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.

Tuesday, June 03, 2014

1885 Report to State Legislature Detailed Oyster Industry Off Shores of Pelham

In 1885, the Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of New York issued a gloomy report about the decline of oysters in New York waters.  The report focused on an area around City Island in the Town of Pelham as 'typical' of such declining oyster beds.

I have written before about this watershed report and have transcribed a New York Times article published in 1885 that summarized the report.  See Mon., Jul. 30, 2007:  1885 Report Notes Decline of Oyster Industry Near City Island in the Town of Pelham.   See also Wed., Mar. 17, 2010:  Report of September 13, 1884 Tour of Oyster Beds by Captain Joshua Leviness of City Island

Today's Historic Pelham Blog posting goes further.  It transcribes pertinent provisions of the report itself, as delivered the the New York Legislature on February 26, 1885.  In addition, at the end of this posting I have included a lengthy list of earlier postings that address the history of oystering off the shores of Pelham during the 19th century.  

The report provides a fascinating glimpse into the social mores that arose over decades among 19th century City Island oystermen.  Although they had questionable rights to stake off under water lands and cultivate them for oystering, they did so in a surprisingly peaceful manner (save for the occasional "Oyster Wars" with other communities).  As the report notes, for the most part honest City Islanders respected each other's perceived "rights" to cultivate the underwater areas that they claimed and improved and made an honest living by oystering.

FEBRUARY 26, 1885.

To the Legislature of the State of New York:

[Page 431] 

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City Island is located near the entrance of the East river into Long Island sound, in one of those numerous small bays which indent the shore line of Westchester county.  It is about fourteen miles, as the crow flies, or nineteen miles by river, from the City Hall, and is the center of a large and important oyster industry; in fact the people who find a home here represent as near a typical oyster community as can be found anywhere within a long distance of the metropolis, since there ar very few of the residents of the island, or so far as that goes, of its immediate vicinity, who do not gain their living, or the greater portion of it at least, by oystering, although within a few years the tide of summer visitors, which annually flows away from the supposed unbearable annoyances and unhealthy surroundings of city residences in summer time, has found some outlet here, and the island is getting to be quite a resort for, and the people of the island to derive quite a revenue from, those who cannot, or who do not care to go far away from the city during the warm portion of the year, to get a breath of what they would call pure air, and at the same time be near the water for the pleasures of boating and bathing.  Most of the land under water in the immediate vicinity of City Island and in the neighboring bays and coves along the shore of Westchester county was, fifty years ago or more, valuable oyster territory, and much of it still has natural beds of oysters growing upon it.  These beds, varying greatly in size, extend all along the shore to and beyond the Connecticut line.  Similar beds, although perhaps not so numerous or covering so great an area, are found upon the Long Island side of the river and Sound, and it is from these beds of either shore that the seed comes which is commonly called 'east river seed' with which a bed has been planted comes perhaps from Bridgeport or Norwalk or somewhere else in Connecticut or even from Port Jefferson harbor in the eastern section of Long Island.  Many of the oystermen, however, are dropping this old name, which indicates that the East river includes all the water out to the ocean, and they now speak of 'Sound seed,' or 'Connecticut seed,' when it comes from either the one or the other of these localities, and of 'East River seed,' when it comes from the neighborhood of City Island or nearer New York bay.  With probably few, if any, exceptions these coast or shore beds are much less productive at present time than they were years ago, and most of those oysters which are taken are small and are used almost exclusively for the purpose of stocking the planted or private beds.  The 'set,' or catch of young oysters, upon most of them each year is good, sometimes excellent, owing to the cleansing action of the tidal currents and the nearly constant turning and tumbling about which the shells and oysters get from the nearly incessant working of the oystermen upon them.  But while this working of the beds tends to facilitate the catching of the 'spat,' or young oysters, by aiding the tidal waters in cleansing the shells more thoroughly, it prevents the oysters from attaining to any respectable size, and, as there appears to be no close season recognized, the dredging and tonging continuing right along through the summer and fall months, for 'seed,' as it is said, thousand upon thousands, I might say millions, of the newly-attached young, and [Page 434 / Page 435] the young in all the stages of growth when the shell is thin and easily crushed, must inevitably be destroyed.

