Chesapeake Cause and Effect

I often get letters from kids at the Museum. Some of them have requested brochures, or pictures, or letters for different kinds of projects they are working on. Usually they are very simple to answer, and I jot down a few words or take a Flat Stanley picture (, and voila! Question answered.

But today, I got a question that was a warranted a more in-depth response.  The inquirer is a middle school student working on a National History Day project, and she’s focusing on oystering (felicitously, one of my favorite topics to blather about). I thought I would share with you, dear reader, her question and my response, and in the process, we’ll all learn a little bit about Chesapeake cause and effect.

“Dear Ms. Livie,

          Thank you very much for your quick response, I’m really looking forward to working on this part of my project. Unfortunately there was a glitch in my computure {sic in original} and it wiped all of my research, so now I’m reconstructing my notes. I don’t have all of my questions in line yet, but I do have one at the moment. I was wondering how canning affected oystering and the population of oysters. I know that they made shipping oysters easier, but I was wondering if you could tell me anymore because I have had trouble finding sources for it. When I’m done reconstructing my notes I plan on visiting the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and was wondering what I should see and when the best time to come would be.

Thank you so much,


First of all, the computer crash is a classic new researcher mistake. We’ve all been there (and probably shed a few tears over it, too). And as for her inquiry, well, this is a juicy question, and covers a lot of material. Definitely out-of-the ordinary, as far as kid’s questions go. My delightedly comprehensive response:

“Hi again Emma,

Sorry to hear about your computer! That really stinks, and it’s happened to me, too. My advice is to always back up your work, and save it in a few places!

Anyway, I would be very happy to answer your question about canning. As you know, each oyster packing house represented the processing of possibly millions of oysters a year. And since oysters reproduce and grow rather slowly, it meant that they couldn’t keep up with the demand- and really, from the late 19th century onward, you see the oyster population declining every year.

But let’s back up. In the 1700’s (which I’ll refer to going forward as the 18th century), people did eat and harvest oysters, but primarily using tongs, which are a rather slow method. But it didn’t matter that you could only harvest a small amount of oysters, since you had to sell your catch almost immediately. Also, you couldn’t really transport the oysters anywhere, either, at least, not before they spoiled. This is because of limited technology- both for preserving oysters, and also for transporting them. Oystering in the 18th century was a small, local business, undertaken by usually just one or two guys in a simple log canoe, and the people that ate oysters lived in towns close to the water. There were no canneries, and no railroad. The attempts people made at preserving oysters, like pickling them, didn’t really catch on, probably because pickled oysters sound awful.


   Tonging for oysters, the  way people  in the 18th century harvested them- and continue to do today.

However! What happens by the end of the 18th into the 19th century? The Industrial Revolution! New technology, new science, and new innovations were being dreamed up all the time. And among all the wonderful and mysterious new devices, there were three that had a big impact on oysters: the steam locomotive, canning and food preservation technology, and dredges. Also, the population in the United States is growing by leaps and bounds at this time period. What you’ve got is the perfect storm: within 30 years, you have a way to harvest more oysters than ever, a way to package and ship more oysters than ever, and more people to eat the oysters than ever.

Piles of oysters at a packing house in St. Michaels, on land now occupied by the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.


By the end of the Civil War, oystering in the Chesapeake became a real money maker. They even had to design new boats, first schooners, then the bugeye, then the skipjack, just to pull these new dredges that were able to efficiently harvest huge amounts of oysters from deep in the Bay’s channels. These big boats employed big crews, and could make lots of money in a single winter season. There were even boats that met the skipjacks and brought the oysters they had caught in FOR them (called buyboats), so the skipjacks could stay out for weeks at a time, dredging, dredging, dredging. Once the buyboats sold the oysters to the packing houses, there were hundred of people employed there, too, shucking, canning, and preparing the oysters to be sent on trains, all over the growing country.

Workers in an oyster packing house in Baltimore ca 1914-15, courtesy of the Maryland Historical Society’s tumblr page:


But, it all comes back to the oyster. These animals take usually about three years to become ‘market size’, or big enough to sell, and dredging meant that in many places where oyster reefs had been growing for centuries, getting bigger and bigger, these oyster reefs were gone, and what oysters they left behind were scattered on the bottom of the Bay- a bad place to be if you’re an oyster who wants to reproduce. The problem is oysters want to attach to other oysters to grow- they need something hard to attach to. There aren’t many rocks in the Bay, but for years, there were plenty of healthy oyster reefs that provided solid nooks and crannies for baby oysters (called spat). But you take away the oyster reefs, and many spat have no place to attach to (or, as scientists say, "set”). Also, many of the living oysters on the bottom were covered over by silt in the water, which will smother them. And then you’ve got the constant dredging, which meant a lot of the oysters were being eaten that would have otherwise reproduced. We even dug up the ancient oyster reef foundations (called “cultch”) in the 19th century and ground up the giant shells for fertilizer. So the oysters were pretty much hit in every direction.


It is a cycle that ultimately lead to the end of the 'traditional’  (meaning, skipjacks and dredges) oystering industry. Within about 60 years, people had harvested so many oysters that there just weren’t enough to meet the demand. The oyster industry moved South, to North Carolina, Florida, and around the Gulf to Louisiana. The oyster packing houses here closed one by one. And the skipjacks stopped sailing, now that there weren’t enough oysters to make any real money. There are still some people oystering today, but a much, much smaller percentage than there were in 1900. The amount of oysters in the Bay are at their lowest ever, and the ones that are left suffer from diseases. Big storms with lots of fresh water are another problem for the little oysters that are left.


So yes, canning DEFINITELY affected oystering. If you visit the Museum, you can learn more about this history in our Oystering on the Chesapeake exhibit, which should really cover all the information you’re interested in.


Got some more questions for me? I’m happy to answer them!


Happy research,




Did you learn something too, dear readers? I hope, like the studious Emma, that you too now understand how just one change (namely, people), can have a butterfly effect on the Chesapeake Bay. Our latest oyster innovation is aquaculture. How will that change us, and in doing so, change the Bay around us? Only time will tell.