Dutch Baymen, Blue Points, and Oyster Crazed New Yorkers

By Erin Becker

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Beginning as early as 8,000 years ago, the land which would eventually become New York City was intrinsically connected to the oyster. The Lenape targeted shellfish as a food resource and left behind heaping shell middens. Upon arrival to the New World, the Dutch and English colonists found a familiar food source — the oysters of New York Harbor. For a time, it seemed oysters were an inexhaustible resource. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, oysters fed the rich and poor of New York City. Like the ubiquitous hot dog carts of today, oyster carts and cellars lined the streets of New York City, peddling affordable food to the masses.

The people of New York utilized discarded oyster shells to fertilize crops, create mortar for new construction, and pave streets. As the demand for oysters outpaced the supply of New York Harbor in the 1820s, shellfish crazed New Yorkers turned to another source — the oyster beds of the Great South Bay. The intrepid Dutch immigrants of West Sayville, located on the south shore of Long Island, tended to these famous oyster beds. The Long Island oyster is a commodity which pushes the idea of Dutch New York eastward.

Crassotrea virginica, also known as the American or the Atlantic oyster, is an incredible creature which grows along the Eastern coast of the United States. An oyster is a bivalve with a hinged shell. Adult oysters are sessile — they remain permanently in one place, affixed to the oyster bed. Oysters spawn in early summer as adult oysters release sperm and eggs into the water. Historically, oysters not only nourished human bodies, but also cleaned the waters in which they grew. One oyster can filter approximately fifty gallons of water per day; in modern aquaculture, this quality makes these creatures a desirable commodity as they improve the habitat in which they are grown.[1] Oysters are one of the few creatures which Western diners eat alive — “if the oyster is opened carefully, the diner is eating an animal with a working brain, a stomach, intestines, liver, and a still beating heart.”[2]

In 1849, the families of Cornelius DeWaal and Cornelius Hage arrived in New York City from the Netherlands. The DeWaal and Hage families had intended to go on to a Dutch settlement in Michigan. Upon hearing of the oysters growing in the Great South Bay, these families changed course. These families hailed from Zeeland, a maritime province in southwestern Netherlands active in shellfishing. Already skilled laborers in the oyster trade, these families took the Long Island Railroad and settled in Sayville— the beginning of a sizable Dutch settlement along the south shore of Long Island. The community grew through rising birth rates and escalating immigration. By 1910, the Dutch community at West Sayville numbered approximately 1200 Dutch people.[3]

At every level of the business, Dutch immigrants provided the skilled labor force needed to grow the Great South Bay oyster industry. They worked as baymen, planters, and shippers. The oyster industry drew Dutch immigrants to West Sayville and supported them upon their arrival. Oyster companies paid for their Dutch countrymen to migrate and financed the purchase of their houses. According to anthropologist Lawrence Taylor, “If a worker wanted to buy a home, where was he to seek the mortgage?... Oystermen’s bank, as the title read, was in fact an extension of Jacob Ockers (and others) interest, so that one way or another the mortgage seeker came to the door of the shippers, and typically to that of his employer.”[4]

Oystering in the Great South Bay necessitated a rethinking of property ownership in what had previously been an underwater commons. As early as the late 17th century, New York and New Jersey began passing environmental conservation measures; local governments restricted the oyster harvest season to protect the oyster supply. Oystering was a mobile industry. Young oysters fared better in the East Bay, as the salt content of the water was lower and there were fewer natural predators. Baymen tonged the young seed oysters in the East Bay and then, like underwater farmers, carefully planted them in the West Bay to grow to marketable sizes. The oysters were carefully and evenly distributed to prevent overcrowding or the development of an unusual shell shape. Oyster harvesting was a cold weather business — it only took place in months with an R (September through April). As the summer months faded, New Yorkers rejoiced that oysters were soon to be in season: "The season of soda-water, ice-cream, mint- juleps, sherry-cobblers, et cetera, is about over. September has arrived; there is an “R” in the month, and oysters are now in order."[5]

During the cold months, baymen used tongs to gather oysters from the decks of boats. On days when the Bay froze over, baymen used horse-drawn sleds to traverse the ice to their oyster beds and rectangular saws to cut through the ice. Once harvested, oysters were brought to oyster houses along the South Shore. Oysters were then ‘floated’ in freshwater; this process resulted in a more marketable (whiter in color and plumper) product. Then, the oysters were culled (sorted by size and shape) and shucked (opened).