As might be expected this greedy and persistent working of the oyster territory has had a marked effect in diminishing the oyster areas, and in many places tracts that formerly were flourishing beds of native oysters, have, by this means, been completely ravished of their inhabitants, indeed I might say that all large oyster centers have been so depleted that practically they have ceased to be beds, and after thus being despoiled have been claimed as vacant, or not natural oyster territory, staked in, and appropriated for planting purposes, since any land upon which a person cannot get enough oysters to constitute a good day's work is generally considered by the oystermen as not natural oyster territory, and can be claimed for planted beds by the first person who finds and wishes to hold it, and in very many, perhaps the majority of cases, these exhausted localities, which have been claimed and planted, are now highly productive properties.  Just how much of the land along the north shore of the sound, which was originally oyster-bearing territory, and which having been exhausted, is now 'planted' property, it is impossible at the present time to say, but probably by far the larger portion of the land in the immediate vicinity of City Island which is now used as oyster-producing territory, belongs to the class of exhausted, natural oyster lands.  Not all of the exhausted land in this neighborhood, however, was depleted entirely by the working of the oystermen.  Some has been the result of the increase of sediment and dirt in the water, such as the sewerage and refuse material floated from the cities of New York and Brooklyn, and the dirt caused by the increased working along the shores, which, lodging upon the oysters, forms a slimy or dirty coating to the shells and upon which no young can then attach themselves.  The annual supply thus being cut off it did not take long to use up the adult oysters and so depopulate the bed.  The sediment, which was sufficient to prevent the attachment of the 'spat' and thus eventually cause the extinction of the beds, was not, however, of sufficient amount to prevent these localities from being excellent planting grounds; indeed the sediment and mud may have improved them in this respect, and accordingly they are to-day in excellent condition and produce great numbers of fine oysters for our markets.  The localities of these old natural oyster grounds are not the only locations where planted beds are now found around City Island, for a large part of the soft bottom upon which no oysters ever grew naturally, or at least with rare exceptions, is now planted, and the growth in most cases is fully equal and in many cases superior to that upon the old natural ground.  The reason for this is that the tides which serve to bring the sediment in in abundance, also bring plenty of that kind of food which the oysters need for their growth and undoubtedly more food is found when there is plenty of sediment than when the water is very clear.  The oyster business as a whole is therefore much greater than it was years ago and this has been brought about by the extension of the planted lands and at the expense of the natural beds.  Fifty or sixty years ago efforts were made in these waters to increase the supply of oysters by planting shells for the spat to attach themselves to, and about the same time the first stakes were stuck in the East river to mark off a bed for the purposes of planting.  These were probably [Page 436 / Page 437] the earliest attempts in this country in the direction of what has become, through the increased and still increasing demands of customers, a gigantic industry, that is, the increase, by means of cultivation, of the supplies to be obtained from the natural grounds.  And with the increase in the planted areas, came greater demands upon the natural beds for seed and the consequent depletion of many of them.  Up to the present time most of the seed used at City Island has been obtained from the natural beds near at hand, but it is becoming necessary for the oystermen to go farther and farther away each year for the required material to replant their beds, and soon it will be necessary to adopt some more certa in method for getting seed, over and above what can be obtained from the natural beds, than by throwing down old shels either upon the old beds, or upon new territory where they may become buried in the mud.  Further than this no systematic  efforts have ever been made at City island to collect the spat.  But in this direction thousands of bushels of shells since the initiative step was taken, have been thrown overboard here and in other sections of New York waters, somteimes with excellent results, sometimes with no results at all.  The fact is, few of the oystermen make a study of their business, as most farmers do of the demands of their farms, so as to introduce any improvements in their methods of work, or so as to enable them to explain, with some sort of reason, why their efforts are not more successful than they often are.  They are content to follow in the old rut until some one more enterprising than the rest shows them the value of a new road, when they eagerly 'follow their leaders' where they can see 'any money in it.'  At present few of the planted beds are worked, to any extent from the time the seed is placed upon them until the oysters are wanted for market, consequently the exact conditions of the beds are not known and the owners may find, when they come to harvest the crop, that the yield is anywhere from extra to nothing; and no efforts at all are made toward preserving or catching a portion at least of the immense number of embryos which are thrown out ever season into the overlying waters, by the occupants of the many planted beds.  Most of the men are trying to work entirely too much ground, apparently on the principle that it is much easier to get $100 worth of oysters from 100 acres, than to do the work which will bring in a return of $150 dollars from one acre.  The depth of the water over the beds near City Island is from two to seven or more fathoms, but it is not generally more than three, so that most of the work of gathering the oysters is done with oyster tongs, although in the deeper water the dredge is used, worked either from sailing vessels or from steamers.  Some of the vessels can work from two to four or five dredges, but not many work over one.  The dredge used in N.Y. State is limited in weight, by law, to a size not exceeding thirty pounds, and the majority of those worked in this vicinity are of full weight and have teeth upon the drag bar, but most of the oystermen are provided with dredges of different kinds suitable for work upon different kinds of bottom.  We visited City Island on the 13td day of September in the 'Lookout,' and had a meeting with the oystermen, the first gathering of the kind during the Investigation, at the court-house on the island, on the 24th day of November.  We had on board the 'Lookout' two dredges, one large one, of about thirty pounds in weight, with teeth, and a small one, with knife blade bars.  This smaller one was only suitable for work on muddy bottoms.  [Page 436 / Page 437]

