Work and Life on the Fishing Periphery of Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1675

ONE spring day in the year 1666 found two fishermen, Samuel Dutch and John Meager, conversing at Meager’s lodgings in Gloucester on Cape Ann about the prospects for the coming season. Both men were single, in their early twenties, and accustomed to the rough ambience of the waterfront. Dutch began by proposing that Meager join him and his brother, Hezekiah, in a mackerel voyage off Cape Cod. Meager, a testy individual with a quick temper, refused at first, claiming that he could find steadier work, “both winter and summer,” down the coast at Salem. Dutch then grabbed him by the hand and pleaded the advantages of the unfettered fishing life at Cape Ann—in his own words: “we are all three young men and Can goe when we will and Com when we will.”188

“When we will.” This snippet, recorded by the clerk of the Essex County court, reflected more than mere youthful enthusiasm. In most of Puritan New England, young, unmarried men were not free to come and go as they pleased, let alone to declare that freedom was an ordering principle in their lives. Those who did, wrote Thomas Shepard, “while they live loosely, and are guided by their own wisdom for their own ends, according to their own will,” may have found this liberty very sweet, but they were hardly fit citizens in a commonwealth which was to serve as an example to the world.189 What Samuel Dutch was heard to utter ran clearly against the spirit of the New England way.

In holding to such views, Dutch was not alone. Indeed, a spirit of license and undisguised self-interest that truly disturbed the Puritan leadership seemed to spring up in every village that the fishery touched. A particular minister, in a story told by Cotton Mather, once berated the congregation of a coastal settlement northeast of Boston: “Approve yourselves a religious people,” he told them, “otherwise you will contradict the main end of planting this wilderness!” Thereupon, a local resident cried out: “Sir you think you are preaching to the people at the Bay; our main end was to catch fish.”190 The tale may be apocryphal, but, in Mather’s mind at least, it captured the cultural gap which split the tough and worldly fishing periphery of New England from its settled Puritan core.

The distinction between core and periphery was something that Englishmen of the seventeenth century felt in their bones. In a less mobile age than our own, people who moved out to earn their livings on the geographical fringes of society were thought to bear a wholly different character from those who remained. The more settled portions of society—the independent husbandmen and craftsmen who worked together with their families on the property they owned, most often within a few miles of where they themselves had grown up—were usually judged the cornerstones of social order. Bound to the region in which they lived by the possession of land, these households were the community’s chief agencies for the transmission of culture, leadership, skills, and property from one generation to the next. Around the periphery of this established world, however, there circulated another and more transient crowd of men and women with a rather less savory reputation. Forced off their small holdings in the difficult times of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, these dislocated individuals wandered up and down the countryside in a continuous search for work and subsistence. In the towns and seaports, the forests and colliery districts, or even out on the heath they gathered—anywhere, in short, where they could live unmolested by the parish machinery and where their inexpensive labor was in demand. Persons of casual habits, often without families, brushing shoulders daily with others they scarcely knew, they flouted the accepted traditions of the settled community. Lead miners in the Mendip Hills of Somerset, for example, struck the local justices of the peace as “lewd, vagrent and wandering persons,” bent on idling their time away at the ale house, not only upon the Sabbath, but on “other days and times when they should be at their work.”191 Forest-dwellers, who divided their year between weaving and woodcutting, were thought to be a stubborn and uncivil crowd: “mean people [who] live lawless, nobody to govern them, they care for nobody, having no dependence on anybody.”192 Respectable opinion was irked both by the unfamiliarity of this peripheral world and by its apparent lack of restraint. That people of uncertain character with little material stake in the communities through which they passed should have been free to do as they pleased seemed an invitation to disorder.

As vocal as any Englishmen in this chorus of complaint were the Puritans. Reborn ministers and their lay brethren, who found in work “the primary and elemental form of social discipline, the key to order, and the foundation of all further morality,” condemned the world of migrant labor at every turn.193 Men with irregular work habits they termed idlers. Drifters with no settled occupation offended their sense of the calling. Squatters, who chose to live distant from any church, and sailors, who spent long periods at sea, seemed to deny religion altogether. Single men and women, preferring a life of casual labor to the service of others, were, in the judgment of Richard Sibbes, no more than “wild creatures, ruffians, Cains and the like.”194 The wandering life epitomized for men like Sibbes the failings of a wicked and degenerate England.

Regeneration was possible only with the subjection of every man and woman to a godly discipline. For the Puritan individual, this meant the subordination of self to the interests of one’s household and community, and, in one’s working life, the glorification of God through continuous labor in a fixed calling. These obligations, however, were more than principles of mere personal conduct. Since the Lord rewarded nations only as they cleaved to His Word, the rest of society had to be bent to the same rule. Preachers therefore exhorted magistrates to discipline their disorderly countrymen; as Richard Eaton of Cheshire argued, “the execution of justice upon riotous and inordinate livers is for the present a sweet-smelling sacrifice unto God.”195

Punishment at the parish level was, nevertheless, an imperfect solution. Only when vagrants and idle laborers were brought under the control of upright men could their sinfulness finally be curbed. The master’s firm hand would ensure faithful attendance at public worship upon the Sabbath, regular employment the rest of the week, and orderly behavior throughout. The Lord had ordained that men should live in families. No community which permitted laborers to live unattached to any household, free from the obligations of regular work and prayer, would meet with Puritan approval.

Most propertied Englishmen, of course, would have shared in these sentiments. What set these radical Protestants apart was their willingness to act. In the old country they had proved unusually quick to exercise coercion not only on their families and churches, but through the courts and even in politics in order to fit society to the proper mold. And in the 1630’s, when the prospects for reform at home began to dim, thousands of them decided to move to the New World, where, free from interference, they might at last order their lives in accordance with God’s Word.

On the far side of the Atlantic the Puritan colonists meant to establish a new England—a society like that which they had left behind but purged of its vicious elements and composed of none but free-holding producers. Public policy was geared to this end. The founders distributed sufficient land to individuals deemed appropriate but reserved the right of denying it to others who were not. They required all single persons to dwell as servants in established households or face banishment from the colony. And they attempted to outlaw idleness, sexual dalliance, and drunkenness—indeed all the classic trademarks of loose living.196 In brief, they sought to discourage the obviously unacceptable from entering the Bay Colony at all. Earlier plantations, wrote John Winthrop, with Virginia and Newfoundland in mind, had failed because “they used unfitt instruments … a multitude of rude and misgoverned persons, the very scumme of the land.”197 If he and his followers were successfully to transplant the best elements of England’s agricultural core onto Massachusetts soil, they could not afford to make the same mistake.

