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Sea-going Adventures Cruising the Chesapeake: Part 1

The foamy waters of the Chesapeake veil murder, mayhem and mystery.  About 10,000 shipwrecks sit at the bottom of the bay, of which approximately 2,500 have been identified by name or record, said Donald G. Shomette, acclaimed underwater archeologist and author of 14 books including “Pirates on the Chesapeake” and “Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.”

Some may, or may not, be Spanish Ships of Exploration.  The Spanish sailed the Chesapeake since the 17th Century, with a mandate to wipe out all English settlers.

One persistent legend involves The Tangier Island Wreck, said Shomette.  In 1926 following a blowout of the bay, the exposed shoals revealed the skeleton of a shipwreck.  Was it a wooden sailing ship dating from the golden age of frigates or was it a fraud?  The oystermen of Tangiers Island quickly explored the buried shipwreck and found some copper things and an item identified as a “pillow sword.”

The Baltimore Sun picked up the story and rumors of the sword piqued the interest of collectors.  Yet it mysteriously disappeared, before its authenticity could be verified.

Shomette said the tale is not out of the realm possibility, there are indications the Spanish were on the Chesapeake in the early 1600’s.  However, replicas of these swords were popular during the Civil War and later during the 1880’s “Oyster” Wars when Chesapeake Oystermen used anything available.

The shipwreck disappeared again beneath the waters of the bay, keeping its secrets and waiting to be revealed again to future generations.  It shares the Chesapeake with wrecks from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, and World War I.

The British fortified Tangiers Island during the Colonial period since they found brackish waters there.  There are at least 17 shipwrecks in the immediate vicinity of Tangiers Island, said Shomette, and one was used by the British as a navigational beacon during the War of 1812.

Pirates on the Chesapeake

Pirates sailed the Chesapeake from 1610 to 1807, said Shomette, and tobacco was their gold.  Piracy was a democracy, as portrayed in recent movies.  The crew voted where they wanted to go and left when they wanted.

There are legends of buried treasure on the Chesapeake, as there are anywhere pirates raided.  In one local story, said Shomette, the pirates sailed into port and began spending freely.  Since the Chesapeake is a fairly small body of water, everyone knew everyone else.  You were a sailor, a fisherman or a pirate.  Sailors were at the bottom of the social ladder; if someone showed up in port spending freely; with more money than he should have, then he was a pirate.

The officials arrested the pirates, but didn’t find all of their stolen goods.  The treasure was believed to be buried near the port the pirates where apprehended.

Not all pirates planned a life as outlaws.  Many Tories fled to Tangier Island and went a-pirating during the Revolutionary War.  Escaped slaves also joined pirate crews, often with dire consequences.

Oyster Piracy and Oyster War

Oyster Wars: Wikipedia

Crisfield, Maryland was not a pirate town in the traditional sense.  It was created for the support of the oyster and shellfish industries and by the late 1800’s, Crisfield was every bit as wild and dangerous as San Francisco in its hay day.  Gamblers, prostitutes and sailors roamed the waterfront in a port that had as many ships registered as Baltimore.  These ships plied the thriving oyster trade and the oysterman guarded their fields viciously.

Oyster Pirates: Wikipedia

Shomette said ships were armed with cannons and the oystermen fought in “knock down, drag out battles to the death” over their grounds.  Oyster pirates raided the grounds of rival oystermen at night, stealing the prized oysters from their beds. Crisfield became notorious for shanghaiing sailors.  Unscrupulous ship captains would meet the boats in Baltimore harbor, shanghaiing German immigrants for two years. The captains would pay off the sailor’s two-year contract “by the boom”—killing their men with a blow to the back of the head and dumping their bodies into the bay. Maryland and Virginia both maintained navies to protect the oyster ships and try to stem the tide of shanghaied sailors.

This story was first published in the News Journal in 2004 under the byline of Gail A. Sisolak. All rights reserved.