This story is written by Daily Press staff writer Mark St. John Erickson. The story is reproduced with permission by Mr. Erikson and the Daily Press.
Long before the collapse of slavery at the end of the Civil War, significant numbers of blacks turned to the water in search of freedom.
Free blacks recognized the uncommon opportunities there early on, carving out livelihoods as oystermen, boatmen and other maritime trades that could be taken up with relatively little harassment and interference from an often hostile white world.
Even those bound to their owners could find a kind of sanctuary there, too, using their highly valued skills as sailors, fishermen and boat builders to win a degree of independence that rarely was seen by field hands and servants.
Yet for all the blacks who worked on Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay during the decades before the war, their numbers were paltry compared to the legions who appeared after the Confederacy’s surrender and the return of peace and commerce.
Driven by the explosive growth of a huge new market created by expanding railroads and steamship lines, a vast armada of black watermen bet their futures on the burgeoning oyster trade, with so many building boats and taking up tongs that they dominated the fleets working the fertile grounds of the Hampton Flats as well as the James and York Rivers.
So pronounced was their presence on the York that they accounted for more than 80 percent of the oystermen there during the 1880s — and for most of the late 19th and early 20th centuries the income they brought home made them the economic and political anchors of the black townships that sprang up in Hampton Roads after emancipation.
“When Civil War ended in 1865, the water became a gateway for large numbers of newly freed slaves who were working for themselves for the first time,” retired Hampton History Museum curator J. Michael Cobb says.
Black boatmen were a common, everyday sight along the so-called “Slave Coast” of West Africa, according to period accounts cited by Deltaville Maritime Museum curator David A. Moran in his 2014 thesis, “The Technique of the Poquoson-Style Log Canoe.”
So large were their numbers that European observers regularly reported seeing as many as 300 or 400 dugout canoes filled with African fishermen working the shallow waters.
Many other boatmen played a crucial role in the grim business of the slave trade itself, piloting the shoal-draft canoes that ferried captives from the slave pens on the shore to the transport ships anchored safely beyond the treacherous currents and sand bars.
As slavery grew in Virginia during the late 1600s, so did the presence of these African boatmen, whose knowledge of seamanship, fishing and boat-building made them highly sought after by planters and merchants dependent on the water for shipping goods and tobacco.
“Slaves who were watermen were highly valued and trusted for their skills,” Moran says.
“But it also gave them a way out. They could leave if they wanted — and a lot of them did. The water and freedom always went hand in hand.”
Among those who fled was Bonna, who came to Virginia from the Ibo people of Africa, and who is described in a 1772 Virginia Gazette ad as a slave who had “served in the Capacity of a Canoe Man.”
Though his fate is not recorded, he was only one of many free blacks, runaways and slaves who worked the water and related shoreline jobs, and their numbers had grown so much by the time of the Revolution that the colony attempted to restrict their employment.
“They tried very hard to stop it. But there was only so much they could do,” historian Cassandra Newby-Alexander of Norfolk State University says.
“The black pilots and boatmen were so numerous they were doing most of the work.”
Black boat-builders and ship’s carpenters became legion, too, not only in the shipyards of Hampton and Norfolk but also on the many plantations and farms that produced their own small craft for shipping crops and goods on the region’s creeks and rivers.
Among them was a York County slave named Aaron, who has been credited by numerous historians with building the first pioneering examples of the famous Poquoson log canoe that became an icon of Hampton Roads and the Chesapeake Bay for more than a century.
“The black boat-builders have been mostly written out of the log canoe’s story,” Moran says, describing studies that linked its Native American origins to later European improvements.
“But they made some of the most crucial contributions to its development from colonial times well into the 20th century.”
Black boatmen played an indispensable role in creating another hallmark of the lower Chesapeake Bay, too, Casemate Museum historian Robert Kelly says.
Scouring the early 1800s records documenting the construction of Fort Monroe, he found note after note from the Army engineers specifically requesting that the contractors bringing in massive amounts of stone and other building materials hire black captains, pilots and crews because of their superior performance.
He also turned up “Help Wanted” ads stating that blacks were preferred.
“There’s no evidence that blacks were cheaper,” Kelly says, noting that free and enslaved blacks combined to make up a substantial portion of the workforce.
“But they were the ones who had the knowledge. They were the ones who had the skills.”
When the traditionally local market for oysters began to expand in the 1850s, this large reservoir of black boatmen was well poised to take advantage.
Driven by the collapse of New England oysters as well as the rapid rise of railroads and steamship lines, Virginia’s production grew from 178,000 bushels in 1849 to 2.3 million bushels in 1859, notes Virginia Institute of Marine Science doctoral candidate David Martin Schulte in a May 2017 article for “Frontiers of Marine Science.”
And many of them were sold to predominantly Northern wholesalers by black boatmen.
In York County alone, so many “Black” or “Mulatto” captains and crews plied the oyster-rich waters from enclaves along the shoreline in Seaford, Dare and Poquoson that they made up nearly 60 percent of the county’s water-related workers in the 1850 census, notes Robert J. Mamary in a 1994 College of William and Mary master’s thesis.
Hampton was another hotbed of the fast-growing industry, with both free and enslaved black watermen selling their catches to a market that had extended its reach to not just Norfolk, Richmond, Baltimore and Washington, D.C. but also New York and New England.
Even during the massive interruption caused by the Civil War, enterprising watermen continued to sell to canny Northern entrepreneurs, who were eager to profit from the appetite of Union soldiers at Fort Monroe and Camp Hamilton on the Peninsula as well as City Point on the James River during the Siege of Petersburg.