The founding fathers would have preferred the colony to be self-sufficient and insulated as far as possible from the evils of the world outside. But as civilized Englishmen, these early emigrants had standards of well-being that demanded certain goods—fancy textiles, ironware, paper, gunpowder, and so on—which had to come from abroad. To pay for these, as it turned out, the surpluses generated by independent producers in New England’s rocky soil were obviously inadequate. If in its material dimension the new Zion was to resemble old England, then the colonists would have to organize an export economy and recruit the necessary workmen to operate it.

Of all the commodities which the Bay colonists might conceivably have sent abroad, none commanded greater interest than dried codfish. The founders had recognized the market for that “knowen and staple Commoditie” before any of their number set sail for America; and they also understood the coastal waters of New England to be prime fishing grounds.198 The Puritans, however, were landsmen—mostly farmers and artisans—with little inclination for the sea. How, then, did they propose that the fishery be organized?

During the first decade of settlement, these New England immigrants experimented in several directions. The earliest initiatives, characterizing the years 1629 to 1635, relied, as had the Newfoundland fishery, upon bound servants. Recruited in the fishing ports of the old country, these men were engaged and outfitted by the Massachusetts Bay Company or by such private individuals as Matthew Craddock and Isaac Allerton to serve on yearly contracts under the supervision of the colonists. Through the length of the fishing season they operated out of the harbors on Massachusetts’ North Shore. With the approach of autumn they returned with their catch to England.199

In its infancy the Bay Colony could never have maintained a fishery without imported help. Free Puritan emigrants willing to labor in subordinate roles were a scarce commodity, and those who knew how to handle a hook and line were rarer still. As late as 1636, John White of Dorchester learned from his New England correspondents, there was hardly a fisherman, master, or servant resident anywhere in the plantation.200 The few men available for hire, moreover, commanded wages too high for local employers to meet. John Winter, the manager of a fishing plantation in the Gulf of Maine, wrote to his employer in England: “If you do resolve to keep forth fishinge heare, you may please to agree with men at home, for I thinke they are to be hired better Cheepe at home then the[y] will be heare.” Fishermen contracted in the old country, whose terms had run out, never consented to resume work without a raise in pay, Winter complained, for “they give men great wages heare in this country.”201 Only through access to imported servant labor would the New England fisheries ever prosper.

That the capital and labor needed to carry on the business profitably should have originated in London and the West Country was inevitable in a new plantation. But if the servant fishery made money for its English organizers, it did not by that token impress the Puritan fathers. The men it attracted, for one thing, rarely met the standards of probity which the Bay colonists were trying to maintain. The merchants and agents in control of the industry, such as Isaac Allerton, whose “covetousness” so appalled William Bradford of Plymouth, seemed invariably to favor private ends over public interest. Fishermen, like Allerton’s “wicked and drunken crue” of 1631 or John Winter’s hard-bargaining hands at Richmond Island, never seemed to treat the servant’s trinity of obligations—obedience, reverence, and fidelity—with sufficient respect.202 In matters of religion, moreover, the itinerant fishermen at several plantations proved distressingly attached to the ceremonies of the High Church. Richard Gibson, a cleric, in Winthrop’s words, “wholly addicted to the hierarchy and discipline of England,” who by his sermons “did scandalize our government,” ministered to receptive audiences on the fishing grounds from 1636 to 1642 and found servants at several places willing to pay his salary.203 Many of these abuses, it is true, occurred outside the bounds of the Bay Colony and beyond the reach of the Puritan authorities, but to men in Massachusetts they intimated visibly the dangers of allowing profits to determine the direction of settlement. All this might have been borne easily enough had Governor Winthrop and his colleagues seen in the nascent fishery much of economic benefit for the colony. Towards local development, however, it contributed almost nothing. Owned, financed, and operated by Englishmen, it channeled both the capital and the skills accumulated in New England waters back to the mother country. All the factors of production were imported, and all returned in one form or another to Europe.

Accordingly, about 1635, the colonists began to consider the establishment of a resident fishery. Hugh Peter and a number of civic-minded friends set about to organize a “magazine” that would furnish local seamen with inexpensive supplies and purchase their fish as it arrived on the wharf.204 Later, the General Court decided to exempt from taxation all colonial vessels engaged in the taking and transporting offish—not, as Winthrop explained, “to encourage foreigners to set up fishing among us, (for all the gains would return to the place where they dwelt) but to encourage our own people to set upon it.”205

The key aspect of the new program, however, was the careful management of land grants. In 1635, the General Court decided to permit fishermen who would settle in Marblehead “to plant and improve such grounde as they stand in neede of,” an offer of considerable appeal—too much, as it turned out, for the land-hungry mariners began at once to enclose all the land they could; and as the established colonists soon discovered, fishermen who acquired the means to economic independence on shore rapidly lost their taste for the sea. In 1637, therefore, the town of Salem (which had jurisdiction over Marblehead until 1648) declared that “the better furthering of the fishery” could not be reconciled with “the inconvenience … found by granting of land for fishermen to plant.” Henceforth, a house lot and two acres of planting land were the most a prospective fisherman might expect. Similar provisions soon applied to Ipswich and Nantasket: such carefully measured parsimony, it was hoped, could induce fishing families to settle without causing them to stray from their calling. Married men were bound to raise the moral tone of the fishery, and their earnings would flow back directly into the colonial economy.206

In practice, however, the attempt to set up a respectable house-holding fishery failed. Colonists of good character and orthodox religious beliefs, even when granted fishing lots, rarely followed the sea for very long. Land was too easy for such men to acquire, and the order and security of life on shore too difficult to resist. Between 1636 and 1639, Salem attempted to draw into the fishery a number of local residents—mostly householding church-goers with property elsewhere in town—by offering them half-acre lots at Winter Harbor for the drying of their hauls. It was hoped that these solid citizens would either organize the labor of their children and servants or prosecute the fishery themselves. The town fathers miscalculated, for only a minority of the grantees, as far as we can tell, ever involved themselves in the fishery in any way. Some died; others moved away; still others pursued careers on merchant vessels (usually in positions of command); but most simply returned to their old land-based trades, if, indeed, they had ever worked at sea in the first place.207

Those immigrant fishermen who did take up the colonists’ offer usually tended to be little different from the itinerant servants of earlier years and seemed equally wedded to those classic maritime diversions—drinking, smoking, carousing, and profaning the Lord—which the Puritans so despised. These were foreigners in spirit, if not in nationality—hardly, as Winthrop put it, “our own people.”208 What made fishermen different from their landed counterparts? The answer to this problem lies primarily in the organization of their working lives.

