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.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Discovery of "The Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859

I have written before of the discovery of "The Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859.  See Fri., July 27, 2007:  Possible Origins of the Oyster Feud Between City Islanders and Huntington, Long Island.  During the fall of 1859, five fishermen from Darien, Connecticut accidentally discovered one of the largest oyster beds ever discovered in the Long Island Sound.  An "oyster rush" followed that would rival the Oklahoma Land Run thirty years later when an estimated 50,000 people lined up at high noon on April 22, 1889 competing for their piece of the available two million acres of Federal lands. 

People from Rhode Island to Connecticut dropped what they were doing and raced to the area seeking instant riches.  Those who raced to the Sound were not just oystermen, but mechanics, farm hands and professional men all seeking their instant fortunes.

The New-York Daily Tribune published a wonderful article on the "Immense Fleet of Fishermen" (including many oystermen from City Island) that descended on the area like locusts.  The text of the article appears below.

Millions of Dollars Worth Found.
Immense Fleet of Fishermen.

Oysters is oysters!  Conchological research and classification may make a more expanded definition, but none which will add to their flavor or quality.

They are marine, bivalvular testaceous, and are partaken of either raw, fried, roasted, stewed, or escolloped in pie, or fritters.  They are for sale in considerable quantities in the city of New York, and are prepared for eating at sundry places, from Buttercake Dick's to Delmonico's.

During a certain season of the year -- those months when, by a strange cabilism, the letter R has been summarily ignored in their names -- the maternal oyster, in the peaceful tranquility of the last of the ebb tide, launches into the water the embryonic oysters, to be developed to maturity for the satisfaction of the rapacious maws of man and womankind.  The spawn (by which uneuphonic name the infantile oysters are called) being by the inexorable laws of nature thus cut off from the mother's care, begin to shift for themselves.  They cast about for a resting place, where destiny may find them, because having no pedal extremities as their leg-acy, they are unable to follow destiny.  If the soft side of a stone, or shell, or piece of wood touch their embryonic organism, with instinctive egg-otism they appropriate the geological, conchological or vegetable substance, as the case may be, to their own use, and forthwith the youthful oyster, scarcely the size of a spangle -- small in size but big with promise -- makes his first bow as an oyster -- and with a 'yours in time' settles into an ocean cum dignitate to grow.  With the base of the bivalve down and the edges up -- they acquire upright habits notwithstanding they indulged in the American practice which the Englishman characterized as 'damned perpendicular drinking.'

A year's experience makes them the size of a half dollar.  In two years they are large enough to be marketable, and in three years they assume proportions which command for them the respect which is always accorded maturity.

Still they are not oysters as in oysters.  A vegetable phase of development has to be theirs before they will suit the esthetic taste of the epicure, and the transition like all transitions, is painful.  They must be 'planted.'  In other words the unfeeling oysterman in his boat throws overboard the dredge, which scrapes along the bed where the bivalves are at rest, drags them from their places, and they fall into the capacious network of the dredge, and are brought to the deck of the boat where they remain until a sufficient quantity are secured to be 'planted.'

But oystermen don't mean putting them into the earth as the seeds from which to raise oyster-plants -- (and the writer of this takes the opportunity of saying that that popular vegetable has nothing in common in its origin with oysters proper; the two being totally distinct and belonging to different natural kingdoms) -- but they are taken to some point where they can absorb the inspiriting properties of fresh water, and which will not only take from them the strong taste which is peculiarly submarine, but will make them adipose -- make the eyes sparkle to uphold them, and the palate tickle as they pass those portals of the human stomach, in this last but eventful drama of oyster life.  A two months' experience in vegetation thus matures them, and when wanted they are again brought to the surface and consigned to Fulton or Washington Market and -- the reader knows the rest.


On the north shore of Long Island is an inland bay called Huntington Bay.  Branching from the Bay are four small harbors known as Lloyd's, Huntington, Centerport, and Northport harbors.  On the east of Huntington Bay is Eaton's Neck, and on the west Lloyd's Neck, each extending some distance into Long Island Sound.  At the edge of Lloyd's Harbor is a Fresnel light, designed to be a guide to vessels in the Sound who seek a harbor during the prevalence of a heavy nor'-easter.  On the point of Eaton's Neck is a large Fresnel light, which is an excellent guide to mariners going through the Sound.  Extending in a line no'-nor'-west from Eaton's Neck light is a reef of rocks on which is from 3 1/2 to 8 fathoms of water.  It extends nearly way across to the Connecticut shore.  Opposite is the town of Norwalk, Conn., a distance of ten or twelve miles.  At the extremities of the arms of Huntington Bay, on Long Island, are the villages of Northport, Centerport and Huntington.

