A Bit of Local History on the Half-Shell
By Paul Hicks
In June 2016, our favorite local newspaper ran a fascinating story about The Billion Oyster Project (“TBOP”). It described how this Manhattan-based program has been adopted locally as “a long-term school and community project designed to increase the oyster population of Blind Brook and Long Island Sound and, at the same time to clean waters that once teemed with edible shellfish.”
TBOP collects oyster shells from New York City’s restaurants and uses them to create reefs where oyster spat (fertilized eggs) can attach and grow. Peter Malinowski, TBOP’s innovative head, believes that restoring the oyster habitats will support many other animals native to New York Harbor. Oyster shells are also being used to create new barriers to flooding from storm surges. In Jamaica Bay, near John F Kennedy airport, TBOP has added nearly 50,000 adult oysters, making it the largest single installation for breeding oysters in the city.
Imagine what it was like when Henry Hudson sailed into New York Harbor in 1609 and had to navigate his ship around 220,000 acres of oyster reefs. They had sustained the local people for generations. Similarly, when the first English settlers arrived in Rye in 1660, the Siwanoy people lived in seasonal campsites along Long Island Sound in spring and summer where they grew corn, beans and pumpkins and feasted on abundant oysters and other shellfish.
According to Westchester historian Robert Bolton, the Native American money, called “wampum or “seawant” was made in large quantities on the banks of the Byram and Armonck Rivers. It consisted of beads formed of various shells but especially of the quahaug clam. In order to control the quality of the native money, an act was passed by the Council of the New Netherlands in 1650, requiring that “no loose seawant shall be current, nor be a lawful tender except that the same shall be strung.”
Rye historian Charles W. Baird notes that when the first permanent structures were built in Rye: “For the houses built of stone, abundant material was at hand in the coarse granite of the region, and in the great heaps of oyster and clam shells which the Indians had left in many places, and which the early settlers found very convenient for making lime.” Because lime from shells absorbed water its use as mortar gradually was abandoned.
For many of the early residents of Rye and other towns along the Sound, shellfish provided valuable jobs. Writing in 1871, Baird recalls:
“A hundred years ago, the oyster fishery had become quite an important business at Rye. In 1753, much excitement was caused by a ‘great destruction of our oysters in Byram River.’ Certain persons were ‘getting great Quantities with Rakes, to Burn into Lyme.’ A town meeting was called, and the inhabitants ‘ agreed and voted that no person or persons shall hereafter during the said year presume to take and destroy said oysters,’ under penalty of a fine of forty shillings for each offence. Half of this sum was to go to the complainant, and the other half to the poor. This act was confirmed yearly until the time of the Revolution.”
Gathering oysters commercially began in the early nineteenth century along the shores of Long Island Sound and, most successfully in Great South Bay. In addition to the gatherers, called oystermen, there were jobs for the ship captains and crews who brought the oysters to market in New York City. Packing houses grew up where the oysters were shucked and put into barrels for shipment. Hotels and restaurants, led by Delmonico’s, served oysters raw on the half-shell or, less elegantly, in stews and pies.
Now, more than a century after pollution destroyed much of the harvesting of oysters from around New York City, the bi-valves are making a comeback, thanks to TBOP and local communities like Rye. Earlier this year, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation awarded a $400,000 grant to the Town of Hempstead’s hatchery to bolster the oyster production. Like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, we will be able again to say: “The world is my oyster.”