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On the Waterfront

Plymouth’s Maritime History
By Jane L. Port, Curator
Pilgrim Society & Pilgrim Hall Museum

On the Waterfront: Plymouth’s Maritime History
explores the harbor, its people, and its changing tides 
of commerce, shipping, industry and tourism.

Sponsored by:

June 2005 - April 2006


Wampanoag—the People of the Dawn—called the place by the harbor Patuxet. Each spring they traveled east along the Nemasket Trail which led from their inland year-round encampments near today’s Middleboro and Lake Assawompsett to the sea to fish, dig clams, catch lobsters, and plant crops of corn and beans. The harbor and waterfront had sheltered and supported native communities for thousands of years before the Mayflower Pilgrims arrived.

Squanto (Tisquantum) 
L. Gaugen (w. ca 1880–1884), Probably New England, about 1880Wood, textured paint
h.17 in., w. 15 ½ in., d. 15 ½ in., Pilgrim Society purchase, 1962 (PHM 1277)

Before the small band of English people came to stay, English and European ships exploring the North American coast had come and gone for over a century. They included Giovanni de Verrazzano in 1524, Samuel de Champlain in 1605, and John Smith in 1614. Champlain and Smith mapped the harbor and both befriended and skirmished with native people. Others brutally kidnapped native people to sell into slavery or to exhibit as curiosities in the cities of England and Europe. Squanto was kidnapped and carried to England. By the time he found his way home again, diseases carried unknowingly by immune English and European travelers had infected and decimated the vulnerable native population of Patuxet. The Pilgrims called the place “New Plymouth” and built their homes in sight of the harbor.

From that time forward, the history of Plymouth harbor has reflected both its local story and the broader history of the United States in countless tales of war and peace, rich trade and hated embargoes. Its commerce and industry have grown, adapted and changed through the centuries—fishing, boatbuilding, iron rolling mills, rope walks, and, finally, tourism.

Pilgrims on the Shore
In late autumn, 1620, the
Mayflower, a ship of 180 tons —its draft too deep for the relatively shallow harbor— lay at anchor over a mile from Plymouth’s shore. At high tide a smaller vessel of 70-80 tons might have approached the shore. Initial explorations of the area were accomplished in the ship’s longboat. A shallop (a vessel that could be rowed or sailed) had been carried on the Mayflower partially dismantled and used for extra sleeping quarters for the overflow of passengers.

The shallop required 16-17 days to make ready for use on the water and afterwards remained in constant use. The harbor provided food for the colonists from the first. Edward Winslow described the bounty in a letter to George Morton in England:

For fish and fowl we have great abundance; fresh cod in the summer is but coarse meat with us; our bay is full of lobsters all the summer and affordeth variety of other fish, in September we can take a hogshead of eels in a night….

Indeed, the abundant cod and mackerel provided a good living, and sometimes wealth, to uncounted Plymoutheans through the ensuing centuries. By the 1770s, Plymouth boasted 75 fishing vessels with crews of 7 or 8 men. In 1832 James Thacher described provisions needed for a typical fishing voyage:

To fit a vessel of 70 tons, carrying 8 men, for a fishing voyage of 4 months, it requires…800 bushels of salt…20 barrels of clam bait, 35-40 barrels of water, 20 lbs. of candles, 2 gallons of sperm oil….After these articles [and the stone ballast and clothes for the men who salt the fish] are paid for, the profits are divided …3/8 to the owners and 5/8 to the crew. If he furnishes his own provisions, each man carries 30-50 lbs. ship bread, 3-6 gallons molasses, 14-28 lbs. of flour, some butter, lard, vinegar, and [traditionally] 2-6 gallons of rum….Each man carries 6 codlines…4 lead weights of 5 lbs. each…24 codhooks, one pair large boots reaching above the knees…a piece of leather or oil-cloth to defend his breast against the wet…[also paid for by each man] 2 cords wood, a barrel of beef, 1 bushel beans, 20 of potatoes, 3 of meal….The fish are brought home in the salt, and after being washed are spread on flakes to dry. - Thacher, History of the Town of Plymouth, 3rd. ed., 1972, p. 314-317

The Mayflower Pilgrims lost no time preparing a first shipment of raw materials back to England. Shortly after delivering 35 new settlers in the fall of 1621, the Fortune sailed for London laden with beaver skins, clapboards, and a valuable cache of medicinal sassafras, only to lose her precious cargo to French privateers near England. Despite this initial calamity, shipments of fish, timber, furs and other North American commodities allowed Plymouth to build a profitable trans-Atlantic trade and to develop a thriving coastal trade with the Carolinas for corn, rice and hogs, and the West Indies for coffee, molasses and rum. Later, Plymouth’s ships and men rounded “the horn” of South America in search of Pacific whales and eastern riches.

