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.

Monday, March 22, 2010

77-Year Old City Island Oysterman Joshua Leviness Reminisces in Testimony Provided in 1884

In late 1884, the New York State Commissioner of Fisheries, Eugene G. Blackford, conducted an investigation of the state of the oyster industry.  He held a hearing on Monday, November 24 of that year in Pelham to hear from City Island oystermen regarding the state of the industry.  Among those who testified was 77-year old oysterman Joshua Leviness.  An interesting article about the testimony appeared the following Friday in The Chronicle, a local newspaper published in Mount Vernon.  The text of the article is transcribed below.


Eugene G. Blackford, State Commissioner of Fisheries, visited City Island last Monday, to conduct a hearing at the court-house there, as to the grievances, if any, of oystermen in regard to the state and county laws affecting their business.  He was accompanied by Prof. H. J. Rice, who has charge of the Fulton Market Laboratory.

Mr. Blackford explained that he wanted to know the condition of the oyster business; if the field had increased or decreased of late years, and the causes thereof.  He wanted to know, too, what were the enemies of oysters and what legislation might be necessary to insure protection or improvement for the trade.

Mr. Blackford asked Justice Martin to indicate the men whose opinions ought to be asked, and the latter called upon Capt. Joshua Leviness, the oldest oysterman on the island.  Mr. Leviness said the business of planting shells on natural beds was bad.  The beds from Captain's Island to New London were all bought up by rich men and monopolists, while the common oystermen had to sit ashore until they went to the county-house.  Our style is better, continued the Captain.  A man stakes off what he can get, and as long as he keeps staked up and looks out for his business, his ground is his own, and he can do what he likes with the oysters on it.  If he dies, it goes to his family.

'But suppose some one goes on staked ground, and takes oysters from it without asking the man who staked it?'

'We don't pretend to allow a great many thieves around here,' said the witness simply.

'Do you mean that you never have trouble of that kind?'

'Not often.  I am 77 years old., and was the first man to put a stake in the East River.  I think we have had two or three arrests in my day.  We sent the thieves to prison for two or three months, and that stopped it.'

The Captain recounted his happy experiences good humoredly until he spoke of the damage that the oyster beds had suffered from the city garbage and mud scows which had recklessly dumped their loads wherever they pleased for 10 or 15 years back.  The beds had flourished until that scourge came upon them.  Since then some of them had been smothered and others had been damaged.

Capt. Leviness thought that the beds in the North River ought to be opened for dredging.  Millions of oysters went to waste there every year because the Supervisors of Westchester County confined the digging in their North River territory to rakes and tongs, while the Rockland County authorities forbade intrusion in any form by residents of other counties.  There ought to be a law, he thought, to open the State beds to dredgers living within the State, and to keep Connecticut and New Jersey oystermen out of New York waters until the laws of those states, which keep their waters solely for their own citizens, be repealed.  Capt. Leviness also favored a law that would make from July 15 to Sept. 15 a close season, in which the beds should not be disturbed.  In response to an inquiry as to the advisability of limiting the possessions of an oysterman, Capt. Leviness thought 200 acres ought to be the limit; for no man could care properly for more, and that was enough to raise all the oysters any one could market.

This testimony was sustained by all the other oystermen whom Justice Martin presented to Mr. Blackford.  Thomas Collins, a red-faced good-natured Irishman, who informed Mr. Blackford that he was the original Tom Collins, for whom you fellows were looking a few years ago,' was amusingly earnest in his allusion to the 'parts of brick houses, cement, and hoopskirts that made harder pulling than oysters and ruined the natural beds.'

Justice Martin was given a chance after diner to express his opinion.  He agreed with those who had proceeded him, attributing the decrease of natural beds entirely to the illegal offal dumpings.  The Connecticut law, in his opinion, gave too large opportunities to 'farmers, shop girls, and monoplists,' who came in and crowded the poor oystermen out.

The above is in brief a statement of Commissioner Blackford's hearing.  The object is problematical.  The East River oystermen think it stands them in hand to be on the alert and watch closely their interests.

The City Island oystermen feel quite indignant at the Herald's report of the above hearing, and think that if the reporter had paid less attention to the taverns, which he sarcastically alludes to and more to the subject under consideration, he would have had a more readable report and the honest oystermen of the island would not have been treated to ridicule through its columns."

Source:  City Island's Oysters, The Chronicle Supplement [Mount Vernon, NY], Nov. 28, 1884, p. 1, col. 4.

For other recent postings in this series, see:

Fri., March 19, 2010:  The New York Legislature Stepped Into the Oyster War on Long Island Sound in 1895.

Thu., March 18, 2010:  1859 Town of Huntington Record Reflecting Dispute with City Island Oystermen.

Wed., March 17, 2010:  Report of September 13, 1884 Tour of Oyster Beds by Captain Joshua Leviness of City Island.

Tue., March 16, 2010:  More on 19th Century Oystering in Pelham - Descriptions of Oyster Beds Off Hart Island, City Island and in Pelham Bay Published in 1887.

Mon., March 15, 2010:  More on 19th Century City Island Oyster Industry - City Island Oystermen Complaint of Pollution.

Fri., March 12, 2010:  Early History of Oystering in the Waters Off City Island in the Town of Pelham.

Thu., March 11, 2010:  The "Great Oyster War" Between City Island and Tarrytown in 1877 and 1878.

Mon., July 30, 2007:  1885 Report Notes Decline of Oyster Industry Near City Island in the Town of Pelham.

Thu., July 26, 2007:  Pelham's City Island Oystermen Feud with Long Islanders in 1869.

Fri., July 27, 2007:  Possible Origins of the Oyster Feud Between City Islanders and Huntington, Long Island.

Fri., April 13, 2007:  Oystermen of City Island (When It Was Part of the Town of Pelham) Pioneered Oyster Cultivation.

Mon., September 18, 2006:  A Brief Description of Oystering in Eastchester Bay and at Pelham Published in 1881.

Fri., January 26, 2007:  A History of the Early Years of City Island When it Was Part of the Town of Pelham, Published in 1927.

Thu., December 3, 2009:  Pelham News on May 30, 1884 Including Allegations of Oyster Larceny and Meeting of the Pelhamville Improvement Association.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home