In 1870 several external factors were coming together in the upper Chesapeake Bay. Market hunters challenged the validity of a state ordnance that restricted the method and location of waterfowl hunting. Hunting clubs, of which there were many, appeared to be using the law to their own advantage. Between the two groups of hunters, the newly formed Maryland Oyster Police Force drove its side-wheel steamship to intercede and provide enforcement.
The regulation at the heart of this dispute was entitled “Wild Fowl”, Article 98 of Maryland’s Public general Laws. Section 3 of the law (at the time) forbid the hunting of any wild fowl from boats within one mile of the shore of the Chesapeake. Market hunters of the day used sink boxes sometimes called “sneak box” or “sink boats” to gain an advantage on ducks when hunting. Kenneth Kieser describes how a sink box is used:
“Sink boxes, used from the 1840′s to 1934, were shaped like coffins with wooden edges and lay perfectly flat with the water surface. The edges were weighted down with 20- to 25-pound cast iron decoys that matched the carved wooden versions. Ducks flying toward either layout could only see a big brace of ducks stretched out until it was too late when hunters sat up to shoot. A chase boat picked up dead or crippled fowl and occasionally rescued hunters when the sink box filled with water and started to sink”
Hunting clubs used sink boxes as well and it is said that sport gunners originally brought them to Maryland from New York. However, the hunting clubs and the sporting gunners typically owned waterfront property and were able hunt at the water’s edge without having to resort to using boats.
The mood of the market gunners can be felt in this letter to the editor; 28 October 1870, Aegis and Intelligencer:
“The gunners called a meeting on Thursday night, and Robert R. Vandiver, Esq., was called to the chair, and A. Vosberry chosen secretary. The President then asked someone to name the purpose of the meeting, when Col. J. T. Frieze arose and stated that the gunners wished to express their views in regard to the late gunning law, and ascertain what action could with propriety be taken, so that the men could follow their legitimate business, in order to support their families this winter. As all know, the law was passed so as to please the fancy of a lot of Dead Ducks who have plenty of means to do as they please, and deny the poorer class a means of obtaining a living. They are not aware that if no ducks are shot here, they will not get a dart, as the shooting of them on the flats rives them down the river to their feeding grounds, and as for decreasing the number, it is impossible, as they come in millions and have been coming ever since the Indians left here, and no amount of gunning can ever drive them away, the feeding ground being inexhaustible. It will certainly cause great distress here during the winter, and many a child will go hungry. General business will also be dead, as all know that no great fortune is made in the business, there being so many depending upon gunning. It is greatly to their praise the manner in which the meeting was conducted, no angry word or comment having been said, when at the same time their bread is being taken from their mouths. A committee was selected to draft resolutions, and have full power to act in regard to the matter. The meeting closed with a hope from the President that the Lord would favor their appeal and efforts.”
Of note, here are a couple of statements. First, the reference to “Dead Ducks” which are presumably the more wealthy sporting gunners and hunting clubs. Around this same time in Baltimore Maryland a meeting was being held by these “Dead Ducks” to persuade the Maryland Oyster Police Force, also referred to as the “Oyster Navy”, to patrol up to the Susquehanna Flats and enforce the law. Second “…there being so many depending on the gunning”. Following the Civil War there was an explosion of people trying to make a living by hunting waterfowl. While it does look like the hunting clubs, were trying to influence the area by lobbying for enforcement of the Law at its heart the “wild fowl” law was enacted by the people of Maryland to gain some control over a resource that they saw as being exhausted. Finally “…and no amount of gunning can ever drive them away, the feeding ground being inexhaustible.” Sadly, this was not the case but it would take learning from these mistakes to develop better hunting conservation and sustainment programs that would allow hunters the opportunity to earn wages without decimating Maryland’s natural resources.
By November 1870, Commander Hunter Davidson and the Maryland Oyster Police Force were at the top of the bay looking to sink the sink boxes. Just months earlier he had given his Report upon the Oyster Resources of Maryland to the General Assembly. In his report, Commander Davidson sought to expand the Oyster Police Force authority to fisheries and most likely would want to include waterfowl as well. Perhaps it was this early line of thinking that led to the “Oyster Navy” developing into what we know today as the Maryland Natural Resources Police.