"U.S. Steam Yacht Lookout Dredging"
Source:  State of New York No. 85 In Assembly, February 26, 1885.
Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of
New York In Charge of the Oyster Investigation in
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York
One Hundred and Eighth Session, 1885, Vol. VI, Nos. 68 to 114,
Inclusive, p. 437 (Albany, NY:  Weed, Parsons & Co. 1885).

[Page 437 / 438] [Blank Page] [Page 438/439] We also carried with us several ring dredges made of coarse cloth, which were used for gathering substances at or near the surface of the water.  In few, if any, instances did we get anything with these dredges except jelly fishes, two or three forms of etenophores, and a few specimens of floating sea-weed.  We used the large dredge on both the planted and the natural beds near City Island.  Our work on planted ground was on the land of Mr. Joshua Leviness, who is one of the oldest, if not the very oldest, of the planters in the East river.  He has about 150 acres of oyster territory under his control and uses steamers for the most part in gathering the oysters.  His beds were found to be in good condition with some refuse shells and a few drills among the oysters.  We gathered in one haul from these beds, after the dredge had been down one minute, 198 oysters, and a few mussels, clams and scollops [sic].  They were all of good size and fine flavor.  As a contrast to this, the most we could get from the natural bed upon which we next dredged were sixteen small oysters and a large number of old and dirty shells.  There was no 'set' to be seen upon either the planted or the native oysters, although it is stated that the set here is generally good.  The chief natural enemy of the oysters at City Island, and in this section of the East river and the Sound, is the drill (Urosalpinx cinerea), Plate 6, Fig. 13, a small species of univalve mollusk which bores a hole in the shell of the oyster and sucks out the contents.  The drill does not trouble the planted beds to any serious extent, but it is always when, in any considerable numbers, as it is on many of the sound beds, a source of great damage to the young of the natural oyster areas.  Some of the oystermen take pains to destroy all the drills that they catch in dredging for oysters, and if all oystermen would unit in this practice it would make a marked difference in the number of seedling oysters to be found on the beds each year, but unfortunately the most of the oystermen do not trouble themselves about relieving the beds of any thing but the oysters, returning the refuse material, drills and all, to the beds.  So long as this practice continues there will be plenty of drills upon the beds and as has already happened in many cases, these drills will be transported with the seed oysters to other and perhaps new localities, although when this seed is used simply for planted plots, and is not placed in the vicinity of any natural bed, the drills will not do any very serious harm.  There are some localities where it is claimed that great numbers of adut oysters have been destroyed by drills; we have found no evidence of this, however, so far in our investigation.  Sometimes a few periwinkles are found, and in some seasons the star-fish makes its appearance in great numbers and then destroys immense quantities of oysters, devastating bed after bed in its progress.  When such an immigration takes place it is necessary for the oystermen to bestir themselves lively, dredging up the unwelcome intruders and destroying them, or the results of years of labor will very soon be dissipated.  Fortunately this end of the Sound is not often troubled to any serious extent with this pest, but there are very few seasons when great damage is not caused farther east in the Sound waters, and it becomes a question of great moment with the oystermen of these regions how to best get rid of them and so prevent this periodical destruction.  It is not an infrequent occurrence for a single oysterman in the eastern part of the Sound to dredge up as many as seventy-five bushels of these animals in a day's work, and in certain [Page 439 / Page 440] localities a steamer can take, during the season when the star-fishes are most numerous, several hundred bushels in the same time.  It has been thought that it would be a good plan for the State to offer a reward for all that should be taken and destroyed, making the reward to cover only those taken in quantities of seventy-five or more bushels, so as to induce the oystermen to go out during their leisure time, specially rigged to capture these many-legged crawlers.

