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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sail On

Allan Nevins

published by
United States Lines

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Merchant Marine Academy.

 p7  Chapter One

In the Good Old Colony Times

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Readers of Fenimore Cooper's novel The Pilot will remember the initial scene in which, during the American Revolution, a daring American schooner runs into one of the rocky bays indenting the eastern coast of Scotland. "With no other sails spread to the action of the air than her heavy mainsail, and one of those light jibs that projected far beyond her bows," writes Cooper, "the vessel glided over the water with a grace and facility that seemed magical to the beholders." Some Scottish peasants eyed her with astonishment. "He's a bold chield that steers her!" exclaims one. "And if that bit craft had wood in her bottom, like the brigantines that ply between Lon'on and the Frith at Leith, he's in mair danger than a prudent man could wish." But fearless of rock and sandspit, the armed schooner sails far into the bay, swings around, and anchors. When her consort, an American frigate, partially follows her, the vessel displaying similar manageability and the crew equal daring, the superstitious onlookers pronounce a single judgment. The ships are "bogles of the sea"; supernatural powers are guiding them.

At the time of this imagined scene, American shipbuilding was one hundred and seventy years old; for it was in 1607 that Captain  p8 George Popham's colonists at the mouth of the Kennebec built "a faire pinnace" of thirty tons which later repeatedly crossed the Atlantic. This little craft, the Virginia, was the precursor of the immense ocean fleet of America today. Popham's colony did not last, but he stayed long enough to do some exploring, and wrote a glowing description of the country, which he suggested even produced nutmegs. Seven years later, a sturdy Dutch trader, Adriaen Block, who had come to Manhattan Island to trade for furs, lost his ship by fire, and was constrained to build another. Setting to work at the foot of present‑day Broad Street on the East River, he soon launched a sixteen‑ton yacht, the Onrust, only forty-four and a half feet long, in which he and his companions successfully returned to Holland. These tiny "escape vessels" of thirty and sixteen tons, both built to carry their owners home, seem small indeed; but then Columbus had discovered America in a flagship of only a hundred tons.

Mariners of the olden time had also to be shipbuilders, and a settlement no sooner established itself on the American coast than ship construction began.

The early colonists were in fact inheritors of a bold seafaring tradition; the tradition of Sir Walter Raleigh, Richard Hakluyt, Bartholomew Gosnold, and Sir Humphrey Gilbert. The first year, 1631, after the great Puritan migration to New England began, found shipwrights busy with adze and hammer on the shore of the Mystic River finishing a neat seagoing vessel, The Blessing of the Bay, owned by Governor John Winthrop, which was soon circling about Boston Harbor — a sixty‑ton sloop, adapted to trading and to fighting. Meanwhile, a ship's carpenter had been active in the Pilgrim colony of Plymouth since 1624 building boats. The settlers were quick to learn that the income from their thin, stony soil must be supplemented by the profits of fishing and trading. The  p9  first ten years of Massachusetts Bay Colony were prosperous, with a steady flow of newcomers from England, bustling activity, and rising prices. Then in 1741 the outbreak of civil war in the homeland cut off immigrants, money, and trade, and brought on a grave depression. A trail-blazing voyage had been made to the West Indies the previous year by the Desire of Salem. The people turned instinctively to commerce with the tropical colonies; they would send down dried fish, clapboards, staves, and farm produce, and bring back sugar, molasses, and fruits.

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But where were the ships? The prick of stern necessity, as Governor Winthrop wrote, "set us on work to provide shipping of our own." The new industry grew so rapidly that when one of the Puritans published a book on New England's First Fruites in London in 1643 he wrote: "Besides many Boates, Shallops, Hows, Lighters, Pinnaces, we are in a way of building shippes of an 100, 200, 300, 400 tunne, five of them are already at Sea; many more  p10 in hand, at this present, we being much incouraged herein by reason of the plenty and excellencie of our Timber for that purpose and seeing all the materials will be had there in short time." It was true that a 300‑ton vessel, nearly twice as large as the Mayflower, was built at Salem in 1641, only eleven years after the great Puritan migration began. The constructor was a tall, thin, energetic clergyman, Hugh Peters, who had succeeded Roger Williams as pastor of the First Church in Salem, a public-spirited leader who was greatly interested in promoting coastal and foreign trade, and who drew up a plan for developing the Massachusetts fisheries.

The General Court of Massachusetts promptly declared shipbuilding "a business of great importance for the common good," and arranged for inspectors to examine every ship on the ways, making sure it was sound and seaworthy. Before 1650 — that is before the first white child born in Massachusetts Bay Colony came of age — nearly every harbor and inlet that could find timber, iron, and workmen had its keels resting on the ways, its forges roaring, its hammers at work. Shipbuilding was a leading industry of Boston, Salem, Newburyport, and Gloucester.

