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, June 24, 2015

The 1895 Oyster War Involving City Island Oystermen - Part I

This is the first of a two-part series.  For both parts, see:

Wed., Jun. 24, 2015:  The 1895 Oyster War Involving City Island Oystermen - Part I.

Thu., Jun. 25, 2015:  The 1895 Oyster War Involving City Island Oystermen - Part II.

It was early spring in the year 1895.  Another oyster war was at hand.  City Island oystermen and others readied forty sloops to descend upon the waters above 2,000 acres of natural oyster beds off the shore of Matinecock, Long Island.  With rumors of the oystermen's flotilla afoot, a local judge in Matinecock ordered a friendly Sheriff to protect the oyster beds.  The Sheriff assembled fifteen armed deputies and police officers and commandeered a tugboat named, ironically (though, perhaps, appropriately), the "Golden Rule" to transport the tiny army to the oyster beds and to conduct the protective patrol ordered by the judge.

The City Island oystermen were convinced that a man named George M. Fletcher, President of the Matinecock Oyster Company, was behind efforts to use friendly local courts and friendly (and armed) local police to secure oyster beds that City Island oystermen believed were public and available to be harvested by all.   In their view, the Matinecock Oyster Company was unlawfully trying to expand the oyster beds it controlled beyond the 200 acres of beds that all recognized to be the company's off Matinecock Point.  The company successfully obtained a lease, confirmed by the State legislature, of its 200 acres of beds.  In an apparent belief that it would succeed in obtaining leases for a much larger area, however, the company apparently had seeded nearly 2,000 acres of natural oyster beds in the same area.  Though the company did not receive the leases it sought, it believed it had a vested interest in the beds it had seeded.  More importantly, the company clearly was prepared to protect that investment.

In addition to preparing their invasion, the City Island oystermen also believed that they had an ace up their sleeve.  They had retained a lawyer and had a lawsuit of their own ready to file against the company.  The waters off City Island in the Town of Pelham were on the brink of another oyster war.  

What was really going on here?  The dean of City Island oystermen, Joshua Leviness, previously had testified in unrelated proceedings that a single, diligent oysterman could work up to 200 acres of oyster beds effectively.  The Matinecock Oyster Company was not a single oysterman.  It was a company intending to control the ever-shrinking oyster beds of Long Island Sound that had been worked by individual City Island oystermen and others for generations.  City Island oystermen, in short, believed that no man should work more than the 200 acres that all believed were the outer limits of what was possible for a single oysterman.

Moreover, the City Island oystermen believed that the lease obtained by the Matinecock Oyster Company was procured through fraud.  Such leases could only be awarded for barren underwater lands that then could be prepared and seeded to create new oyster beds.  The aggrieved oystermen pointed out that dredging the area brought up huge oysters known as "double extras" that were ten to twelve years old, thus proving that the lease applications claiming the area was barren were fraudulent.

To the City Island oystermen, this was a matter of principle.  They, the everyday working men of City Island who had made their living in the oyster industry for generations, felt obliged to fight the incursion of a company that hoped to control and improve the natural oyster beds that the City Island oystermen felt were a public resource to be exploited through the hard work and sweat of industrious individual oystermen.  

The City Island oystermen also were concerned with the nature of the beast they were readying to fight.  The Matinecock Oyster Company was incorporated in 1893.  Two years later, in 1895, its President was George M. Fletcher.  Its Secretary was William J. Young of Oyster Bay, known locally as "Boss Billy Young."  Its treasurer, also of Oyster Bay, was Samuel Y. Baylis.  See LONG ISLAND INSTITUTIONS - Financial, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle Almanac 1895, Vol. X, [First Edition], p. 83 (Brooklyn, NY:  Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 1895).  By 1895, Boss Billy Young reputedly was the largest shareholder of the Matinecock Oyster Company.  

It seemed there would be an epic battle.  City Island oystermen joined in the fray.  Oystermen from Bayville, Long Island were instrumental as well.  In fact, the first oysterman to be arrested for allegedly encroaching on the disputed oyster beds and to be criminally charged was Sidney Weeks of Bayville.  He was tried in Glen Cove, Long Island on Tuesday, May 21, 1895.  "The company proved the loss of a lot of oysters and appeared to make out a fair case, but the defense knocked it sky high, notwithstanding the apparent bias of the court, and the jury returned a verdict of not guilty."  Source:  Oyster Monopolists Beaten, Antique Archives, Jul. 28, 2008 (citing Boss Youngs's Land Grabbing Gets a Severe Upset, The Long Island Farmer [Jamaica, NY], May 24, 1895, p. 1).  