Thirty miles down the Sound from Eaton's Neck is located City Island -- the residence of numberless oystermen and oysters, and the place where, two or three since a negro who had murdered a captain of a small sloop, was caught and examined prior to being transferred to White Plains to be hanged.


The City Islanders are the planters of the East River oysters, and at home and in half a dozen harbors round about, they have their moluscous plantations, furnishing a good crop the year round.  But the City Islanders wanted more room -- like Alexander, they sighed for new worlds to conquer -- in other words, they wanted more plantation room--more terri-or marini-tory.  Fifteen years ago the inhabitants of Northport held out inducements -- so the City Islanders say -- for them to plant their oysters in Northport Bay.  The Northporters had a ship-building interest to look after, and they thus sought the visitation of the City Islanders, in the hope to get the building of their oyster-boats.  The C.I.'s did patronize the Northport builders, and the hearts of the ingenious marine architects then waxed joyful.  Valuable bushels upon bushels of the oysters were planted, and from year to year, as they matured, they were taken up and carried to New-York; but the depletion did not equal the supply, and Northport harbor this year was studded with gems of the sea.


But the City Islanders say that the Northporters and Huntingtonians generally became covetous of the submarine wealth of the City Islands, lying within a ropes length of Northport dredges, and they resolved to take possession thereof; that, acting in consonance with this spirit, they last Spring passed a law at town-meeting confiscating the aforesaid wealth of the City Islanders to their own use, by making it an offense for non-residents to take oysters from Northport Bay.  The City Islanders, unfortunately coming within this description, found themselves outlaws if they should attempt to reap the fruits of the seed they had sown broadcast on the waters of that inland bay; in fact, they looked upon it as an attempt, by force, on the part of marauding Huntingtonians, to prevent the fulfillment of that passage of the Scruptures which says, 'Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days it shall return to you.'


But they were not to be thus put down.  The City Islanders learned that the sanctity of their beds had been violated, and like Sickles under similar circumstances, they prepared to meet the foe and wipe on the stain of dishonor that had been fixed upon their escutcheon.  Two sloops were manned and armed -- one, the Three Graces, bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Joshua Leviness, by tacit consent the commandant of the City Island Navy.  Arrived at Northport, they discovered the Huntingtonians in flagrante delicta.  Adding insult to injury, they were taking his property before his eyes.  He bore down upon the offending parties and run down some of their boats, took their late occupants prisoners, and bore them off in triumph to City Island.  At least, so the Huntingtonians say.  Com. Josh. says that a haze struck him in such a way that he couldn't steer clear of the boats and hence the accident.  He says furthermore that the oyster pirates had a cannon loaded with fragments of log-chains, in an elevated position, to attack them as they approached.  What the merits of the controversy are the writer of this does not know.  No blood was spilt.  The Supreme Court has clapped an injunction on the City Islanders removing oysters, and on Monday next the case is to be heard at River Head, L.I., when the injunction will probably either be dissolved with condition, or be made perpetual.


But the City Islanders, in sowing their seed in Northport Bay, were unconsciously doing that which should enable them and others to reap largely in other and distant fields.  The Northport oysters fructified, and the ebb tide carried out their spawn into Huntington Bay, and thence it drifted in a line due north where, west of Eaton's Neck Reef, the much-sought for cobble-stone bottom -- the paradise of oysters -- was found.  The embryonic bivalves colonized.  Year after year they grew, and reproduced, and died.  Steamers plowed the waters over them; the canvas of merchantmen was gayly spread, and filled away from the submarine wealth; oyster-boats danced lightly on the waves, and superfishal enterprise was satisfied to take the hazard of black fishery on the reef, never dreaming that

'Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark, unfathomed caves of ocean bear.'


A year or two since the propeller Charles Osgood, finding the attraction of gravitation too powerful to resist, sank in Long Island Sound, off Eaton's Neck.  The owners desiring to rescue Charles, employed a diver named Wilkinson, called Duffy for short, to go to the bottom, and inquire of the sea serpent and other inhabitants if they had seen anything of their property.  Duffy put on his armor, went below, and after extensive inquiries found the lost Charles, and gave information which led to his recovery.  And Duffy, too, discovered the oysters.  He told Charley McClennon, of the City Island Hotel, that he had found a bed of oysters which seemed to him five miles long, off Eaton's Neck, and Charley inwardly resolved to take a boat and visit the low-cality.  With the greatest assiduity, Charley kept procrastinating until he was compelled by untoward events to go snacks with others.


A fortnight since -- or thereabout -- James Warring, Wm. Wood, Thomas Garlan, Wm. Hoyt, and Alexander Stevens, five fishermen of Darien, Conn., were fishing in a boat off Eaton's Neck.  They found themselves drifting too far out, and dropped over board an oyster dredge to bring their boat to anchor.  When subsequently they attempted to draw in the dredge they found it fearfully heavy -- but they tugged away, and after considerable 'cussin,' got it to the surface, and found it filled with over two bushels of large oysters.  After putting the oysters into the boat they felt themselves at liberty to be astounded.  They were astonished.  After which they threw the dredge again, and again drew to their boat another lot of oysters.  Another installment of astonishment, and another haul -- and dredging and astonishment were alternately indulged until the boat was filled.