The lands under water in the neighborhood of City Island are held in very primitive style.  Each man originally staked out as much as he thought he wanted to use, or as he could get, placed oysters on a part or the whole of it, and henceforth claimed it as private property.  Very few planters can tell to-day how much land they are working and no public record is kept of it, or any return made for it to the State, county or town.  Each man is supposed to know where his own priperty lies, and so innocent and peaceable are the inabitants of this island of the waters that no only does each man know his own territory but also the territory occupied by his friends and neighbors, and accordingly neither covets nor appropriates his neighbor's goods, and, what is more to the purpose, not even his oysters.  It is a striking illustration of each right hand knowing what every other right hand, as well as what every left hand is doing and respecting the secrets of the fingers.  If we can believe what we hear, this is not only a typical but it is also a model community, where few crimes are committed and few punishments are meted out, and where even those ungodly outsiders, who are caught loitering over forbidden treasures, are sent away in charming confusion with the injunction to 'go and sin no more.'  The oystermen, as a rule are satisfied with the condition of affairs and cannot see in what respect they would be benefited by any change.  They do not think that any one man can work more from ten to twenty acres of ground, yet they would not think it right to limit him if his ambition did not rise above the hundreds.  If the State should conclude to deed or lease, for a long term of years, the private oyster lands to the present occupants, it might do very well; still they thought as the law now stands it would be no great gain, since they can now buy and sell their oyster plots nearly, if not quite, the same as if they were disposing of them under cover of a recorded or unrecorded deed.  In regard to the law in the case, the people of City island and those of various other oyster centers of the State are laboring under the mistaken impression that there is a State stature which allows any person to hold any amount of previously unoccupied land under water which he may stake off for the purposes of oyster culture, provided that at least fifty bushels of oysters per acre are kept upon the ground.  There is no such enactment.  This practice has, however, been accepted in our oyster regions, hence, it may be considered as common law, and the courts will maintain the rights of the planters to the property which is upon the beds, which, for all intents and purposes, means also the claims upon the lands, so long as the beds are worked.  Whether the courts would or would not admit any claims to any lands which may be staked in and not all of them worked, but simply held for what may be called 'a rise,' is not within our jurisdiction to know.  There is a statute, however, in regard to the lands under water in the State of New York, which appears to be still operative.  We find in section 2 of chapter 283 of the Laws of 1850, the following:  [Page 440 / Page 441]

'The powers conferred on the Commissioners of the Land Office by the first section of this act are hereby extended to lands under water and between high and low-water mark in and adjacent to and surrounding Long Island, and to all the part of the county of Westchester lying in the East or Hudson rivers or Long Island sound; but no grant made under this act shall extend beyond any permanent exterior water line established by law, and nothing contained in this act shall authorize the Commissioners of the Land Office to grant any lands under water belonging to the mayor, aldermen and commonalty of the city of New York, nor to interfere with any property, right or franchise of said corporation of the city of New York, or interfere with the rights of the Hudson River Railroad Company.'

If planters held beds or plots under grants from the Land Commissioners, there might be no question in regard to the decisions of the courts, but I am not aware that any of the oyster beds are so held.  There is anothe law point in regard to which there is very little knowledge among the oystermen.  Few, if any, are aware that there is a statute which was passed in 1879, which prohibits any one who has not been an actual resident and inhabitant of the State of New York for the period of six months previous to the beginning of work, from taking up, unless hired to do so by a resident, any kind of shellfish in our waters.  The oystermen say that they are not allowed to go into Connecticut or New Jersey waters, therefore people of these States ought not to be allowed to come into our State to take away our oysters, claims, etc.  The remedy is here; if outsiders are caught trespassing, and if the grievance is sufficiently great, then arrest and prosecute the trespassers, but the greater number of the oystermen probably think that it is better to watch their private beds, which they accordingly do, and thus prevent theft there, than to make very much fuss about those oysters which are taken by outsiders from the natural beds.  They act as if they believed that if the citizens of the State could not protect themselves, and hold their own on beds which were in home waters, against those who come from beyond the State limits, it would be better to lose such oysters as the outsiders might be able to gather rather than be to the trouble and expense of an arrest and prosecution.  

