Commented John Blair in his Diary on the incident: "Heard our first whale brought in and three more struck but lost." The Experiment continued its whaling career successfully for three years. When it retired, no similar enterprise replaced it. Yet in a list of exports from Virginia for the year ending September 30, 1791, 1263 gallons of whale oil appears. Even today whales are occasionally represented in Virginia fishery products, as when one is washed up on a beach and removed by the Coast Guard to a processing plant to be turned into meal and oil.
The overall value of Virginia's fisheries as an industrial resource was glacially slow in reaching public consciousness. Here and there, like dim lights along an uncertain voyage, bits of legislation or isolated conservation procedures appeared. In due course it became evident that natural fishways—to choose one example—were being obstructed to the disadvantage of both the fish and navigation. Hening records the law enacted to keep the rivers open:
1745. And whereas the making and raising of mill dams, and stone-stops, or hedges for catching of fish, is a great obstruction to the navigation of the said rivers [James and Appomattox]: Be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That all mill dams, stone-stops, and hedges, already made across either of the said rivers, where they are navigable, shall be thrown down and destroyed by the person or persons who made the same....
Like most hastily framed and passed laws this one proved unsatisfactory and a second one, with more detailed provisions was passed. Hening records it:
1762. Whereas the act of assembly made in the first year of his present Majesty's reign , entitled, an act to oblige the owners of mills, hedges, or stone-stops, on sundry rivers therein mentioned, to make openings or slopes therein for the passage of fish, has been found defective, and not to answer the purposes for which it was intended, and it is therefore necessary that the same should be amended: Be it therefore enacted by the Lieutenant Governor, Council and Burgesses, of this present General Assembly, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That the owner or proprietor of all and every mill, hedge, or stone-stop, on either of the rivers Nottoway and Meherrin, shall in the space of nine months from and after the passing of this act, make an opening or slope in their respective mill-dams, hedges, or stops, in that part of the same where there shall happen to be the deepest water, which shall be in width at least ten feet in the clear, in length at least three times the height of the dam, and that the bottoms and sides thereof shall be planked, and that the sides shall be at least fourteen inches deep, so as to admit a current of water through the same twelve inches deep, which shall be kept open from the tenth day of February to the last day of May in every year.... And be it further enacted by the authority aforesaid, That if any such owner or proprietor shall neglect or refuse so to do, within the time aforesaid, the person so offending shall forfeit and pay the sum of five pounds of tobacco for every day he or they shall so neglect or refuse....
Still the fundamental problem was not solved; fish were not by-passing the remaining obstructions in sufficient quantity to maintain the expected harvest. After various amendments and additions this explicit definition of a fishway or slope was enacted into law in 1771:
That a gap be cut in the top of the dam contiguous to the deepest part of the water below the dam, in which shall be set a slope ten feet wide, and so deep that the water may run through it 18 inches before it will through the waste, or over the dam, that the direction of the said slope be so, as with a perpendicular to be dropped from the top of the dam, will form an angle of at least 75 degrees, and to continue in that direction to the bottom of the river, below the dam, to be planked up the sides 2 feet high; that there be pits or basins built in the bottom, at 8 feet distance, the width of the said slope, and to be 12 inches deep, and that the whole be tight and strong; which said slope shall be kept open from the 10th day of February to the last day of May, annually, and any owner not complying to forfeit 5 pounds of tobacco a day.
The effort was of little avail. Before many dams could be so laboriously modified the Revolutionary War arrived to obscure placid matters like fish conservation.
The diaries of the 18th Century Virginia planters abound with references to seafoods. Most of them lived either on or within easy distance of Tidewater. Most of them had nets and other fishing implements of their own and crews among the slaves to work them. Whenever their needs required, an expedition was made. Perhaps there was a season of bountiful entertaining in prospect. The seine would be taken to a likely spot and hauled ashore. Or a boat would go out and load up with oysters. The fish had to be eaten right away or salted down. But oysters stored in a dark cellar, especially in cool weather, would keep for weeks if moistened from time to time.
One diarist, James Gordon, lived near the Rappahannock river in a section affording a variety of seafoods. Note these typical entries:
Sept. 20, 1759. Fine weather. Went in the afternoon and drew the seine. Had very agreeable diversion and got great plenty of fine fish....
Sept. 26. Went with my wife in the evening to draw the seine. Got about sixty greenfish and a few other sorts.