Returning vessels from Liverpool brought finished goods into the colonies (forbidden to export any but raw materials). The highly desired imports included punch bowls, teacups and teapots (and tea), handkerchiefs and pocketknives.

Teapot, Andrianus Kocks Pottery, 
Delft, Holland, 1686-1701.  
Tin-glazed earthenware.


In 1769 the Brig Lydia sailed to Liverpool carrying a purchase order for:
1 doz blue & wh China cups & saucers, 1 doz round Yellow Shoe Buckles, 1 doz round White Ditto, 1 doz blue & wh Linnen Handkfs, ½ doz pen knives, ¼ doz best Ditto for pens, 2 blue & wh 3 quart punch bowls, ½ doz 2 quart wh stone mugs.

A Dangerous Business
Like the Fortune’s cargo, stolen at sea by a French privateer, vessels, cargos and crews remained in danger of hostile privateers, war ships, and pirates well into the 1800s. Storms at sea or in the harbor could mean disaster for men and ship. (Click here to read the tragic story of the loss in Plymouth Harbor of the brig General Arnold and its men). The British blockade, American Revolution, Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 each devastated the business of the harbor, requiring great effort to rebuild each time. Along with stories of loss and destruction, Plymouth town histories include exciting stories of brave and skillful seamen’s resistance—of stripped vessels being re-rigged under cover of a dark night and a lashing rainstorm (that had scattered the harbor guards) and slipping safely out of Plymouth Bay to pursue an enemy vessel or deliver a valuable cargo.

Building Trade and Ships
After 1783 and the end of 8 long years of war with Britain, Plymouth rapidly rebuilt its fishing and merchant fleets, increased its coastal and Liverpool trade, and added ports in the Mediterranean such as the Andalusian city of Cadiz in southern Spain. In the early years of the new century, while Europe spent its forces fighting Napoleon, the United States’ neutral position allowed American trade to prosper everywhere.

By 1807 Plymouth counted more than 70 vessels engaged in foreign trade. In tonnage of shipping registered in Massachusetts’ ports, Plymouth ranked sixth, preceded only by Boston, Salem, Newburyport, New Bedford, and Marblehead. Foreign vessels arrived in Plymouth harbor from Portugal, Spain, Cape Verde Islands, Russia, Martinique, and other West Indian Islands.

Attempting to bully neutral traders, Britain and France outlawed trading with the colonies of their enemies. For example, Americans who traded with Britain were prohibited from trading with France’s West Indian colonies. If Americans traded with France, they were not allowed to trade in the ports of British colonies, such as that of St. Thomas. The Americans side-stepped the prohibitions by inserting a short coastal voyage between the two ends of a vessel’s planned trade route. Samuel Eliot Morrison described this “indirect trade” undertaken to maintain peace and profits—

….Plymouth custom-house records show…what was going on in 1806 and 1807. The brig Elisa Hardy of Plymouth enters her home port from Bordeaux…with a cargo of claret wine. Part [is sent] to Martinique in the schooner Pilgrim, which also carries a consignment of brandy…from Alicante in the brig Commerce, and…gin from Rotterdam in the barque Hannal of Plymouth. The rest of the Elisa Hardy’s claret is taen to Philadelphia…and thence [to] 7 different vessels to Havana, Santiago de Cuba, St. Thomas, and Batavia.

Shipbuilding on the North River and Plymouth Bay prospered along with trade during the Federalist period. The North River’s fifteen shipyards launched more than 1000 ships from the 1640s to the late 1800s. Many were fishing and whaling vessels, and built for owners outside of Massachusetts. According to Morison, the largest vessel built on the North River was the Mount Vernon, 464 tons, built in 1815 for Philadelphia by Samuel Hartt. If a ship of 200 tons cost about $7000 in the early 1800s (Morison’s estimate), the Mount Vernon may have run to $17-18,000.

