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Penley Pearls

Why Pearls? Oysters of course!

Oysters & Pearls
Our William Pinley "wished the Virgineans that came up in Service of the Governor had Estates in Virginea, tht rather than he would have come up upon Such employmt as they did [in Maryland] he would have gathered Oysters for his liveing."  
William Pinley, January 13, 1649/50

oystersWhen supply ships didn't arrive, crops failed, Natives attacked, or whenever starvation set in, our Virginians waded out into the Chesapeake and pried oysters from the bay, often cutting their hands and feet in the process.

The oysters were sometimes eaten raw by the starved, but often were boiled in a stew or dried and smoked for later consumption.

During "starving times" such as the winter of 1609 - 1610, after the Massacre of 1622, and on Kent Island, there were many times when oysters alone saved our ancestors.

According to John Smith, it was easy to tell when a colonist was living on a solitary diet of oysters, as their skin peeled. One of Smith's men noted that "This kind of feeding caused all our skin to peel off from head to foot as if we had been dead."

Others mentioned the chalky appearance of their skin as the colonists suffered severe malnutrition due to their oyster rich diet.

After the Indian Massacre of 1622, our Edward Hill wrote: "And indeed, we dare scarce stepp out of o'dores neither for wood nor water". Their crops were burned, their cattle killed. At times they waded into the water in the dark of night to pluck oysters from the reefs to delay starvation for another day.

Peter Arundell (who lived near Edward Hill in Kecoughtan) wrote to a friend in London "The most evident hope from altogether starving is oysters, and for the easier getting of them I have agreed for a canoe which will cost me 6 livres [pounds] sterling." (Kingsbury, Vol. IV, p. 92)

On Kent Island after Claiborne's departure in 1638, the Marylanders tried to starve the Kent Islanders into submission. Pinley's friend, Thomas Sturman reported: "The said Evelin badd the said servants gett Oysters and shift for themselves for he had noe meate nor Corne for them nor could not tell where to gett it." 

William Pinley was severely beaten by Governor Stone's regime when he said he would rather gather oysters for his living than suffer as he did in Maryland. By the time of this statement in 1650, oysters had become the symbol of starvation and desperation. Fortunately for their descendants, there were literally billions of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay at the time of our ancestors' arrival. The pristine clarity of the water in the bay was maintained by filtration through the extraordinary reefs of oysters. At places in the Chesapeake, the mound of oysters stuck a foot above the water's surface at low tide. Ships had to maneuver around the oyster reefs to dock. At Kings Creek (where the Mountney home was located) a ship struck an oyster bed and had to wait two hours for high tide to move the ship over the oysters.

Captain George Percy wrote of an encounter with Natives soon after the 1607 arrival:

They found "the oysters...very large and delicate in taste" and gathered more "which lay on the ground as thick as stones at low tide before leaving. We opened some of them and found in many of them pearls." (

William Strachey, secretary to the Virginia Company, observed oysters thirteen inches in length.

The Natives depended on oysters as a staple of their diet through the winter and early spring, but cautioned new arrivals not to eat oysters during hot summer months from May through August, which remains a healthy rule today. Some illnesses in the early years resulted from the desperate starving colonists ignoring that advice from the Natives.