An oysterman sits in a boat with his tongs and other oystering tools. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

An oysterman sits in a boat with his tongs and other oystering tools. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Long Island oysters were a valuable commodity on the New York Market. Before the Long Island Railroad came to Sayville, oysters were transported on the half shell from oyster houses to Manhattan by wagons and schooners. In 1867, the southern line of the LIRR was completed and Long Island Blue Points flowed into the restaurants, oyster cellars, and oyster carts of New York City. In 1906, New Yorkers dining at Walton’s Old Homestead Oyster and Chop House on Eighth Avenue were met with a menu containing forty-five different entries for oysters; for 25 cents, diners could enjoy Blue Point Stew, made to order.[6] In 1917, the menu of Theodore Muller Ladies’ and Gentlemen’s Oyster Chop House contained thirty-seven different entries for oysters.[7]

It is difficult to ascertain the total value of the oysters sold annually in the New York market, but those best acquainted with the trade estimate it at $5,000,000, wholesalers’ prices. About $4,000,000 of this sum is sold in and consumed in New York and the neighboring cities, and the balance is sent to the interior, extending as far as Chicago and St. Louis. The price of oysters when they reach the mouth of the consumer is at least double that asked by the wholesale dealer, so that there is probably from $10,000,000 to $12,000,000 expended annually in New York and Brooklyn for the luxury of bivalves.[8]

As the European oyster beds declined, Long Island oysters became a global commodity. Long Island oysters traversed the Atlantic to be served on dinner tables in England, France, and other European countries. At Queen Victoria’s request, Blue Points were the only oyster to grace the table of Buckingham palace. Long Island Blue Point oysters became so famous that shippers and merchants began pirating the name. In 1908, the New York State Legislature passed a law: "No person, firm or corporation shall sell or offer for sale any oysters, or label or brand any package containing oysters for shipment or sale, under the name of Blue Point oysters, other than oysters that have been cultivated in the waters of the Great South Bay in Suffolk County."[9]

The Great South Bay oyster industry did not last forever. While overharvesting placed great stress upon the shellfishery, the combined effects of Long Island duck farming and the 1938 hurricane proved to be the final blow. The 1938 hurricane opened new inlets into the Bay; increased flow of water from the Atlantic led to an influx of natural predators and a rise in the salinity, making conditions inhospitable for young oysters. Runoff from the duck farms — washed into the Bay by the hurricane — smothered the oysters beneath layers of muck.

Though life on the South Shore of Long Island no longer revolves around the oyster industry, the West Sayville area has not forgotten its oystering roots. Today, the Long Island Maritime Museum stands in West Sayville on the former Bourne estate. Through five historic buildings — the William Rudolph Oyster House, the Frank F. Penney Boat Shop, the Beebee Cottage, the Everitt-Lawrence Small Craft Building, and the Main Gallery — museum visitors can immerse themselves in the oyster business, the home life of the Dutch immigrants, boating history, the US Life Saving Service, and more. The museum is committed to developing programming to reach new audiences and invest them in the importance of Long Island’s historical and environmental resources. As part of the New York State Path Through History event, Long Island Maritime Museum interns have created new activities, educational scavenger hunts, and other resources intended to draw visitors into learning about the Dutch immigrants of West Sayville. Every August, thousands of shellfish-crazed visitors from Long Island and beyond descend upon the museum property for the annual Sea Food Fest to enjoy the very product which made Long Island world famous — the Blue Point oyster.

Erin Becker is the Visitor Services and Volunteer Coordinator at the Long Island Maritime Museum in West Sayville and is also a Museum Educator at the Whaling Museum and Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.

Notes
[1] Erin Byers Murray, Shucked: Life on a New England Oyster Farm(New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011) 69.

[2] Mark Kurlansky, The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell(New York: Ballantine Books, 2006) 52.

[3] Lawrence J. Taylor, Dutchmen on the Bay: The Ethnohistory of a Contractual Community(Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983). 29.

[4] Taylor, Dutchmen on the Bay, 95.

[5] The New York Times, September 11, 1870

[6] Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "DAILY MENU [held by] WALTON'S OLD HOMESTEAD OYSTER AND CHOP HOUSE [at] "245 EIGHTH AVENUE, NEW YORK" (REST;)" New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47db-7f3f-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

[7] Rare Book Division, The New York Public Library. "Theodore Muller Ladies' and Gentlemen's Oyster and Chop House" New York Public Library Digital Collections. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/c130e984-c7e7-a0ef-e040-e00a180671dd

[8] The New York Times, September 11, 1870

[9] New York State, Forest, Fish, and Game Law, Code 201-a.: Blue Point Oysters