 Late Thursday, May 16, 1895, the oystermen held a "council of war."  The oystermen agreed to "seize" the oyster beds claimed by Matinecock Oyster Company the following day in defiance of the company and the injunction it had obtained.  

Early on Friday, May 17, 1895, the oystermen assembled in a fleet of forty oyster sloops and headed for the waters off Matinecock.  "Every man at the wheel had a double-barrelled shotgun across his knee, and in his weather-beaten face a look of fixed determination."  Off the shore of Matinecock they began dredging and dragging in "oysters by the hundreds of bushels."   

The few "guards" watching over the beds fled and spread the alarm that a pirate fleet had seized the beds and were harvesting oysters.  The company president, George M. Fletcher, hustled to the scene with two deputy sheriffs.  Though the group bobbed about in a boat shouting to every skipper that he was trespassing and engaged in larceny, the tiny group was met with nothing but "derisive smiles."  Before their very eyes, each of the sloops continued dragging up bushels and bushels of oysters until they had taken more than one thousand bushels were collected.  At nightfall, the sloops hove up anchors and taunted Fletcher and the Deputy Sheriffs saying "Good night! Good night! . . . We go home, but trusting to God and a fair wind we will be back to-morrow."

Fletcher would have none of it.  Overnight he arranged for the small steamer tug named the "Golden Rule" and fifteen armed men to assist him with stopping the oyster pirates.  Early the next morning, the tug was hidden out of sight within an inlet near Matinecock.  Soon, the oyster pirates were back on the beds.

The tug burst out of the inlet under a full head of steam.  An alert oysterman saw what was happening and blew a pre-arranged warning signal from a trumpet.  The chase was on as the oyster sloops scattered.  

The tug bore down on two sloops that were nearest.  The first was the "Westchester" captained by "Lobster Pete" Curran of City Island.  The second was the "Katie G." captained by Augustus D. Merritt (also of City Island), who was having trouble with his sloop.   The Golden Rule took off after Lobster Pete first.

For two hours the steamer tried to run down Lobster Pete's sloop.  Finally, with one of his crew on the mast as a lookout, Lobster Pete maneuvered his sloop between rocks into shallow water near the New York shore where the larger tug could not maneuver.  Lobster Pete taunted the tug from a distance while it peeled off after Captain Merritt and the Katie G. which was finally underway.

Captain Merritt wasn't quite the sailor as Lobster Pete.  During the cat and mouse game of the chase, Merritt tacked too close to the steamer and three armed men leaped into his sloop.  He attempted to pull the tiller hard over and sweep the boom across the deck to knock the men overboard.  Just as the boom swept them and pinned them near the taffrail right before knocking them overboard, the sheet hung up on the tiller and saved the men.  Six more leaped into the sloop and Merritt soon was in irons.  

The police took Merritt to City Island, of all places, to place him in front of a justice.  On City Island, things got ugly. A crowd of nearly 400 angry City Islanders gathered on the wharf where the tug had docked. They circled about the prisoner and police and “laid their hands on their weapons.” They angrily threatened to rescue Merritt from his captors. Only Merritt prevented violence, telling his friends and neighbors to let the law take its course and vowing to fight in court. Still the angry crowd continued “to growl at the police and to jeer them” as Merritt was carted away to jail. Within days, it appears, several more of the oystermen were identified and charged.

[End of Part I - Articles and Images Constituting the Research for this Posting Appear Below.]

*          *          *          *          *

Apr. 21, 1895, p. 5, cols. 1-5.

Sketches of City Island Oystermen Including "Lobster Pete" Curran.
Source:  WILL DEFY THE SHERIFF, The World [NY, NY],
Apr. 23, 1895, p. 8, cols. 2-3.

Oystermen to Dredge at Matinecock Point To-Day Despite the Officers of the Law.
The Men Have Been Enjoined from Trespass, but Their Lawyer Advised Them to Dredge -- Trouble Feared.

The situation at City Island is getting more strained every day, and a clash between the law officers and the oystermen may occur at any time at the Matinecock oyster beds.

President George M. Fletcher, of the Matinecock Company, had a long conference with his lawyer, William J. Youngs went before Justice Barnard in Long Island City and secured an injunction restraining all fishermen from encroaching upon the grounds leased to the company by the Fish Commission of the State of New York.

