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NEW ENGLAND, 1620-1645
ALL OF THE NORTH AMERICAN colonies were originally maritime colonies. By the nature of things, Europeans had to arrive by water, and invariably they sought out places to settle by nosing around the harbors and estuaries of the new land. They constructed their first rude homes along the coast or by the shores of navigable rivers, not only because these were the first lands they found, but also because they wished to communicate easily with home and with one another. Few of them were trained mariners, but during the hungry years that followed settlement they learned to row and sail the inshore waters, fishing, hunting, and renewing contact with ships from the mother country. Even their early meetings with native Americans-trading, begging, and fighting-as often as not drew them out into salt water.
This was so even in colonies we tend to associate with agriculture and the export of staple crops. Capt. John Smith of Jamestown first learned about the lands and peoples that lived around Chesapeake Bay by sailing its length and breadth in a "strong ribb'd bark." The Dutch West India Company placed its first permanent settlements in New Netherlands at the mouths of the Hudson, Mohawk, Connecticut, and Delaware rivers as garrisons to defend against seaborne attack and to guard the freshwater channels of trade to the interior. The French Acadians settled in farmsteads strung out along the tidal marshlands that ringed the Bay of Fundy, the waters of which connected them to one another and to the harbor at Port-Royal, where they sailed to sell the surplus of their fields. It could not have been otherwise. The first uncontested resource that European settlers met with in North America was the ocean, and the first open highways were the rivers, lakes, and coastal waters. Not every harbor produced a seaport. Not every seaport supported a fleet of three-masted ships. But everywhere it paid to be handy in boats.
Most students of the colonization process in America have missed this truth. In their histories, the ocean has been chiefly an obstacle over which the settlers had to pass in order to play their historical roles as conquerors, planters, or Christians. Once ashore, we are usually told, the planters turned their backs on the water and marched off to found agricultural villages where the sea played no further role in their lives. There they set about dealing with the problems that engage our interest today -transplanting European culture, attacking the wilderness, constructing communities, negotiating gender roles, dealing with native Americans, enslaving Africans, and so forth. Yet all of these activities forced the early colonists out onto the water repeatedly, and to the founders of New England, though landlubbers at the start, the sea rapidly became part of everyday life. Not only had all of them crossed it, but most of them now lived beside it, worked upon it, or dealt with those who did. Although the social historians of New England have tended to rush precociously into the interior, the settlers themselves hung back, preferring town sites by the coast or along navigable waterways as long as they could find room to plant there. They did this because they were practical people who recognized, in spite of their lack of previous seafaring experience, that the water could be useful to those who learned how to sail, row, and paddle upon it. The maritime history of the Puritan colonies was not simply "commerce," or "transport"-an abstract process or a merchant invention that somehow moved goods and people about. It was real activity engaged in by actual New Englanders, and never more generally than at the beginning, when the great majority of colonists were still in regular contact-directly or indirectly -with the ocean.
When the first Pilgrim colonists set foot on Cape Cod in November 1620, after "long beating at sea," William Bradford recalled, they "fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element." There on the beach were "no friends to welcome them nor inns to entertain or refresh their weatherbeaten bodies; no houses or much less towns to repair to, to seek for succour." Already, wrote Bradford, "it was winter, and they that know the winters of that country know them to be sharp and violent, and subject to cruel and fierce storms." "Besides," he continued, "what could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of beasts and wild men," a country whose "woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue." So in this, their hour of crisis, how did they set about rescuing themselves? They built a boat.
As Bradford remembered, the Pilgrims' first significant act as colonists on that lonely stretch of beach was not to construct shelters, find food, or gather fuel but to begin to assemble in the shortened hours of that late autumn day the shallop they had brought with them "in quarters" aboard the Mayflower, so that they could find their way around. The colonists themselves were not skilled sailors. They had crossed the ocean not as seafaring adventurers but as rural villagers looking for land on the other side where they could plant their homes, live comfortably, and worship in their own manner far from the persecuting arm of the English church and state. Yet it made little sense to explore the New England coastline for a place to live on foot, so in this little shallop, crewed by seamen from the ship, "ten of their principal men" explored the bay that autumn and decided on Plymouth as a place to settle. By December the Pilgrims had shifted the focus of their energy from sea to land, laying out a street that climbed upward from the beach and constructing a common house by the harbor. As the winter progressed, they added a few small cottages of English design, but many families remained on board ship during the cold weather, and it was not until the first day of spring in 1621 that the last of the Pilgrims came ashore. Throughout these months of famine and sickness, which killed nearly half the colonists, the Mayflower's stores, supplemented by such fish as the healthier members of the community could catch in the bay, saved Plymouth from extinction. Without ship and shallop, nearly all of the settlers would undoubtedly have died.