Sept. 28. Sent in the morning to have the seine drawn. They made several hauls and got good fish, viz: three drum, one of them large, trouts, greenfish, etc....
Oct. 6. Went with my wife to see the seine drawn. We dined very agreeably on a point on fish and oysters....
Jan. 22,—Bought about 70 gallons of rum. Got fine oysters there.
Feb. 12. Went on board the New England man and bought some pots, axes and mackerel.
Feb. 22. Drew the seine and got 125 fine rock and some shad.
July 14. Drew the seine today and got some fine rock.
Feb. 9, 1760. Went with my wife and Mr. Criswell to draw the seine. We met in Eyck's Creek a school of rock—brought up 260. Some very large; the finest haul I ever saw. Sent many of them to our neighbors.
The term "greenfish" is unknown among Virginia Tidewater fishermen. Here again we have a British name brought into Virginia by a colonist not long removed from that country. There "greenfish" is applied to the bluefish, of which there were and are at times plenty in the Rappahannock river.
Another diarist, who lived only a few miles away from Gordon, also on the Rappahannock river, was Landon Carter, son of the famed Robert, or "King," Carter of Corotoman in Lancaster County. There is no doubt about it: he was an oyster lover. He not only knew a way to hold oysters over an extended period—one wishes one knew what it was—but he had the courage and originality to eat them in July, contrary to a widely respected superstition:
Jan. 14, 1770. My annual entertainment began on Monday, the 8th, and held till Wednesday night, when, except one individual or two that retired sooner, things pleased me much, and therefore, I will conclude they gave the same satisfaction to others.
The oysters lasted till the third day of the feast, which to be sure, proves that the methods of keeping them is good, although much disputed by others.
July, 1776. Last night my cart came up from John E. Beale for iron pots to make salt out of the bay water, which cart brought me eight bushels oysters. I ordered them for family and immediate use. As we are obliged to wash the salt we had of Col. Tayloe, I have ordered that washing be carried into the vault and every oyster dipped into it over all and then laid down on the floor again.... Out of the eight bushels oysters I had six pickled and two bushels for dressing. But I was asked why Beale sent oysters up in July. I answered it was my orders. Who would eat oysters in July said the mighty man; and the very day showed he not only could eat them but did it in every shape, raw, stewed, caked in fritters and pickled.
George Washington, too, was an oyster fancier as this note to his New York friend George Taylor shows:
Mt. Vernon, 1786. Sir: ... Mrs. Washington joins me in thanking you also for your kind present of pickled oysters which were very fine. This mark of your politeness is flattering and we beg you to accept every good wish of ours in return.
When in 1770 a notice appeared in the Virginia Gazette about the proposed academy in New Kent County an added attraction was featured: "Among other things the fine fishery at the place will admit of an agreeable and salutary exercise and amusement all the year." It was the Chickahominy river, a tributary of the James, that was referred to. Fishing is still "agreeable" there. Citizens of Richmond, recreation-bent, throng to it along with the residents of its banks, many of whom make their living out of it. This is one of the sections where the water, though tidal, is fresh. Anadromous herring, shad, rock and sturgeon are caught. Unlike the salty bay, fish can be caught here the year round. Among them are catfish, carp, perch and bass.
One of the most accurate and vivid reporters of Colonial Virginia plantation life was Philip Vickers Fithian, tutor to the family of Councillor Robert Carter of Nominy Hall on the lower Potomac river. In his Journals are appetizing references to seafood:
1774, March: With Mr. Randolph, I went a-fishing, but we had only the luck to catch one apiece.
April. We had an elegant dinner; beef and greens, roast pig, fine boiled rockfish.
July. We dined today on the fish called the sheepshead, with crabs. Twice every week we have fine fish.
On the edges of these shoals in Nominy River or in holes between the rocks is plenty of fish.
Well, Ben, you and Mr. Fithian are invited by Mr. Turberville, to a fish feast tomorrow, said Mr. Carter when we entered the Hall to dinner.
As we were rowing up Nominy we saw fishermen in great numbers in canoes and almost constantly taking in fish,—bass and perch.
This is a fine sheepshead, Mr. Stadly [the music master], shall I help you? Or would you prefer a bass or a perch? Or perhaps you will rather help yourself to some picked crab. It is all extremely fine, sir, I'll help myself.
August. Each Wednesday and Saturday, we dine on fish all the summer, always plenty of rock, perch, and crabs, and often sheepshead and trout.
