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.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Nineteenth Century Fake News: Announced Discovery of Another Great Oyster Bed in 1871 Led to a Near "Oyster Riot"

For many years in the mid-19th century, the former oyster beds off of Eatons Neck in Long Island Sound opposite Stamford had been barren.  Oystermen who dared venture into the area could grapple with their tongs for hours on end without raising a single oyster.  Most never even tried.  There were no oysters off Eatons Neck.

In June, 1871, everything seemed to change.  One day a highly-respected and honest East River oysterman maneuvered his schooner into the docks of the oyster centers of New York City.  The schooner was partially filled with 150 bushels of "wondrously large" oysters from what he described as a "new bed of oysters" of exceptional quality and "inexhaustible quantity."  

The news was electrifying.  Oystermen of the region had dreams of plump oysters dancing in their heads and recalled only twelve years earlier the discovery of the Great Oyster Bed in 1859 that made so many City Islanders and other oystermen wealthy.  See:

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

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

City Island oystermen and others throughout the region were eager to learn of the location of the secret bed.  They badgered the schooner captain and convinced him to agree to reveal the location of his discovery in exchange for a payment of $500 -- the same price paid to the oysterman twelve years earlier who revealed the location of the Great Oyster Bed discovered in Long Island Sound in 1859.  The oystermen raised the money through "subscriptions" whereby each who participated paid between $1 and $10 until the $500 was raised and paid.

Within a short time, more than one hundred oyster boats -- large and small -- were sailing along behind the schooner leading the way to the new "Oyster El Dorado."  As the oystermen sailed up the East River into Long Island Sound, the waters grew rough.  In addition, by the time the oystermen reached Eatons Neck, there were free riders galore.  There were 250 large oyster vessels and more than that in smaller vessels -- roughly five hundred oyster vessels ready to descend on the location once revealed by the lead oyster schooner.  Oystermen from City Island, Long Island, Connecticut and elsewhere lined up to await the revelation.  

The captain of the lead schooner began to delay the revelation over concerns that the rough waters would hinder the smaller vessels from reaching the Oyster El Dorado quickly once it was revealed, placing them at a disadvantage to the larger vessels.  All the while, hundreds of vessels milled about, waiting for a signal to indicate the location of the newly-discovered bed.  Anger and anticipation boiled over and a near "Oyster Riot" began as the vessels jockeyed for position.

Finally, word was given from the lead schooner and the crews of all the vessels began grappling with their oyster tongs furiously.  Soon the anticipation and excitement melted away, replaced by anger and frustration.  As one account put it:  "And they raked and scraped, and pulled up their tongs.  But rake as they might, scrape as they might, grapple and pull up as often as they pleased, never an oyster appeared.  This was disheartening."

The crews of hundreds and hundreds of oyster vessels worked furiously for a long time to no avail.  Anger boiled over.  Some believed they had been defrauded.  Others demanded that the captain of the lead schooner return their money.  Things threatened to get ugly until the captain of the lead schooner relented and returned everyone's cash, protesting that he must have stumbled upon a mere vein of old-growth oysters in the area, but that he never intended to defraud or disappoint anyone.  

Though the Great Oyster El Dorado of 1871 turned out to be a bust, the Great Oyster Riot of 1871 was avoided. . . . . 

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Below is the text of a number of items that form the basis for today's Historic Pelham article.  Each is followed by a citation and link to its source.  

"From New York.

NEW YORK, June 13. -- An immense oyster bed, said to be the richest known for years, was discovered yesterday at Eaton Neck, Huntington, L. I., nearly opposite Stamford, Conn., by some fishermen who brought one hundred and fifty bushel to this city.  They received $500 for disclosing to others the place in which they found them.  The discovery created great excitement in this vicinity, and a large number of oyster boats were on the grounds today. . . . "

Source:  From New York, Troy Daily Whig [Troy, NY], Jun. 14, 1871, Vol. XXXIX, No. 76, p. 3, col. 6

"TELEGRAMS. . . . 

An immense oyster bed, said to be the richest known for years, was discovered yesterday at Eaton's Neck, near Huntington, L. I., by fishermen, who brought 150 bushels of oysters to this city and received $500 for disclosing the place on which they found them. . . ."