They saw the value of their discovery, and saw that their success lay in keeping the secret to themselves, and they made a compact that they would keep their mouths shut and devote to themselves the wealth of the Eaton's Neck Oyster Bed.  But compacts have been broken.  Various men have been betrayers, from Judas Iscariot down to John Tyler and Louis Napoleon.  Some one of the five -- we don't know who -- thought to make the discovery immediately available, and, with a stern denial of his integrity, he turned his back upon his companions and made tracks for City Island.  To the enterprising oystermen he announced the discovery, and offered for the limited consideration of $500, to lay at their feet an installment of the hidden wealth of the ocean.  Twenty-five City Islanders put down $20 each, and on Monday, the 19th of Sept., A.D. 1859, INCURSION OF THE CITY ISLAND OYSTERMEN.

Twenty-five sloops and schooners from City Island, with crews and implements, left for Eaton's Neck.  Early on Tuesday morning, they began to work in right good earnest.  A fair wind was blowing -- such a one as was required for the purpose -- and merrily the dredges were hove over the side, and after a short drift with the tide, they were hauled to the deck, filled with large, rich oysters.  Sailing back, the dredges were again thrown, and with the same result.  The old Sound shelled out at the command of the City Islanders, and, at the close of the day, not less than 5,000 bushels had been brought aboard the vessels.


The presence of a fleet of City Island oyster-boats somewhat astonished the inhabitants along the shores of Long Island and Connecticut.  The Huntingtonians were sorely perplexed.  It is said that at first they thought the City Islanders had made an incursion to bombard Northport, and they began to bring forth their rusty muskets and broadswords of Revolutionary memory, which had lain quiet since the oyster war put them in order, took out their telescopes and sighted the enemy off Eaton's Neck.  A close inspection revealed the secret.  In ten minutes the swords were sheathed, and the muskets put back.  Dredges were brought forth, and in two hours every store in the town was depleted of its iron rings used in making the dredge nettings.  Boats and all were got ready for Wednesday morning. 

All Connecticut, too, was alive with excitement.  They, too, had observed the strange visitation, and, snuffing the oysters afar off, they, in their turn, made ready, and on Wednesday morning over twenty sail were standing toward the oyster-ground.  But Wednesday was a calm, and preparations went on with renewed vigor on shore.  Thursday morning, and thirty more vessels were sailing for Eaton's Neck, but again the calm stopped operations.


But on Friday the wind blew more freshly, and nearly a hundred sail were engaged in dredging.  The news had spread from one point to another where oystermen most do congregate, and boats from Egg Harbor to Newark Bay, and thence to Piermont and Newburgh, and from Brooklyn to Montauk Point on both sides of Long Island, and from Hell Gate to Providence, were put in order for sailing.  On Saturday the crowd had become greater, and on Sunday no less than a hundred and twenty-five sail were dredging the bed.  On Monday the number had increased to one hundred and fifty, and Tuesday and Wednesday to over two hundred.  They were of all sizes, from little boats of three tuns to large schooners of a hundred and fifty.  Three steamers -- the Jacob Bell, the Statesman, and the Pluto -- also appeared on the ground and commenced active dredging.  They could work to a better advantage in one regard -- not being affected by calms.


On Wednesday, one of the staff of Reporters of THE TRIBUNE was dispatched to the scene of the recent discovery.  At 8 1/2 o'clock he embarked on the little steamer George Law, at Catharine Market, and proceeded up the East River.  When off Matinnicock Point, the fleet of oyster boats were observed in the distance.  So closely were they together, that one could scarcely make out the separate sails.  Arrived at Eaton's Neck, he proceeded to the grounds and was taken on board the little steamer Pluto, which had been chartered by Mr. Charles McClennon of City Island.  Over two hundred sail and three steamers were then engaged in dredging.  The greatest care was required in sailing to prevent collisions which were imminent at any moment; and during the two days that our Reporter remained on the ground, only one accident of any note occurred, and that the tearing away of a schooner's jibboom.  At no time has our Reporter seen an approximation to the number of vessels there actively sailing in so small a space.


is not an easy matter to recount.  Scarcely a port within fifty miles is not represented.  Long Island seems to have turned out her men from all points, north and South.  Beside Brooklyn, Greenport, Oyster Bay, Glen Cove, Williamsburgh, Huntington, Cold Spring, and other large places, there were the representatives of Patchogue, Quogue, Niesiquagne, Cutchogue, Mattituck, Setauket, Coscob, Saugatuck, Mamaroneck, Mannahassett, Hauppague, Sciossett, Speouk, Negutatogue, Santabogue, Aguebogue, Gallows Hill, Peconick, Hardscrabble, Mattinnicock, Poospatuck, Ketchebouneck, Shinnecock, Accabonneck, Babylon, Jericho, Jerusalem, Modern Times, and Heaven only knows from what other places with unchristian names.

