top of page

Oyster History

The Chesapeake Bay is a unique and beautiful estuary, once a pristine and bountiful home to Native Americans as well as the European settlers of the seventeenth century. The oyster reefs were so prevalent that they were navigational hazards to the early explorers but also helped the colonists avoid starvation.


Because of relatively low population densities and lack of transport in the early days, harvesting of the bivalves that filtered and cleansed the Bay had little effect on the environment. Overharvesting and destruction of the oyster habitat seemed to have been first noted in the mid-1800s.


The end of the Civil War resulted in a huge labor force from ex- soldiers, immigrants, and those formerly, enslaved, all desperate to make a living. Combined with completion of the transcontinental railway in 1869 and improved shipping, Maryland and Virginia experienced an oyster boom from which they are still trying to recover. But the difficult and tenuous recovery has in fact started.


History teaches that dense human populations will exploit a common resource until it is exhausted. So we should not be too surprised by the story about the decline of the Bay and oysters.

— Vic Spain, Master Oyster Gardener

Click on the images or their accompanying captions below to find out more
Screen Shot 2022-05-14 at 8.33.38 PM.png

"Killer from Across the Sea"

by Jack Greer, Chesapeake Quarterly

The Stalwart Governor R. M. McLane

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.

Read the full article by JaySea Archeology


Read "The Once & Future King of The Bay"

by Ellen Moyer


Thanks to recently released publications from scientists at VIMS and elsewhere, we have learned much more about what has been happening to both wild and hatchery-spawned oysters in Virginia.

Native Village.jpg


TOGA Presentation:
Pre-Colonial Oyster History
What is
Powhatan's Mantle?
Nansemond Indian Nation:
Restoring Connections
Through Oysters
Powhatan Display Cover.jpg
Powhatan's Mantle_edited.jpg
Screen Shot 2022-05-14 at 9.08.37 PM.png
bottom of page