Richard Mather Bayles.

History of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time online

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Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 69 of 72)
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want also, which is vast oyster-banks, which is the constant
fresh victuals, during the winter, to English, as well as Indians;
of these there are many all along our coasts, from the sea as
high as against New York, whence they come to fetch them."

" Oyster shells upon the point, to make lime withal, which
will wonderfully accommodate us in building good houses [of
stone] cheap, warm for winter, and cool for summer."

"We have store of clams, esteemed much better than
oysters; on festivals the Indians feast with them; there are
shallops [scallops] but in no great plenty."

In the neighborhood of Staten Island the circumstances
were especially favorable, and there were numerous beds.
The northern shore is rocky and unfit for oyster growth for
a considerable distance, but the southern and western sides
are eminently favorable. Everywhere in these swift tide-ways
oysters grew abundantly. South of the island there is a
broad expanse of shallow water separating the island from the
Jersey shore of Monmouth county, into which the Raritan pours
a heavy flood of fresh water. To the Staten Islanders and New
Yorkers this part of the bay is known as Staten Island sound,


and the oysters grown in it receive the market name of
" sounds." Jerseymen more often speak of it as Raritan bay,
and sell the oysters they raise on their shore as " Amboys" and

With reference to oyster matters, history is mute during the
close of the seventeenth and beginning of the eighteenth cen-
tury, except that chance allusions here and there show that
large numbers of persons, nearly everybody, in fact, took ad-
vantage of this natural storehouse of food to supplement their
luxuries in summer, and victual their cellars for winter. It is
also evident that the fame of Carteret's "great plenty and easy
to take," had spread abroad, and so many aliens sailed into the
placid bay to rake upon the "vast banks," that at last the col-
onists became alarmed for the continuance of their precious
supply. Thus it arose that as early as 1715 was passed the first
colonial law in relation to oysters, prohibiting under a penalty
of twenty shillings any person, except native free Indians, from
taking oysters between the 1st day of May and the 1st day of
September of each year, during a term of five years. A simi-
lar law was enacted by New Jersey in 1719.

In 1730 New York again found need to make a second law in
respect to shellfish, and in 1737 a third, owing to the too great
demand made upon the beds around Staten Island by crews of
boats from New England, New Jersey, and elsewhere, special
protective legislation for these waters was obtained from the
colonial legislature. The preamble of this act of 1737 states
the necessity for the law, "since it has been found by daily ex-
perience that the Oyster Beds lying at and near Richmond
County, within this Colony, are wasted and Destroyed by
Strangers; the preventing of which will tend to the great Ben-
efit of the poor People and others inhabiting the aforesaid Col-
ony." The act therefore forbids any one "directly or indi-
rectly, to rake * any oysters within this Colony, and
put them on board any Canoe, Periauger, Flat, Scow, Boat or
other vessel whatsoever, not wholly belonging to, and owned by,
Persons who live within the aforesaid Colony," under penalty
of having the craft and all its contents seized. This law is
almost an exact reproduction of the New Jersey statute of 1719.
It then names ten citizens of Richmond county, many of whose
names still figure in the oyster business of Staten Island, as a


police to carry out the law, and empowers them for that pur-

Both states made their laws somewhat in a spirit of mischief
and retaliation, for Jerseymen then, as ever since, came in con-
tact with Staten Island planters, often to the extent of mutual

In spite of this protection, however, all the natural beds
gradually gave out, and it was long ago found necessary to sup-
plement them by artificial means. The precise date when oyster-
planting began here it has been difficult to fix. As to native
oysters, at Staten Island, they were certainly cultivated in
Prince's bay at least sixty years ago. In some localities, on the
opposite shore, the industry is probably older, since a suit was
brought about seventy-five years ago, in old Shrewsbury town-
ship, New Jersey, originating in the question whether or not a
man had exclusive right to the oysters he had planted.