In 1621, their first full year in America, the surviving Plymouth colonists turned to husbandry in earnest, planting corn in the Indian manner in fields abandoned by the Wampanoags several years before. By autumn they had begun to lay in a "good store" of fish, waterfowl, wild turkeys, and venison, to "gather in the small harvest they had, and to fit up their houses and dwellings against the winter," when without warning another ship, the Fortune, arrived with thirty-six more destitute settlers on board -promptly throwing the colony on half-rations again. The following two years brought more of the same. While harvests improved, every new shipload of reinforcements consumed more than could easily be spared, and the struggle to feed themselves drove the Pilgrims continually back to the sea-but now without the help of experienced sailors. Fishing became critical. In the spring of 1623, the last of their seed corn planted and their "victuals ... spent," the colonists divided themselves into several companies and took turns around the clock, going out in their single poorly fitted boat "with a net they had bought" to seine for bass and other fish. "Neither did they return till they had caught something," recorded Bradford, "though it were five or six days before, for they knew there was nothing at home." Facing chronic hunger, they also cruised the Cape Cod shore bartering for corn from the Indians. On one occasion, a visiting company of fishermen agreed to pilot a Plymouth vessel all the way to the coast of Maine, where the colonists managed to obtain a "present refreshing" of food from the ships that had arrived for the summer fishery. By means of this voyage, they learned "the way to those parts," and in subsequent years, when their farms had grown and they had surplus corn to sell, the Pilgrims reversed the trade imbalance and began shipping Indian meal to the eastward. Much of the fur they obtained to pay their debts in England was also fetched by sea, at first from native villages nearby and later from their own trading posts in Maine. Clapboard was another early export from the colony, and some of that may have been brought by water as well. In this way, necessity taught them both the geography of the coastline and the means of navigating it. By dint of practice, they learned to become seamen of sorts, and for at least a decade their developing ability to pilot small craft up and down the coast proved basic to survival.
Not only Plymouth but all of New England's earliest colonies depended on coastal seafaring of this kind. Throughout the 1620s a thin but persistent network of waterborne traffic connected the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Thomas Weston's outpost at Wessagusset, Thomas Morton's settlement at Mount Wollaston, the Dorchester Company's colony at Cape Ann, a scattering of overwintering fur traders on the coast of Maine, and the still numerous villages of native Americans (Map 1.1). Driven by the fear of hunger and cold, settlers in each of these colonies ventured out in all manner of small craft to fish the ledges offshore, hunt waterfowl in nearby marshlands, and fetch timber for shelter and heat. When their needs could not be answered locally, they loaded their vessels with the produce of the country and struck out across waters whose shoals and tidal currents they barely knew to truck with one another or with visiting fishermen for the things they lacked. None of this trade engendered any considerable wealth, nor did any of these ocean-fronting settlements ever develop into a seaport of note. We remember the Pilgrims today as husbandmen, householders, separatists, and celebrants of thanksgiving, not as coasters or fishermen. Yet in the sense of living beside the ocean and employing it to conduct the ordinary business of life, these earliest European settlers on New England's Atlantic shores had become by necessity a maritime people.
The founding of Massachusetts in 1629, the arrival of the Winthrop fleet in 1630, and the spread of Puritan settlement throughout New England during the 1630s prompted a rapid intensification of economic activity along the Atlantic shore. Those New Englanders who undertook what we now term the Great Migration came in numbers and with money and ambition beyond anything the region had seen before, and within a couple of years the intermittent trickle of coastal shipping that had been typical of the 1620s widened into a steady stream. As early as 1631 traders from the Bay Colony were sailing north to provision fishermen in Maine, south to procure grain from the colonists at Plymouth. Fishing companies set up stations at Marblehead and Dorchester, and Boston developed almost instantly into the principal seaport of the colony. Hundreds of newcomers disembarked every year with cash in their pockets looking for passage to any one of a dozen or so new communities scattered around Massachusetts Bay. There they began clearing woodland, constructing sawmills, building farms, raising cattle, and in short order generating commodities to sell. The evolution of Boston itself into a market town and a center of administration drew the same settlers back again by water in order to transact their public and private affairs. The quantity of business in transporting the settlers and their belongings along the coast, up various rivers to the new town sites, and back again with the fruits of the new economy in tow kept a good number of smaller vessels-chiefly "barks, catches, lighters, [and] shallops" of less than 10 tons' burden-busy the year round.