Judge Barnard sent for Sheriff Dohl and instructed him to see that the Court's orders were carried out.  The tug Golden Rule was engaged by Sheriff Dohl, who, with Deputy Sheriff Billings and fifteen other deputies and police, proceeded to the oyster beds and watched for a possible raid.  They remained under Glen Cove Point all night in readiness to meet the projected descent of the oystermen this morning.

The City Islanders have decided to make a descent on the beds on the advice of their lawyer, Henry Clay Henderson, of No. 68 Broad street, this city.  Twenty-five sloops are ready to start this morning.  Capt. Curran, of the Westchester; CCapt. John Price and Augustus D. Price, of the Katie G., called on the lawyer yesterday.  He made preparations to begin suit against George M. Fletcher, President of the Matinecock Oyster Company; Samuel P. Billings, Deputy Sheriff of Queens County, and Sergt. John Egan,, of the Long Island Railroad police, for false arrest and kidnapping.  The papers will be served to-day.  

'Now,,' said Mr. Henderson, 'my advice to you is to go right ahead and dredge the oyster beds off Matinecock Point.'

'When can we start?' asked 'Lobster Pete' Curran.

'Immediately,' replied Lawyer Henderson.  'Nobody has any right to stop you, provided you do not encroach upon the 200 acres of the Matinecock Oyster Company's preserves.'  

'But we never have,' said 'Lobster Pete.'  'Where we are dredging is outside their preserves.'

'I am sure of that,' said Mr. Henderson.

'Then, be ------ if we don't start at sun-up to-morrow,' said 'Lobster Pete.'  'If it comes to a killing they'll outrage the law, not us.'

Lawyer Henderson and the skippers went to the office of the Fish Commission, No. 53 Broadway.  A clerk showed the official survey of the holdings of the Matinecock Oyster Company to Lawyer Henderson.  The survey shows a rectangle with an area of 200 acres, bearing northwest about one thousand yards from Matinecock Point.  

The oystermen protested they had never dredged in that section.  The clerk said the grounds would be resurveyed on Thursday.  Mr. Henderson said the legality of the company's claim to the 200 acres was not questioned, and if they staked that off honestly there would be no further trouble with the oystermen.  He held a consultation with instructions to go to the beds and dredge to their hearts' content.

'This whole matter is an outrage,' said Mr. Henderson.  'We don't question the right of this monopoly to prevent these poor, hard-working oystermen from dredging oysters on the 200 acres that the State has leased to them.  They have a right to drive them away, for the Legislature by statute has legalized that lease, but this corporation is not seeking to be honest.  Not satisfied with its 200-acre holding, it seeks to pre-empt the whole 2,000 acres of that bed of natural growth of oysters.  As a matter of fact, the rich corporation spent, as they claim their $25,000 in planting seed oysters over the whole bed in the hope that they would get leases for the whole bed, and now that they find they cannot secure the whole property, they are trying to frighten the oystermen away.'

Judge Charles Billings, before whom the oystermen's case come up Friday, said last night:  'The situation up here is more alarming than is generally believed.  Both sides believe they have the law on their side, and both are equally determined.  It is a very serious issue if the law is not permitted to take its course, as we trust it will be.  Several Bayville oystermen came over to me late this afternoon and wanted to swear out warrants against the Matinecock Company, because, they claimed, the corporation was removing oysters from the bed by steam dredges [which was barred by law].  I couldn't issue the warrants for lack of jurisdiction, but it shows how bitter they are.'

Late last night Deputy Sheriffs Billings and Lucas arrested Capt. Weeks, of the Bayville fleet, on the charge of poaching on the Matinecock oyster beds.  Weeks showed fight, but was overpowered and locked up in the jail at Glen Cove."

Source:  WILL DEFY THE SHERIFF, The World [NY, NY], Apr. 23, 1895, p. 8, cols. 2-3.

Warrants Issued Against the Alleged Oyster Pirates.
He refuses to Call Upon the Naval Militia Unless All Ordinary Means of Suppression Are First Used. . . .

(Special to the Eagle.)

