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, December 02, 2014

Amusing Account of 1884 Hearing at City Island on Destruction of Oyster Beds

By 1884, the massive and rich oyster beds beneath the waters of Long Island Sound near City Island were suffering.  Scows from New York City were dumping tons of refuse, mud, and other noxious material into Long Island Sound, smothering the beds.

City Island oystermen clamored for relief.  Their livelihoods and oystering traditions were at risk.  

At about this time, New York State began an investigation to consider what legislation might be necessary to preserve the natural resources and protect the oystering traditions of the waters of the State.  State Fish Commissioner Eugene G. Blackford traveled the State and held a series of hearings to learn more about the status of the oystering industry and the views of oystermen regarding what legislation might best remedy the situation.

Blackford held one such hearing on City Island on November 24, 1884.  Oystermen from all over City Island attended the hearing including the Dean of the oystermen, Captain Joshua Leviness, who provided colorful testimony about the issues confronting the industry.

I have written about the testimony of Leviness on that occasion before.  See Mon., Mar. 22, 2010:  77-Year Old City Island Oysterman Joshua Leviness Reminisces in Testimony Provided in 1884.  

Recently I located another account of the testimony delivered by Joshua Leviness on the same occasion.  The account is noteworthy not only for its quaint (and condescending) descriptions of "sleepy old City Island" and its "sleepy little Court House," but also for its descriptions of the City Island oystermen and, more particularly, its efforts to convey the dialect used by Leviness when testifying.  A complete transcription of the account that appeared in the November 25, 1884 issue of the New-York Herald appears immediately below, followed by a citation to its source.  

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

Commissioner Blackford Enlightened by the Inhabitants of City Island.
City Refuse Dumped on the Oysters -- The State Investigation.

Fish Commissioner Eugene G. Blackford lit a new cigar yesterday morning and took a train at the Harlem river for Bartow-on-the-Sound.  Here he got into a big, fat, rumbling stage coach, drawn by a lazy horse and a driver who had an eye for twenty cent fares.  In time he reached the sleepy little Court House of sleepy old City Island, whose inhabitants are either pilots or oystermen.  On one corner was the tavern where a negro murderer's head is kept in pickle, and just beyond was the handsome little bay where a hundred craft rode at anchor over acres of fat, juicy oysters.

In the Court House were a tremendous green safe, a wooden railing, four benches, a table and a red-hot stove, around which sat a group of men with bronzed faces, furzy [sic] beards, big rubber boots reaching to their hips and great sou'wester hats.

Within five minutes all the hats were off and the ancient oystermen of City Island were deeply immersed in the 'cogibundity of cogitation' surrounding the State investigation as to the legislation required to increase and protect the oyster supply.  They were so impressed with the awful solemnity of the State of New York condescending to take an interest in their affairs that they stopped spitting on the stove and forgot to ask if it was definitely settled in 'York' as to whether Cleveland or Blaine had been elected.  Justice of the Peace Martin sat in lonely splendor close to Commissioner Blackford.


Captain Joshua Leviness, a gray haired oysterman with a mass of white whiskers and a wealth of blue shirt, from under which seemed to come his deep voice, said that he was born seventy-seven brief years ago and had been an oysterman at City Island for over sixty years.  

'This hyar practice of plantin' old shells on the nat'ral bed of oysters,' he observed, 'is hurin' the small oystermen.  The big uns get all the seed oysters and the little uns sit kinder loose around on the shore or go to the county poorhouses.  We don't pay any rent for our grounds, but the county 'thorities pertects us.  Do we watch fellers who want to steal our oysters?  Wal, yes; but, bless you, we don't 'low thieves here, nohow.  There's more oysters here now than there war fifty year ago, but the nat'ral beds are gitting spiled.  These hyar scows from York city come up here 'n dump right over our bed.  Am I sure?  Wal, b'gosh, when I find old clothes 'n mud 'n garbage smotherin' my oysters, and when I see these hyar scows dump thar, I've a right to be s'piscious, ain't I?  Great guns, why they're simply ruinin' of us!  Do star fish annoy us?  Wal, they mostly likes Connecticut oyster and, God bless 'em, they stays at New Haven.

'Do we want new laws?  Wal, we want a law as will pervent any man from dredgin' on the nat'ral beds from the middle of July till the middle of September.  We want another law which'll let us get our seed oysters on the Hudson River.  There's millions of oysters between Spuyten Duyvil Creek and Sing Sing, but we aint 'lowed to dredge for 'em.  Only the New Jersey folks can work the beds on the Hudson.  We also want a law keepin' out the Connecticut and New Jersey folks from our beds.  They won't let us at theirs, and it's only right, leastwise I think so, that we should have reg'lations same as other folks.  Last time our people went up to Tarrytown they put bullet holes in our sails.  I don't like the Connecticut idea of leasin' out the oyster grounds, for the rich 'll get richer and the poor folks 'll get left.'


'How many acres of water can a man honestly work?' asked Commissioner Blackford.

'Wal, John Jacob Astor could work the hull of Long Island Sound.'

'Yes, but what limitation as to the number of acres to be given to any one man would you recommend?'

' 'pears to me that 200 acres ought to be all that any man can work.'

This was about the substance of all the evidence taken during the day.  Captain Bell said that he knew of natural beds and planted beds being constantly ruined by garbage and mud dumped from New York scows.

Thomas Collins was a perfect picture of Sir Walter Scott, with his sloping features, wispy hair and high forehead.  He wore a rumpled blue and white shirt, and stuck two hickory colored fists into his side pockets.  He found that dredging for parts of brick houses, old cans, hoopskirts and cinders was not so profitable as dredging for oysters.  He saw a New York scow dump 500 tons of mud on an oyster bed and he thought it was a volcano.

'I'm sartin' sure,' he said, 'in favor of keepin' out from our beds people what don't b'long in the State, an' I want all the nat'ral beds free.  Why, when we went over to Long Island to get seed the folks over there said, 'Go 'way, you thieves.''

Mr. Collins looked inquiringly around at the Justice of the Peace and seemed very nervous.

'Fact is, sir,' he said to the Commissioner, 'as thar is no ladies present I'll use my tongue, for I know all the profane letters in the alphabet.  Those Long Island folks said, 'Go way, you ______ __ thieves.'  Thar!'

And the oystermen all sat bolt upright and looked frightened, expecting each moment, no doubt, to see the Justice of the Peace order Mr. Collins to be hanged.

After hearing a lot of similar testimony, Commissioner Blackford ate a meal of roast beef, turnips, oysters and boiled onions, and after lighting a fresh cigar came back to this city.  He will continue his investigations in all the oystering towns."

Source:  ALL ABOUT OYSTERS -- Commissioner Blackford Enlightened by the Inhabitants of City Island, N.Y. Herald, Nov. 25, 1884 - Triple Sheet, p. 10, col. 3.  

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

Mon., Dec. 01, 2014:  Jury Finds City Island Oystermen Guilty of Stealing Oysters from Planted Bed in 1878.

Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak." 

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