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.
The Potomac River offers some of the best oyster breeding grounds around. Back in the day, oyster tongers believed that the oyster dredgers were harvesting more than their fair share of the best ones. When they became less plentiful, the tongers pointed their fingers at the the dredgers, blaming them for their empty pockets.
Also, there was disagreement on where the line between Virginia and Maryland waters was. Watermen from both sides each thought the other were stealing oysters from their states. Virginia held fast to their portion of the Chesapeake Bay and charged Marylanders a toll to access the sea. Virginians were forbidden to fish in the Potomac River, owned by Maryland. These conflicts grew into fierce battles known as the Oyster Wars.
It dates back to the times of the early English settlers, who enjoyed the native American oysters, eating them roasted, stewed, raw and pickled. Different arguments cropped up over ownership of these tasty morsels found in different waterways within the settlements.
These arguments escalated and eventually, the two states came to an agreement and entered into the Compact of 1785.
More battles ensued, however. A Washington Post article from 1947 paints a picture: ”Already the sound of rifle fire has echoed across the Potomac River. Only fifty miles from Washington men are shooting at one another. The night is quiet until suddenly shots snap through the air. Possibly a man is dead, perhaps a boat is taken, but the oyster war will go on the next night and the next.”
In 1962, President John Kennedy signed the “Potomac Fisheries Bill” which calls for a bi-state commission to oversee the Potomac River.