Business and Labor

The Wellfleet Oyster: A Brief History of the Precious Mollusk

Diamond Jim Brady once spat out an oyster served him at New York’s Delmonico’s restaurant. “That’s not a Wellfleet oyster!” exclaimed the Gilded Age gourmand.

Discriminating diners have long prized the Wellfleet oyster for its merroir—the flavor that comes from the clear air and salty, plankton-rich seawater it ingests. Plump and clean, the Wellfleet oyster has a briny sweetness with an undertone of seaweed.

For centuries, the tasty meat and the hard gray shell of the Wellfleet oyster attracted an indigenous settlement, which gave way to a town. From Wellfleet’s immense oyster beds, fortunes were made, a culture developed and commercial networks spread along the Eastern seaboard. Wellfleet oysters wrapped in copper wire traveled across the Atlantic to royal tables. In tin cans they rumbled overland in covered wagons to the prairies and mountains of the West. They even contributed to the epic U.S. victory in the 1980 Olympics.

But in the centuries since the English, the French, the Africans and the Finns came to Wellfleet, the oyster has gone through dark days. Pre-Revolutionary gluttons doomed the wild Wellfleet oyster to extinction. The beds recovered, but so many oysters slid down so many gullets that they nearly disappeared again.

Wellfleet Oyster

Wellfleet lies just above the elbow of Cape Cod, and wraps like a fishhook around harbor, five miles long, two miles wide and open to the south.

Estuaries, clear and cold, feed into the harbor and the Atlantic. The Herring River, Blackfish Creek and Duck Creek carry diatoms and protozoa from the rich salt meadows along the border. Big, fast moving tidewaters feed the oysters twice a day, and at low tide the oysters are exposed to air, which makes them hardy.

Thousands of years ago, a year-round Native American community lived near the immense Wellfleet shellfish beds. Unlike most coastal New England Indians, the Native people didn’t migrate to the interior during the winter. They called themselves the Pononakanet, a branch of the Nausets, and in 1979 a discovery of 56 Native skeletons in an ossuary dated their bones to the 11th century.

They piled shells along the forest edge to protect against storms and make it easier to get to the shore. Henry David Thoreau saw Native shell middens in nearby Truro during a visit to Cape Cod. He found oysters, clams, cockles, and other shells, mingled with ashes, and the bones of deer and other quadrupeds. “I picked up half a dozen arrowheads, and in an hour or two could have filled my pockets with them.”

Europeans Arrive

Samuel de Champlain sailed into Wellfleet Harbor in 1606, and the tremendous oyster beds so impressed him he called it Port aux Huistres.

A decade after Champlain’s visit, a terrible plague swept the Massachusetts coast. When the Plymouth colonists arrived they found so many indigenous people had died they couldn’t bury their dead. “Their skulls and bones were found in many places lying still above the ground,” wrote William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor.

The Mayflower had sailed past Wellfleet before anchoring in Plymouth Harbor, but soon enough the colonists discovered the oyster beds. They reminded them of Billingsgate, the London fish market famous for its foul-mouthed fish wives. So “Billingsgate” it was.

Billingsgate fish market in 1736 by Arnold van Haecken .

By 1644, the Plymouth settlers set their sights for another settlement on the Lower Cape from Truro to Chatham, the wrist to the elbow. They called it Eastham.

‘Then I do’

Bradford, the story goes, looked out to Billingsgate Island and asked the Pononakanet sachem, George, “Who owns that?” “No one,” replied George. “Then I do,” Bradford said.

bradford

William Bradford

Over time, the Europeans edged out the indigenous people. Some of those who survived the white man’s diseases converted to Christianity and moved to a Praying Indian town.

The last of the tribe, Delilah Sampson Gibbs, a widow, died sometime after 1838.

Billingsgate Bivalves

The European settlers learned how to tong for oysters. They’d lean over the side of a flat-bottomed boat with clumsy, 20-foot poles and grab them with the gripping teeth at the end.

In 1665, a randy Portuguese whaler and oysterman named Jacobus Loper started hauling Billingsgate oysters in his sloop. He had an easy sail from the protected harbor to Boston and Salem, and oysters travel well. Unlike scallops and soft-shelled clams, they can live for long periods in the shell outside of water.

Others quickly caught on to the oystering business. In the decades before the American Revolution, the burgeoning towns along the coast consumed vast quantities of the cheap, nutritious and highly portable Wellfleet oyster.

The town jealously guarded its beds from interlopers. By 1674 Eastham Town Meeting voted to apprehend any out-of-towners taking oysters from Billingsgate Bay.

Wellfleet Oysterman

In 1849, Henry David Thoreau and his friend Ellery Channing made their famous trek along the Lower Cape and learned about the extinction of the Wellfleet oyster.

