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GS grad student rakes up history of Georgia oystering and ‘oyster wars’
Georgia Southern Public History graduate student Sadie Ingram gives a quick lesson in oyster harvesting during her "Georgia's Oyster Industry: Oyster Wars and Bustling Factories" presentation at the Bulloch County Historical Society luncheon at Pittman Pa
Georgia Southern Public History graduate student Sadie Ingram gives a quick lesson in oyster harvesting during her "Georgia's Oyster Industry: Oyster Wars and Bustling Factories" presentation at the Bulloch County Historical Society luncheon at Pittman Park United Methodist Church on Monday, Jan. 23. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

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.

 

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