Oysters' history in the Chesapeake region is much older than that of humans. The Bay's cliffs and banks reveal the shells of extinct oyster species from the Miocene Epoch 10 million to 14 million years ago.
When the first people, as bands of hunter-gatherers, began to range across this part of North America between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, the great Wisconsin Glaciation was just starting to melt away from the land, a process that took thousands of years. This glacial melting eventually contributed enough water to the world's oceans that they rose - sometimes 3 12 feet a century - and began flooding river valleys along the Eastern Seaboard. About 5,000 years ago, the tides had flooded the gorge of the ancestral Susquehanna River deeply enough that the resulting bay had a shape we'd recognize today as the Chesapeake.
Into this bay came the modern species of oyster. Billions of them grew, one upon the other, for thousands of generations until immense beds of them covered unimagined areas, virtually unharvested, feeding on the plankton brought to them twice daily by the tides of a deepening Chesapeake.
Oysters were such an important part of the hunter-gathers' diet that their shells are almost a signature for any Native American dwelling site near salt water. In some places, the oysters at the bottom of the site - the first harvested - are big, some with 13 annual growth marks on the valves.
The ones on top - those harvested last - were tiny, barely spat thrown into a pot to thicken a winter's stew. These early people, when gathering, waded only in the shallows, and their scattered living groups were too small to damage the ecosystem. They just moved on half a mile or so and the exhausted sites recovered in a few years.
During what climatologists call the Late Medieval Warm Period, this part of North America was afflicted with pro-longed droughts and forest fires.
As the human population grew, this environmental stress spawned conflict, and people began to coalesce into villages, which could be palisaded for defense against inland tribes who forayed to the coast for its more abundant food resources.
By A.D. 1500, some historians feel that warfare was endemic, and stored foods became valuable to feed what amounted to standing armies. One resource was the oyster, harvested mostly from March through April, before crop-planting in May. Oyster meats were shucked and dried for laterconsumption, and were also probably used for trade.
It was onto this scene of spring oyster harvesting that the first English Adventurers of the Virginia Company of London intruded on April 27, 1607.
Captain George Percy took a small boat into Lynnhaven Inlet, near Virginia Beach. He wrote of of his encounter:"We came to a place where they had made a great fire and had been newly roasting oysters. When they perceived our coming, they fled away to the mountains, and left many of the oysters in the fire. We ate some of the oysters which were very large and delicate in taste. ... Uppon this plot of ground (Lynnhaven Bay) we got good store of mussels and oysters, which lay on the ground (presumably at low tide) as thick as stones. We opened some of them and found in many of them pearls."
John Smith, Percy's shipmate, later led the struggling colony at Jamestown during the difficult, starving time in 1609-1610. The colony's misery was helped along by the native Americans, who were unwilling to trade their limited corn reserves with these smelly, violent men who were taking over their hunting grounds. So Smith sent parties of his men out along the shores of the James River to gather oysters and keep themselves alive: "So it happened that neither we nor (the Native Americans) had anything to eat but what the country afforded naturally. Yet of eighty who lived upon oysters in June and July, with a pint of corn a week for a man lying under trees, and one hundred twenty for the most part living upon sturgeon, which are dried till we pounded it to powder for meal, yet in ten weeks but seven died."
Smith puts a good face on it but one of these men said: "This kind of feeding caused all our skin to peel off from head to foot as if we had been dead."
And later, Gabriel Archer wrote: "(A Native American) with two women and another fellow of his own consort followed us some six miles with baskets full of dried oysters and met us at a point, where calling to us, we went ashore and bartered with them for most of their victuals." The oyster business in Virginia had begun to flourish! About 1610, William Strachey became secretary of the colony at Jamestown and writes:
"Oysters there, be in whole banks and beds, and those of the best I have seen some thirteen inches long. The savages used to boil oysters and mussels together and with the broth they make a good spoon meat, thickened with flour of their wheat (actually corn) and it is a great thrift and husbandry with them to hang the oysters upon strings ... and dried in the smoke, thereby preserve them all the year."
Food was still not easy to come by in 1623, and a Virginian named Arundel wrote to his friend Mr. Caning in London: "The most evident hope from altogether starving is oysters, and for the easier getting of them I have agreed for a canoe which will cost me 6 livres sterling."
After almost seven decades of colonization, Thomas Glover wrote in 1676 about the Elizabeth River, (which has become terribly polluted in our century and is the subject of much good-hearted restoration efforts today):"Here are such plenty of oysters as they may load ships with them.
At the mouth of the Elizabeth River, when it is low water, they appear in rocks a foot above the water."
A French visitor echoed this observation in 1687: "There are so many shell oysters that almost every Saturday my host craved them. He had only to send one of his servants in one of the small boats and two hours after ebb tide he brought it back full. These boats made of a single tree hollowed in the middle, can hold as many as fourteen people and twenty-five hundredweight of merchandise."
Another chronicler wrote: "The abundance of oysters is incredible. There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them. A sloop, which was to land us at Kingscreek (perhaps near to-day's Cape Charles) Struck an oyster bed, where we had to wait about two hours for the tide. (At first, I thought that this, one of a couple of references to being grounded on reefs, was anecdotal, and didn't make too much of it. But last month I ran across a chart of the James River, published by the Dutch, which shows about 17 "reefs" rising above the surface along the channels. None are there today.)
These reefs, says Dr. Bill Hargis of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, were important to the success of oysters, because they kept these filter-feeding shellfish up in the water column within easy access of the maximum amount of plankton, their only food. The reefs also offered the oyster spat (young) a billion places to strike. The reefs or "rocks" were limited in vertical growth only by the height of the tide.
