Date Thesis Awarded


Access Type

Honors Thesis -- Open Access

Degree Name

Bachelors of Arts (BA)




Martin Gallivan

Committee Members

Jennifer Kahn

Rowan Lockwood


This paper addresses the progression of oyster harvesting practices in the Chesapeake Bay watershed through three distinct periods—the Late Archaic, Middle Woodland, and Historic—framed within ideas derived from historical ecology, resilience theory, and sustainability. A critical examination of approximately 4000 oyster shells from Site 44YO0797, an archaeological site located along the York River, indicates that Native fishers harvested Chesapeake oysters sustainably on a millennium timescale. Common resource management practices allowed Native oysterers to actively foster resilience within the fishery through harvest habitat variation over time (i.e., focus shifting from offshore to nearshore reefs). The Chesapeake oyster fishery thrived until the onset of Colonization, when intensified oyster ventures drove the fishery to collapse. For this analysis, five key attributes were measured on every complete left valve in the collection to access for reef health and harvest location: height, height-to-length ratio (HLR), percent parasitism, percent attachment scars, and left valve concavity (LVC). The results indicate larger offshore oysters were found most often in the Archaic period and smaller, nearshore oysters in the Middle Woodland period.  The Historic period provided mixed results, with the presence of both offshore and nearshore oysters, presumably due to the large yields demanded by the commercial fishery. Native Americans more actively harvested nearshore oysters, leaving offshore oysters for limited harvest, only for special feasting events, so they could regrow and replenish other reef structures. Moving into the Historic period, the focus of harvest shifted from quality to quantity; harvest location became less important. This attitude and a lack of communal management was a crucial cause of the early 20th-century oyster fishery collapse. Oysters are a species critical to ecosystem resilience, yet at the rate, human harvesting is progressing, soon the species will go extinct.  My research reflects that current management initiatives need to recognize the implications that past practices and environmental conditions have for future oyster reef restoration.