Oyster Bay, L. I., April 20 -- the Matinecock oyster pirate war now in progress waxes warm.  The tug loaded with deputies, which was sent yesterday to the scene of depredation, found eleven boats at work, but no arrests were made.  The so-called pirates claim fraud in the manner in which the leases were procured.  They argue the beds thus secured by the Matinecock company are and always were known as natural growth oyster beds and as such are open to all.  The officers of the company are very reticent about the further action they intend to pursue, but it is known that a telegram has been sent to Governor Morton giving a statement of the facts and it is believed that if the sheriff finds his force inadequate to suppress the pirates, he will request the aid of the naval reserves.  In addition to this charge of larceny and misdemeanor under chapter 320 of laws of 1894, the alleged pirates will be prosecuted under charges of conspiracy, and civil suit for damages will also be brought immediately for loss of property.  Warrants were issued by Justice Billings this morning for the arrest of the boats.  This form of procedure by a recent amendment to the penal code is made possible and the warrants will be served to-day.  Feeling runs high and opinions differ widely as to the outcome."

Source:  LATEST LONG ISLAND NEWS -- Warrants Issued Against the Alleged Oyster Pirates, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 20, 1895, p. 7, col. 3.  

"An Appeal Made to Governor Morton.

(Special to the Eagle.)

Albany, N. Y., April 20 -- A telegram was received this afternoon by Governor Morton from the Mattinecock Oyster company of Queens county, which has its headquarters at Oyster Bay, announcing that parties believed to be armed had seized its oyster beds.  The sheriff of the county had taken a force to disperse the pirates, but, the dispatch said, in the event of the sheriff's failure, the company would look to the governor to send the naval militia to its aid.  The company is a chartered corporation and leases its oyster beds from the state.  Governor Morton sent a reply by telegraph to the effect that he should first expect the sheriff to exhaust all his resources in suppressing the trouble before state aid could be looked for.  Colonely Ashley W. Cole said that in the event of the naval militia being ordered into service the troops would go to the scene of warfare on the New Hampshire, a sailing vessels, which it would be necessary to tow to the point where the trouble exists."

Source:  An Appeal Made to Governor Morton, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 20, 1895, p. 7, col. 3.

Forty Sloops Driven From the Matinecock Beds at Pistol Point.
Her Captain, 'Lobster Pete,' Ran Her Through the Rocks, Where a Pursuing Tug Could Not Follow.
Sheriff Billings Put Her Captain in Irons, and a Rescue Was Threatened at Oyster Cove -- Men Are Bitter.

The bitter feelings of the oystermen around City Island against the Matinecock Oyster Company's monopoly of the oyster-beds reached an acute stage last Thursday.  That day a counsel [sic] of war was held by the men and it was determined to seize the oyster-beds in defiance of the company's privilege.

Early Friday morning a fleet of forty sloops spread their sails to the early breeze and sped out upon their piratical expedition.  Within an hour they had dropped anchor off Matinecock and were dragging in the oysters by the hundreds of bushels.  Every man at the wheel had a double-barrelled [sic] shotgun across his knee, and in his weather-beaten face a look of fixed determination.  

The guards of the Matinecock Oyster Company were daunted.  They fled, carrying the alarming tidings to their masters, that the pirate fleet had seized  the beds.  President Fletcher acted promptly.  Taking with him two deputy sheriffs, he swooped down upon the fleet.

'I warn you to get off my preserves.  This is private property, and every man who takes an oyster hence is guilty of larceny,' he shouted to every skipper.  He was met with derisive smiles and [illegible].  Before his eyes they continued to drag up bushel after bushel of oysters.  Over one thousand bushels were taken that day.  Then when nightfall came the saucy little fleet calmly hove up anchors and was wafted homeward.

'Good night!  good night! cried the skippers over the water to the abashed patrol.  'We go home, but trusting to God and a fair wind we will be back to-morrow.'


President Fletcher hustled.  A summary meeting of the company was called and the Town Hall of Oyster Bay fairly rang with their indignation that Friday night.  A messenger was sent to the Sheriff of Queens County, calling upon him in the name of the law to protect the property of the Matinecock Oyster Company from the oyster pirates.  He promised aid.

The big tug Golden rule, of Brooklyn, Capt. Bacon, was engaged.  Late Friday night she started from Long Island City with her cabin full of policemen and deputy sheriffs, in charge of Sergt. John Egan and Officers Drall and Alvan.  There were fifteen of them in all -- all armed and prepared to shed blood if it came to a fight, and they expected it would.  

It was past midnight when the little man-of-war tied up to the dock at Glen Cove.  There a council of war was held with Deputy-Sheriff S. P. Billings, who was on the ground.  He took command of the vessel and the party slept on their arms.