Demand was so great that — as seen in two 1865 images from the Library of Congress — photographers captured not only the soldiers waiting outside Sayer’s Oyster House near the Petersburg trenches but also a bomb-proof shelter converted into a front-line oyster bar.
“The Yankee soldiers loved oysters,” Cobb says, “and it was the contraband slaves who were gathering them up and selling them.”
That was just the prelude to the explosive growth that erupted with the conflict’s end, Schulte reports.
In war-shortened 1865 alone, some 2 million bushels of Virginia oysters went to market, then climbed to 4 million bushels by 1871.
By 1880, production had reached 6.3 million bushels of market oysters and 1.9 million bushels of seed oysters, followed by about 5 million bushels annually until the decade’s end.
So many black watermen were caught up in the boom that — in York County alone, where thousands of refugee slaves had flocked to the protection of the Union’s Fort Yorktown during the war — they outnumbered white oystermen by 4 to 1, according to Mamary’s analysis of the 1880 census.
They also dominated the fleet in Hampton, where — as historian Robert F. Engs points out in his landmark 1979 book, “Freedom’s First Generation: Black Hampton, Virginia 1861-1890” — many came from the great refugee slave camp that had grown up outside Fort Monroe.
“If you were smart and enterprising, you went into the oyster and crab business — because that’s where the opportunities were. That’s where the horizon was after the war,” Cobb says.
“And the freedmen who had been doing it longer and better than anyone else took advantage of that change.”
Often established by free blacks, numerous enclaves of black watermen could be found in Hampton Roads before the Civil War.
So early were the refuges at Rushmere in Isle of Wight County and Cary’s Chapel Road in York County that they date back to the 1600s, local historians Rosa Holmes-Turner and Russell Hopson say.
Middlesex County harbored a deep-rooted colony of free black watermen, too, says retired Norfolk State University archivist Tommy Bogger, the author of two studies on these sometimes elusive shoreline settlements, while the busy waterfront in Hampton was a well-known haven for free and enslaved black pilots, sailors and boatmen alike, including such prominent figures as Revolutionary War pilot Cesar Tarrant.
All these outposts grew significantly after the war, fueled by the rapid growth of the oyster trade and the large numbers of slaves who had fled to Union lines on the Peninsula seeking freedom.
Faced with returning to their home plantations or carving out a new livelihood, many took to the water because of the income and independence it offered in an economy that gave blacks few good options.
“Not surprisingly, they were reluctant to go back to work for their former masters,” Bogger says, “and they knew they could make a living as watermen.”
Other settlements like Hobson Village in what is now Suffolk sprouted up brand new, but they often reached back to the same huge influx of slaves.
The first group there came from the Carter’s Grove area in 1865, Bogger says, while the second — intent on fleeing the white vigilantes who hounded the giant contraband camp at Yorktown — arrived at the settlement off Barrett’s Neck not long afterward.
Among those left behind at what became known as Uniontown was yet another band that turned to the water, using nearby Wormley Creek as the base for a small fleet that worked the oyster grounds on the York River.
Historian Tim Smith says his family’s marine railway in Dare repaired their boats and hired them on as seasonal shipwrights for generations.
“They’d bring their boats here to haul out — three or four of them coming together. They’d work the topsides and we’d do the bottoms, then they’d line up in the creek and race back together,” he says.
“We have receipts showing the work we did for them going back to the early 1900s.”
Smith’s family passed down many stories of enterprise and admiration, too, helping to explain how the freed slaves and their descendants established themselves and maintained a culture of independence.
“These guys were so self-sufficient. They could fix anything,” Smith says.
“They were real geniuses at finding ways to keep those boats running.”
Profit and decline
In the years after the Civil War, the incomes generated by black watermen enabled many to buy land and become economically and politically influential.
“If you were a farm laborer, you would have made $10 a week. If you were a meat packer, you might have made $25 a week. But if you were a watermen, you could make $100 a day,” Holmes-Turner says, describing why so many Rushmere men turned to the water.
“That was a huge difference in income, and it created a strong tradition of independence.”
As early as 1866, the men of Uniontown were flexing their muscle in disputes with the Freedmen’s Bureau, Engs writes, and their support formed part of the crucial power base that elected black firebrand Daniel Norton to the General Assembly during Reconstruction.
Hampton watermen became pivotal figures in their community, too, with none rising higher than John Mallory Phillips, who was born free in York County, moved to Hampton as a child and then showed such drive and determination as a young man that he not only bought his own boat but also went on to command his own fleet.
Plowing his profits back into such enterprises as the landmark Bay Shore resort and the Peoples Building and Loan Association — both of which provided rare opportunities for blacks — Phillips ranked among the town’s most prominent figures black or white into the early 1900s, Cobb says.
His legacy lived on through his grandson, who became Hampton’s first black city councilman in 1974.
“Here was a black man who had prospered in a white world that was stacked against him,” Cobb says, “and the key to his success was the opportunity he found on the water.
“He showed what was possible for a black man.”
Still, beginning as early as World War I, the descendants of these black watermen began to drift away, lured by new opportunities at such places as Newport News Shipbuilding and Norfolk Navy Yard.
That flight became even more pronounced in such Southside enclaves as Hobson Village and Rushmere after 1928, when many more men were lured to jobs on the Peninsula by the opening of the James River Bridge.
The unrelenting decline of the oyster catch in the 1900s sparked still more desertions, Holmes-Turner says, citing the damage inflicted on the James River oyster grounds by several disastrous storms as well as the impact of the Kepone chemical spill disaster and MSX oyster disease.
Desegregation added to the toll, and by the 100th anniversary of the oyster boom’s 1880 peak the once mighty armada of black watermen was all but gone.
“It was a devastating loss,” Holmes-Turner says, “and we’re still feeling its effects.”