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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay

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Oyster Wars of the Lower Chesapeake Bay
Oyster Pirates Dredging at Night
Oyster Pirates Dredging at Night
The "Oyster Wars" of the lower Chesapeake Bay, waged by Virginia's Governor William E. Cameron from 1882 to 1883, were some of the more spectacular events in an ongoing war between the government of the Commonwealth and the "lawless" oyster dredgers of the Chesapeake Bay. But unlike other Chesapeake oyster "wars" of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, these skirmishes were not border disputes between Maryland and Virginia watermen. The events which took place during Cameron's term as governor (1882-1886) occurred well within Virginia's boundaries.

What would drive a governor of Virginia to personally lead an assault against oyster dredgers in the chilly waters of the Chesapeake? Part of the answer lies in Governor Cameron's personality. He liked to give a good show, whether in action or in speech, and probably drew inspiration from his acquaintance with Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) while the two worked together on a steamboat in Missouri in 1859. But political concerns drove Cameron as well. The support of both black and white working- class men was essential to political reforms proposed by Cameron during his 1882-1886 term as governor.

The explosion of the oyster industry in Virginia following the Civil War led to an increased emphasis on legislation that would protect the underwater wealth of Virginia from overuse as well as from exploitation by "foreign" interests - "foreign" meaning anyone not Virginian. Sources reported "foreign" dredgers operating just a few miles north of Hampton Roads near the Rappahannock River.

Continue to: The War of 1882



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