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.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Pelham: Once Oyster Capital of the World

It seems fanciful and hard to believe today.  Pelham once was oyster capital of the world and supplied New York City with much of its massive daily oyster fare at a time when oysters were sold on nearly every street corner.  In those days, City Island was part of the Town of Pelham before its annexation by New York City.  City Island Oystermen were world famous for their harvests off the shores of the island and for their scientific approach to the renewal of the resource on which they relied.  It was a serious business.  Pitched battles were fought in Long Island Sound among oystermen, including City Island oystermen, protecting their right to harvest the tasty marine morsels.  

I have written extensively on numerous occasions about Pelham's rich oystering history.  At the end of this posting, I have included links to eighteen previous stories about Pelham and the City Island oystering industry.  

The 19th century oystermen of City Island in the Town of Pelham long have been credited with inventing the process used to create and cultivate artificial oyster beds.  Today's Historic Pelham blog posting transcribes an account published in 1884 alleging that City Island oystermen pioneered the process.  It is followed by the transcription of an article about legislation proposed during the 19th century that upset the City Island oystermen because it proposed to allow the government to charge oystermen for the right to harvest oysters off City Island and elsewhere.


The American system of oyster farming, which presents some features of resemblance to the French system, and also many differences, has grown up as the result of private enterprise, without any help or any direct encouragement from government.

The French people are generally held to be the originators of modern oyster farming, but, as an American, I take pleasure in pointing out that our own industry, which is now so extensively developed in Connecticut, has not been borrowed from France, but has grown up independently.  

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 those 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, and 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 has been a matter of common observation that any object tossed into the water in summer became covered at once 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 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 would be secured, and could be 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 season'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- [page 100 / page 101] 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 father 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 the private property in such beds, Mr. Oliver Cook of Five Mile River, Mr. Wood 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 the sort.  Discovering it for themselves, as it was easy and natural to do, they supposed they were the origination; but if any such credit attaches anywhere, I believe it belongs to the City Island men.  It was soon discovered that uniform success 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 the 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 Keith, et al., Report of the Oyster Commission of the State of Maryland January 1884, pp. 100-01 (Annapolis, MD:  James Young, State Printer, 1884).  

Additionally, immediately below is a transcription of an article published in the Mount Vernon Chronicle in 1887 detailing the reaction of City Island oystermen to proposed legislation that would raise their cost of doing business.


*     *     *

The oystermen of City Island are very indignant at the proposed bill of Mr. Eugene Blackford, the United States Fish Commissioner, who has again brought this obnoxious question into the state assembly.  The purpose and substance of said bill seems to be that all of the natural beds or ground on which the natural growing oyster now exist in this state shall be sold out or commissioned to the ownership of capitalists, who shall have the exclusive right to grow oysters thereon, and utterly disfranchise the thousands of poor industrious fishermen, who are entirely dependent on this branch of industry for the maintenance and support of themselves and their families.  It has been heretofore an established matter of fact that custom makes law, and it seems that no precedent is on record where an established and legitimate business recognized as the privelege [sic] granted to them by the Creator of all things, for the purpose of feeding the inhabitants who live in the vicinity, and who have without any interruption or pretended claim from this state, been allowed to pursue the dredging and raking such shell fish from the bottom of the bay as may naturally grow there, for a period of at least fifty years past, and consequently those engaged in this business have managed to have built boats and small vessels suitable for the trade at considerable expense; in fact, they have invested every dollar they could possibly spare from their immediate wants, in purchasing improved tools and implements needed to work with, with no expectation or fear that any person or firm would ever be heartless enough to originate such a heartless scheme to steal from them the only means at present known to them of earning their daily bread and sacrifice all of their investments, that it has required years by hard struggling to accumulate, and consequently leave them helpless and penniless.  And this only done to suit the grasping disposition of some who would sink so many of their fellow beings into obscurity and beggary if they could only accomplish such a design by foul legislation.  Such does not seem likely to the masses in this neighborhood; but in order to evade such a serious conspiracy against the rights of such a serious conspiracy against the rights of such of our worthy citizens as are engaged in this legitimate business, it becomes necessary to Chronicle the facts of the case in order to arrest such a calamity.  Believing that our present assembly, if they knew all of the facts in relation to this scheme, would not tolerate it for a moment, I sincerely hope they will give it their earnest attention and defeat such schemes as this that can have no other effect than destroy all confidence in our legislators, if passed, and would send thousands of its victims headlong into poverty from which they can never extricate themselves.  A large assemblage of the City Island oystermen was held in the court house, one evening recently.  John M. Bell, Esq., was chosen chairman.  Supervisor Sherman T. Pell and others addressed the meeting, dwelling particularly on the proper course to pursue to thwart such damaging attempts to rob our citizens of their privileges to make a living."

Source:  Pelham and City Island, The Chronicle [Mount Vernon, NY], Vol. XVIII, No. 956, Feb. 4, 1887, p. 2, col. 4.

Oystermen Dredging in Long Island Sound in 1883.
Source:  Harpers Weekly, Aug. 18, 1883. 

Below are links to more stories about Pelham's rich oystering traditions.    

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