Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Oystermen of City Island (When it Was Part of the Town of Pelham) Pioneered Oyster Cultivation

City Island was part of the Town of Pelham until annexation of the Island by New York City in the mid-1890s. City Island, of course, has a long and rich history of oystering and fishing. Many of the Island's residents earned their living through such activities in the 19th century.

I previously have published to the Historic Pelham Blog a 19th century description of oystering off the shores of Pelham and City Island. See Monday, September 18, 2006: A Brief Description of Oystering in Eastchester Bay and at Pelham Published in 1881.

Interestingly, some believe that Pelham residents pioneered the act of cultivating oysters rather than merely harvesting oysters from natural beds. The following account from a book published in 1905 so claims. The pertinent entry is quoted below, followed by a citation to the source.

"Several years before Coste and De Bon commenced their experiments, the oystermen of East River, having observed that young oysters fastened in great numbers upon shells which were placed upon the beds at the spawning season, started the practice of shelling the beds, in order to increase the supply, and in 1855, or three years before Coste represented to the French Emperor the importance of similar experiments, the State of New York enacted a law to secure to private farmers the fruits of their labor, and a number of persons engaged in the new industry on an extensive scale. Among these pioneers in this field were Mr. Fordham, Capt. Henry Bell, Mr. Oliver Cook, Mr. Weed, Mr. Hawley and others.

The industry has grown steadily from that time, and East River is now said by Ingersoll to be the scene of the most painstaking and scientific oyster culture in the United States. The interest and importance of the subject is so great that I quote the whole of Ingersoll's account of its origin, development, and present methods:

'I have no doubt that, whatever was the date of its origin, the credit of first truly propagating oysters from seed caught upon artificial beds or prepared receptacles, belongs to the men of City Island. It had been a matter of common observation that objects tossed into the water in summer sometimes became covered with infant oysters. The sedges along the edge of the marshes, and the buoys, stakes and wharf piles were similarly clothed. If the circumstances were favorable [Page 104 / Page 105] this deposit survived the winter, and the next spring the youngsters were large enough to be taken and transplanted. It was only a short step in logic, therefore, to conclude that if objects were thrown thickly into the water on purpose to catch the floating spawn, a large quantity of young oysters might be secured, and saved for transplanting at very slight expense. The next question was -- What would best serve the purpose? Evidently, nothing could be better than the shells which year by year, accumulated on the shore from the seaon's opening trade. They were the customary resting-places of the spawn, and at the same time were cheapest. The City Island oysterman, therefore, began to save his shells from the lime-kiln and the road master, and to spread them on the bottom of the bay, hoping to save some of the oyster spawn with which his imagination densely crowded the sea-water. This happened, I am told, more than fifty years ago, and the first man to put the theory into practice, it is remembered, was the fathe of the Fordham Brothers, who still pursue the business at City Island. In 1855 Captain Henry Bell, of Bell's Island, planted shells among the islands off the mouth of Norwalk River, and a short time after, under the protection of the new law of 1855, recognizing private property in such beds, Mr. Oliver Cook, of Five Mile River; Mr. Weed, of South Norwalk; Mr. Hawley, of Bridgeport, and others, went into it on an extensive scale. Some of these gentlemen appear never to have heard of any previous operations of this sort. Discovering it for [Page 105 / Page 106] themselves, as it was easy and natural to do, they supposed they were the originators; but if any such credit attaches anywhere, I believe it belongs to the City Island men. It was soon discovered that uniform access was not to be hoped for, and the steady, magnificent crops reaped by the earliest planters were rarely emulated. Many planters, therefore, distrusted the whole scheme, and returned to their simple transplanting of natural-bed seed; but others, with more consistency, set at work to improve their chances by making more and more favorable the opportunities for an oyster's egg successfully to attach itself, during its brief natatory life, to the stool prepared for it, and afterward to live to an age when it was strong enough to hold its own against the weather. This involved a closer study of the general natural history of the oyster."

Source: Brooks, William K., The Oyster: A Popular Summary of a Scientific Study, pp. 104-05 (Baltimore, MD: 2d ed., The Johns Hopkins Press 1905).

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