Bright and early yesterday morning [i.e., Saturday, April 20, 1895], the Golden Rule, with President Fletcher and his armed guard steamed furtively out of the cove and took a concealed position in an inlet near Matinecock Point.  There they were joined by a World reporter and an artist.  

Mean time the oyster fleet had arrived.  Anchors were down and the dredges were hard at work.  

Suddenly from the ambush the Golden Rule shot out under a full head of steam.  She bore down upon the fleet with tremendous speed.  A fifteen-knot breeze was blowing from the westward, and the waters of the Sound were covered with angry white-caped waves, the spray of which dashed over the pilot-house as the little steamer buried her nose in the sea.


But a surprise had been frustrated by the alert lookout in the pirate fleet.  A warning trumpet gave a hoarse blare.  Quick as thought dredges came up, anchors were weighed, the graceful pirates spread their pinions to the fierce but friendly breeze, and bore away to the southward.

But ill luck followed two of the most daring of the fleet.  The sloop Westchester, Capt. Peter Curran, known throughout the waters of the Sound as 'Lobster Pete,' and far-famed for his gallantry and dauntless nerve, got in 'irons.' Capt. Augustus D. Merritt, of the Katie C., got his mainsail stuck, and was in a predicament as bad as that of the dauntless Peter.  Steadily and swiftly the Golden Rule bore down upon the two unfortunate craft.

'Surrender,' cried Deputy-Sheriff Billings to 'Lobster Pete.'

'I'll be d----d first,' came back the hoarse answer.

'That's the man we want,' cried President Fletcher.

'Yes that's him; with him at large this fight will last all summer,' cried Sergt. Eagan.


'Bear down on him and run him down if we must,' shouted the Sheriff, and the sturdy nose of the Golden Rule was pointed at the broadside of the trim little Westchester. 

For a full minute the fate of the little sloop hung in the balance.  'Lobster Pete' toiled manfully at his tiller and sheet and both of his sailor men ran forward and pushed the fluttering jib into the wind.  The little sloop would not fall off.  She hung in the wind there like a wounded bird.  On rushed the Golden Rule.  Two hundred yards--one hundred yards--fifty yards remained between her and her prey.  Then the wind shifted two points more around to the westward and blew harder.

The great sail filled and the skipper threw his wheel hard to starboard, and the little boat thrilled with energy.  Off she went to the southward with every inch of her canvas spread, and showed her heels to her pursuers.

'Catch me and I am your meat,' cried Skipper Curran as the Golden Rule hurried on in the West Chester's wake.


There were four miles ahead of good open running, but the steam is swifter than the sloop.  The Golden Rule was almost upon the Westchester when she went over to the port tack.

In a moment the Golden Rule rushed by, and both boats were hurrying away from each other as fast as steam and sail could carry them.

Then the Golden Rule put about and started anew after the fugitive, now making for the Long Island shore.  Again and again 'Lobster Pete' repeated the trick of tacking, each time gaining a cable's length on his pursuers.  

For two hours thus the chase continued.  Gradually the two boats had worked there way over to the lee of the New York shore.


Then it was that a lookout scrambled up to the crosstrees of the sloop's mast.  

'Look out for rocks!' shouted Skipper Curran.  'Sing out when you sight any.  I'll lead these fellows to a merry chase!'

'He's trying to run her on the rocks,' said Capt. Bacon.  'He'll take us in a trap if we don't look sharp.'

A moment later the lookout sang out:  'Scotch Cap buoy two points to starboard -- there are rocks, sir!'

Curran altered his course and made for the rocks.  The breeze had freshened, and the little sloop was holding her own with the steamer.  Nearer and nearer drew the ugly looking rocks.

The waters seethed and churned between them, but Curran kept on.  Five minutes more and he would either pile his boat a shapeless wreck upon the shoals, or by marvellous seamanship take her over them into waters where she would be safe from pursuit, for the big tug draws twelve feet, while the Westchester's draught is not three feet.

On went the little craft, while her pursuers wondered at her skipper's daring.

She was nearly upon the rocks.  The Golden Rule was almost upon her, for the wind had lightened.  


Suddenly the West Chester altered her course three points and dashed in between two rocks, the entrance between which was so narrow that the big sharp pieces of granite almost scraped her sides.  Then she jibed and went scudding safely through the breakers into smooth water, and was safe.  Even the enemy cheered her as she dropped anchor and her skipper waved defiance at the thwarted pursuers.