The use of these waters for planting occasioned an immedi-
ate effect upon the villages of the neighboring coast, which was
very striking. "In fact," remarks a contemporary chronicler,
"the prosperity and rapid increase of the population of that
island [Staten] is owing, in a considerable degree, to the oyster-
trade of this city. Before Prince's bay was laid out in oyster-
plantations there were very few persons living on it, and it was
almost wholly uncultivated. * A few years after the

first beds were planted an extent of coast of from five to ten
miles was covered with oysters taken from the ' rocks ' of Vir-
ginia. The number of men employed upon the beds in 1853,
and who lived upon the island, with tlieir families, was com-
puted at three thousand."

To encourage this new productive industry, which had thus
suddenly come into existence, New York and New Jersey both
enacted laws calculated to protect the planters. They have been
the object of much change and amendment, as experience
ripened the judgment and new circumstances arose.

At present the laws of New York applying to this subject
and locality are as follows:
General statutes:

Forbidding any natural bed being staked off for private use,
or being planted upon; forbidding any person, not for six
months previous a resident of the state, from taking any shell-
fish within the state (but an actual resident may employ any


non-resident); and prohibiting the use of any dredge weighing
over thirty pounds, or operated by steam-power.
Special statutes:

Asserting that no person not an inhabitant of the state may
plant oysters in the waters surrounding Staten Island, "except
the consent of the owner first be obtained ; " and no non-in-
habitant may take oysters or clams "from their beds of natural
growth in any of said waters."

Forbidding dredging or dragging for oysters in the neighbor-
hood of Staten Island " upon beds of natural growth of o ysters
(not planted)."

Forbidding any person taking up or disturbing oysters planted
under all the waters of this state surrounding Staten Island,
without previous permission from the owners.

New Jersey's laws, applying here, are substantially similar:

No summer raking or sale of oysters allowed on public

No dredging in any shape allowed.

No oysters to be gathered to be made into lime, or to be used
in iron manufacture.

No person not a resident of the state for six months previous
may gather oysters or clams in state waters for himself or for
his employer.

Any owners or licensed persons may plant oysters or clams
upon any flats or coves (not natural beds) and one chain beyond
the same, along the shores of Newark bay and Staten Island
sound, under prescribed conditions of staking out, etc. A
penalty is fixed for taking oysters without authority from such

Prohibits taking " from any natural oyster banks or beds in
this state any old shells other than such as cannot be removed
or separated from the oysters without injuring the same; and
all such shells shall be culled and thrown back again upon the
said natural banks or beds ;" but this does not apply to pri-
vate beds.

These laws grew up one by one. and at first were misunder-
stood and willfully disregarded on all sides. Between New
York and New Jersey, in the persons of the Staten Islanders
and Jerseymen, there were constant quarrels, and even open
war. now and then, owing to alleged infringements of the
vague boundary line, by one party or the other. If one side


thought they discovered that an oysterman from the opposite
shore was placing his oysters within their waters, they felt no
hesitancy or compunction in at once raking his stock up, claim-
ing that he had no right to this ground, and consequently the
oysters he had bought and placed there were public plunder.
Arrests for larceny would follow, tedious imprisonments en-
sue, armed guards patrol the domains of the respective states,
a few men get shot, perhaps, and much trouble to the whole
community be caused. The accusation was constantly being
made, also, chiefly by the penniless and shiftless, against pros-
perous planters, that natural-growth ground had been staked off
and was being used privately, to the detriment of the general
welfare of the community. Then, too, there were plenty of
persons who altogether disputed any rights of property in
planted oysters, and failed by their conduct to recognize the
law which said there were such rights.

The home resources along the shores of Staten Island, in
York bay and theNorth river, having long ago been exhausted,
or greatly depleted, the planters in Prince's bay and on the
Jersey shore now get " seed " oysters with which to stock their
beds wherever they can. The chief source is Newark bay and
Raritan river, though the North and East rivers and Long
Island sound are drawn upon. A considerable quantity of
seed is brought from as far away as Fair Haven and Blue
Point. In most cases the planters themselves gather what they
use, by going after it in their own sloops, taking a small boat
and a man to help.