Like all industries on the periphery of the European world in the seventeenth century, the cod fishery could be rationally organized only with the aid of merchant capital. The trading community alone possessed the knowledge of business techniques, the personal connections, and the financial power to unite the sources of dried cod on the North American coast with markets in the West Indies and Europe. From its founding, therefore, the New England fishery operated on lines of credit extending from London across the Atlantic to Massachusetts and on the reciprocal obligations that flowed back in return. For their part, the English normally agreed to furnish in advance the salt and productive equipment that the fisheries required and to provide the necessary shipping. In turn, the merchants in the Bay Colony contracted to prepare and deliver cargoes of dried cod to the London-owned vessels when they arrived on the coast. Were the transports to arrive before the shipment had been assembled, the New Englanders would be liable for the damages in dead freight and wasted time which the vessel-owners had sustained. And if the ships in their rush to reach the market departed half-empty, then the Massachusetts exporters would be stuck with an inventory of depreciating produce until they could negotiate the freighting with another carrier. The shipments, therefore, had to be ready on time.209

The obligations assumed in New England, however, could be fulfilled only if they were passed on to the men who actually gathered in the catch. Direct supervision along several hundred miles of shoreline was obviously impossible. Nor could merchants be certain, where land was abundant, that hired fishermen would feel the economic pinch sufficient to drive them in a regular and punctual fashion to their work. Most of these entrepreneurs, therefore, chose not to employ their men on wages, but to engage them as formally independent companies and to shift the risk (as well as the opportunity) onto their shoulders. To each company of fishermen, the individual outfitter advanced the necessary provisions and equipment in return for the promise to sell him at current prices the entire catch for the voyage. From the revenue derived, he then deducted the expenses, divided the net profit or loss into equal shares among the crew, posted these sums to their individual accounts, and claimed the fish to meet his export obligations. Some, such as George Corwin and William Browne of Salem, knew the fishermen by face and dealt with them directly; others, especially those in Boston and Charlestown, preferred to deal through paid agents or independent middlemen in the outports. In either case, the aim of the outfitting merchant was to secure a claim on the fruits of his customers’ toil.210

Fishermen were happy enough with the offers of financial aid and the opportunity to participate in the generally healthy markets of the mid-seventeenth century;211 but the requirement that companies sell their produce to their creditors and to no one else met with resentment. In 1662, a pair of fishermen from Cape Ann, John Jackson and John Bryers, provisioned themselves on credit from two different merchants, Jacob Greene of Charlestown and Peter Duncan of Gloucester. With Greene, the two mariners had signed a written bond specifying repayment in fish, but to Duncan the only evidence of their obligation was a debit balance in his books. As soon as the season was over and the fish had been cured, Greene and Duncan both demanded that the entire haul be delivered to their respective warehouses. Instantly, they discovered the nature of their conflicting claims. Each then brought a separate suit of debt against the two fishermen in order to establish his own prior right. Eventually, the courts decided that, bond or no bond, both merchants had equally valid claims and left the two of them to work out their differences in private. The law assumed, therefore, that any individual who financed a voyage, by that very act, established a clear lien on a sufficient quantity of fish to cover the credit he had advanced.212 This assumption reflected actual practice, as the account books of the period demonstrate, for the produce of every voyage invariably passed into the hands of the outfitting merchant.213 Had fishermen in an economy that was labor-poor been at liberty to deal with whomever they chose, they could always have found a host of dealers willing to bid for their produce. By restricting this freedom, the individual merchant could assure himself that the credit he had extended at the season’s beginning would be transformed at the lowest possible cost into the fish he needed to meet his commercial obligations.

Merchants could not arbitrarily name their prices or they would shortly run out of customers, but with most of the season’s catch committed to them in advance, the upper hand in these negotiations was normally theirs. In the summer of 1666 a disagreement broke out at the Isle of Shoals between the local fishermen and a group of traders from the mainland when the latter, owing to the slowness of international markets, decided to lower their offer for merchantable cod from thirty-two to twenty-six rials (sixteen to thirteen shillings) per quintal. The fishermen were outraged and refused to hand over their hauls except “on ye termes they had payd it to one another”—that is, the old price. A series of public meetings were held at which the leaders of the local companies “proffered some small abatemt,” but the merchants, who deemed the fishermen’s position “verry unreasonable,” refused to compromise. The fishermen finally capitulated, and indeed, no merchantable cod changed hands that season at any other price. The merchants had them cornered; prevented from searching about for other buyers, they had no room to bargain.214

The fishery differed, therefore, from the agricultural sector of the economy in that it involved most of its labor force in relations of clientage. While it is true that on many Essex County farms most of the physical work was performed by the maturing generation of dependent children, it is also true that the majority of these offspring could look forward as a matter of course to becoming householders in their own right and beholden for most of life’s necessities to no one. In the fishery, by contrast, success derived less from the property and skill which one might inherit and more from the access to markets and capital that lay in the control of another class into which few seafarers ever climbed. No fisherman at any stage in his career, even if he was in the fortunate minority that owned boats, could have financed, without credit, the purchase of the necessary salt, timber, food, liquor, cordage, and canvas for as much as a single season’s operations.215 Nor could he, without merchant connections, have disposed of his produce overseas. Farm boys depended on their fathers for access to the means of production, but not through the entirety of their working lives. The power that a given merchant could exercise over a landless client fisherman was considerably more permanent.