September. We dined on fish and crabs, which were provided for our company, tomorrow being fish day.
September. Dined on fish,—rock, perch, fine crabs, and a large fresh mackerel.
I was invited this morning by Captain Tibbs to a barbecue. This differs but little from the fish feasts, instead of fish the dinner is roasted pig, with the proper appendages, but the diversion and exercise are the very same at both.
An English traveler in 1759, Andrew Burnaby, registered his wonder at the way fish were taken in the reaches of the Chesapeake:
Sturgeon and shad are in such prodigious numbers [in Chesapeake Bay] that one day within the space of two miles only, some gentlemen in canoes caught above six hundred of the former with hooks, which they let down to the bottom and drew up at a venture when they perceived them to rub against a fish; and of the latter above five thousand have been caught at one single haul of the seine.
The "gentlemen" concerned were obviously not slaves serving the needs of a plantation, but, judging from the amount caught, expert commercial fishermen. The sturgeon, after the roe was removed, were stacked in carts and peddled in nearby towns. The shad, after as many as possible were sold fresh, were salted down.
The snagging of big sturgeon as recounted by the French traveler Francois J. de Chastellux in 1781 remained in common practice into the 20th Century, when the big ones became much scarcer:
As I was walking by the river side [James near Westover], I saw two negroes carrying an immense sturgeon, and on asking them how they had taken it, they told me that at this season they were so common as to be taken easily in a seine and that fifteen or twenty were found sometimes in the net; but that there was a much more simple method of taking them, which they had just been using. This species of monster, which are so active in the evening as to be perpetually leaping to a great height above the surface of the water, usually sleep profoundly at mid-day. Two or three negroes then proceed in a little boat, furnished with a long cord at the end of which is a sharp iron crook, which they hold suspended like a log line. As soon as they find this line stopped by some obstacle, they draw it forcibly towards them so as to strike the hook into the sturgeon, which they either drag out of the water, or which, after some struggling and losing all his blood, floats at length upon the surface and is easily taken.
The frequently met-with term, "fishery," in Colonial writings took on a special meaning as the industry developed. It was used in the sense of what the present Virginia lawbook calls a "regularly hauled fishing landing."
This is usually a shore privately owned where the fronting waters have been cleared of obstructions. The owner, or some one permitted by him, operates a long seine at that place by carrying it offshore in boats and hauling it to land. So long as he thus uses the spot "regularly" the law protects him, now as in the past, by making it illegal for any other person to fish with nets within a quarter-mile of "any part of the shore of the owner of any such fishery."
The rights to such a property were, and are, in many cases extremely profitable. George Washington was among the Virginia planters zealously caring for their "fisheries."
Often the privilege of using these was advertised in the newspapers or otherwise for rent for a long or short term. Some owners who did not themselves wish to fish counted on their shores to yield rental. One of these, George William Fairfax, must have expressed himself to Washington on the subject, for the latter wrote him in June, 1774:
... As to your fishery at the Raccoon Branch, I think you will be disappointed there likewise as there is no landing on this side of river that rents for more than one half of what you expect for that, and that on the other side opposite to you (equally good they say) to be had at L15 Maryland currency....
But growing along with this practice was sentiment favoring fishing places open to the general public. When an attempt was made about 1770 to take over certain lands near Cape Henry for private operation, a vigorous protest ensued:
The petition of the subscribers, inhabitants of the county of Princess Anne in behalf of themselves and the other inhabitants of this colony, humbly shows: That the point of land called Cape Henry bounded eastward by the Atlantic Ocean, northwardly by Chesapeake Bay, westwardly and southwardly by part of Lynnhaven River and by a creek called Long Creek and the branches thereof, is chiefly desert banks of sand and unfit for tillage or cultivation and contains several thousand acres.
And that for many years past a common fishery has been carried on by many of the inhabitants of said county and others on the shore of the ocean and bay aforesaid, as far as the western mouth of Lynnhaven River. And that during the fishing season the fishermen usually encamp amongst the said sand hills and get wood for fuel and stages from the desert, and that very considerable quantities of fish are annually taken by such fishery which greatly contributes to the support and maintenance of your petitioners and their families.
Your petitioners further show that they have been informed that several gentlemen have petitioned your Honour to have the land aforesaid granted to them by patent and that one Keeling has lately surveyed a part thereof situated near the mouth of Long Creek aforesaid, and that if a patent should be granted for the same, it would greatly prejudice the said fishery.
