It happened here
Nola Watson of Deltaville graciously shared information from an 1884 diary that belonged to Vespasian Vaughan for this column. Vaughan ran a country store in Sandy Bottom in what is today Deltaville.
The 1880s were violent years for the Virginia oyster fishery. Maryland oyster dredge boats were coming to the Rappahannock and Piankatank rivers to illegally harvest oysters on grounds worked by Middlesex and Mathews hand tongers.
Richard H. Edmonds, in an 1879 report on the Maryland oyster industry wrote: “Dredging in Maryland is simply a general scramble, carried on in 700 boats manned by 5,600 daring and unscrupulous men, who regard neither laws of God nor man.”
When these “daring and unscrupulous men” started coming south to Virginia, the Tidewater area went into an uproar. With continued attacks on Virginia hand tongers by Maryland dredgers, the Virginia legislature decided to supply oystermen in Mathews County with a cannon, a large number of rifles, and a supply of ammunition to drive away the dredgers.
Vaughan’s diary speaks to those days. On January 2, 1884 he wrote, “The cannon in Mathews fired on dredgers.”
On January 19, as there was debate in the Virginia Assembly over laws pertaining to dredging, Jackson wrote, “Mr. K. said the Democrats have passed a dredge law (preventing dredging) and would bet that not one Readjuster (party member) voted for the bill.”
The Readjuster Party was a Virginia progressive social party formed in the state in 1870 charged “to break the power of wealth and established privilege among white planter elites.”
On January 25 Vaughn wrote, “Cannons fired on dredgers – no damage- exhausted ammunition.”
On January 26 he noted, “Dredgers at work on Broad Creek” and the next day he wrote, “Dredgers at work on Stingray (Point).”
Evidently local oystermen had enough because on January 29 he wrote, “Citizens made a raid on the dredgers, 50 (men) pressed into Captain Sandborn’s yacht and captured a vessel and crew and took them to Mathews.”
On January 30 he wrote, “The dredge vessel Annie Luddington that was captured by parties from here and Mathews was brought to Fishing Bay with the crew nine in number. Today, (Middlesex) Sheriff Healy came down, spent the night preparatory to taking the prisoners to Saluda tomorrow. The prisoners were guarded in Mr. Kelly’s kitchen all night.” This would have been in the Kelly House that still stands today in the center of town in Deltaville.
“Sheriff Healy dispatched the prisoners to Saluda jail and concluded to take the cargo of oysters to Norfolk for sale,” he wrote. “Then concluded that he had no right to remove the vessel beyond his jurisdiction, and offered them for sale but found no purchases.”
Later Vaughan wrote, “Sheriff Healy sold the captured oysters to W. Cox for 22 cents” (a bushel). It is unclear who ultimately ended up with the funds collected from the oysters.
Vaughan last entry on the dredgers came February 13 when he wrote, “T.A.S. and Jas. Hart went to Saluda to testify before the magistrate’s court in the dredgers’ case.
It happened right here in Rivah country!