During the war of the rebellion, when the southern fields
were cut off from the northern markets to a great extent, the
Staten Island planters reaped a rich harvest. Their beds were
unusually productive, and the prices were double what they
now are, in many cases. At present the receipts are about the
same as have prevailed for several years, except that the season
of 1878-79, following upon a period of financial depression, and
characterized by misfortune in the growth of the mollusks,
showed lower rates paid than ever before or since. Prices de-
pend largely upon the quality of the different beds, and vary
with localities. Virginia oysters from Prince's bay are consid-
ered the best. Of natives, those grown in the sound are favor-
ites; these supplied a large part of the shipments to Europe in
1879-80, and gave better satisfaction than any others sent.


Perth Amboy and Keyport were the packing points. The
prices received by the planters for the different kinds of Staten
Island oysters in 1879 were from ten to twenty per cent, less
than the previous year, up to which time the price for a long
time had averaged one dollar per bushel, taking all grades and
sizes together. In the fall and winter of 1879-80. however,
lots sold at one dollar were rare, and the average price of
"Sounds" and the best "Prince's Bays" (natives) did not
average over eighty or ninety cents, while Tottenville oysters,
with few exceptions, failed to come up to this even, seventy-
five to eighty cents being reported for the most part.

The oyster interests of New York bay are the livelihood of a
considerable number of people, though it is probable that the
population at present supported by them is reduced at least a
quarter from the total of ten years ago. All the inhabitants of
the southern half of Staten Island may be called oystermen,
since many of then have invested a little in the beds in some
shape, or work more or less on hire for the regular growers.
Exactly how many real planters there are on the island it would
be difficult to learn; they are scattered everywhere, but chiefly
live at Pleasant Plains, Tottenville, Rossville and Chelsea. On
the north shore live many New York merchants, like the Van
Names, etc., who plant southern oysters almost entirely. Their
capita], also, with that of many other New York dealers whose
names do not appear, aids a large number of outside planters
who are, in fact, only managers of the under-water estates
which they apparently own and operate. This is not deroga-
tory to their personal worth or dignity, but only one of the
methods of trade, shaped by peculiarities of the law bearing
upon the subject. By the operations in oyster culture in and
about Staten Island, the number of families wholly supported
is estimated to be somewhat as follows : At Prince's bay, fifty;
at Tottenville, seventy-five; remainder of Staten Island, twenty-

The total products of Staten Island beds during the season
of 1879-80, was about as follows: This enumerates only the
native oysters. About 15,000 bushels a year of southern
oysters were planted around Staten Island; at Prince's bay,
60,000 bushels; by Tottenville planters, 55,000; by Chelsea
planters, 25,000.

We append the following abstract from the report of Fish


Commissioner Blackt'ord, in charge of the oyster investigation,
made to the legislature of New York in 1885, pertaining to the
oyster interests of Staten Island.

"Most of the lands under water which surround Staten Is-
land were well supplied, early in the present century, with large
beds of excellent oysters, but at the present time the only lo-
cality where natural beds of any account are to be found is
upon the west side of the island from the neighborhood of
Newark bay along the Kill Von Kull to the ' Sound,' or Rari-
tan bay. The northern and northeastern portions of the island
were never as well furnished with oysters as were the other sec-
tions, on account of the rough nature of the bottom, but even
this meager supply has been destroyed by the garbage and
other miscellaneous nuisances which for many years past have
been dumped or poured into the upper bay, or such oysters as
are to be found there at present have been rendered useless as
food, as their flavor has been ruined. The largest beds were
formerly to be found in the neighborhood of Prince's and Rari-
tan bays, where quite extensive areas were worked with profit
to the local oystermen. As already stated, there are still lo-
calities in Raritan bay, or the Sound, as it is called by the
oystermen, where considerable quantities of oysters, prin-
cipally small seedlings, can be obtained from the natural beds.
But these beds are none of them in New York waters. In Prince's
bay, and from this part of Staten Island out toward Sandy
Hook, there are at the present time practically no natural growth
beds, all of the beds which originally covered an important por-
tion of the bottom of this section of the bay having been en-
tirely exhausted by continuous and merciless working, aud
the territory thus denuded has been claimed and staked out as
ground for' planting. It is true that on the softer bottom of
the bay at some distance out from the shores of the island,
where as yet little, if any, claim for planting ground has been
made, there are to be found some few scattered oysters, and
there are some beds of fair size in the ship channels leading out
to sea, but as a rule all that part of the bottom which during colo-
nial times and later furnished great quantities of oysters, is now
claimed as private property and protected from all outside work-
ers. Visits were made in the ' Lookout' to this section of the
state waters on the 15th, and again on the 24th, of September,
and a large and enthusiastic meeting of the oystermen of the


