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Oyster Wars

A special Oyster Wars exhibit at the Museum displayed in August 2010


Why the conflict, you ask?
The Potomac River offers some of the best oyster breeding grounds around. Back in the day, oyster tongers believed that the oyster dredgers were harvesting more than their fair share of the best ones. When they became less plentiful, the tongers pointed their fingers at the the dredgers, blaming them for their empty pockets.

Also, there was disagreement on where the line between Virginia and Maryland waters was. Watermen from both sides each thought the other were stealing oysters from their states. Virginia held fast to their portion of the Chesapeake Bay and charged Marylanders a toll to access the sea. Virginians were forbidden to fish in the Potomac River, owned by Maryland. These conflicts grew into fierce battles known as the Oyster Wars.

Berkeley Muse was a major figure in this conflict.


It dates back to the times of the early English settlers, who enjoyed the native American oysters, eating them roasted, stewed, raw and pickled. Different arguments cropped up over ownership of these tasty morsels found in different waterways within the settlements.

These arguments escalated and eventually, the two states came to an agreement and entered into the Compact of 1785.

More battles ensued, however. A Washington Post article from 1947 paints a picture: ''Already the sound of rifle fire has echoed across the Potomac River. Only fifty miles from Washington men are shooting at one another. The night is quiet until suddenly shots snap through the air. Possibly a man is dead, perhaps a boat is taken, but the oyster war will go on the next night and the next.''

In 1962, President John Kennedy signed the "Potomac Fisheries Bill" which calls for a bi-state commission to oversee the Potomac River.

More information and interviews can be found on the Watermen of Colonial Beach DVD available for purchase from the Museum for $20.

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