Americans of the colonial era had indeed two frontiers: one of the forest, the other of the sea. While the former has received the more attention, the latter was as stern a school of individualism and endurance, and as important to colonial welfare. The most important was trading with the motherland, which accepted raw materials — furs, breadstuffs, salt meat, fish, timber products, tobacco, naval stores — in return for manufactured goods. Closely rivaling this, and interknit with it, was the trade with the sugar colonies of the West Indies, seaport towns from Falmouth, Maine, down to Savannah, participating in the two branches of imperial commerce. The fisheries along Newfoundland and the Grand Banks attracted large  p11 numbers of New Englanders, especially the hardy seamen of the Cape Ann region. Whaling was pursued by colonists north and south, but particularly by Long Islanders, Cape Cod and New Bedford men, and above all Nantucketers. By the middle of the seventeenth century American ships were nearly as good as any in the world. We must say "nearly," for the evidence is incontrovertible that for that century Dutch ships excelled all others, in design, materials, and workman­ship. But before the eighteenth century was far advanced American ships had no superiors — and they were the most smartly handled craft on the globe.

Fishermen and Whalers

The deep‑sea fisheries were a particularly adventurous school for seamen. The Grand Banks had been known to fishermen as early as any part of America. Fully a century before the Pilgrims sailed into Plymouth the vessels of France and England, Spain and Portugal, were casting their lines for cod, mackerel, and halibut on this broad submarine plateau, so rich in marine life. One edge of this triangular shelf runs for five hundred miles from Newfoundland waters out toward Europe. Nobody knows when the first sailor carried the news of this treasure-trove to Cornwall or Brittany; nobody knows when the first fishermen landed to cure their catch on Newfoundland's rocky shores. These facts are lost in the haze of antiquity. But we do know that by 1550 the Banks were crowded every summer; we know that when the New Englanders looked about for a living, the seas begged to be tilled no less than the land. Fish might seem "a base commoditie," wrote Captain John Smith, but they were "wellworth the labor." He himself sent two profitable boatloads of fish to Europe. The northern colonists were in a strategic position to harvest the crop of herring, cod, halibut, bluefish, and the rest. By 1675 more than  p12 six hundred New England vessels and four thousand men were employed in the fisheries.

By that date the fog‑covered northern waters resounded with the cries that Kipling immortalized two centuries later in Captains Courageous: "Bait up!" "Fish and make berth!" "Dress down!" By that date all the fishing towns were represented. "There's the King Philip — she's a Chat‑ham boat. An' see that big one with the patch in her foresail an' a new jib? That's the Carrie S. of Gloucester." They met the perils of sudden squall, of fogs in which small boats became hopelessly lost, of summer icebergs with a breath cold as the grave, of collision with larger vessels, of fights with foreign rivals. They caught squid for bait, and swapped oaths or blows with the Portuguese and the St. Malo men. They laughed as they saw a whale foul the tackle of a fishing-dory and carry her across the waters with lightning speed. They toiled all day at the lines and half the night in salting down the wet, bleeding fish. They lived on beans, salt-pork, and cod‑tongues, and went home singing of fifteen hundred quintal.

Whaling sprang up naturally on the American coasts, for all along shore in early days the great mammals could be seen tamely sporting: "mighty whales," wrote one of the early settlers, "spewing up water like the smoke of a chimney, and making the sea about them white and hoary." First those which got into shoal water along Cape Cod or Long Island were taken: then boats were made ready to pursue them offshore; and finally brigs and ships chased them to their remotest haunts. Colonists used the spermaceti for candles, sperm‑oil for lamps, ambergris for perfume, and whalebone for dress. Beginning in 1732, generous tonnage bounties encouraged the industry. Long before the Revolution the most daring whalemen and the best-found whaleships were American. From the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Straits of Belle Isle  p13 they ventured into the Arctic, while they began to rake the African coast and run south of the equator. There was literal truth in Burke's famous salute to their prowess:

"While we follow them among the tumbling mountains of ice and behold them penetrating into the deepest frozen recesses of Hudson Bay and Davis Strait; while we look for them beneath the Arctic Circle, we hear that they have pierced into the opposite region of polar cold, they are at the Antipodes and engaged under the frozen serpent of the South. Falkland Island,º which seemed too remote and romantic an object for the grasp of national ambition, is but a stage and resting-place in the progress of their victorious industry."