The Nunkatunks, Quinnipiacs, Podunks, and Quinnebogs, were present from New-Haven and vicinity.  From Hammonassett Point, Stratford, Lyme, Darien, Stamford, Greenwich, Savin Rock, Gilford, Rocky Point, Bridgeport, Flat Rock, Norwalk, Stonington, New-London, Saybrook, Norwich, Westport, and Southport, in Connecticut, were various boats.  Rhode Island also was represented by boats from Providence, Newport, Pawtucket, and Appanaug.  Most of the prominent oystermen on the Jersey and Staten Island shores were present with their sloops, as were those of the North River, as high up as Piermont and Newburgh.  City Island, Hellgate, Hart's Island, New Rochelle, Rye, and other places in the vicinity, are of course included.  But those engaged in the dredging are not, perhaps, one half oystermen.  Men from all callings have for the time being forsaken their employment.  Mechanics, farm hands, and, in two instances at least, professional men, have gone to dredging.  Samuel Harold, George Horton, and other East River pilots, have chartered the steamer Jacob Bell, and with a full crew are dredging up and down the bed.  The mania seems to pervade all classes.  Of the boats, every thing available is employed, from a steamer to a barge.  Raritan canal-boats, New-Have sharpers, yachts, and even the East River pilot-boat O.K. are on the grounds.


The discovery will without doubt prove of great benefit to nearly all who have embarked in it.  The regular oystermen will be the greatest recipients, they, from their experience in the business, throwing their dredges and sailing the vessels with greater skill, and working with greater rapidity.  Green hands make sad work, and are frequently sea-sick for the first two or three days.  Those with small boats, too, will realize well; and even green hands, having boats and the implements, will realize a hundred or two dollars for their labors.  Capt. Joshua Leviness [of City Island] has averaged 400 bushels per day, except the calm days, since Tuesday week, with one sloop.  They are worth, before planting, fifty cents per bushel, and after becoming marketable, two dollars.  Capt. L. one day dredged over 600 bushels.  Small boats with one dredge readily haul up 25 bushels per day, and often more.  A steamer with eight drags, and well manned with experienced oystermen, could readily average 500 bushels per day.  Such are the statements of oystermen whom our Reporter conversed with.  The Connecticut men work with the greatest assiduity, many of them pursuing their work by night as well as by day.  But the business is attended with some risk.  Dredges are frequently lost, and one Connecticut schooner lost 15 at one time by being caught on the reef.  They cost new at least $5 earch, and at the present time are worth treble that amount. 

Probably oysters to the amount of three quarters of a million dollars, when marketable, have already been taken out.


The oysters are nearly all above medium size, and many are very large -- fully up to those often exhibited in oyster saloon windows.  The flavor is equal to any oysters before planting, and they only want a few weeks with fresh water to be equal, if not superior, to any sold in the market. 

With the present rush for the grounds it is hardly probable, so say the oystermen, dredging will pay more than a few days any but professional oystermen, unless the bed be found to cover a greater space than is at present indicated.  Perhaps in making this statement something must be allowed for the feelings of the oysterman, whose interest it is to deter others from making ventures.


The irruption of Connecticut within the jurisdiction of New-York, has suggested a modification in the State law to put the inhabitants of the two States on an equality.  In Connecticut, all non-residents are prohibited under severe penalties.  In New-York, non-residents are not thus prohibited, and the prohibition against fishing during the spawning season applies to all.


At night, Huntington Bay and the adjoining harbors are as thickly studded with vessels at anchor as New-York bay.  On Thursday night one-hundred sail were inside, not five of which remained at 9 o'clock yesterday morning.  With a fresh wind, the small craft are compelled to keep in shore.  During Thursday it blew strong off shore, and the number of sail on the bed was lessened more than half. 


The first oysters from the new bed arrived in the city by the sloop Heroine, Capt. William Bird.  The oysters may be seen at Downing's."

Source:  The Great Oyster Placer, New-York Daily Tribune, Oct. 1, 1859, p. 5, col. 2.

For other recent postings in this series, see:

Wed., March 24, 2010:  The Oyster War of 1884 Between Glen Cove and City Island Intensifies.

Tue., March 23, 2010:  Yet Another "Oyster War" in 1884; Glen Cove Officials Feud with City Island and Connecticut Oystermen.

Mon., March 22, 2010:  77-Year Old City Island Oysterman Joshua Leviness Reminisces in Testimony Provided in 1884.

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.

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