They stayed at the home of John Young Newcomb and his family. Thoreau mistook the 87-year-old oysterman for a scarecrow. He immortalized him as the Wellfleet Oysterman in the posthumously published Cape Cod.

John Young Newcomb house. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, Historic American Buildings Survey collection.

The merry old man loved to talk. His conversation, coarse and plain, would have suited Rabelais, Thoreau noted. He told story after story, ejecting his tobacco juice right and left. The old man’s shots seasoned breakfast of eels, applesauce and green beans.

Newcomb was born in 1762, when Billingsgate still belonged to Eastham. He remembered hearing the guns at Bunker Hill and seeing George Washington ride down a Boston street, bowing gracefully to the crowd.

When Newcomb was a year old, Billingsgate broke off from Eastham. Billingsgate chose to change its name to “Wellfleet” after the famous “Wellfleet” or “Wallfleet” oysters of England’s Blackwater Bay. The revolution loomed as Newcomb reached his teens, but the town was more concerned about the disappearance of the oyster.

First Encounter Beach in Eastham

In 1773, the town voted to regulate the oyster fishery.“ That meant keeping outsiders off the beds.

Some people said the split caused the oysters to go away. Others blamed God’s wrath, ground frost, or pollution from a stranding of pilot whales.

Newcomb said Wellfleet’s quarrel with the neighboring towns about gathering oysters, yellow specks appeared in them. Providence then caused them to vanish. At least that was the most common explanation.

The real reason the oysters went away: probably the harvesters who stripped the beds. They didn’t realize juvenile oysters needed to attach themselves to something hard, like a shell, to survive. Instead, they burned the oyster shells for fertilizer and plaster. They also cut down the forest, which caused blowing sand to smother the young oysters.

American Revolution

After the Wellfleet oyster disappeared, the town’s population fell to 1,113 in 1790, down from 1,235 when the American Revolution broke out.

But Wellfleet’s oyster industry gradually recovered with the help of oysters from away. Aquaculture had gone on since the Romans did it in the first century, and Wellfleetians found they could do it too.

Oystermen began bringing oysters from Buzzard’s Bay and Narragansett Bay, fattening them up in Wellfleet’s estuaries and giving them time to acquire that special Wellfleet relish. Then they started bringing oysters in coastal schooners from the Chesapeake Bay.

jonathan carnes corners the pepper market

Salem during the American Revolution, as imagined by engraver Balthazar Frederic Leizelt; produced for the European market.

In 1802, 40-year-old John Young Newcomb bought a share in the schooner Lydia, and then opened an oyster shop in Salem.

By the time Thoreau came to visit in 1849, Wellfleet natives supplied and kept nearly all the oyster shops and stands in Massachusetts. Newcomb told him the business was still good and improving.

Wellfleetians positioned themselves throughout the oyster  industry even beyond Massachusetts. There were Atwoods, Dyers, Holbrooks and Freemans working in Boston, Philadelphia, Portland, New York and Providence, Dover, N.H., Lewiston and Saco, Newburyport and Lynn.

The Golden Age of the Wellfleet Oyster

“In the palmy days of the Wellfleet oyster business, forty or fifty sail of vessels were engaged each winter in transferring the product to the Boston market,” wrote historian Simeon L. Deyo.

From 1830-1870, Wellfleet monopolized the oyster business in New England. And what a business it was, thanks to the tin can and a widespread frenzy for oysters.

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British and the French invented canning so they could feed their armies on the march. Canning then found its way to Boston by the 1840s. There, the William Underwood Company canned large volumes of Wellfleet oysters. Union Army soldiers during the Civil War developed a taste for them; so did the pioneers migrating west.

Mawhinney Oyster Saloon in Philadelphia

By then, oystermania had taken hold of America. Starting around 1820, oyster cellars, oyster bars, oyster lunchrooms and oyster parlors sprang up all over the Eastern seaboard. Many were just plain eating dens with big heavy tables and floors covered with sawdust. They served booze and cheap oysters, raw or roasted on the half shell, oyster stew, maybe some clams, some toast or some pie.

Oyster cellars, a few steps down from street level, meant adult fun– beer, nightlife, the demimonde, the sporting life, prostitution. Charles Dickens relished his visit in 1842 to an oyster cellar in New York’s seedy Five Points neighborhood.

Ever-ready Resource

In 1848, Boston had 69 oyster houses and oyster peddlers went door to door. According to Rambles in Old Boston,

Oystermen usually appeared in the evening, carrying their heavy burden, in the shell, on their shoulders in a kind of saddle-bag, crying, “Oys! Finey Oys! Buy any Oys?” They opened the bivalves at the purchaser’s door, throwing the shells into another part of the bag.

In 1857, an Englishman named Charles MacKay visited the United States and commented on the only class difference in America: Some people washed down their oysters with champagne, some with beer.

