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, May 18, 2016

Yet Another Pelham Oyster War: This One in 1881 Between Pelham and New Rochelle

One hundred twenty one years ago yesterday, on Friday, May 17, 1895, Pelham oystermen based on City Island assembled in a fleet of forty oyster sloops and headed for the waters off Matinecock.  According to one account, "[e]very man at the wheel had a double-barrelled shotgun across his knee, and in his weather-beaten face a look of fixed determination."

The Pelham oystermen were off to fight yet another "oyster war" -- another battle to protect their right to plant beds and harvest oysters in Long Island Sound.  In addition to the 1895 Oyster War about which I have written extensively (see below), there were local oyster wars in 1877, 1878, and 1884, as well.  Additionally, there were a host of lawsuits, arrests, and arguments over local oyster beds and allegations of oyster poaching.  At the end of today's posting I have included an extensive list of prior articles with links regarding Pelham's rich oystering traditions.

It seems that there were full-blown oyster wars, and then there were oyster skirmishes.  Today's posting to the Historic Pelham Blog details one such "skirmish" between Pelham oystermen and New Rochelle clammers off the shores of Hunter's Island in 1881.  The "skirmish" resulted in criminal charges and a trial of the New Rochelle clammers.

The oystering business in Long Island Sound was rife with potential for dispute.  The law recognized a distinction between "natural" oyster beds that were viewed as natural resources to be harvested by all in a first-come, first-served basis.  Private "planted" or artificial beds created by oystermen who found a pristine area without natural beds and planted oyster spawn to grow into a planted oyster bed belonged to the oysterman or oystermen who planted the bed.  They typically marked off the bed and protected it passionately against oyster thieves.

Of course, often other oystermen claimed the planting had been done on a natural bed and, thus, was ineffective at securing ownership of the bed.  Other times it was difficult to tell where natural beds ended and planted beds began.  At other times, unabashed thieves simply took what they could from planted beds before they were caught or run off.  

In 1881, John O. Fordham of City Island in the Town of Pelham claimed he owned private oyster beds northeast of City Island off the shores of Hunter's Island.  It seems that three young men from New Rochelle named Robert Graham, Richard Hanna, and William Odell were clamming in the area and raked up a large number of the oysters and greatly disturbed the beds.  This was not a simple case of New Rochelle men stumbling upon oyster beds, however.  All indications are, as one report stated, "For a year past there has been a constant warfare between the New-Rochelle and Pelham, or City Island, oystermen, owing to the disputed ownership of certain oyster-beds in the Sound off Hunter's Island."

Fordham pursued criminal charges against the three men who were indicted for the misdemeanor of "disturbing oysters" in a planted bed.  The three men were hauled before the Court of Sessions in White Plains for a criminal jury trial.

Prosecutors alleged that the defendants were raking clams on a private oyster bed owned by John O. Fordham of Pelham, thus "disturbing" the bed.  The three defendants defended that there were not on the private oyster bed of John O. Fordham but, instead, were raking clams on a bed owned by the father of Robert Graham, one of the defendants.  The jury returned a verdict of "not guilty."

The oystermen of City Island in the Town of Pelham had lost yet another oyster war, albeit a mere skirmish among the many battles.

Oystermen Dredging in Long Island Sound in 1883.
Source:  Harpers Weekly, Aug. 18, 1883.  NOTE:
Click on Image to Enlarge.

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Below is the text of a few articles written about the events that are the subject of today's posting.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.


There has for a long time been trouble among the oystermen on the Westchester side of the Sound concerning the ownership of the beds.  The dispute was finally carried into the courts in the shape of a criminal complaint against Richard Hanna, Robert Graham and William Odell, who, upon the testimony of John O. Fordham, of Pelham, were indicted for poaching on private oyster beds.  The case has been on trial two days before the County Court of Sessions.  Yesterday the jury rendered a verdict of 'Not guilty' and the prisoners were discharged.  The trial developed the existence of a very bitter feeling between the New Rochelle and the Pelham or City Island oystermen.  The City Island men accuse the New Rochelle oyster gatherers of constantly disturbing and otherwise destroying City Island beds.  The men on trial, it was charged, went upon the bed belonging to the complainant and carried away and destroyed a great many oysters.  Along the Westchester shore the Sound is liberally supplied with natural oyster beds.  These oysters are common property, but the City Island folks, it is claimed, are so very eager to keep others out that they complain of trespass without just cause.  The New Rochelle people also claim that the City Islanders have illegally staked off natural beds to keep rivals out.  This decision is considered a very important one and there will probably be other civil suits closely following with a view to determine by legal opinion what are natural and what are artificial oyster beds on the Westchester side of the Sound."

Source:  TROUBLE AMONG OYSTERMEN, N.Y. Herald, Oct. 13, 1881, p. 5, col. 5.  


The Court of Sessions reassembled at the Court-House in White Plains on Monday, the 10th inst., pursuant to adjournment -- present, County Judge Gifford and the Justices of Sessions.  The following cases were tried: . . . 

The People vs. Charles Graham, Wm. Odell, and Richard Hanna. -- Indicted for a misdemeanor, in 'disturbing oysters' in a planted bed of the bivalves in the waters of Long Island Sound adjoining the town of New Rochelle.  The indictment was found under the law in relation to the planting of oysters in private oyster-beds.  It was claimed that the defendants were raking for clams on the ground claimed as a private oyster-bed, belonging to Mr. Fordham, by which act the oysters were 'disturbed.'  The defense was that the defendants were not on the grounds of Fordham, but on those of Mr. Graham, father of one of the defendants, and that they had permission from the owner to rake for clams.  The jury rendered a verdict of not guilty. -- For the people, N. H. Baker, District Attorney, and M. J. Keogh; for the defendants, C. E. Kene and Francis Larkin. . . ."

Source:  OFFICIALLY REPORTED FOR THE JOURNAL.  COURT PROCEEDINGS. -- COURT OF SESSIONS, The People vs. Charles Graham, Wmm. Odell, and Richard Hanna, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Oct. 14, 1881, Vol. XXXVII, No. 27, p. 3, col. 4.  

"For a year past there has been a constant warfare between the New-Rochelle and Pelham, or City Island, oystermen, owing to the disputed ownership of certain oyster-beds in the Sound off Hunter's Island.  The fight culminated in the procuring of the indictment of Richard Hanna, William Odle and Robert Graham, of New-Rochelle, on the complaint of John O. Fordham, who alleged that they took oysters from and trespassed on his oyster-beds off City Island.  The case has just been tried at White Plains, and the three men acquitted, they proving that the beds in question did not belong to Mr. Fordham, but to Mr. Graham's father."

Source:  [Untitled], N.Y. Times, Oct. 13, 1881, p. 8, col. 4 (NOTE:  Paid subscription required to access via this link.).

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

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

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