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Indeed, at the outbreak of the Revolution, New England and New York held nearly a monopoly of the world's whaling. More than three hundred vessels with about four thousand seamen were employed; Nantucket alone had a hundred and fifty vessels. Crèvecoeur tells us that the whaling towns were exceptionally prosperous. On Nantucket, he writes, "I could hardly persuade  p14 myself that I had quitted the adjacent continent, where everything abounds, and that I was on a barren sandbank, fertilized with whale oil only." Some men had made considerable fortunes, and all were flourishing. The fact that the industry had a co‑operative basis, officers and men getting fixed shares in the profits of the voyage, led the crews to put their best efforts into their work. The whalers, at first sloops and schooners, and later brigs and full-rigged ships, were still small; Crèvecoeur says that a 150‑ton brig was deemed the best size. But by 1775 they were bringing home annually nearly 50,000 barrels of spermaceti and sperm‑oil, nearly 10,000 of right-whale oil, and perhaps 75,000 pounds of whalebone. The wharves of Nantucket, Provincetown, Marblehead, and New Bedford (which with deeper water than other ports sent out larger vessels), reeked of whale‑oil. Harpoon-makers, cask-fitters, spermaceti-chandlers, and others drove a thriving trade. Nor did the Revolution, heavily as it hit whaling, give it more than a temporary check. Yankee enterprise continued to hold its primacy. It was a Nantucket captain in a British ship who opened the rich Australian whaling grounds, while at one time the white population of New Zealand was predominantly Americans — whalers and other mariners sheltering and refitting there.

General Trade

But the main body of American-built shipping in colonial times was engaged not in fishing and whaling, but in wide-roving trade. British policy encouraged ship construction in the "plantations." The Navigation Acts restricted the colonial trade to ships built under the British flag, and also reserved the carriage of American, Asiatic, or African goods into England to British-made and British-owned vessels, three-fourths of whose crews were British. (The word British or English included the American colonists.) This meant that Anglo-American ships possessed a huge trading  p15 monopoly. The effect of certain clauses of the Navigation Acts was to give the American shipowners practically all of the trade between the continental and West Indian colonies, while shipowners resident in Great Britain had most of the transport of British manufactured goods from the mother country to the colonies, and of the "enumerated" raw materials from the colonies to England. As C. M. Andrews and other historians have shown, the navigation system was generally profitable both to colonies and motherland, and generally popular.

The West Indian commerce, the main basis of New England's colonial prosperity, grew naturally into the "triangular trade" which linked together the mainland colonies, the sugar colonies, and Africa. Colonial ships would take aboard a full cargo of lumber, horses, sheep, soap, candles, rum, and gewgaws, and sail for the African coast. There they would trade the rum and gewgaws for Negro slaves. Turning back to the West Indies (this leg was called the "middle passage") they would sell their slaves and miscellaneous cargo to the planters of Jamaica, Barbados, Antigua,  p16 and other islands. Finally, they took aboard sugar, molasses, and other tropical products, carrying them to New England, where the molasses was largely turned into rum, which had a ready sale in colonial taverns and among Indian traders. Naturally there was a great deal of direct trade with the West Indies, omitting Africa — but the slave trade was important, enriching many Boston, Salem, and Newport families. The whole system gave support to lumbermen, fishermen, shipbuilders, merchants, farmers, artisans making household goods, West Indian planters, and slave-dealers. It greatly encouraged the seafaring pursuits for which the New Englanders had shown such a marked gift.

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Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the cheapest place in the world for shipbuilding was the American coast.

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Here were huge stands of white pine, fir, spruce, and white oak; ample supplies of tar, pitch, and turpentine; and some of the best shipwrights of the globe. An oak vessel of white-pine masts could be built in Massachusetts or Maine for half what it would  p17 cost in England. At first many ships were only roughly finished in the colonies, sailed with cargo to the West Indies, and then taken to England for completion; later they were well finished at home. In 1688 the Massachusetts government forbade the cutting of white pines which measured two feet in diameter three feet above the ground, and similar enactments were made by the British Parliament under William III and Anne. A royal surveyor went through the woods placing the king's arrow on the largest trees. More and more ships were sold in the English market. Between 1670 and 1714, Massachusetts yards launched more than 1,250 seagoing vessels — and one‑fifth of them were sold abroad.

In the years just before the Revolution a full third of the tonnage under the British flag was American-built. Everyone has seen the old prints of American ports in 1750 or 1765, filled with shipping carrying the British ensign, and most people have naturally assumed that these vessels were built in England. Actually a great majority were constructed in the colonies, and at the same time a considerable number of ships in English ports flying the British flag were built in American yards. In 1769 the colonies built 389 vessels aggregating about 20,000 tons, and in the next three years steadily increased their construction until in 1772 it reached about 26,000 tons. Americans were then one of the principal seafaring peoples. Shut out of most heavy manufactures by imperial legislation, they pushed into maritime enterprise with all the greater energy.

