History of Oystering in North Carolina
When overfishing resulted in the depletion of the New England oyster beds by the beginning of the nineteenth century, oystermen began moving south. In 1822 North Carolina closed its waters to out-of-state oystermen and forbade dredging by use of drags, scoops, or rakes. Only hand tongs were legal, and North Carolina oystermen were permitted to continue shipping pickled oysters to the West Indies in quantities not to exceed 60 gallons in any one vessel.
In 1858 the state established a procedure by which citizens who were willing to enclose up to 10 acres of suitable estuarine ground and seed it as an artificial oyster bed could secure perpetual fishing rights to it by special license from their local courts. Over the next 30 years, oystermen in Carteret, Dare, Hyde, Onslow, and Pamlico Counties created 52,000 acres of licensed private oyster gardens. Oyster canneries and shucking houses were established in Elizabeth City, Washington, New Bern, Morehead City, and Beaufort in the late 1880s.
Southgate Packing Company
The Southgate Packing Company was established in Beaufort in 1912 in a frame building at the foot of Ann Street, on a channel of the Newport River. Operating from October to June each year, the Southgate specialized in oysters but also packed shrimp as well as beans, tomatoes, and potatoes produced by the local truck farming industry which provided seasonal jobs. African Americans, especially women, found work in the oyster canning operation at Southgate. As one elderly woman recalled, “When the oyster factory opened the women went there to work instead of the fields.”
In the 1920s one could see a huge “oyster rock” that extended from West Beaufort or Gallant’s Point all the way to the present bridge for highway 70. The gathering process was a way of life of many women: “You could see them [the black women] out there, when the tide went out, getting oysters. My children never went hungry–I got them oysters before school.” Carrow recalled the importance of this oyster rock as a source of subsistence in the 1890s:
About the distance of a short city block west of the shoreline there was a celebrated oyster rock known as Jones Rock. On low water you could walk to the rock which we children always did. I may be mistaken, but my impression is that before the oyster factories came Jones Rock provided all the oysters that were required by the people in that vicinity and some for sale. I do know for sure that at any time at low water anyone could, and many did, go out on Jones Rock and pick up a mess of very fine oysters.
The combination of over-harvesting, dredging and channel improvements in what is now called Gallant’s Channel have gradually eliminated the famous “oyster rock.”
Oyster shells were also burnt and used to make mortar in the building of Fort Macon.