Elegant restaurants served oysters, but so did housewives of modest means. They were cheap and nutritious. Homemakers viewed them as “the ever-ready resource” because of their “suitableness for all occasions.”

Fresh oysters were shipped west, first in wagons full of ice and then in train cars. In Illinois, a congressman named Abraham Lincoln used to hold oyster orgies in which huge quantities of the bivalve were consumed.

Big Business

In 1826, Hawes Atwood opened Atwood’s Oyster House on Union Street – still in business as the Union Oyster House. Daniel Webster often ate there, downing six dozen Wellfleet oysters at a sitting. Atwood built an imposing house in Everett, a town he helped found.

Union Oyster House

In New York City, Wellfleet’s Libby family established the famous Libby’s Oyster House on Fulton Street in 1839. It lasted more than a century. Unpretentious, Libby’s had chefs and waiters described as “despotic and opinionated but highly skilled.” It served Daniel Webster fish chowder on Wednesdays and Fridays, served New England clam chowder every day and had a hard-and-fast rule: No Manhattan Clam Chowder served in here.

Isaac Rich, born poor in South Wellfleet in 1801, built a fortune on oysters. He started off with an oyster stall on Boston’s City Wharf, then moved into warehousing, shipping and banking. In 1869, Rich cofounded Boston University.

The oyster also gave Brigham and Women’s Hospital its start. Peter Brigham, a Vermonter, began selling oysters and fish in Boston while still in his teens. Eventually he amassed enough money to leave $1.3 million for a new hospital after his death.

Oyster Wealth

The Wellfleet oyster made Wellfleet a real town. Local businessmen built Commercial, Enterprise, Mercantile wharves to service the vessels along the busy waterfront.

First Congregational Church

The Duck Creek Shipyard produced schooners, The white clapboard Congregational Church went up in 1850 with a town clock that still chimes ships’ time. Houses floated over to Commercial Street from Chequasset Neck, Griffin Island and Bound Brook. Tradesmen built shops along the long main street. Timothy Daniels ran a store across from Uncle Tim’s Bridge – a favorite motif of plein air painters – connecting Hamblen Island to the village.

There were still oil works for rendering oil from the pilot whales that washed ashore, saltworks to make salt for cod, chandleries to supply the ships.

Aquaculture

Then in 1870, the Old Colony Railroad opened to Wellfleet. The town gathered, celebrated, listened to speeches and poems. One speaker said the railroad would do for the Cape’s fisheries what it had done in Chicago for midwestern grain.

It didn’t. The railroad instead carried Wellfleetians to the mainland — to stay. The population declined along with the oyster beds.

That year, Wellfleet selectmen took notice. They began requiring permits to work the beds. Then in 1876, they adopted the grant system, leasing sections of flats to people who then cultivated and bedded oysters.

It got harder to bed oysters from the south, as northern oyster dealers had caught on to the idea. They found it cheaper for them to bed their own oysters nearby than to pay for freight from Wellfleet.

Wellfleetians then tried to plant oysters – that is, deposit seed, or spat, onto a bed of cultch.  E.P. Cook got the first grant. He scattered shells along the sandy bottom, then caught and planted spat. He moved the young oysters around to different water depths to enhance their growth.

Oyster spat

But oyster planting was an inexact science, and often it failed.

In 1878, S.R. Higgins deposited seed from the Taunton River, and it lived and thrived. Oyster planting slowly increased. In 1889, Wellfleet had 30 acres of grants. Twenty years later, it had 2,400.

It wasn’t enough. Simeon Deyo in 1890 wrote, “the oyster and the oysterman are, so far as these shores are concerned, slowly, but surely, passing away.”

The harbor filled in. People moved away, as they had been every decade since 1840. The fish began to disappear.

In 1898, Fred Snow brought the last load of fish aboard the schooner Pleiades into Wellfleet Harbor.

Sealshipt

In 1911, a big, modern oyster company called Sealshipt came to Wellfleet.

Actually, it was a trust, and in 1910 the New York Times reported that the Sealshipt Oyster System was trying to monopolize the Atlantic Coast oyster business.

Sealshipt had developed a sanitary container for shipping oysters and marketed it heavily through its 25,000 retail agents. That was a big deal at the time. Exposes of adulterated and unsanitary food had riled the public, and Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.

Sealshipt employed up to 125 people, who worked six days a week from 7 am to 5 pm. Another 600 worked at the Sealshipt office in Boston. They only got Thanksgiving and Christmas off, worked by the light of kerosene lamps and shipped 50 barrels of oysters a day.

Things were looking up for the Wellfleet oyster. In 1909, 22,500 bushels of Wellfleet oysters were harvested from the flats – about a fifth of the haul during the palmy days of the Wellfleet oysters. Still, an improvement.