Abandoning all hope of capturing the Westchester, the Golden Rule returns to the fishing ground in quest of Capt. Merritt, and the Katie G.  The skipper had just filled away, and another exciting chase began.


By jibing and going about wherever the Golden Rule came within striking distance, Skipper Merritt avoided his pursuit for hours.  Finally, however, he was caught.  In going about he brought his stern within two feet of the tug's side.  Sergt. Egan and three men then leaped upon the sloop.  'You have no right on my ship; leave her or I'll knock you all overboard,' cried the captain.  

'You are under arrest,' cried Sergt. Egan.

'The overboard you go,' shouted Merritt.  He put his tiller hard over, the ship jibed suddenly and with tremendous force the big boom swept across the deck.  The police were thrown from their feet and would have been swept overboard had not the sheet caught in the tiller and stopped the boom just as it had dragged the policemen to the taffrail.  

Six men followed them over from the Golden Rule.


'Put the cuffs on him,' said the Sergeant, 'he's a dangerous man,' and Capt. Merritt was overpowered and put in irons.  Afterwards he promised to make no further resistance, and he was permitted to have the freedom of the cabin of the Golden Rule.  His sloop was left in charge of the crew, and the prisoner was taken down to City Island as it was thought best to have the Justice there indorse the warrant.  There was some doubt if the officers had authority to arrest in Westchester County on a warrant issued in Queens County.  

There was a great demonstration when the Golden Rule, with her prisoner, arrived.  Four hundred men surrounded the ship.  Daniel Mulligan led them.

'Let's rescue him, boys,' he cried, and the crowd made a dash for the officer.  They formed a circle about the prisoner and laid their hands on their weapons.  Then Merritt shouted out:

'Boys, my arrest is an outrage, but let the law take its course,' and they quieted down, though they still continue to growl at the police and to jeer them.  The prisoner was taken to Glen Cove, where Justice Billings held him in $400 for trial Saturday next.


'We have a right to dredge in this ground and we are going to fight it to the Court of Appeals if necessary,' said Merritt.  'That is a natural-growth oyster bed and the Fish Commission have no right to lease it to anybody.'

'We have spend $35,000 on that property,' said President Fletcher, 'and we shall make a bitter fight.  The State is bound to protect us.  If our case cannot be protected against pirates, then the State must reimburse us.  That is what we want to establish.'

A meeting of the oystermen will be held to-morrow at City Island.  John Price, jr., will preside.  Mr. Price said last night that the fleet would go to the oyster bed again Monday.  In that event there will probably be another clash.  Wise heads among the oystermen are counselling moderation, but they are determined men.  Equally so are President Fletcher and his men."

Source:  CHASED OYSTER PIRATES, The World [NY, NY], Apr. 21, 1895, p. 5, cols. 1-5.

Apr. 21, 1895, p. 5, cols. 2-3.

Deputies Start for Oyster Bay to Serve an Injunction. 
Asked to Define Oyster Bed Boundaries, as the "Pirates" Claim They Have Not Trespassed. 

OYSTER BAY, L.I., April 22. -- The oyster war is now practically at a standstill, pending developments.  Judge Barnard to-day, after listening to the arguments of William J. Young and Counselor Stoddard, issued an injunction restraining all parties from dredging or taking oysters from the grounds now claimed by the Matinecock Oyster Company. . . . "

Source:  TO STOP OYSTER PIRACY, N.Y. Times, Apr. 23, 1895. 


Shell Fish Commissioner Thompson Will Settle the Oyster War.
Claims of the Matinecock Company and the Oystermen Clearly Stated. . . . 

(Special to the Eagle.)

Oyster Bay, L. I., April 26--The survey of the Matinecock oyster beds which was to have been made yesterday will not be made until Monday, when Edward Thompson, the president of the Northport Publishing company, whose nomination was yesterday confirmed by the senate as a member of the fish and game commission, will conduct the investigation.  He has been selected as the shell fish commissioner of the board and as he is highly thought of as a man of sound common sense and absolute impartiality, the people hereabouts interested in the oyster dispute look to a speedy and amicable settlement of the existing troubles.  The oystermen are resting on their oars, so to speak, and no developments are looked for until Monday, though yesterday the Matinecock company's steam dredge C. N. Hoyt was at work all day on the disputed oyster beds.

