African Americans from the Gullah-Geechee culture became the first “oyster men” on the Georgia coast by the 19th century, but companies, often owned by European immigrants, later moved in for processing and canning oysters, researcher Sadie Ingram informed the Bulloch County Historical Society.
By the 1890s and the turn of the 20th century, competition and biased regulation led to “oyster wars,” she reports. Ingram, a graduate student in her final semester obtaining a master’s degree in public history at Georgia Southern University, is completing her thesis on the subject. She spoke Monday, Jan. 23, during the Historical Society’s first meeting of the year.
“The seafood industry as a whole … it pretty much was started by the Gullah-Geechee community in Georgia, and that’s just because early colonial settlers really focused on farming, that was where they felt they could make the most money … whereas the Gullah-Geechee really focused on fishing and that was specifically due to the task system in Georgia,” Ingram said.
The “task system” of slavery as practiced on the Georgia islands and along the coast “basically meant that as an enslaved person, you were given a list of tasks for the day, and once you finished your tasks, you could either help someone else with their tasks or you could do something else, like do your own farming for subsistence, do your own fishing for subsistence or to sell,” she said.
This was different from the “gang system” of slavery on inland plantations, she noted.
The “oyster men,” also did shrimping and blue crab fishing, and when slavery ended with the Civil War, people in the Gullah-Geechee communities continued in this work.
Raking and canning
Ingram’s slides included one showing traditional equipment for collecting oysters: a wooden jon boat or “bateau,” and an oyster rake. An alternative to raking is “tonging,” using a pair of long-handled tongs, like rakes hinged together, to reach down into the water.
Because Georgia’s naturally occurring oysters were randomly clustered and varied in size, they didn’t work for the “oysters on the half shell” desired by restaurants. So, an oyster canning industry arose instead, she explained.
Some of the earliest oyster processing sites were owned by African Americans from the Gullah-Geechee communities, Ingram noted. Examples include Ben Bond and John Anderson Seafood, in operation by 1900 at Pin Point in Chatham County, and Timmons Family Fishing Camp, flourishing in the early 1900s at Harris Neck, in McIntosh County
But with profits to be made, there was also an influx of new business owners, many of whom were European immigrants, Ingram noted. For example, L.P. Maggioni and Company, established 1870, was started by an Italian immigrant, and Oemler Oyster Company, from 1889, by a German family. Other companies she noted were the Vernon Oyster Company, in operation by the 1890s, and the later A.S. Varn & Son, from 1926, at Pin Point.
State attempts to regulate the industry followed lobbying “by the big company owners, because they want the regulations to go in their favor,” she said. The regulatory effort focused on determining which oyster beds were naturally occurring, and therefore open for “public use,” while other areas could be leased long-term to private companies for oyster farming.
At the state’s request, the federal government had a survey done by U.S. Navy ensign. “Joined by” an owner of the Oemler Oyster Company as his guide, the Navy man sailed up and down the Georgia coast in 1890-1891, supposedly mapping the naturally occurring oyster beds, Ingram told.
The oyster wars
Far from settling disputes, the resulting Bulletin 19 of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey contributed to further conflicts and “oyster wars,” which also occurred further up the East Coast in Maryland and Virginia.
“Basically it revolves in a bunch of court cases, but there is actual violence out on the water,” Ingram said. “We get … men standing with shotguns in boats, guarding the oyster beds, even here in Savannah and Darien and Brunswick, all up and down the coast, ready to shoot anyone they think is a trespasser or illegally stealing oysters.”
After the Great Depression and World War II, the Georgia oyster industry shriveled away, mostly by the 1950s and with the last company closing in the 1970s. Now the former A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory is preserved as the location of the Pinpoint Heritage Museum.
The regulatory effort and its results are the focus of Ingram’s thesis. She has visited Pinpoint and other sites on the coast. Ingram, who spent her early childhood in Bulloch County but graduated form Richmond Hill High School in Bryan County, also attained her bachelor’s degree in history at Georgia Southern. She is on track to become a “double Eagle,” by receiving her master’s degree in May.