Oyster History in Chesapeake Bay


The Once & Future King of The Bay

       BY ELLEN MOYER     NOV. 07, 2019 MIDNIGHT


This article was borrowed from https://jayseaarchaeology.wordpress.com/ March 14, 2020


Spat of History, One Battle in the Oyster Wars


The McLane arrived at the mouth of the Chester River on the night of 10 December 1888 where a fleet of 70 pirate dredges were at work. Gus had set two outlying dredges to act as sentinels. Captain Howard and two of his crew got into McLane’s skiff and silently captured both of the sentinel dredges and their crews. After capturing the second dredge, the skiff and the McLane were both spotted and the alarm went out across the collected pirate dredges. Howard sped the skiff back to the steamer, meanwhile the pirate dredges began to disperse, however the wind was blowing downstream the Chester River and the dredges had to tack back and forth to maneuver upstream. This made the dredges easy targets for McLane’s howitzer, pirate chief Gus Rice had planned for this, he had lashed together a raft of a dozen dredge boats with a chain that was quickly drifting downstream with the current. The upper decks of each of the dredges on this raft were fortified with large iron plates.


“Join me boys in victory or in hell!” Gus Rice, Pirate Chief


Thirty pirates proceeded to open fire on the McLane from behind the iron plates on their raft. In return, the McLane fired off four shots from its howitzer, each passing through the rigging of the makeshift raft bearing down on them. The McLane was too close to depress its gun any lower to fire and the raft was so well fortified that neither rife nor the howitzer had any effect on the pirates. Captain Howard then ordered the McLane to turn toward the raft and ordered full ahead and rammed its iron hull into the wooden pirate dredge Julia H. Jones taking the full brunt and was damaged in the stern all the way to the companionway. One of the pirate crew had fallen onto the deck of the McLane and was captured. The gunner at the howitzer was brought down by a bullet through his arm. Howard then ordered the McLane into full reverse and then full forward again to ram into the raft this time directly into the stern of Rice’s flagship the dredge J.C. Mahoney. As this last ram lodged the McLane into the center of the fortified raft, the crew begun to open fire at the now exposed pirates. With two of the dredges on the raft sinking and their iron plates rendered ineffective, the rest of the dredges still attached begun to cast themselves off and disperse along with the rest of the pirate dredges. Gus Rice was able to escape into history, after this battle there is nothing further mentioned of him. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to the crew of the McLane there was shanghaied crew trapped inside both of the sinking pirate dredges, unable to escape, they went down with the pirate dredges. The McLane was later joined in the Chester River by its sister the Thomas. The two steamers then patrolled southward in an attempt to find Rice and his fleeing fleet of pirate dredges, where a few days later they encountered a fleet on Easton Bay and the crews apparently surrendered. The Oyster Navy and the Governor McLane had won its first victory and in light of this, many oyster pirates beached their boats and ran but the conflict was by no means over. Both steamers returned to Annapolis to a hero’s welcome.


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Police Steamer The Stalwart Governor R. M. McLane is currently sunk in Baltimore


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This film (Who Killed Crassostrea virginica) by Michael Fincham of the Maryland Sea Grant is available from Amamzon.com. Related article here.
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