, along with citizens affiliated with the agency, formed the Committee for Maryland Conservation History in 2004 to develop methods of promoting the departmentís legacy. When the committee discovered that Davidsonís original Oyster War cannon had survived over 140 years, DNR began an effort to acquire it. In December 2010, they reached an agreement with the owners, American Legion Post 116 in Reisterstown. With the help of a private donor, DNR was able to purchase the cannon for $40,000.
Since its return to the State, the cannon has fulfilled its new role exactly as envisioned. It was first on display at DNR headquarters where employees and visitors could see it every day. Curious inquiries provided the much-needed introduction to DNR history that the committee sought.
In June 2011, the cannon moved to a display at the Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke City. In November, the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels featured it during Oyster Fest. A week later it was part of a large display promoting DNR history at the Easton Waterfowl Festival. The Annapolis Maritime Museum currently hosts it through June, at which time it will move again to the Calvert Marine Museum for the summer. More site requests come in each month, so the cannon may be on the road for years to come!
Lt. Gregory L. Bartles is Area 8 Commander and the Agency Historian with the Maryland Natural Resources Police.