The people of City Island have two grievances which disturb them much more than does the intrusion of outsiders upon the natural oyster territory.  One is the dumping of garbage brought from the cities of New York and Brooklyn and the other the deprivation which they suffer from not being allowed to dredge for seed oysters along the shores of the Hudson river in State waters.  In regard to the first grievance, the oystermen say that a great many of the captains of the vessels which bring away garbage from the cities of New York and Brooklyn, instead of taking their loads beyond the limits established by law, dump the contents anywhere along the river and Sound where they think it will not be discovered and a charge made against them.  In this manner many localities have quite recently been rendered unfit for oyster planting, and many beds have been buried up and consequently destroyed, and the dumping is still going on.  The oystermen think that the laws in regard to dumping garbage should be rigidly enforced, but they do not stop very long to consider that they form a very [Page 441 / Page 442] important factor in regard to the enforcement of the laws, since if they would get positive evidence and report all instances of disregard of the laws, some definite action might be taken toward their enforcement.  They were informed that whenever any satisfactory and well substantiated evidence of the infringement of the laws, in regard to the dumping of garbage, should be furnished by them, that the Commissioner in charge of the Oyster Investigation would do his best to see that punishment was meted out to the offenders.  

In regard to the second source of grievances, the oystermen state that there are great quantities of natural growth oysters along the east bank of the Hudson river from the upper portion of the corporation limits of the city of New York, as far north as Sing Sing.  Most of these oysters lie in water over three fathoms in depth, and, as no one is allowed to work for them in any manner but with tongs and rakes, only a few can be taken, the rest being left to die in their beds from old age, or some of the other ills to which oysters are subjected.  It seems that the board of supervisors of Westchester county passed a loaw on the 7th day of January, 1877, prohibiting the use of dredges for the purposes of gathering oysters in that portion of the Hudson river which is within the jurisdiction of the county.  They also passed a law at the same time making a close season for all oyster work from the first day of June to the first day of September each year.  In Rockland county, which is just north of Westchester county on the Hudson, there is a law which prohibits non-residents from dredging in the waters of said county.  

The oystermen of City Island are pretty unanimous in the opinion that a close season, for two, three or four months, for oysters upon the natural beds, would be a good thing, hence they do not object to that portion of the law for Westchester county, but they think it unjust to be deprived of the privilege of using the only means whereby the oysters can be successfully taken from the greater number of the beds in the Hudson, and wish that the State would give them the privilege of using dredges in these waters.  On the 24th of September, I visited the neighborhood of Spuyten Duyvil creek, on the Hudson, with the 'Lookout' and made an examination of some of these beds which are found within the limits of Westchester county.  The dredgings which I made were in from eight to four fathoms of water, and I found that while there were a few oysters, the beds had a great deal of mud upon them and abounded in old and slimy shells.  From four hauls of the dredge I was able to obtain only fourteen oysters and most of these were quite small.

The abundance of shells indicates either that the bed is in a very poor locality and the oysters have been killed by mud sifting upon them, or else that, as the oystermen claim, they have died because the bed is not worked.  There may be many beds in the river which will give a much better showing than did this one, and formerly the Hudson was quite celebrated for the number and flavor of its oysters, but we did not have the time to extend our investigation any farther, except to make a few hauls of the dredge below the railroad bridge at Spuyten Duyvil creek, where we struck into quite a colony of small, soft-shelled clams." 

Source: State of New York No. 85 In Assembly, February 26, 1885. Report of the Commissioner of Fisheries of the State of New York In Charge of the Oyster Investigation in
Documents of the Assembly of the State of New York One Hundred and Eighth Session, 1885, Vol. VI, Nos. 68 to 114, Inclusive, p. 431, 434-442; Report pp. 1, 4-10 (Albany, NY: Weed, Parsons & Co. 1885). 

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

Tue., Feb. 04, 2014:  Pelham Once Was Oyster Capital of the World.

Thu., Mar. 25, 2010:  Discovery of "The Great Oyster Bed" in Long Island Sound in 1859.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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