southern part of Staten Island was held at Pepper's hall, in the
village of Tottenville, on Monday, the 8th of December. During
the visits with the ' Lookout ' dredgings were made on quite
a number of the planted beds and also on that portion of the
bay outside of the line of staked lands. As a rule the planted
beds in both Prince's and Raritan bays are of small size, but
one man may control a large number of plots, which may be lo-
cated at considerable distances from each other, as there ap-
pears to be no law for this part of the state regulating the size
of the plots, or the number of them which shall be under any
one man's control. The accepted rule has been, " first come,
first served," and the amount of territory held seems to have
been limited only by the ability of the individual to find suit-
able locations, and his desire to keep such locations away from
his less fortunate neighbors. No public record is kept of any of
these private claims and no revenue of any kind is derived from
them, either state, county or town. Each oyster planter is a law
unto himself and to his neighbors, as to his own claims, and so
long as he keeps his plot staked and a small or large quantity
of oysters upon.his land, the courts, by mutual consent, uphold
his claims to the bed. As the law thus only tacitly recognizes
these claims, while it offers no protection to the claimants, they,
or at least a large number of them, have accordingly formed
what is known as the Richmond County Oyster Planting Asso-
ciation, for the mutual protection of their beds, and this asso-
ciation hires a watchman, or watchmen, who patrol the staked
areas and prevent outsiders from accidentally or otherwise lift-
ing- the planted crops, or one planter from poaching on another
planter's preserves.

"The association is thus, to a certain extent, a close corpora-
tion, except that it cannot prevent any resident of the county
or state from claiming or staking off any water area not already
occupied. The oystermen get rich returns from their invest-
ments upon their sub-aqueous territory, and have the bulk of
their taxes paid by their neighbors of the upland. So long as
the majority of the riparian property owners do not seriously
complain, it is not much to be wondered at that not many of
the planters are in favor of any changes from the present con-
dition of affairs, as regards the amount of land held, of any
system of taxation for their property, or of any laws on the
part of the state regulating the same. They would be very


willing to have the state keep outsiders from locating in this
vicinity, and also have the state deed or lease them the lands in
perpetuity, and protect them from all harassments and injuries,
but the most of them do not seem to be willing to give any re-
turn for such leasing or protection. There are some, however,
who are very outspoken in their opinion that it would only be
fair to place a small tax upon each acre of the land held for
planting purposes. As regards the amount of land to be held by
individuals, most of those examined thought that ten to fifteen
acres were as much as any one person could work, although
they did not believe in any limitation. Some thought there
should be a limit fixed at perhaps ten acres, and one planter
was very emphatic in his statement that if a person could not
get a good living off from eight acres he could not from eight
hundred, and branded the majority of planters as ' hogs,' who
wanted all the land they could get hold of, even though they
possessed neither the ability nor the means to work all that they
might be able to control; they simply wanted to keep the land
out of the hands of others. The majority of the planters, on
the other hand, claim that it is necessary to have at least three
or four plots of ground, since the oysters in this vicinity take
from three to five years to arrive at marketable size, and in
order to have some ready for market each year a series of plants
must be made. Thus, if they use seed one year old, and they
allow this seed to lie live years, they would require at least
four plots, one to be seeded each year, until those first planted
are ready for market, so that they shall be able to market each
season the crop planted four years before. One witness who was
examined even went so far as to claim that it was necessary to
let the land lie at rest, in order to recuperate, three or four
years after any crop had been taken from it, just as if the
oysters drew their sustenance from the bottom upon which they
lay and thus exhausted it, rather than from the water which
was coming and going above the bed. It may be true that the
tearing up which the bed receives when the oysters are removed
necessitates some slight period of rest in order that the bottom
may settle again, especially when deeply harrowed by dredges
or tongs, but undoubtedly much of the loose material stirred
up when removing the oysters is carried off by the tides and
does not settle back directly upon the beds. If it was indeed
necessary to allow three or four years as a resting spell for