The fishing industry, therefore, took on a flavor that was quite foreign to the experience of landed New Englanders. Labor at sea under any circumstances would have involved a level of danger, tension, and deprivation to which most settled householders were unaccustomed. The peculiarly erratic structure of work in the Essex County fishery, however, tied as totally as it was to the ebb and flow of prices and credit, demanded of its men a degree of flexibility which the Puritan colonists simply could not have mustered. That we may better understand this point, let us pause to examine the course of the fisherman’s year.

The companies sailing out of Essex County ports knew at the beginning of each season that the prices of dried codfish tended to move in a cyclical pattern. They peaked twice in the year, normally at the end of the spring and in late autumn, just before the principal voyages of the year returned, and fell to their lowest point soon after, when the arriving boatloads glutted the market.216 The sooner that one’s catch was delivered into the merchants’ hands, therefore, the greater its value would be, while the proceeds from a late haul might not even cover costs. Under these circumstances, fishermen could not simply gear their work in a casual manner to the natural seasons of the cod. Rather, they had to strive at all times to be first—first out of port, first on the grounds, first to complete their cargo, and first to be home. The pressure of time bore constantly on their efforts.

Accordingly, as early in the year as they could manage, most fishermen attempted to secure themselves a position and begin the job of outfitting. The minority—roughly forty percent—who were lucky enough to own all or part of the vessels they operated found their berths ready-made. The remainder had either to ship themselves with a company that was short a man or team up with others in the same predicament and rent a boat in a partnership of their own. Composed sometimes of kin, more frequently of friends, and often of near-total strangers, these groupings all had to ready themselves for several months of intense cooperative work at extraordinarily close quarters if the season was to be brought to any success.217 At once, therefore, they plunged into feverish preparations for the voyage to come. The fishing shallops from which they worked had to be repaired and their equipment purchased, assembled, and carted down to the shoreline. Each crew loaded its vessel with lumber, salt, and empty barrels; hooks, lines, leads, and bait; casks of bread and salted meat, bushels of peas and flour, hogsheads of brandy, beer, and rum; and usually a few live hogs. On their own accounts, the men purchased sea-boots, blankets, heavy waterproof clothing, perhaps some tobacco or chocolate, and any other items they thought necessary.218

If all proceeded smoothly, the vessel could be ready for the first voyage of the year by the end of December. Some companies liked to work the familiar if somewhat indifferent waters off the Massachusetts coast, but the big money was to be made on the more distant grounds in the Gulf of Maine; so most fishermen pushed off to the eastward as early in the season as they could. Winter travel along the New England coast, however, could be dangerous. Storms blew up more frequently than at any other season, ice formed easily on the rigging, driving snow could cut visibility to near-zero, and death from exposure was a constant possibility. But delaying the start of one’s voyage until March, when the weather improved, meant to risk a soft market upon one’s return. So, fishermen measured off the relative dangers of shipwreck and financial disaster, and, if the high incidence of late winter fatalities is any indication, continued to chance themselves in these early departures.219

When fair weather did prevail, companies could reach Monhegan, Damariscove, Matinicus, and the other important fishing sites in a few days. There, they built cabins to sleep in; erected stages and flakes where the fish might be split, salted, and cured; and passed their time catching bait while they waited for the cod to come in. On the day when the fish finally arrived on the grounds, there began for all of them a string of long, difficult days working with hook and line in an effort to complete their loads in advance of the competition. Hand over hand, sometimes eighteen or twenty hours a day, the crew members drew up the codfish on lead-weighted lines from the ocean floor, as much as thirty fathoms below. When the fish were plenty, the labor could be almost continuous, and in cold weather, totally exhausting. Just as taxing on the nerves, if not the body, were the times when the fish were not biting at all. Every day lost brought each fisherman closer to the end of the season, when the cod would depart and his earnings would cease. Through the bitter winds of February or under the hot July sun, as the men sat idly at anchor and waited, they must have yearned for the pace of busier times. In a normal season, the work routine swung back and forth between these two extremes; accommodating oneself to a pace of life this erratic was no easy task.220

Serviced by coasting vessels from Boston and Salem, the companies spent up to half a year at a time, working out of temporary stations in the Gulf of Maine, before returning westward to reorganize. A typical venture was that of John Roads and Peter Greenfield. Both men had emigrated from England in the 1650’s, married locally, and settled in Marblehead. Together, they purchased in 1659 for £100 an open-decked shallop which they employed on extended voyages to the eastward. In the late fall of 1661 they were outfitted by George Corwin of Salem, and shortly after Christmas, along with a hired man named William Ford, they weighed anchor for Monhegan. There, they set up camp, employed a shoreman to dry the fish, and worked through to April, when they returned to Salem to deliver their catch and purchase more provisions. After completing their business, they hurried back down the coast again to take advantage of the remainder of the spring season. In June the three of them returned for good, conducted their final reckoning with Corwin, and parted company. Any man who signed on for a voyage to the eastward could expect some of the same: months of labor on an isolated stretch of shoreline in exclusively male company, punctuated only by visits from other fishermen or the “walking tavern” and occasional trips home on business.221

All three may have shipped out again immediately, but most fishermen chose to spend a week or two at home recuperating. Indeed, in mid-season when the fleet was out, even an ambitious mariner might have to spend time looking about for a position. And when the fall season had finished, almost the entire fishery ground to a halt for a month or so before the next year began. The erratic alternation between work and inactivity characterized not simply the daily operations out on the grounds but the entire course of the fisherman’s year. Many of these men, declared the General Court in 1674, “when they are at home & not imployed in their callings … tended to be spectators, or otherwise idleing, gameing, or spending their time un-proffitably whereby such persons as attend their duty, & spend time in that service, are discouraged.”222 Puritan colonists who believed that work was pleasing to God only when performed in a regular and disciplined manner obviously thought this alternation of frantic activity and idleness to be rooted in moral failing. In fact, the irregularity of work patterns was a necessary feature of this seasonal and market-oriented calling.