Already important shipbuilders had won widespread renown. At Bath, Maine, where pine was abundant, Captain William Swanton set up in 1762 one of the earliest of permanent shipyards, turning out vessel after vessel. Some of his larger craft, such as the Earl of Bute and the Rising Sun, became famous. Another  p18 shipbuilder of the same town and period was Joshua Raynes. One of his hundred‑ton vessels, costing $3,000, brought a great crowd to its launching. Much earlier, about 1713‑14, Captain Andrew Robinson of Gloucester had designed a unique vessel of special hull, with two masts, each equipped with a fore-and‑aft sail. One of the familiar stories of our nautical history relates how, as she was launched, she slipped so swiftly and gracefully over the water that a spectator cried: "See how she schoons!" To this Robinson, who had worried over the proper name to give his new boat, responded: "A schooner let her be!" (To skip a stone over the water was to "schoon" it.) Captain Robinson was a famous leader in the fishing industry, so zealous in his calling that when the cod bit fast he would not take time to grab a bit of food, but held a crust in his teeth till he slowly devoured it.

These American shipbuilders, found chiefly in New England and the Middle Colonies but not lacking elsewhere (Virginia launched twenty-seven ships in 1769, and the Carolinas twelve each), furnished much of the cement which bound the Empire together. The prosperity of the West Indian colonies was largely dependent upon them. The islands could not subsist without the commodities carried in Yankee bottoms, wrote one pamphleteer in 1708; "for to them we transport their bread, drink, and all the necessaryes of humane life, their cattle and horses for cultivating their plantations, lumber and staves of all sorts to make casks of for their rumm, sugar, and molasses, without which they could have none, ships to transport their goods to the European markets, nay, in short, the very houses they inhabit are carryed over in frames, together withe the shingles that cover them. . . . ." The delicate scales of international trade were partly kept in poise by American shipping; for American-caught fish, exported in Yankee bottoms, augmented Britain's balance of trade with Portugal and  p19 Spain. Not only were these fisheries a source of wealth, but they were a nursery of hardy, daring seamen, invaluable in the wars against the French. Sir William Phips, for example, the Maine boy who built himself a vessel, recovered £300,000 of plate and bullion from a Spanish treasure-ship wrecked near the Bahamas, and commanded the expedition which captured Port Royal, loved nothing better than a good fight.

But by 1770 American shipowners, like their brothers in other fields of enterprise, were growing restive over some of the imperial restrictions. They were soon to show what they could do when independent.

The Revolution

When the Revolution began, the merchant marine of the thirteen colonies amounted to 2,311 ocean‑going vessels, of about 375,000 tons in all. A people bred to the sea naturally gave a good account of themselves upon that element. Hardly a fortnight after the battle of Lexington, New Bedford and the neighboring town of Dartmouth equipped a vessel which recaptured one of the prizes of the British sloop-of‑war Falcon. Every maritime province issued commissions to privateers. No small contribution to the winning of independence was made by these vessels of the old colonial merchant marine.​a

Mounting a few guns each, the light, swift craft of the privateer fleet harried British commerce almost to desperation. No complete history of their activity has ever been written, and the materials for one have perished. But an incomplete list in the Massachusetts records shows 276 vessels under commission, while Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania also sent out many. It is certain that by 1781 between 400 and 500 had put to sea. A loyalist whose sources of information were specially good,  p21 Thomas Hutchinson, reports that it was believed that seventy thousand New Englanders were privateering at one time. While this is doubtless an exaggeration, it is not unlikely that the aggregate crews of the hundreds of privateers nearly or quite equaled the aggregate land forces (never seventy thousand at any one time) of the Continental Army and the militia. These bold vessels sailed into British waters, captured prizes within sight of British shores, and forced even the Dover-Calais packets to take out war insurance. Some privateering captains, such as Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island, became famous for their exploits. A lucky feat by a Marblehead captain, John Manly, who captured the London brigantine Nancy laden with stores for Howe, gave the hard-pressed American army besieging Boston two thousand muskets, thirty‑one tons of musket shot, seven thousand round-shot for cannon, and other indispensable munitions.

The merchant marine also gave the country a group of naval commanders able to match their British antagonists in skill and daring. Esek Hopkins, whom Congress at the close of 1775 appointed commander-in‑chief of its little navy, was a Rhode Islander who had sailed over a great part of the globe in merchant vessels, and who had fought against the French on the high seas in the Seven-Year War. John Barry, whose record in command of the Raleigh and the Lexington was so gallant, had been at sea since 1756. And though the greatest figure of all, John Paul Jones, was of Scottish origin, part of his seafaring experience had been gained on American ships in American lines of trade.
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Thayer's Note:

a Eventually the federal government, such as it then was under the Articles of Confederation, issued commissions for privateering. Good details are given by Donald Chidsey in The American Privateers, pp53 f.

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Page updated: 19 Dec 21