Yesterday I posted to the Historic Pelham Blog a small item published in 1869 describing a dispute among the oystermen of City Island in the Town of Pelham and those of Huntington, Long Island. There is an intriguing legend that sheds light on the likely origins of the dispute nearly a decade earlier. It seems that after an oysterman's boat overturned with oyster seedlings on board, a massive oyster bed arose in the area. Long Islanders kept its location secret until a traitor among them reputedly "sold" information regarding the location of the bed to City Island oystermen who promptly harvested many of the oysters. An article published in 1859 described these events. It appears below.
"THE GREAT OYSTER BED.
Its Location, Origin and Extent---Size and Quality of the Bivalves---The Numbers Engaged in Gathering them---Exaggerations Corrected.
Some time in the year 1841, a bed of young, or seedling oysters, was found near the east beach, at the mouth of Northport harbor, and there was a lively time among the oystermen, while the deposit lasted, in securing them for the purpose of transplanting. Among others a man familiarly known at Huntington as 'DICK SCUDDER,' was active with his little schooner in conveying away the oysters, his planting ground being directly across the Sound, near Norwalk, Conn. in one of these excursions, while beating over against a strong north-east wind, his craft was struck by a sudden flaw and capsized, spilling overboard thirty bushels, more or less, which were carried upon deck. The precise spot where this accident occurred, nearly twenty years ago, is now covered with a busy fleet of oyster-boats and vessels gathering a prolific harvest from the seed thus accidentally scattered. The little schooner was called the Dream
, and its owner has long since gone to the land of shadows, but while living he probably never dreamed that his neighbors would so soon reap fortunes from the accident which deprived him of his hard earnings. Mr. JAMES S. LEFFERTS, who still presides at the little tide-mill at West Neck, where he has ground wheat and corn for nearly half a century, distinctly remembers the incident above related, and HENRY KETCHUM, of Huntington, whose father built the Dream
, attests the truth of the statement. This is believed to be the true origin of the famous oyster-bed. Its location is north half-west from Eaton's Neck, one and a half miles, the lower or eastern end being bounded by a rocky reef, which extends nearly north from the point for a distance of over two miles. The length of the bed is about one mile, and its breadth from a half to three-quarters of a mile; the depth of water varying from five to six fathoms, forming a kind of middle ground, the water on each side being deeper. That the spawn of the oysters deposited in Northport and other contiguous harbors could ever have floated five miles, crossing
two miles of the ebb and flood tides, and finding a lodgment at this point, is considered improbable.
As was the origin of the bed, so was the discovery, wholly accidental. That the bivalves should have remained just the proper length of time in their hidden home to acquire the proper size for use, and should have been brought to light at the season when of all others they can be most profitably removed, may be considered a happy stroke of fortune. These circumstances have greatly enhanced the value of the discovery. Five men from Darien, Conn., were fishing opposite Eaton's Neck some fortnight ago, when the wind freshening, and finding their boat was dragging, they threw over an oyster dredge, which happened to be at hand. The boat continued to drag, however, and in hauling up the dredge, it was filled with oysters of a large size. They then tried other experiments with the dredge, and shortly became convinced that a bed of great richness and extent lay beneath them. A mutual compact was made to keep the secret, but one or two of the faithless party seized the first opportunity to sell the information to the oystermen of City Island. Five hundred dollars was asked and readily paid for the news, twenty-five oystermen contributing twenty dollars each to make up that amount. One-half of the sum, however, was retained as security for the genuineness of the revelation, and for being conducted to the ground. JOSHUA LEVINESS, one of the wealthiest of the Islanders, being elected commodore of the fleet by unanimous consent, twenty-five boats set sail from City Island under the cover of the night, and proceeded down the Sound. By daylight, the next morning they were off Eaton's Neck, and by the aid of ranges previously obtained, the exact spot was pointed out, and operations commenced. The result soon satisfied them that they had not been deceived, and during the first day, about 700 bushels of fine oysters were obtained, -- amply sufficient to pay for the information. The work went on, they oyster men being so elated at their good fortune that they continued at it all night, and only gave up from sheer exhaustion. So compact were the oysters at first, the dredges refused to grapple them, but since they have been broken up by this harrowing process, the dredges work better. The oysters are what are known in the market as 'counts' and 'extras,' and after being placed for a few weeks in the shallow bays and creeks where they can fatten, will bring the highest prices readily. they are also very uniform in size, few being overgrown on the one hand, or small on the other. Occasionally the shell of a patricarch of the tribe is brought up, which has been turned into honeycomb by the 'borers.' The proportion of shells and stones obtained is also very small, compared with the amount of oysters taken. In flavor and fatness they are equal to the best in market, and, barring the natural saltiness, are preferred by many connoisseurs to Princes Bays, or Shrewsburys.
Exaggerated statements have been made as to the number of vessels on the ground, some placing it as high as three and even five hundred. From the most reliable information which could be obtained, as well as by actual count by our Reporter, they have never exceeded one hundred and sixty or seventy. Of these, one-half at least are boats under twenty tons, one-quarter of thirty to forty tons, and the remainder ordinary coasting sloops and schooners. The largest vessels are those from New-Haven and other places on the Connecticut shore. City Island and Staten Island have the largest representation, mostly in sloops of a small and medium size, while every place on either side of the Sound which possesses a harbor and floating craft, had one or more engaged in harvesting the oyster crop. The motions of the fleet are controlled by the tide and wind. Forming in line at the east end of the bed--the tide setting to the westward--they move with the current, their sails being set to give them head and steerage-way. The dredges, from two to eight and ten in number, according to the size of the vessel, are thrown over to windward, there being one man for each line; but the whole party waiting to haul up each dredge as it is filled. When the head vessels have reached the end of the 'drift,' they tack, or wear ship, and return to their place at the rear of the fleet, thus keeping up a perpetual promenade. Occasionally a collision takes place, a boom or bowsprit is carried away, or a sail is torn, but so long as it is the result of accident the mishap is taken in the best of humors.
A neighborly feeling pervades the whole squadron, each appearing to enjoy the other's prosperity. When it overblows, or night overtakes them, they run into Lloyd's or Northport harbor, and are on the ground again bright and early the next morning. When a vessel gets its fill it hastens away to some one of the places where the oysters are replanted, and, having dropped its load, returns with all speed to the scene of operations. The Three Sisters
, belonging to JOSHUA LEVINESS, during the two weeks secured about three thousand bushels, making an average of 250 bushels a day. The little Fashion
in one week took 510 bushels; the Phebe Ann
raked in two thousand bushels; the Ann Eliza
three hundred bushe;s; and the steamer Jacob Bell
has taken one thousand bushels, which are planted in Cow Bay. The Caroline
in one day caught eighty hampers, about one hundred and twenty-five bushels. These are samples of the success which as attended the operations of the fleet.
The total amount already taken is variously estimated at from one hundred and fifty to two hundred thousand bushels. Should the yield continue as at present it is supposed that over half a million dollars' worth will be secured before the season gets so cold and boisterous as to prevent operations. Rumors of the existence of other beds are also circulating among the oystermen, and when the supply gives out at Eaton's Neck, explorations will be carried on in other parts of the Sound."
Source: The Greaty Oyster Bed, N.Y. Times
, Oct. 3, 1859, p. 1, col. 3.
Please Visit the Historic Pelham
Located at http://www.historicpelham.com/
.Please Click Here for Index to All Blog Postings
Labels: 1859, City Island, Joshua Leviness, Oyster