Your petitioners therefore humbly pray that no patent may be granted to any person or persons for the same lands or any part thereof; and that the same may remain a common for the benefit of the inhabitants of this Colony in general for carrying on a fishery and for such public uses as the same premises shall be found convenient.
Even when the new United States Government erected a lighthouse at Cape Henry a careful stipulation was made in the act ceding the property in 1790 that the public were not to be denied fishing privileges there:
Deed of cession of two acres of land at Cape Henry, in Princess Anne County, Virginia, for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse thereon ... provided that nothing contained in this act shall affect the right of this State to any materials heretofore placed at or near Cape Henry for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse, nor shall the citizens be debarred, in consequence of this cession, from the privileges they now enjoy of hauling their seines and fishing on the shores of the said land so ceded to the United States.
When George Washington had come, a newlywed, to be master of Mt. Vernon in 1759 he found the prospects for fishing very satisfying. One of his letters at this time boasted:
A river [the Potomac] well-stocked with various kinds of fish at all seasons of the year, and in the spring with shad, herrings, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, etc., in great abundance. The borders of the estate are washed by more than ten miles of tidewater, the whole shore, in fact, is one entire fishery.
Washington generously ordered his overseer to admit "the honest poor" to fishing privileges at one of his shores, a concession that may have been customary among many landowners.
He was a man who believed in keeping records, and so complete a file of them has now been reassembled at Mt. Vernon that it is possible to follow his career in any phase: officer, business speculator, host, farmer, legislative adviser, and friend. He gave to fishing the painstaking personal attention he gave to all else. As a "fisherman" he directed the manufacture as well as the repair of his nets, and the curing, shipping and marketing of his fish.
It seems obvious that suitable nets were not being manufactured in the desired quantity or variety in America, otherwise he would hardly have bought his in England.
He dealt with Robert Cary and Co., London, in 1771. Here is a typical order:
One seine, seventy-five fathoms long when rigged for hauling; to be ten feet deep in the middle and eight at the ends with meshes fit for the herring fishery. The corks to be two and a half feet asunder; the leads five feet apart; to be made of the best three-strand (small) twine and tanned.
400 fathom of white inch rope for hauling the above seine. 150 fathom of deep sea line.
To get ready for spring fishing he had to prepare as far ahead as July. Even then he was not always sure delivery would be on time:
... The goods you will please to forward by the first vessel for Potomac (which possibly may be Captain Jordan the bearer of this) as there are some articles that will be a good deal wanted, especially the seine, which will be altogether useless to me if I do not get them early in the spring, or in other words I shall sustain a considerable disappointment and loss, if they do not get to hand in time.
He wrote to Bradshaw and Davidson in London in 1772:
That I may have my seine net exactly agreeable to directions this year I give you the trouble of receiving this letter from me to desire that three may be made. One of them eighty fathom long, another seventy, and the third sixty-five fathom, all of them to be twelve feet deep in the middle and to decrease to seven at the ends when rigged and fit for use; to be so close-meshed in the middle as not to suffer the herrings (for which kind of fishery they are intended) to hang in them because, when this is the case it gives us a good deal of trouble at the busy hurrying season to disengage the seine, and often is the means of tearing it. But the meshes may widen as they approach the ends: the corks to be no more than two feet and a half asunder and fixed on flatways that they may swim and bear the seine up better with a float right in the middle to show the approach of the seine with greater certainty in case the corks should sink; the leads to be five feet apart. The seine I had from you last year had two faults, one of which is that of having the meshes too open in the middle; the other of being too strait rigged; to avoid which I wish you to loose at least one-third of the length in hanging these seines; that is, to let your 80 fathom seine be 120 in the strait measure (before it is hung in the lead and cork lines) and the other two to bear the same proportion, I could wish to have these seines tanned but it is thought the one I had from you last year was injured in the vat, for which reason I leave it to you to have these tanned or not, as you shall judge most expedient ... I would not wish to have them made of thick heavy twine as they are more liable to heat and require great force to work them....