Source:  TELEGRAMS, Memphis Daily Appeal, Jun 14, 1871, p. 1, col. 3.  

The Supposed Mammoth Fortune a Fraud and Loss.
Eaton Neck Denounced -- Twenty Millions of Capital and Thirty Thousand Men Involved -- Details of the Raid and Return.

To any one knowing aught of New York's weakness for a delicious oyster, and to the few who know something of the number of millions of dollars and of the thousands of men employed in the oyster trade, the fact that the announcement of the discovery of a new bed of oysters of the quality and inexhaustible quantity caused a remarkable excitement among all concerned will not be considered strange.

A few days ago a man well known to many of the city oyster centres with a schooner partially loaded with oysters, which he claimed to have taken from a previously undiscovered bed, which bed he stated was in extent and resources wondrously large.  The oysters were tried by practical professionals, were pronounced fine in flavor and desirable in size, and the news soon spread among the many wholesale dealers that a 


had been found.  The discoverer was visited and questioned, and soon afterward an agreement was made that for the sum of $500 he would disclose its secret, and enable all who had sloops at command to add to their stock as they might desire.  The terms were deemed moderate, and although there was, of a certainty, nothing but the declaration of the man to warrant attention, the money required was subscribed in sums of from ten dollars to one dollar, as the subscribers had the means of gaining immediately from the discovery, and the spot was indicated, the happy discoverer agreeing to lead the way to the oyster bed.  In a very short time more than one hundred oyster boats were under sail, all pointing as directly as the wind would permit to 


the first point off Hempstead Bay, between Smithtown and Huntington Bay [sic], west of the lighthouse.  In addition to these nearly all the inhabitants of City Island were at the ground, and at one time there were not less than 250 sloops awaiting indications of where to commence, besides a vastly greater number of smaller boats having each from one to five men.

This movement was commenced a week ago last Monday, and the news having spread, though secretly made known, the excitement was intense.  And when the old gentlemen held back from announcing the precise locality on the ground that the water was rough and the small boats would not have an equal chance, the oyster discovery came very near being an 


At length, however, the word was given, and soon afterwards hundreds of oyster tongs were grappling Eaton Neck, where for years before scarcely a single pair had been seen.  And they raked and scraped, and pulled up their tongs.  But rake as they might, scrape as they might, grapple and pull up as often as they pleased, never an oyster appeared.  This was disheartening.  But, then, there was the gentleman who had made the discovery; they knew that the oysters he had were oysters, and that, knowingly, he would not tell a lie.  And yet something of the earlier enthusiasm died away, though they still kept the tongs in active work, and worked until all were tired.  Finally, after an extensive area had been thoroughly raked over, and very few oysters obtained, one after another they gave it up, and last evening nearly all had 


tired, disheartened and many of them profane.  The money that had been contributed as pay for the wonderful discovery was all returned, and the declaration was general that, though mistaken, the discoverer was honestly so.  The loss to those who joined in the oyster raid, in time, material, cost for extra help and other expenses, is estimated as 


This is not the first grand oyster excitement to which Eaton Neck has given birth.  The dealers declare that something like thirteen years ago [sic] there was a similar grand excitement and consequent similar loss.

It appears that, many years ago, Eaton Neck was a profitable oystering ground, but that it finally ran out, and has never since been redeemed.  It is claimed, however, that, 'once in a while,' a stray oysterman will strike a vein and get up a few that are good, but that there are now enough anywhere in that locality to enable any considerable number of men to work it profitably is no longer believed.  The present excitement, however, has awakened discussion among the thousands of oystermen, and they are now filled with the subject, and free with facts in relation to the prospect for the coming season on the various points on 


where for years have been, and now again are gathered hundreds of thousands of bushels.  Among these points many of our readers will remember that Blue Point, L. I., was a famous locality, and that the oysters from there were the favorites.  Some years ago, however, the value of the oyster caused the South Bay bottom to be overworked.  This affected not only the supply, but also the reputation of the oysters of the bay, and until quite recently but little of a profit has been realized from oystering there.  Two years ago, however, a new impulse was given to the growing trade, and instead of satisfying themselves with picking up what they found growing wild they 'staked out' localities and commenced planting.  This method has been acted upon ever since, and now 