Such attention to prices and credit not only set fishermen against the clock; it also set them against one another. During the course of a busy season, disagreements between companies broke out continually. In a choice harbor to the eastward, for example, the competition over land and timber could be fierce, and, with no magistrates or constables at hand, petty squabbles and incidents of trespass could flare up into major disputes at any time. Reports of “diverse fishermen ... pulling downe, ruinatinge and brakeing up of Stages, Flakes and other edifices” filtered into the Maine courts throughout the period.223 Even in Marblehead, where property rights were more clearly spelled out and justice was relatively close at hand, misunderstandings about moorings and rights around the stages led repeatedly to fisticuffs and legal suits.224

Even more disruptive to the life of a fishing company were the tensions which brewed within. A trade that demanded such strict cooperation in a hostile environment, as did working in small boats at sea, was certain to generate levels of interpersonal friction that on extended voyages proved difficult to defuse. There is only one recorded murder in the annals of the early fishery—when Gregory Caswell felled his employer “with the broad end of an Hamer” at Monhegan Island in 1654—but the escalation in strain to the point of violent conflict, especially when inhibitions had been lowered by drink, was a common pattern.225 Fully one-quarter of all the violent crimes reported to the quarterly courts of Essex County in the seventeenth century were committed by residents of Marblehead—four times the rate which its population would lead one to expect.226 John Josselyn, who spent several years on the coast of Maine, advised men of “quality” to steer clear of fishermen under the influence, “for when wine in their guts is at full tide, they quarrel, fight and do one another mischief.”227

Nothing testifies to the power of these internal strains as does the instability of partnerships. Three years seems to have been the maximum lifetime for any company, and many, especially among those who did not own the vessels they operated, broke up after one or two voyages. John Roads of Marblehead, one fisherman whose career can be followed over a number of years, worked in at least seven different companies between 1655 and 1670; William Woods of the same town belonged to a minimum of four, between 1659 and 1668.228 So constant was this shuffling of personnel, even in mid-season, that in 1679 the General Court had to order “that all fishermen that are shipt upon a winter & spring voyage shall duely attend the same,” and those who had signed on for the summer “shall not presume to breake off the said voyage before the last of October.”229 Nevertheless, while the court forbade desertion, it recognized that partnerships might legitimately be reorganized at least twice a year. Such latitude, unnecessary in a stable farming community, was essential to the highly competitive fishery.

Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of villagers in the Bay Colony would have found life in the cod fishery intolerable. The erratic pace of work, the flux in personnel, the peculiarly maritime hardships, the occasional necessity of toiling on the Sabbath, the enforced absence from home and church, and the ethic of competition fostered by the industry would clearly have grated on men who placed such value on religion, discipline, and the maintenance of social order. Most important of all, householders who took pride in economic self-sufficiency could never have accommodated themselves to the patterns of employment and obligation which the fishery imposed upon its work force. Given the availability of free land in Massachusetts, few of them had to. The scarcities and inequalities of property ownership, which in old England had served to determine who worked for whom, had far less force in the New World. Where free men found it a relatively simple matter to acquire the land they needed, the supply of laborers willing to toil under the hands of other men tended naturally to diminish. Emmanuel Downing pointed out in 1645 that “our children’s children will hardly see this great Continent filled with people, soe that our servants will still desire freedome to plant for themselves and not staye but for verie great wages.”230 This was a problem. In a country where every man seemed bent on individual independence, how could an ample supply of reliable and inexpensive fishing hands be recruited?

The social origins of fishermen are not easy to trace. Their names surface without warning in merchants’ accounts and frequently disappear just as quickly. The best way to tackle the problem is to establish, first, who they were not. Hardly any—roughly eleven percent of those who can be identified—were part of the Great Migration of the 1630’s, nor did the group contain any blacks or Indian servants or more than a handful of indentured Englishmen. Judging from surnames and the observations of contemporaries, it appears, rather, that the great majority of fishermen were drawn from a pool of British maritime laborers who made their living on the North Atlantic and stopped in at the ports of Essex County, not for reasons of political or religious persecution, but to fish.231 “Marblehead,” noted its inhabitants in a petition of 1667, “hath been a place of fishing for many yeares past, on which Accot divers persons from England, Newfound Land, and other places have [reso]rted thither, many of them persons undesirable and of noe estates, butt rather indebted.”232 Some chose to stay on and settle; others left at the end of the season; but almost all were, by Puritan standards, outsiders.

The Newfoundland fishery in particular seemed to channel a large number of mariners southward to Massachusetts. West Countrymen who had signed on for a summer voyage to the Grand Banks often discovered at the end of the season that their employers, in order to save on provisions and cargo space, would rather “pack them away to New England” than carry them home. Shipmasters from Boston and Salem, provisioning the Newfoundland fishery and anxious for return freight, were only too happy to offer them passage back to the Bay Colony. A great many of these penniless immigrants stayed for no more than a season or two, but, when markets were healthy, as they normally were in this period, their labor was vital to the fishing economy.233

Two considerations drew these men to New England’s shores: the high rate of earnings and the ease of obtaining credit. Essex County fishermen in the mid-seventeenth century earned on average about £20 sterling (room and board, such as it was, included) for no more than ten months’ work in the year.234 Compared to the incomes of freeholding landsmen, this was hardly an enormous sum, but nowhere in the North Atlantic—on merchant vessels, in the servant fishery at Newfoundland, or on the London docks—could a common mariner do as well.235 “There being great wages given to men in New England,” wrote one Newfoundlander in 1700, “makes men desirous to go there, and frequently attempt it.”236 The same could have been said for the entire period after 1645.

Fishing merchants did not offer such terms out of generosity but because the scarcity of mariners had forced them to enter the Atlantic labor market and to bid high. The colonists were competing for hands, not only with their counterparts across the ocean, but with one another as well. Every outfitter of ambition had to devote much of his energies towards drawing fishermen away from the patronage of others and into his own fold. He could have accomplished this easily enough by reducing the prices he charged on supplies or paying higher sums for fish. This would have been expensive, however, and most merchants preferred another tack. We have already noted the way in which credit was bestowed on companies to regulate the delivery of their produce; it was also used in individual accounts as an agent in the recruiting of men.

