In the teaching of colonial American history, it is explained that the rocky, thin soil of New England made farming difficult and kept crop yields low. Because of this, the first settlers turned to fishing. They had to feed themselves.
As far as this goes, it’s true. However, it doesn’t go very far. It smothers some facts and reduces the importance of fishing in development of the colonies in New England. It’s a simplification that leads to inaccurate description.
In 1497, on his first voyage to North America, John Cabot found large schools of fish in the waters off the coast. In his report filed after the voyage, he claimed there were so many cod in the Grand Banks of Newfoundland that he didn’t need hooks or nets to catch them, but could use baskets. This report was saved. In 1610 the settlers who founded Jamestown, who were then in their ‘starving years,’ sent fishing ships up the coast to what is now Maine.
Cabot’s report and word of a Virginia fishing ship making a voyage to the north from Jamestown must have reached the Separatists (Pilgrims) who were planning to start a colony north of Virginia (above New York Harbor). The idea of fishing for food and profit occurred to them, so they included fishing gear in the supplies they would take with them. However, they ended up not carrying much fishing gear and failed to enlist a crew of men who knew how to professionally use it. Those who survived the ‘starving years’ in Plymouth asked for more fishing gear to be sent to them, along with advice on the best way to use it. By 1623, the Pilgrims were catching, salting, and shipping fish to England. Sales of barrels of fish bought supplies for the settlers in Plymouth and helped pay back the Company of Merchant Adventurers who had put up the money for the voyage.
Attempts to build a settlement at Weymouth, twenty-five miles north of Plymouth, began in 1622. The first settlers were all men. They wanted to trade for furs, but poorly handled their relations with the people. There wasn’t enough food for the winter and the Plymouth ‘starving times’ were in full swing, so aid could not be sent to the men. At least ten died of starvation. The new settlement was abandoned in early 1623. A second attempt at settlement began in August that same year, with families, this time, but also failed. (Although Weymouth was never completely abandoned after 1623, it sometimes had only a handful of residents.) Boats and a station for drying fish and supplying fishermen were not built by either group that attempted settlement.
The military actions of Captain Myles Standish gained him great respect among the nation in southeastern Massachusetts, but also caused them to have great fear. This led, by 1624, to most of the people departing from the area. That migration cut off much of the fur trading that had been going on, profit from which had been used to support the colony and pay off its debt. Commercial fishing became even more important to survival of the Pilgrims in Plymouth.
When the Massachusetts Bay Company planned their colony, the bad times in both Jamestown and Plymouth were known to the planners. They decided to try and build a working colony before a great migration of Puritans to it began, in order to avoid a similar disaster. In 1628 they sent an advance party of about one hundred setters and another three hundred in 1629. These workers built two settlements, with meetinghouses and some homes. They dug fields for farms and cleared short roads. A fishing station was built in both settlements. Despite all efforts to avoid disaster, many in the advance teams died. Disease and accidents caused most of the deaths, but a weakened condition due to hunger surely did not help the former and may have played a part in the latter.
The Massachusetts Bay Company survived and the migration of more than 20,000 Puritans to it began in 1630. More small fishing boats were built. Fishing lines and hooks were made locally, but both items were also imported from England. Commercial fishing in Massachusetts Bay was started. Puritans stopped dying of starvation and their fishermen began to sell fish in England (and New Amsterdam). This employed lumbermen to cut down trees for building boats, oars, and masts, and selling tree trunks to coopers who made barrels. It employed blacksmiths to make hoops, nails, and anchors, as well as tradesmen who worked other crafts. As early as 1640, the Massachusetts Bay Company sold one hundred and fifty tons of cod in England, the West Indies, and the northern ports of Spain (Basque country). [Given the weight of inshore cod, this might have been as many as 30,000 individual fish—and does not include those the Puritans ate.] Profits from the sale of barrels of cod supported the colony.
You may have heard of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, reputedly one of the best fishing places in the world. The Massachusetts Bay fishermen did not have to sail so far. There is the Middle Bank, which is north of Cape Cod. There is the Georges Bank, east of the cape. There are also the Nantucket Shoals and other fishing banks close by. The Pilgrim and Puritan fishermen could work locally.
Fishing fed the settlers. Commercial fishing provided money with which they could buy needed items, and helped pay back the initial investments in colonies. But there’s more.
Let’s go back.
In March 1602, explorer Bartholomew Gosnold and a group of men departed England. Allegedly they sailed to North America to found a colony. They stopped near what is now Kennebunkport Maine, landed on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, and found sassafras on Cuttyhunk Island (the westernmost of the Elizabeth Islands between Martha’s Vineyard and the southern coast of Massachusetts.) After a month at the last place, they returned to England. They built a fort on Cuttyhunk, but did not start a colony.
