Oysters were originally harvested by the Powhatan or colonist by wading into the water and picking them up off the oyster bar, but as the number of people eating the oysters increased, boats were needed to collect them from bars farther out into the rivers and the Bay. Hand tongs were developed to pick up the oysters from a boat. Hand tongs are a long scissor-like tool with metal rakes on the ends. The waterman stands on the side of his boat, opens the tongs, and reaches to the bottom of the river. He closes the tongs, scooping oysters between the rakes. He then lifts the tongs into the boat and dumps the oysters onto the culling board. The river might be fifteen or more feet deep. The tongs are very long, heavy, and hard to manage.
The contents of the culling board are sorted. The oysters sometimes grow on each other, large and small. The waterman uses a culling hammer to separate the individual oysters. The hammer handle also has a measuring gauge. Any oyster smaller than three inches must be returned to the oyster bed. Empty shells are also returned, since the baby oysters attach to larger shell as they grow. Anything else brought up is thrown back into the water.
Hand tonging is hard, slow work. Sometimes each "lick" of the tongs brings up only a few oysters. Even so, most of the oyster harvest
from the Chesapeake is taken with hand tongs.