A detailed reply came from James Davidson, a partner in the net company:
London, Sept. 29, 1772. Sir: I had the honour of receiving your letter with instructions concerning your seines. I shall always pay due attention to the contents. I persuade myself you'll say I have fulfilled your instructions given me in these three seines which I heartily hope will be in time for the intended fishery. Am not afraid but they will meet with your approbation and if you should see any alteration wanting if you'll be so obliging as to send a line in the same channel, it shall be attended to with great care. Your order is for the corks to be put on flat ways. I have only put them on the 65 fathom seine for these reasons. We have tried that method before with every other invention for the satisfaction of our fishermen here but they have assured us they really do not bear the net up so well. They are obliged to be tied on so tight that the twine cuts them and are much apter to break and after all in dragging the net they will swim sideways. Now, Sir, you'll readily see the above inconveniences. I have also put six floats in the middle, two together to show the center of the net. Likewise the length of the netting, 120 fathoms for the 80 fathoms, the other two in proportion.
I now enter upon tanning. This, you may assure yourself, they are pretty well wore if you have them tanned for we are obliged to haul them in and out to take the tan and after that hauling them about to get them thoroughly dry before we can possibly pack them or else they would soon rot. Among the hundreds of seines I sent abroad last year or this, I only tanned one besides yours. Therefore have not tanned any of these. I think the three-quarters inch mesh that I have put in the middle of the nets this year will be a cure for the malady you mention of the herrings hanging in the mesh, for last year I only put in inch mesh which upon examination you'll soon perceive. Therefore, sir, I entreat the honour of a line whether or not the two above three-quarters mesh seines answer the purpose. I have tapered them away at the ends to [an] inch and a half.
These nets were designed for hauling ashore by hand. It was not till much later that other nets, of the styles so familiar today, gill nets and pound nets in particular, came into general use.
Much longer seines than Washington needed were used as fish became scarcer. There are tales of them four and five miles long, actually able to block off the entire river, being used in the neighborhood of Mt. Vernon before control laws were enacted and enforced. The catches were enormous. Barges were heaped high with all sorts of fish and towed into Washington City where they were sold before they spoiled, for what they would bring.
Today the pollution for which Washington and Alexandria are responsible has destroyed most fish life within several miles of Mt. Vernon.
Like his fishing predecessors ever since Jamestown, Washington had his troubles with salt. One of his business letters ordering a supply complained: "Liverpool salt is inadequate to the saving of fish.... Lisbon is the proper kind."
He was only briefly touching on a subject that had vexed the Colonists since the beginning. Through the years the cry for more and better salt had gone up. The fishermen of Virginia needed salt for their fish as badly as the Hebrews in Egypt needed straw for their bricks. Although trading with foreign countries increased steadily, the question of a salt supply for Virginia remained unsolved.
As the 18th century had progressed, matters grew even worse. In 1763 the Virginia Committee of Correspondence had written urgently to its agent in London to apply to Parliament for an act to
allow to this Colony the same liberty to import salt from Lisbon or any other European ports, which they have long enjoyed in the Colonies and provinces of New England, New York and Pennsylvania. This is a point that hath been more than once unsuccessfully labored; but we think it is so reasonable, that when it is set in a proper light, we shall hope for success. The reason upon which the opposition hath been supported, is this general one that it is contrary to the interest of Great Britain to permit her plantations to be supplied with any commodity, especially any manufacture from a foreign country, which she herself can supply them with. This we allow to be of force; provided the Mother Country can and does supply her plantations with as much as they want; but the fact being otherwise, we have been allowed to supply ourselves with large quantities from Cercera, Isle of May, Sal Tortuga and so forth. The course of this trade being hazardous, in time of war, this useful and necessary article hath been brought to us at a high price of late. The reason or pretence of granting this indulgence to the Northern Colonies, in exclusion of the Southern, we presume to be to enable them to carry on their fishery to greater advantage, the salt from the Continent of Europe being fitter for that purpose than the salt from Great Britain or that from any of the islands we have mentioned. But surely this reason is but weakly founded with respect to Pennsylvania, whose rivers scarcely supply them with fish sufficient for their own use; whereas the Bay of Chesapeake abounds with great plenty and variety of fish fit for foreign markets, as well as for ourselves, if we could but get the proper kind of salt to cure it. Herrings and shads might be exported to the West Indies to great advantage; and we could supply the British markets with finer sturgeon than they have yet tasted from the Baltic. And it is an allowed principle that every extension of the trade of the Colonies, which does not interfere with that of the Mother Country is an advantage to the latter; since all our profits ultimately center with her.
It was pointed out that the English merchants were not above sharp practices in filling orders for salt; they would reduce the amount shipped to individuals and provide the captain with all he could carry extra to be sold at high prices to needy buyers.