Fishermen who appeared to be good risks could normally obtain supplies from a given creditor for their personal use, often in sums exceeding several years’ earnings, interest-free, on practically no collateral, if they would agree to deal with him alone. These merchants were generally prepared to let these obligations stand for years on end; indeed, for as long as the mariners who held them continued to deliver the fish. Farmers and artisans, too, were frequently debtors but generally for much smaller sums. As the table below demonstrates, fishermen, both active and retired, were much more likely to possess book debts when they died than were their neighbors on the mainland.237 The account books of George Corwin, one of Salem’s wealthiest merchant outfitters, point in the same direction: sampling the ledger balances of those who brought in fish and farm produce in the years 1658 and 1661 shows that fishermen had accumulated an average of £35 sterling in debts, while the comparative figure for farmers was only £14.238 In some cases the amounts that Corwin and his competition were willing to advance individual fishermen could be staggering. John Slater, a young man of twenty-nine who lived with his new wife in a sparsely furnished house at Marblehead, died in 1665 owing Corwin almost £90 sterling, the equivalent of more than four years’ wages. John Roads and Henry Trevett, both of whom worked for the same merchant between 1660 and 1675, were almost invariably between £75 and £200 in debt.239 Granted, sums this high were unusual, but fishermen/creditors were rarer still.

Credit Position of Inventoried Essex County Decedents, 1645–1775

Percentage by Credit or Debit Balance
Credit Debit
£20+ £5–£20 £5–(£5) (£5)–(£20) (£20)+

Non-Maritime Sample

1645–1675 (n=45)






Active Fishermen

1645–1675 (n=20)






1676–1725 (n=22)






1726–1775 (n=14)






Total Fishermen

1645–1675 (n=24)






1676–1725 (n=48)






1726–1775 (n=32)






sources: The inventories in the non-maritime sample were drawn at random from Essex County Court Records, I–VI; those of fishermen were taken from ibid., I–IX, and the Essex County Probate Files. Only fishermen for whom actual voyages could be identified from the sources in footnote 8, p. 102, and from other account books in different Essex County repositories (see Vickers, “Maritime Labor,” 353–355, for a complete listing) were included. Fishermen were deemed “active” if their death occurred in the same quarter century (e.g., 1676–1700, 1751–1775) as their last recorded voyage.

Was this indebtedness rooted in poverty alone? Although fishermen were certainly among the poorest inhabitants of Essex County, the facts indicate a more complicated explanation. For one thing, relatively flourishing mariners were no more likely to be free of debt, judging from inventories, than their less prosperous neighbors. In fact, three of the five wealthiest fishermen in the probate records—William Charles, Job Hilliard, and Edmund Nicholson—were also among the five most indebted.240 William Nick, a shoreman and client of Corwin, who died in 1683 owning a well-appointed house, an orchard and field, two stages, two boats, a fishyard, and a warehouse, worth £545 sterling together, counted the most liabilities, £204, of any man involved in the fishery during the period.241

The true function of debt and credit in the industry was stated in its plainest fashion by John Josselyn:

if fishermen save a Rental or two to buy shooes and stockins, shirts and waistcoats with, ’tis well, otherwayes they must enter into the Merchants books for such things as they stand in need of, becoming thereby the merchants’ slaves.242

Josselyn spoke in exaggerated terms, but the system worked much as he described: each merchant advanced cloth, food, liquor, and other supplies to his fishermen in excess of their income so that he might establish his claim over the produce of their labor in the season to come. To the entrepreneur, advances of this nature did constitute a cost, but they also served an important purpose: in an economy that was chronically short of men, they created a structure of long-term indebtedness and a resultant series of labor obligations that provided him with much of the help he needed. For years on end, men like John Slater, Henry Trevett, and Peter Greenfield returned to their patron’s warehouse to purchase supplies and hand over their fish; when they died, their liabilities were almost always concentrated in his hands.243 The credit connections which individual fishermen held with their outfitters could be lifetime affairs, far more stable, in fact, than the partnerships they formed with one another.

Fishing merchants were not naturally open-handed. They were simply drumming up business and dispensing credit in measured amounts towards that end. Some mariners capitalized on the opportunity this afforded and built moderately prosperous careers for themselves within the fishing community that would have been unthinkable without financial assistance. Had George Corwin refused him credit, William Woods could never have acquired a shallop worth £33 in 1670, nor could John Roads have purchased the bricks, boards, hinges, and shingles with which in 1662 he built himself a house.244 Similarly, Andrew Tucker needed advances from William Browne, Sr., of Salem to buy his house and fishyard on Marblehead Neck, erect a stage and warehouse, and purchase vessels of his own. Eventually, he was able to retire from the sea, earn his living purely as a shoreman, and leave his descendants enough property to ensure their security through the following century.245

For projects that might reduce the clients’ dependence on maritime work—especially agricultural ones—the enthusiasm of these merchant creditors tailed off swiftly. Most Essex County fishermen managed to acquire during their active careers neither fields nor farm animals. Even those who had retired from the sea and were casting about for other means of maintenance rarely accumulated more than a garden or an orchard with perhaps a cow or a few pigs.246 Furthermore, after 1645 hardly any immigrant fishermen managed to penetrate the agricultural interior. To the end of the colonial period such family names as Bartoll, Brimblecombe, Pedrick, Trevett, Cally, LeGros, Dolliver, and Meek, descended from these early seamen, were unknown in New England outside its coastal villages.247 Although these mariners could move about at liberty from one port to the next, their freedom to leave the sea and establish themselves outside the Massachusetts fishing periphery was severely circumscribed.

There is little evidence that this denial of landed independence entailed much formal coercion. Yet, it is easy to imagine the chilly welcome that communities such as Dedham or Salem Village would have accorded to fishermen whose ways and habits so thoroughly violated their standards of proper conduct. Informal exclusiveness could be every bit as effective in keeping the unwanted out of a given community as any formal legislation. Mariners did aspire to the security that land could offer. In Maine, where the force of the Puritan social ethic was considerably muted, a recent study has demonstrated that fishermen were able to move rather easily into farming, of an admittedly hardscrabble nature, if they so wished.248 Many of their counterparts in Essex County would have chosen the same opportunity—had it existed.

Thus, although fishermen in Salem, Marblehead, and Gloucester enjoyed a level of comfort and prosperity unusual within the Atlantic maritime community, they found the broader promise of economic independence largely beyond reach. The Puritan colonists were interested in them only for their ability to produce an exportable surplus; otherwise, they would rather that this disorderly crowd had stayed away. It was hunger for English goods which forced the founders to compromise. Fishermen would be allowed and even encouraged to stay in Massachusetts but only as long as they kept to themselves out on the colony’s periphery. The sanctity of the Puritan experiment in the core would not be disturbed.

