What Was the Oyster War?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 07 October 2019
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The Oyster War was a territorial battle which started in the 1630s and lasted for over 200 years, although the parties involved took periodic breaks from the hostilities. The events of the Oyster Wars played a major role in American history, because the prolonged dispute illustrated the need for a more organized government in the late 1700s, leading to the drafting of the Constitution. Although the Oyster War was not solely responsible for the decision to create a Constitution for the brand new country, it certainly provided a nudge.

The roots of the Oyster War lie in the land granting policy in the American Colonies under England, in which the Monarch carved up chunks of the new country for the colonists. King Charles I granted all of the Potomac River to the colony of Maryland in 1632, an unusual departure from convention. Typically, when two colonies bordered a river, the river was split down the middle, allowing both parties access. The neighboring colony of Virginia was angered by what it saw as an unfair land grant, and the stage was set for the Oyster War.

Oysters were among the most notable residents of the Potomac, although the river also harbored fish and was used as a method of transportation for boats and barges. By gaining control of all of the Potomac, Maryland had accomplished quite an economic coup. Virginia demanded rights to part of Chesapeake Bay as compensation, and for a time, both parties had an uneasy truce.


However, Virginians started reneging on the border agreement, shots were fired, and negotiations were held in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Maryland was reluctant to give up its control of the Potomac, and up until the American Revolution, quiet battles were waged repeatedly in the area. After the Revolution, the former Colonies were briefly essentially lawless and without government, and the escalating Oyster War clearly demonstrated the need for some organization, leading the Colonies to propose sending delegates to a Constitutional Convention for the purpose of drafting and approving an American Constitution to create laws which could be used to resolve such issues.

In the 1800s, the nature of the Oyster War shifted. Instead of being a territorial dispute between two neighboring states, it turned into a battle between the government and unscrupulous oyster harvesters. When dredgers descended upon the area in the 1880s, the government sent out barges and other ships in an attempt to control the situation, and a brief episode of violence flared up. Conflicts between the state government and fishermen persisted well through the 1940s, illustrating the lengths to which people were willing to go to access a commodity.


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Post 3

I don't blame state governments for wanting to regulate the use of an important commodity. There was clearly a lot of money to be made and dredging could result in loss of the resource altogether. All seafood need time to reproduce and replenish themselves. That was probably a risk at that time when people were basically over-dredging those waters.

It's kind of funny to read about all this now. I live in Virginia, near the Potomac River and I've never eating oysters from it. I'm not even sure if they exist anymore.

Post 2

@discographer-- This is explained in the last paragraph of the article. You are right that the Oyster wars were territorial conflict between Maryland and Virginia in the beginning. But later, it turned into a conflict between the states and the illegal dredgers.

In fact, it was the governor of Virginia and not Maryland who really went after them. Governor Cameron was successful initially against the dredgers, but not consequently. In fact, he had become the talk of town for his failure in catching the dredgers. There were even rumors that a boat run by women were able to escape from the Governor's forces and he was criticized a lot for these things.

Post 1

Some sources describe the Oyster Wars as more of a struggle between Maryland authorities and illegal oyster dredgers rather than a struggle between the authorities of Maryland and Virginia. This article seems to hint that the trouble was more between the authorities and the fact that Maryland had control over all of the Potomac River.

I actually think that this is a more logical explanation. If the issue had just been a few illegal dredgers, it wouldn't be a war, just smalls scale conflict.

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