Pirates were defeated in Yaquina Bay Oyster War
June 9, 2014
Like most tourist-friendly destinations on the Oregon Coast, the town of Newport is well stocked with kitschy pirate gear.
Unlike most other spots, though, Newport has a real history involving pirates — specifically, oyster pirates. Most people who have heard of oyster piracy think of the stories of Jack London’s youth, when he borrowed money to buy a small sloop and went into the “business” down in San Francisco Bay. Or they may think of the long and occasionally bloody struggles between oystermen and oyster pirates in Chesapeake Bay, on the East Coast, which were still straggling on as late as the 1950s.
But Newport’s relationship with oyster piracy actually predates the city of Newport. It goes all the way back to the days of the Civil War, when Yaquina Bay was just starting to be noticed by European types — ship captains and traders whose rough, temporary settlement at the back of the bay was known as Oysterville.
About the oysters:
For the coastal Native American tribes, oysters had always been an important food. There were oyster beds generously distributed all over the bay, and the oysters that grew there provided the Indians with all they could eat.
Unfortunately, though, two things became a problem after the “Bostons” started moving in. First, demand for oysters went from a few bushels a week to, essentially, infinity. The city of San Francisco, a few days’ sailing journey away, would buy and devour every oyster it could get its hands on. So professional oystermen, with large sailing ships and industrial oyster-harvesting techniques, got very interested in the fishery.
The second problem — which, unfortunately, wouldn’t become obvious until too late — was that those delicious, exotic West Coast oysters (the variety known as “Olympia” oysters) were very slow to reproduce and grow. This is why Yaquina Bay no longer has a commercial native oyster fishery today (although restoration efforts are beginning to bear fruit in other places, notably Netarts Bay).
Owned by the Siletz Indians
By 1863, the Siletz Indian Reservation had been created, and included all of Yaquina Bay, oysters and all. So the Indians contracted with two commercial oystermen — captains Solomon Dodge of the sloop Fanny and James J. Winant of the schooner Annie G. Doyle — to exploit the resource for them.
Dodge and Winant had a great deal. They paid the tribes a total royalty of $1.15 per bushel of oysters, hauled the tasty shellfish to San Francisco, and sold them for $10 a bushel.
The problem was, they had unwanted company on the oyster beds back home in Yaquina Bay.
Dread Pirate Hillyer
Yaquina Bay’s resident oyster pirate was a skipper named Richard Hillyer, captain of the schooner Cordelia Terry. Hillyer not only helped himself to the Indians’ oysters, but did so with brazen hostility, asserting (according to Marshall’s account) the “free right of all citizens to take fish in American waters.” He considered himself to owe the Indians nothing for the oysters, and he paid them nothing, and considered Dodge and Winant suckers for having agreed to do so.
After some fruitless attempts to talk things over with Hillyer, the Siletz
Indian Agent, Ben Simpson, wrote to his supervisor asking for help enforcing the law. Soon a small company of U.S. Army soldiers was on its way over the Coast Range from a post on the Yamhill River.
The soldiers settled into an encampment near Oysterville, enjoyed a hearty dinner courtesy of the grateful Dodge and Winant, and retired for the night. And the next day they sallied forth to pay a courtesy call on the pirate Hillyer, aboard his schooner.
The pirate’s trick
Hillyer received them with a smooth and unctuous welcome, and they dutifully presented their orders to him: an injunction to desist from further oyster piracy in Tribal waters on pain of arrest and prosecution. Hillyer cheerfully agreed to comply with everything, and the soldiers headed back to camp satisfied that they’d achieved their goal.
Then they found out that Hillyer had secretly arranged to dose their chow that night with enough laudanum to keep them all asleep until noon the next day. The plan was, while the soldiers snoozed and the other oystermen raged, he’d be frenetically loading his ship with oysters and standing out across the bar headed for San Francisco and payday.
The soldiers avoided the doped food, and bright and early the next morning, to Hillyer’s surprise, they came to see him.
Hillyer, thinking on his feet, hastily tried to call the soldiers’ bluff, loading his ship with oysters and essentially daring them to arrest him. When they borrowed a skiff and rowed out to do so, he hoisted a British flag. They ignored this, boarded the ship and arrested him, then unloaded his ship and hauled him off to Corvallis.
Hillyer filed some lawsuits and criminal complaints, none of which really went anywhere, although he was soon released from prison. Meanwhile, he was officially banned from entering Yaquina Bay. Grudgingly, he returned to his ship and went off to try his luck in more northerly fisheries.
The oyster-piracy “boss battle”
Hillyer’s other oyster-thieving enterprises must not have worked out very well, though, because in September of 1864 he was back in Yaquina Bay with a crew of hard-fisted fighters, ready to take what was “rightfully” his by force. Simpson again summoned the Army — but their services turned out not to be necessary.
Historical records of this engagement are sparse; if someone left a full account of this final battle of the Yaquina Bay Oyster War, I have not been able to find it. But it seems, reading between the lines, that captains Dodge and Winant, the bay’s legitimate oystermen, had anticipated something like this. A few days later, Winant sailed his schooner, the Annie G. Doyle, into the bay with a crew of the roughest, toughest, rootin’ tootin’est bar fighters the Central Oregon Coast had yet known. A short, sharp action ensued, presumably involving fisticuffs — pirates of the oyster beds having far less affection for the arts of cutlass and pistol than their colleagues of the high seas, in Oregon at any rate — at the end of which pirate captain Hillyer was in full retreat across the bar and out to sea.
Two weeks later, perhaps seeking a rematch, he was on his way into the bay when he ran onto the bar, and the Cordelia Terry broke up and sank beneath his feet.
He survived the shipwreck, but left the area and was never heard from again.
And that was the end of the Yaquina Bay Oyster War, and of oyster piracy there — unless, of course, you include the U.S. government’s subsequent theft of all of Yaquina Bay, oysters and all, from the Siletz Indians.
As a side note, Captain Winant’s schooner, the Annie E. Doyle, suffered the same fate as Hillyer’s pirate ship, just six months later — in the same spot. Meiert Wachsmuth, one of Winant’s crew members, barely managed to make it to the beach, and decided on the spot to leave the sea for the relative safety of oyster harvesting in Yaquina Bay. His business grew and thrived, and eventually led to his son, Louis Wachsmuth, founding Dan and Louis Oyster Bar in Portland.
(Sources: Marshall, Don. Oregon Shipwrecks. Portland: Binford, 1984; Muldoon, Katy. “Oregon’s Only Native Oyster, the Olympia, Makes a Comeback after Near Extinction,” Portland Oregonian, 20 Jul 2013)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. He produces a daily podcast at ofor.us/p . To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
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