Mr. Thompson's appointment is not looked upon favorably by the oystermen.  They call him a monopolist oyster planter and say that in the pending oyster planter and say that in the pending oyster trouble his sympathies will be with the Matinecock company.  Ten or twelve years ago he laid claim to a bed of natural oysters in the sound, off Smithtown.  He was then foreman of the St. Johnland farm.  He arrested one William Piroth who was tried for stealing oysters before Judge Huntington.  A judgment of $250 was taken against Piroth and the Oyster Bay oystermen helped pay the money.

A preliminary survey of the boundaries of the oyster beds will be made this afternoon by Mr. Ford of the firm of Ford & Balch, New York city.

The history of the oyster war goes back to two years ago, when the Matinecock Oyster company was formed with George M. Fletcher as president; Jacob Smith, vice president; Samuel Y. Bayles, treasurer, and William J. Youngs, secretary.

For many years the land under water in Long Island sound, at and around Matinecock Point, has been dredged and raked at will by the oystermen generally and proved a source of considerable revenue, as it abounded in natural growth oysters from seed to marketable size.  It has been the custom of many of the local oystermen to go down there every year and procure large quantities of seed without any expense save that incurred in taking it up.  

After its incorporation the Matinecock company made application to the state fish commissioners for a perpetual lease of land under water near Matinecock Point and after the desired land had been duly advertised by the commissioners it was sold to this company, who was the highest bidder.  Buoys ere placed and the lands properly marked, the tract containing 200 acres.  Then came the first opposition on the part of the oystermen, who, it is said, removed the stakes, sunk [sic] the buoys, thus destroying the boundaries and putting the company to much expense.  Notwithstanding all this the company planted quantities of shells and seed oysters, and no trouble arose until last week, when Samuel Y. Bayles went to Matinecock and discovered eleven vessels from City Island and Bayville engaged in removing the oysters from the company's grounds.  Then came the call on the sheriff and the attack on the so-called pirates.

The company's side of the case is thus stated by ex-President Huntington of the fish commission, who said:

There was great complaint at the time made by oyster dredgers, who represented that their means of support was being taken away and that the oyster grounds were being turned into private property.  As a matter of fact, the state never leases an acre of ground on which there is any oyster growth.  The ground is absolutely barren of oysters and the lessees cultivate it just as they would a patch of potatoes or anything else.  They cultivate a bed which previously benefitted no one until they make a good profit for themselves, and at the same time hand over a respectable revenue to the state.  A certain class of men opposed this movement from the first and have an idea that all oyster plants are common property.  There has always been more or less thieving going on on the Long Island coast, but this is the first time that I have ever heard of a regular raid.  A whole fleet of boats swooping down and getting away with 9,000 bushels of oysters from a private plant is rather a bold stroke.  A number of persons made out affidavits to the effect that a man could make $5 or $6  a day off the 200 acres leased to Fletcher & Youngs, and we made an investigation.  We took a steamer and for two days dredged the territory and in that time never found an oyster.  It is right that these men should be protected in their industry.  They have leased 200 acres from the state for a period of fifteen years, and they have already laid out hundreds of dollars in the enterprise.  The state regards it as a misdemeanor for any one to trespass on these leased beds.

The oystermen's version of these claims as given by one of themselves is as follows:

Application to the fish commissioners for a lease of oyster ground are required to be made by presenting a prescribed form signed by three men, who are supposed to swear that the ground is clear of all natural growth and has been for the past five years.  William E. Townsend made such application and presented signatures for land lying east of Matinecock Point, which is more or less soft bottom.  Then he took these applications, not fully made out when signed, filled them out and applied for a lease of land to the westward of the point, upon which was a large natural growth of oysters.  Two years ago the Matinecock company made an affidavit that there was at that time no natural growth and had not been for five years.  It planted on those grounds quantities of shells and also seed oysters, and now, after the lapse of two years, are taking up oysters from these grounds, among which are all sizes, from 1 year old to those of 10 or 12 years' growth, known as double extras.  This alone is prima facie evidence that fraud was practiced and that the ground is natural growth ground, as shells have never been known to turn into the largest and finest oysters in two years.  These oysters were there when the ground was leased, and this is the point raised by the oystermen, and they regard it as their right and legitimate field of action. . . . "

Source:  LATEST LONG ISLAND NEWS -- Shell Fish Commissioner Thompson Will Settle the Oyster War, The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Apr. 26, 1895, p. 7, col. 3.  

[See Tomorrow's Posting to the Historic Pelham Blog for Part 2]

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

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