The Wellfleet Oyster: An Excerpted History

Nov 29, 2023 | Charting the Past

Excerpted from New England Historical and Wellfleet Historian David Wright.

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 the flavor that comes from the 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 hard shell of the Wellfleets 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. In tin cans they rumbled overland in covered wagons to the prairies and mountains of the West.

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

In 1665, a Portuguese whaler and oysterman named Jacobus Loper started hauling oysters in his sloop. He had an easy sail 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.

The Mayflower sailed past Wellfleet from Provincetown before anchoring in Plymouth Harbor, but soon enough the colonists discovered the oyster beds, which reminded them of Billingsgate, the famous London fish market. So “Billingsgate” became the area’s name.

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

In the decades before the American Revolution, burgeoning towns along the coast consumed vast quantities of cheap, nutritious and highly portable Wellfleet oysters.

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.

Later, 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.

In 1773 the town regulated the industry, keeping outsiders off the beds, but the oysters declined anyway. The theory is the harvesters didn’t realize juvenile oysters need 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 young oysters.

Wellfleet’s oyster industry gradually recovered with the help of imported oysters. Aquaculture had gone on since the Romans 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, giving them time to acquire that special Wellfleet relish. Then they started bringing oysters in coastal schooners from the Chesapeake Bay.

By the time Thoreau came to visit in 1849, Wellfleet natives supplied and kept nearly all the oyster shops and stands in Massachusetts. Close to 50 sailing vessels were engaged each winter in transferring product to the Boston market.

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

During the Napoleonic Wars, the British and the French invented canning so they could feed their armies. Canning 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 pioneers migrating west.

Oystermania took hold. Starting around 1820, oyster cellars, oyster bars, oyster lunchrooms and oyster parlors sprang up all over the Eastern seaboard.

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.

Fresh oysters were shipped west, first in wagons full of ice and then in train cars.

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. In 1876, they adopted the grant system, leasing sections of flats to people who cultivated and bedded oysters.

Wellfleetians tried to plant oysters, 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 young oysters to different water depths to enhance growth.

Oyster planting slowly increased. In 1889, Wellfleet had 30 acres of grants. Twenty years later, it had 2,400.

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

Sealshipt had developed a sanitary container for shipping oysters and marketed it heavily through 25,000 retail agents. Sealshipt lasted three years. In 1914, the business was sold at foreclosure.

Then in 1905, Dr. David Belding arrived in town to conduct his shellfish research as part of the Massachusetts Department of Fisheries Shellfish Laboratory and Quahog Hatchery. Belding, a brilliant shellfish biologist and medical doctor, laid the foundation for modern aquaculture.

Scallops and quahogs overtook oysters as Wellfleet’s main crop during the Depression. In 1936, David Atwood closed Wellfleet’s last oyster company of that era. 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 seed.

In 1966 Dr. Belding, 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 with a cultching program, planting bushels of scallop shells to catch oyster seed.

Today, as we know, the industry is going strong.

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 New England Historical Society.


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