Fisherman Phillip Vickers Fithian pointed out on March 1774: "On the edges of these shoals in Nominy River or in holes between the oyster rocks is plenty of fish. ... As we were rowing up Nominy we saw fishermen in great numbers in canoes almost constantly taking fish, - bass and perch."...(These oysters) "surpass those in England by far in size, indeed, they run four times as large. I often cut them in two, before I could put them into my mouth. The inhabitants usually catch them on Saturday. It is not troublesome. A pair of wooden tongs is needed. Below they are wide, tipped with iron. At the time of the ebb they row to the beds and with the long tongs they reach down to the bottom. They pinch them together tightly and then pull or tear up that which has been seized. They usually pull from six to ten times. In summer they are not very good, but unhealthy and can cause fever."
At St. Mary's City, capitol of the upstart colony of Maryland in 1634, researcher Bretton Kent has found the first evidence of oyster overharvesting, as the little city grew from its original dispersed houses.
Brett excavated the garbage dumps of houses for which he has exact dates, (such as built 1637, burned 1658, etc.) and therefore had one layer of garbage atop another at a roughly constant rate. The earliest oysters were the broadly fan-shaped "cove oysters," which grow solitary on sandy bottoms, and can be picked up at low tide or by wading. With the passage of years, these grew smaller and smaller; then suddenly the shape changed, from rounded to long, skinny "channel oysters," that had grown deeper in the estuary and more crowded together on the underwater "rocks." So, harvest methods, like those at Kingscreek, had changed to give access to less-accessible populations.
When Annapolis became Maryland's capitol in the mid-1650s, St. Mary's City fell into disuse and within a few years, in homesite trash-pits, the big round cove oysters began showing up again just as they had during the times of the earlier Native Americans.
Before 1705, Fransis Makamie "Father of American Presbyterian-ism" wrote: "Our vast plenty of oysters would make a beneficial trade, both with the town and foreign traders, believing we have the best oysters for pickling and transportation if carefully and skillfully managed." Pickling was the only palatable means then available for transporting oysters and they were quite popular.
Robert "King" Carter of Carotoman on the Rappahannock speaks: "The oysters lasted until the third day of the feast, which to be sure, proves that the methods for keeping them is good, although much disputed by others ....July, 1776. ... I have ordered that ... every oyster be dipped into the vault (of washed salt) and every oyster dipped into it over all and then laid down on the floor again. ... Out of the eight bushels I had six pickled..."
And:"Mt. Vernon, 1786, Sir :... Mrs. Washington joins me in thanking you also for your kind present of pickled oysters which were very fine. This mark of your politeness is flattering and we beg you to accept every good wish of ours in return."
George Washington also presaged a use that was later to be made of the vast quantities of oyster shell taken from the Bay. He writes to Henry Knox in 1785: "I use a great deal of lime every year, made of the oyster shells, which before they are burnt, cost me twenty-five to thirty shillings a hundred bushels; but it is of mean quality, which makes me desirous of trying stone lime."
In the 1860s, during the War Between the States, VIMS' Bill Hargis relates that while the Union gunboat Monitor was moored in the James, crewmen rowed out to the oyster banks at low water to walk about and gather oysters for dinner.
Later in the 19th century, fishery biologists began to map this resource which was by then rapidly being destroyed, and from these surveys Dr. Gerry McCormick -Ray, at the University of Virginia, has reconstructed some of the profiles and strong vertical relief of oyster reefs that were then in Tangier Sound. Joe DeAl-teris at VIMS did a study some years ago in which he compared the earliest available bathymetric surveys with those of recent years and calculated that the structure of many once-massive reefs in the James had been broken down by nearly five feet over broad areas from repeated dredging.
Dr. Roger Newell at Horn Point calculated a few years ago that in pre-Colonial times, oysters were so abundant that they had the capacity to filter the Bay's volume in a few days, and at present, oysters would take about a year to repeat the job.
Some debate Roger's statement fiercely, but one only has to add algae to a tank with a dozen "selects" in it and in no time at all they'll filter it clear as tap water. Roger didn't say the whole Bay was filtered. Oysters didn't cover the whole Bay, but the trillions of gallons of water that did flow around reefs, and over beds were filtered repeatedly and immensely clarified. Todays' few remnants of oyster ground can't possibly do that job as well. Also, the water then had lesser amounts of nutrients, and the massive beds of aquatic grasses probably left they oysters with a smaller crop of plankton to work on.
Author James Hungerford wrote in 1859 about about his youth prior to 1833 on Maryland's Patuxent:: "We had some time before rounded quiet point (Point Patience), the long point to the south of the Flats and had nearly gained the channels leading to Weatherby's Creek (perhaps Hungerford or Back Creek). "Our boat was now speeding at a swift rate along the lee shore; and the water shielded from the wind by the high cliffs of the river, lay tranquil around us.
"How clear the water is", remarked Miss Susan, looking over the side of the boat; "I can see the fishes moving among the sea-grasses on the bottom."
"Our river is famous for the purity of the water" said the major, with some enthusiasm of manner, "and has been said by those who are competent to give an opinion, to be one of the most beautiful streams in the world."
Beautiful, indeed, and the Bay's once massive stocks of oysters, now largely vanished, helped to keep it that way.
But with the end of the Colonial period, and the dawn of the 1800s, would come the unreasonable abuses of the Chesapeake's oysters: 2,000 skipjacks and buy boats dredging the Bay floor, countless men tonging the creeks, when a dozen railroad cars loaded with oysters - fresh and preserved - left Baltimore daily, bound for the West, as far as California's goldfields!
Later, in this century, came the diseases dermo and MSX, which doubly decimated a struggling population.