On the ocean fringes of Essex County fishermen formed communities of their own. There, the principles which directed society in the villages of the interior—the enforced homogeneity of religion, the stress upon regular work habits, the strengthening of the household, the stern standards of public authority, and the provision of economic independence for each family—were wholly inappropriate. The social virtues, which a capitalist fishery encouraged and which Puritan exclusiveness reinforced, bred in the town of Marblehead and in the maritime quarters of Salem and Gloucester a radically different way of life.

Perhaps the most striking feature of fishing society in this early period was its instability. Two-thirds of those who arrived before 1675 were under the age of thirty when they first came; three-fifths left no trace of a family in the region; and almost four-fifths had disappeared from Essex County, either by death or departure, within ten years of their arrival.249 “The concourse of many strangers especially in the summer season,” as the Marblehead selectmen put it, must have reminded contemporaries more of other seaports around the North Atlantic than of the agricultural communities across the harbor.250

Of the hundreds of mariners who spent time in the Essex County fishery, a small portion chose to stay on permanently and settle. Robert Bray of Ipswich in England, for example, was working for George Corwin during the late 1660’s when he decided to send for his wife “Thomazin” and their two children. In the spring of 1670 she sailed from Plymouth to rejoin her husband in the New World. Together they made their home near Winter Harbor and founded a family of mariners who skippered vessels out of Salem well into the nineteenth century.251 Another fisherman named Elias Fortune, though single when in 1660 he first appeared in Marblehead, managed to marry locally before the end of the decade. In an eighteen-foot-square cottage which he and his wife erected on town land, the two set up housekeeping and were able somehow in these cramped quarters to raise a family of eight children.252 Similarly, Paul Mansfield came to Salem as a bachelor about 1650, married Damaris, the widow of Timothy Laskin, built himself a house on the South River, and maintained a household there in fairly comfortable fashion by working the fishery off Misery Island in Salem Sound.253 Although prospective householders like Mansfield, Fortune, and Bray accounted for only thirty-nine percent of immigrant fishermen between 1645 and 1675, their longer residency in the colony meant that they played a relatively greater role in the fleet. In this period, married men, returning to the sea year after year, filled roughly half of the berths available, a proportion that seems gradually to have increased as more and more mariners decided to cease their wanderings and settle down.254

These, however, were not households of the same variety as existed elsewhere in Essex County. For one thing, they were much poorer. The estates of married fishermen probated between 1661 and 1681 reached a median average of only £66 sterling, considerably less than the comparable figure of £113 recorded in the same period for estates throughout the county as a whole.255 Furthermore, the households in fishing villages were generally not working units. A few sons joined with their fathers in voyages to the banks, and in-laws could occasionally share in the rental or purchase of a boat, but far more frequently the membership in a given company was governed by other considerations—availability, convenience, friendship, mutual appreciation of talent, and so on—that had very little to do with family structure. Farm boys worked within the household in which they had been raised until they were ready to start a family of their own. Any young fisherman, by comparison, could secure a berth simply by purchasing an outfit on credit and signing on with a vessel short of hands. Once he had come of age, he did not have to work in his father’s boat (if, indeed, his father owned one or was even living in New England); he did not have to obtain his father’s consent to work for somebody else; and he could keep his earnings for himself. This is not to say that fishermen were totally free. As was argued earlier, they depended heavily on others for access to productive equipment, but these “others” were merchant creditors, not their fathers. This fact above all—that the basic unit of production consisted not of the conjugal household, but of a partnership between the members of a company and their outfitter—underlay the institutional weakness of the family within the fishing community. And this constituted the chief social distinction between the agricultural core of Essex County and its ocean periphery.

When two sectors of society were related to the process of production in such different ways it was probably inevitable that their cultural horizons would have differed too. Fishermen stood almost entirely outside the established church. In the seventeenth century the numbers of converted, even among Essex County’s permanent fishing population, reached no more than one in fifteen.256 So few were the freemen of Marblehead that on two occasions the General Court had to pass special exemptions enabling that town to recruit its officeholders from the populace at large.257 Cotton Mather saw no mystery in the fact that the premier fishing town in New England should have possessed no organized church before 1684: The inhabitants, he declared, were “generally too remiss to form one.”258

Fishermen were not necessarily irreligious, but, for the strictly reformed temper of the New England Way, they had little patience. Although they usually attended church when at home and sometimes even owned Bibles, they often found the opportunity to snub Puritan tradition difficult to resist. George Harding of Marblehead, for example, was obviously spoiling for a fight when he declared in 1649 that he intended to apply for the christening of his dog. Similarly, one wonders about the religious sensibilities of a fisherman like John Bennett, who was fined in 1653 for lighting up his pipe during Sunday meeting, or Matthew Coe, whom the magistrates prosecuted for “hunting and killing a raccoon in the time of the public exercise.”259 Marblehead in particular accounted for a number of religious offenses—mostly blasphemy and Sabbath-breaking—that was vastly disproportionate to its size.260 Cotton Mather, at the beginning of the following century, granting that the local fishermen might be better-mannered than their counterparts in other colonies, insisted nonetheless that they spoke far too “Filthily” and “Profanely,” and that their “Clipt Oaths” ought to be curbed.261

What really bothered the established colonists, however, was not that fishermen stood outside their church—so did most of the world—but that they replaced Puritan orthodoxy in part with suspect cultural forms of their own. Men who earned their living on the sea, engaged as they were in one long battle with fate, found the Puritan trust in God’s arbitrary pleasure insupportable. Forms of spirituality—the invocation of Saints’ names, for example, or the use of certain lucky charms and ceremonies—which involved the individual’s own supplications, spoke far more directly to those for whom economic uncertainty and physical danger were continual threats.262 In the face of such superstition, serious Puritans were horrified. Not only did it deny the sufficiency of Scripture, but it also seemed to imply the existence of spiritual powers beyond those which the reformed tradition attributed to God alone. Cotton Mather knew exactly what these customs meant: “Rites of Sorcery” and “Black Defiances of Heaven” he termed them—the work of the devil.263 Fishermen could truthfully disclaim worshipping the devil, but there was no denying the spiritual gulf which separated their world from that of their Puritan neighbors.