Sealshipt lasted three years. In 1914, the business was sold at foreclosure.

Lorenzo Dow Baker

Lorenzo Dow Baker, the Banana King, came into this world on Bound Brook Island in 1840. He founded the Boston Fruit Company, which evolved into United Fruit, which evolved into Chiquita Banana.

Baker envisioned a different future for his hometown, one based on tourism and aquaculture.

Lorenzo Dow Baker

In 1886, he built the luxurious 62-room Chequasset Inn on Mercantile Wharf, which had served the now defunct mackerel fleet. Baker brought his Jamaican staff in the summer north from his Titchfield Inn, which he ran in Jamaica in the winter. He billed the Chequasset as a cruise without the seasickness.

Sportsmen and their families came for the duck hunting, fishing, tennis and billiards. Guests could stroll among the fashionable elite along the boardwalk. A full orchestra entertained dinner guests.

Then in 1905, Baker added a funny little shed with a pitched roof to the side of the Chequasset Inn. He let a Dr. David Belding conduct his shellfish research from what was actually the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries Shellfish Laboratory and Quahog Hatchery.

David Belding

Belding, a brilliant shellfish biologist and a medical doctor, laid the foundation for modern aquaculture in that shed. He wrote groundbreaking reports on bay scallops, quahogs, oysters and soft-shell clams that have yet to be surpassed. Belding also served in the Army Medical Corps in World War I, wrote books and worked as Professor of Bacteriology and Experimental Pathology at (appropriately) the Boston University School of Medicine

It would be a long time before Belding’s research bore fruit. The Wellfleet oyster continued its slide.

Things got worse. A typhoid epidemic in 1924 was blamed on oysters, while Prohibition closed the oyster cellars and taverns where they were so gleefully consumed. In 1936, David Atwood closed Wellfleet’s last oyster company. The town turned to tourism, improving the roads, creating a dump, bringing in electricity.

The Return of Dr. Belding

Scallops and quahogs overtook oysters as Wellfleet’s main crop during the Depression. Then during World War II, the Army set up a training camp for amphibious landing craft at Wellfleet. The vessels churned up so much silt they smothered the oyster beds.

By 1956, Wellfleet oysters were only planted by individuals doing it as a side hustle on small private beds. The good news was that people started following Dr. Belding’s advice, and it seemed to work. The town bought seed from the state and encouraged fishermen to bring in their shells to one section of the flats so they could collect oyster seed.

In 1966, Dr. Belding, then in his 80s, returned to Wellfleet to join the newly created Shellfish Advisory Board. Wellfleet worked with other Cape towns and the state to revive the Wellfleet oyster. They started a cultching program, planting bushels of scallop shells to catch oyster seed.

Wellfleet Harbor today

Miracle on Ice

In 1980, an artist, entrepreneur and fisherman named Paul Suggs formed the Mud Hake Oyster Company. It signaled a new era and new energy in the Wellfleet oyster industry. Suggs got a grant, and he got good at shucking. Two days a week he’d take his oysters on the road to sell them.

Suggs then decided to sell Wellfleet oysters at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. He bought up the local product in the weeks beforehand – 80 bushels of oysters, 25 bushels of mussels and 40 bushels of clams.

In a rented U-Haul, he led friends, wives and children to Lake Placid. They set up a raw bar at the Ancient Mariner Hotel and started selling shellfish as fast as they could shuck them. One day Suggs was walking through the Ancient Mariner restaurant wearing a Wellfleet oyster T-shirt. Someone yelled, “Hey Wellfleet, hey Wellfleet!” The voice belonged to a member of the U.S. hockey team.

Suggs got to talking with the hockey players, who told him how much they wanted to win their game against the Soviet team the next day. The Soviets had dominated Olympic hockey through the 1970s, and their army had just invaded Afghanistan.

Suggs said he held the key to victory. He would give them all the Wellfleet oysters and clams they could eat for free, if they promised not to have sex that night and dissipate all that energy. He guaranteed they’d win if they kept their promise.

Both sides kept their end of the deal, and the next day the U.S. hockey team won in the last 10 seconds of the game – the Miracle on Ice.

End Notes

With thanks to The Famous Beds of Wellfleet, A Shellfishing History, by D.B. Wright. according to History of Barnstable County, Mass., 1620-1637-1686-1890 by 

Images: Wellfleet oysters by Paula O via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Map of Wellfleet, Boston Public Library via Flickr, CC by 2.0. Miracle on Ice magazine cover By Copyright by Sports Illustrated/Photographed by Heinz Kluetmeier, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25356046. Union Oyster House by By Swampyank at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20434529. Wellfleet’s First Congregational Church By ToddC4176 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16093285. Oyster spat By CSIRO, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35474428. First Encounter Beach By ToddC4176 at the English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16093177.

To Top