By 1830 industries related to boatbuilding, shipping, and fishing lined Water Street and occupied the wharves, warehouses and neighborhoods near Plymouth Harbor. There were lumber and coal yards, iron foundries and forges, blacksmith shops, sailmakers, a pump and blockmaker’s shop, coopers, riggers, caulkers and gravers, shipwrights, ship carpenters, a ship carver, and numerous counting houses (accounting offices). Incorporated in 1824, the Plymouth Cordage Company’s three-story ropewalk was located in the north part of town. The firm employed up to 80 hands in the manufacture (by water power) of 500 tons of patented cordage per year.

The Tide Turns
To help rebuild the fisheries after the American Revolution, in 1789 the federal government granted a bounty of 5-cents on every quintal (100 lbs.) of dried fish or barrel of pickled fish exported. In 1792 additional federal bounties were granted. Fishing and shipping continued to play major roles on Plymouth Harbor until the 1860s when the bounties were abolished and duties removed from Canadian fish. In 1888 only one fishing vessel went to the Grand Banks of Newfoundland from Plymouth.

By the mid-1800s, railroads were competing for shipping business, and the nature of the most profitable maritime trade changed. Speed became the name of the game, and the shipyards of the North River and Plymouth lacked the deep water needed to launch the 2000-4000 ton extreme clippers produced from about 1840-1870 to race across the seas. Originally developed to carry the perishable tea of the China trade, the so-called “greyhounds of the sea” were perfectly suited for the unexpected market that opened in 1849—the flood of men and supplies rushing to the gold fields of California.

In Plymouth, manufacturing gradually replaced shipping in importance. Until the late 1890s, incoming vessels continued to bring large cargoes of raw materials: among them sisal and hemp for the ropewalks, coal for the iron works. By 1920, however, most materials arrived by railroad—located next to the harbor. Still a working harbor in 1900, signs of the harbor’s next transformation could be found on Water Street

The Old Curiosity Shop with antiques and souvenirs sold by
Winslow Brewster Standish was one sign of this transformation.

The Planting, Cultivating and Flowering of Tourism
Daniel Webster’s Century Oration included a stirring account of the Pilgrim’s landing and struggle to survive the first winter that helped to frame the Pilgrim’s story as the birth of the American story. Delivered in Plymouth at the invitation of the newly incorporated Pilgrim Society on Forefather’s Day, 1820, the 200th anniversary of the Pilgrim’s landing, the oration was printed and reprinted many times and became widely known. Edward Everett provided the same service for the Mayflower in his oration for the Pilgrim Society’s 1824 Forefather’s Day celebration. Everett’s romantic description of the vessel laid the foundation for its iconic status in American lore.

Founded in 1820, the Pilgrim Society led the way in promoting the national
importance of Plymouth’s founding. Opened in 1824, Pilgrim Hall
is America’s oldest continually-operating museum.

In the years that followed, the Pilgrim Society erected the first stone canopy covering Plymouth Rock, the National Monument on Cole’s Hill, and, in 1920, for the 300th anniversary celebration, planned the mammoth celebration “Pilgrim Spirit” featuring a cast of hundreds of “Pilgrims.” The Commonwealth pitched in and razed the “unattractive” work-a-day wharves and warehouses of the 18th and 19th century harbor and restored the shoreline to an imagined 1600s appearance.

As more Americans gained leisure time and transportation improved, summer resorts became popular. Plymouth had both location and a rich history. By 1846 William S. Russell had published a guide for visitors. Henry W. Longfellow’s
The Courtship of Miles Standish, published in 1858, added another layer of romantic appeal to Plymouth as a "destination."

Steamboats built especially for passengers ran between Plymouth and Boston beginning in the 1820s though the service only flourished after 1880 when the Federal government dredged the channel. In 1881, 28,000 steamboat excursion passengers arrived at and departed from Plymouth.

Having followed Mr. Russell’s guidebook and trod in the paths of the Forefather’s, one naturally wanted to take a memento, a souvenir or two, back home. In 1832 Plymouth jeweler and silversmith Sylvanus Bramhall offered “breastpins” decorated with images of Forefather’s Rock in an advertisement in the local newspaper, the Old Colony Memorial. A. S. Burbank, C. T. Harris and a host of other entrepreneurs followed suit with shops and catalogs filled with Pilgrim memorabilia ranging from chocolate Plymouth Rocks to 11-inch bronze replicas of Dallin’s Massasoit.

Standing today on Plymouth’s fabled waterfront, the heroic-sized
bronze Massasoit seems to bring the harbor’s story full circle—
back to Patuxet, back to its life as a summer place

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Pilgrim Hall Museum
75 Court St, Plymouth, MA 02360 | Phone (508) 746-1620