Maritime culture further distinguished itself by the importance it placed upon organized social drinking. Both at home and on voyages large quantities of alcohol consumed in the company of one’s friends provided fishermen with their single greatest source of formal relaxation. While off on the deep, the typical boat’s crew furnished itself with enough beer, cider, and brandy to provide each member with at least a quart of beverage every day.264 The demand for drink in the port towns, moreover, supported enough tavern-keepers—fourteen in Salem and eight more in Marblehead during the 1670’s—to inspire a whole series of complaining petitions and periodic regulation by the authorities.265 Marblehead generated close to three times the number of liquor-related offenses that one would have expected from a town of its size.266

Why did fishermen drink? Probably the degree of anxiety in their lives and the level of physical stress inherent in seafaring each played a certain role. It is interesting, however, to note that drunkenness was a problem not just in the cod fishery but in all the export industries of New England’s peripheral zone. The timber industry in New Hampshire, the merchant marine of harborfront Boston and Salem, the fur trade in the interior, and the whale fishery of Nantucket all consumed quantities of alcohol that frightened the colonial establishment.267 Each of these export economies relied not on the original settlers and their descendants but on Indians and imported Englishmen to perform most of the work; the drinking habits, therefore, of laborers in these peripheral communities derived in all likelihood from their position as outsiders. For men reminded daily of their subordinate status, the heavy consumption of cider and flip, and the tavern life which accompanied it, provided a realm of sociability in which they might set the rules.

Insofar as drunken and rowdy behavior intimidated the establishment enough to keep it at a distance, it did serve a purpose—but only at considerable social cost. After all, drink in quantity was not cheap, nor did it lead to higher productivity; and it certainly did not raise one’s credit-worthiness in the eyes of the merchant class. For the effectively powerless fishing community, it provided a peculiar brand of independence. Like a wild, roundhouse punch, it gained them little in the long fight but may temporarily have cleared a bit of room.

The spirit of exclusiveness cut both ways. The more firmly the magistracy tried to impose standards of good Puritan order upon the colony, the more doggedly fishermen refused to conform. Such was the degree of mutual suspicion in this period that almost no movement of men between the two communities ever took place. At no time in the seventeenth century did more than the lightest scattering of these immigrant mariners or their descendants penetrate the agricultural heart of Essex County, nor did farmers ever make a practice of sending their sons out to work on the banks. This was not, it must be stressed, a relation of mutual advantage. The husbandmen of New England rejected the fishery by choice, for they disliked both the work and the relations of clientage it engendered. Fishermen, by contrast, stayed out of agriculture because, in the world which the Puritans had ordered, they found substantial freeholds nearly impossible to acquire. Their frequently single status, hard-drinking habits, customary improvidence, and lack of spiritual orthodoxy combined to disqualify them as neighbors, land recipients, or even as legal residents in every village of the Bay Colony’s agricultural core.

As the colonial period wore on, the sharp distinctions between the agricultural core of Essex County and its maritime periphery gradually softened. In the farming villages of the interior there surfaced in spite of all orders to the contrary many of the social problems that the founders had once hoped to confine to the colony’s ocean fringe. Rates of mortality rose; lack of property increased; and young men departed for new lands to the west and north—all of which testified to the difficulties which eighteenth-century colonists encountered in attempting to maintain their families in comfortable independence. After 1700 a growing number of farmers’ and artisans’ sons, for lack of opportunity at home, were even prepared to invest a part of their youth in the fishery—something that their fathers and grandfathers would never have contemplated. Under the pressure of need the old exclusive impulse was breaking down.268

The maritime community, oddly enough, was moving at the same time in the direction of greater stability. As more and more fishermen took up permanent residence in the county and began to raise their sons in the same trade, the industry ceased to rely on imported help, and the coastal villages lost their air of transiency. Churches were founded, schools established, and a wide variety of tradesmen drawn to set up shop in every fishing settlement on Massachusetts’ North Shore. By 1766 John Barnard, the pastor of the First Church in Marblehead, could observe that his lifetime had seen the character of that community greatly altered. At the beginning of the century, he recalled:

the town was always in dismally poor circumstances, involved in debt to the merchants more than they were worth; nor could I find twenty families in it that, upon the best examination could stand upon their own legs; and they were generally as rude, swearing, drunken, and fighting a crew, as they were poor.

In the subsequent decades, however, all of this had changed; the ways and manners of the inhabitants in his estimation were now “vastly mended.” Not only had “many gentlemanlike and polite families” moved into town, but even the fishermen by this time scorned “the rudeness of the former generation.”269 Barnard may have been playing the local booster and, perhaps, romanticizing his own pastorate, but there was truth in his words. Marblehead and the other fishing communities of Essex County were still troubled by poverty and related social problems, but they now resembled the other towns in the colony far more than they had a century before. Demographic maturation and the waning of Puritan exclusiveness were beginning to lessen the gap between core and periphery.

In this perspective, the origin of the earlier tension between the two sectors stands fully revealed. The founders of Massachusetts wanted to enjoy the benefits of a capitalist fishery without incorporating it physically into their community. Given the freedom to leave their callings and move into the heart of the Bay Colony, not only would these mariners have sullied the purity of the “Citty upon a Hill,” but they would also have left the fishery as labor-poor as before they arrived.270 The limits of opportunity, as much within this corner of the New World as within others, had to be strictly set. Fishermen were free to move about from port to port and to build their futures around the colonial rim, but not to move beyond. The peculiar manner in which the exclusionary impulse interacted with the problem of labor scarcity produced in seventeenth-century Essex County two distinct social systems—a dominant core and a subordinate periphery—that were interdependent economically but distinct in personnel. The difficulty which the Puritan colonists experienced in combining aspirations for independence with a level of material civilization that only capitalism and its subservient labor force could generate would in one form or another trouble Americans into the present century. The various balances that were struck at different times and in different places would determine as much as anything what it meant to be a laborer in the New World.

Daniel Vickers is Assistant Professor of History at Memorial University of Newfoundland.

An earlier version of this paper was read at the colloquium of the Institute of Early American History and Culture in October 1981. This version benefited by suggestions from David Hall, John Murrin, Philip Morgan, and Thomas Doerflinger, and from an extended critique by Edward Ayres.