each bed or part of a bed, then surely would the planters of
Staten Island need very extensive plots for their planting

"In most cases these planted beds are located at some dis-
tance from the shore line of the island, in from eight to thirty
feet of water, but some plots extend from the upland directly
out for several hundred feet from tide limits. In these
latter cases, when a sale of the adjoining upland takes place,
the oyster beds may be included in the transfer deed of the
property, although legally such disposal of the oyster interests
is not recognized. Nevertheless, while the courts would not
admit the deed, they would maintain the right of the pur-
chaser to the property thus obtained, so long as he worked
the land; or in other words, the oysters would be recognized
and protected as so much property. Ordinary transfers or sales
of oyster beds are mere verbal agreements and accepted by
both the individuals, oystermen and the courts. In case of
the death of holders of these beds, the beds become the prop-
erty of the heirs, provided said heirs continue to work them.
If a bed is thrown up for any reason, the first person who
desires to take and work it has the privilege of doing so, when,
upon staking it in and placing oysters upon it, it again becomes
private property. There seems to be no recognized law or
regulation whereby any one can tell when a bed is or is not
worked; if it is staked off it must be taken for granted that it is
in use, and if no oysters can be found upon it it must be taken
for granted that the planter is allowing it to 'recuperate,' and
that he alone is capable of telling how long this resting spell
shall continue. Much complaint is heard from this cause on
the part of the poorer oystermen, who say that large tracts of
land are at the present time held in this manner. These tracts
are not worked, and only a boat load or so of oysters are
placed upon them. They are simply held for future use, and
the ' staking in ' prevents others from using them, for even if
the oystermen think they are rightfully entitled to work such
land when not covered with oysters, they know the uncer-
tainty and worry incident to a lawsuit, and as a rule do not
interfere with or disturb in any manner the land so claimed.

" The amount of ground now worked is probably much
greater than when the main reliance for oysters was upon the
natural beds, since ground where no natural growth occurs is


even better than hard bottom for planting purposes, and much
of this kind of bottom is utilized in this vicinity, consequently
the number of bushels of oysters put upon the market now is
much greater than it was then, as the beds for the most part
are well cared for, or at least we found those beds which we
examined to be in good condition, although there is a very
great difference, even in the same neighborhood. For instance,
we made one haul upon a small bed ; the dredge was down two
minutes, and the result was three hundred and forty-one oysters
of good size and in excellent condition for sale. Upon another
bed, within perhaps twenty-five rods of the first, the most we
could get at any one haul was seventy-four oysters. The oys-
ters from both these places were three to four years old. In
another locality, with the dredge down the same length of
time, we took up one hundred and seventy oysters from a bed
of three years olds, and four hundred and forty-five from abed
where the oysters were only two years old. If the growth
of those two year old oysters represented the common growth
in this bay of oysters at this age, it would seem hardly neces-
sary to leave oysters down for five years in order to get them
into fine condition for market, as the extra time would appar-
ently give a greater percentage of loss in numbers than the gain

Online LibraryRichard Mather BaylesHistory of Richmond County (Staten Island), New York from its discovery to the present time → online text (page 69 of 72)