English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish fisherman had started fishing the Newfoundland Grand Banks before 1580. Somehow, someone among them had sailed to the southwest and discovered fish off Nova Scotia and Maine. (Was a ship blown off course? Was a ship’s captain following a hunch? Did he see birds overhead? Had he read reports of men who had been there?) Men had been put ashore on the Maine coast in several places to cut wood and make drying racks for fish. Some of the fish were salted and dried and the rest dried by smoke from slow fires beneath the racks. Wabenaki or Mi'kmaq warriors had been disturbed by white men invading their territory without so much as a ‘Hello, how are ya?’ They became hostile. This led the English and French fisherman to put men assigned to drying duty on uninhabited islands off the coast. In 1604, a fishing station (where a ship’s catch could be off-loaded so the crew could go catch more fish) was built on what is now known as Damariscove Island, off the coast of Maine.
The Virginia Company of London’s colony at Jamestown was started in 1607. A few months later, the Virginia Company of Plymouth planted the Popham Colony (Sagadahoc Colony) on the coast of Maine. Its more than one hundred settlers apparently had as difficult a time as the people at Jamestown. They abandoned the colony after the first winter. One man who stayed, Humphrey Damerill, moved to Damariscove Island and supposedly ran a store for fishermen needing supplies. (What could he have had for sale and how did he get re-supplied?) In his 1614 voyage of exploration, Captain John Smith of Virginia named the island ‘Damerill’s Isle.’
In 1615 Sir Ferdinando Gorges petitioned King Charles I for a grant of land and received it the following year. (Gorges had been a major force behind the Popham Colony.) He became the Lord Proprietor of Maine. He was more interested in making a profit from his new property than he was in putting ashore settlers who would have to be supported from England. He began new fishing stations. It is likely the first one was on Monhegan Island and that it was in operation before the Pilgrims sailed from England. Others started in the next few years included a station on Cape Newagen, one on Matinicus Island, and one on Richmond Island. Three more were started the same year the Puritans landed in Massachusetts Bay and at least half a dozen more in the next dozen years.
King Charles I granted another petition for land in Maine in 1623. Captain Christopher Levett received a six thousand acre parcel adjoining Casco Bay (now the city and port of Portland). He took a company of men (size unknown, but likely only one ship carried them) to build a settlement. Not long after Levett returned to England, the settlement was abandoned.
Maine was not the only place that Englishmen started stations to help fishermen. Two were built near the mouth of the Piscataqua River in 1623 (in what is now Portsmouth New Hampshire). A station and settlement were built on Cape Ann (thirty miles north of Massachusetts Bay) in 1623. The planting of farms there failed and apparently the fishing wasn’t good enough to keep men around. The site was abandoned. (It was later resettled and became Gloucester.) Some of the men involved in it started another fishing station at Naumkeag (now Salem) in 1626. Both the Rhode Island and Connecticut colonies’ fishermen built stations, but not until the 1640s.
If the fishermen who used a certain station were successful in catching fish, men would go back to it the next year. Word got around and they might be joined by more fishermen. (If they weren’t going back, word got around.) If the fishing was as good the second time as the first, men would think of staying year round. They might improve their huts into homes. They might be joined by wives and children, which would mean they would need a meetinghouse and a visiting reverend, and perhaps even a council to take responsibility for the area that was suddenly a settlement. They would need a blacksmith and a cooper. They would need other tradesmen.
When a fishing station became a community, it was not the same as the farming settlements of the Pilgrims at Plymouth and nearby or the same as the settlements of the Puritans in Boston and Salem, and places between. It was not planned ahead of time and was not necessarily well-organized. It was nonetheless a colonial settlement. (When the whites began to plant fishing stations on the coast of Maine and let them grow in size, Mi'kmaqs became hostile and wiped some of them out. The whites had to start over, one to ten years later.)
It has been claimed that by 1623 about four hundred vessels fished in waters between Cape Ann and Monhegan Island in Maine. If all the boats and ships used by the colonies south of Cape Ann were added into the count, it would likely still be exaggeration. However, the colonials did build small boats that were rowed by oars or pushed by the wind against a single sail on a temporary mast, boats not expected to be found more than ten miles from shore. There were not yet any schooners (ships) built in the American colonies.
This was the beginning of ship-building in New England. It was necessary to catching fish for food and trade.
Cod fishing in New England was known about in old England. Adam Smith wrote about it in The Wealth of Nations (1776). It was a big deal. Those colonial settlements in the region that were planned as communities from the beginning struggled to survive. Only those settlements that sent fishermen to sea made it. Without men catching fish to feed the settlers, settlements did not survive. Too many people died of starvation.
Those settlements that turned to commercial fishing for profit so they could buy other supplies, made it. Those that didn’t didn’t. While it is possible the Pilgrims and the Puritans could have succeeded without commercial fishing, certainly their struggle would have been longer and harder without it, and more people likely would have died.
Text only Copyright, David Webb Fowler 2012