By 1635 Massachusetts Bay stood at the hub of a coastal shipping network that extended along most of the New England coastline. At the Trelawney plantation on Richmond Island a hundred miles northeast of Boston, manager John Winter traded in livestock, beaver, corn, fish, and European manufactures with the Puritan seaport throughout the 1630s, and many smaller undocumented operations must have done the same. As the Puritan colonists pushed west to the Connecticut Valley and south to Rhode Island, coasters learned to navigate the passage around Cape Cod into Long Island Sound. Commerce with the Dutch had drawn Massachusetts vessels in this direction as early as 1633, but after the founding of Hartford and Springfield in the mid-1630s, this became a regular trade route. Because of the length of these voyages and the need to sail across open water, mariners began to employ barks and pinnaces of 20 tons or more-considerably larger than the boats that answered local needs around Massachusetts Bay. By 1634 vessels of double or triple this tonnage, some of them constructed in New England, had begun sailing to Virginia. In 1637 the Desire, a ship of 120 tons built in Marblehead, journeyed a step farther to the West Indies. Finally, in 1643 the Trial of 150 tons sailed across the Atlantic to open a foreign trade with Spain. Although lengthy voyages were still rare enough in this period to be newsworthy, they were plainly not beyond the colonists' reach.
The importance of these expeditions has often been recognized, and rightly so. At a time when the Puritan colonies were chronically short of supplies, they brought home much-needed cattle, goats, corn, cotton, and other provisions. By encouraging the construction of ships, they generated new business inside the colony and demonstrated to prospective immigrants in the old country that there were livings to be made in New England. In the act of trading overseas, the Puritans had learned where their fish, timber, and livestock could be marketed profitably, so that when the colonial economy fell on hard times with the end of the Great Migration in the early 1640s, they could pursue an export-driven strategy of development. Nevertheless, before 1645, foreign commerce employed few colonists directly. For all their economic portent, these voyages were not the means by which most New Englanders first gained their familiarity with the sea.
This fundamental process began not in ships but in boats. Like the Pilgrims at Plymouth, the Puritans discovered immediately that getting about on land, particularly if one had something heavy to carry, was difficult at best. No roads yet existed upon which one could drive a cart; Indian trails were not designed for draft animals; and even travel by foot was frequently interrupted by swamps, rivers, rough terrain, and saltwater inlets. For some time, the geography of the country was not well understood, and the penalty for getting lost in this wilderness could be stiff. Granted, New Englanders struggled continuously to transform the country and make it more traversable. They drove their oxen into the bush to haul out timber and beat out pathways underfoot; they cut back the forest and widened these tracks into cartways; they built bridges across some rivers and found fords across others; and in doing all these things they learned the lay of the land. But they also found out almost overnight that the less of this they had to do, the easier their lives would be. Fishing, hunting, wooding, visiting, hauling, shopping, and trading-first locally and then abroad-were lighter tasks when conducted afloat.
For small cargoes over short distances, the colonists relied upon what they termed canoes. William Wood saw some of these during the early 1630s and described them as "made of whole pine trees, being about two foot and a half over, and twenty foot long." Although none of the English settlers had ever set eyes on dugout craft before they arrived in New England, the Massachusetts Indians used them all the time. Samuel de Champlain encountered such a vessel, manned by five or six natives, when he rounded Cape Ann in the summer of 1605. Apparently, they were fashioned out of "the thickest and tallest" trees, felled with stone hatchets, then gouged out with fire, and finished with stone scrapers. Canoes of this construction may have been "liable to upset" unless one was "well-skilled in managing them," but they were the vessels of choice in these waters when the Puritans arrived, and the English adopted them immediately. Without roads or skilled boatbuilders, the colonists turned to what worked, and the canoe became, in Wood's phrasing, the settler's "waterhorse," a basic piece of equipment to be built or purchased, mastered, and maintained like any other tool.
Excerpted from Young Men and the Sea by DANIEL VICKERS VINCE WALSH Copyright © 2005 by Daniel Vickers and Vincent Walsh. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||Landsmen on the water : New England, 1620-1645||7|
|2||Salem's first mariners, 1645-1690||25|
|3||The eighteenth century : sailors at sea||61|
|4||The eighteenth century : sailors' careers||96|
|5||The eighteenth century : maritime society ashore||131|
|6||The nineteenth century||163|
|7||Mastery and the maritime law||214|