there are hundreds of acres along the beach planted with oysters.  The range runs mainly from the points named to West Islip, and Champion's creek, Mill's creek and other streams are teeming with them, though, as yet, they are mostly too small for our market, but promising really well.  The growers on this line are confident that by next year they will have oysters which, both in quantity and quality, will restore the bay to its ancient reputation as the favorite bay for New York.  The planting here differs from that of the other Northern localities, in that the seed is taken from the bay itself and simply planted along the shore line for ease in care and in gathering.  In the beds on the 


much of the seed that is planted is obtained from Newark bay, and some from the Virginia waters.  The estimate of cost for procuring the seed, as the infantile oysters are called, is forty cents per bushel.  A bushel will average about 2,000 oysters, varying in size with the nails on the thumbs of the men who plant them.  These are, some of them, ready for the market in two years from the time of planting, but in the main they require three years for development, proper fattening and flavor.  But of all the neighboring oyster grounds


is still far ahead in the quantity transplanted and produced.  The estimate is that more than 100,000 bushels are planted there every year, and that more are taken from it than from nearly all the other beds combined.  

The points now named, together with the Long Island Sound, Jersey Shore and Virginia, furnish a trade for, and passing through, New York which amounts each year, depending on the yield and demand, to from $15,000,000 to $20,000,000, and giving almost continuous employment to nearly 30,000 men.  These figures, without adding the enormous retail trade and its multitude of employees, show why the declaration of a grand new bed, and that nearby, should have caused so great an excitement, and its failure to prove, as declared, a bitter disappointment to thousands of traders here.  They will, however, they say, soon get over it, and, as the prospect is improving everywhere else, they are confident that New York will continue to have all the oysters it wants, without increase of price."

Source:  THE NEW OYSTER EXCITEMENT -- The Supposed Mammoth Fortune a Fraud and Loss -- Eaton Neck Denounced -- Twenty Millions of Capital and Thirty Thousand Men Involved -- Details of the Raid and Return, The New York Herald, Jun. 16, 1871, p. 5, col. 1.

"Last week there was great excitement among oystermen of the north shore of Long Island.  It was rumored that a large bed of oysters had been discovered in the Sound, opposite Eatons Neck, in the town of Huntington.  The rumor however proved groundless, or oysterless.  Many persons went to the place where the bivalves were said to abound, but none could be found, notwithstanding they raked and scraped away with a degree of vigor worthy of better success.

The New York Herald, giving an account of the oyster excitement, says:

'In a very short time more than one hundred oyster boats were under sail, all pointing as directly as the wind would permit to Eaton Neck, the first point off Hempstead Bay, between Smithtown and Huntington Bay, west of the lighthouse.'

The above extract will serve to show how well the geography of Long Island is understood by the editorial corps of the New York Herald.  Eatons Neck is not situated 'off Hempstead Bay between Smithtown and Huntington Bay.'  Eatons Neck is on the east side of, and adjoining Huntington Bay or Harbor.  Hempstead Bay is on the south side of, instead of the north side of Long Island; and Hempstead Harbor is situated on the north side of the Island, about twelve miles west of Huntinggon Harbor, instead of between the latter Harbor and Smithtown.  We cheerfully impart the above information for the future use of editors of the Herald."

Source:  [Untitled], Queens County Sentinel [Hempstead, NY], Jun. 22, 1871, Vol. 14, No. 4, p. 2, col. 2.  

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

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The oystering industry was, for decades, a critically-important economic activity in the Town of Pelham.  Many residents of City Island made their living from the industry or ran businesses that catered to the oystermen.  Accordingly, I have written about Pelham oystering on many, many occasions.  Seee.g.:

Wed., Mar. 29, 2017:  Important Description of the Oyster Industry in Pelham in 1853.

Thu., Feb. 11, 2016:  Was a City Island Hotel Keeper Among the First to Learn of the Great Oyster Bed Discovered in 1859?

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.

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

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