The plaint was just another of the rumblings of discontent contributing to the grand explosion of thirteen years later. The intricacies were entered into in detail by the Committee:
We have twelve different Colonies on the Continent of North America. Four of them, viz., Pennsylvania, New York, New England, and Newfoundland, have liberty to import salt from any part of Europe directly. The other eight, viz., Virginia, Maryland, East and West Jersey, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Nova Scotia, as well as all the West India Islands, are deprived of it.
At present those Colonies on whose behalf the petition is given, are supplied with salt from the Isle of Mays in Africa, Sal Tortuga, and Turks Island in America, also a little from England; but are deprived of the only salt that answers best for the principal use, viz., to preserve fish and other provisions, twelve months, or a longer time. What they have from Great Britain is made from salt water by fire, which is preferred for all domestic uses. The African or American salt is made from salt water by the sun; which is used for curing and preserving provisions. The first, made by fire, is found, by long experience, in warm climates, to be too weak; the provisions cured with it turn rusty, and in six or eight months become unfit for use. The second kind, by the quantity of alum, or some other vicious quality in it, is so corrosive, that in less than twelve months, the meat cured with it is entirely deprived of all the fat, and the lean hardened, or so much consumed, as to be of little service. The same ill qualities are found in these salts with regard to fish: wherefore the arguments used, that they ought to have English salt only, are as much as to say, they should be allowed to catch fish, or salt any provisions, but let their cattle and hogs die without reaping the advantage nature has given them.
In all countries where a benefit can arise by fish or provisions, salt must be cheap; and as its value where made is from ten to twenty shillings the ton, so the carriage of it to America is often more than the real value: It is in order to save part of the expense of carriage, this application is made; for although some gentlemen do not seem to know it, yet we have liberty, by the present laws in force, to carry any kind of European salt to America, the ship first coming to an English port, in order to make an entry.
We have also liberty to bring it from any salt island in Africa or America; but by the Act of 15 Car. II. Chap. 7, salt is supposed to be included under the word commodity; whereby it is, with all European goods, prevented from being carried to America, unless first landed in England: the consequence whereof is, that English ships, which (I shall suppose) are hired to sail from London to Lisbon with corn, and thence proceed to America, have not the liberty to carry salt in place of ballast, and therefore under a necessity to pay above L10 sterling at Lisbon for ballast (that is to say, for sand), which they carry to America, or else return to England in order to get a clearance for the salt, which would be more expense than its value.
Now, had they liberty to carry salt directly to America, they would not only save the money paid for the sand, but also gain by the freight of salt perhaps L60 or L80 more. Thus on an average every ship that goes now empty from these ports to America, might clear L70 and there are above a hundred sail to that voyage every year. This is an annual loss of L7,000 at least; and besides, as the ship loses no time in this case (salt being as soon taken in as sand), they could afford to sell the best salt as cheap in America as is now paid for the worst; for as a ship must make a long voyage on purpose to get, and make it in the salt islands, so the expense thereof is more than the value of the salt at Lisbon, St. Ibbes, and so forth.
The proponents of the petition made out a strong case. They went into the grading of the kinds of salt obtained from the West Indies, Africa and Europe and asserted that, inferior though some of them were, they nevertheless had been found to be "preferable to England salt for curing and preserving their fish":
To know the qualities of the different kinds of salt used in America may be an amusement to a speculative man; but seems entirely out of the question in this case; for whatever may be said on that head, long experience and the universal agreement of all from America, as well as former Acts of Parliament, show that the common white salt will not answer the uses it is chiefly wanted for there.
As to what is called Loundes's brine salt, that, and his many other projects, seemed to be formed on the same plan with Subtle's in The Alchemist, his scheme looking as if he only wanted the money, and left it to others to make the salt.
Salt can, without doubt, be made of any desired quality, but the price, the place of delivery, and the quantity to be had of so useful a commodity must also be regarded.
We can get salt at Sal Tortuga for the raking and putting it into our ships; but the expense of a voyage on purpose for it is greater than to buy it at a place from whence the freight may be all saved, and to have the best salt on the cheapest terms, is, no doubt the intention of this application, as it certainly was of the other Colonies that have obtained this privilege.
All the Virginians were asking, in effect, was the liberty to import from Europe what salt they wished!
As the moment of Independence neared, the stress grew greater. George Washington's Mt. Vernon overseer during the crucial years, his distant relative Lund Washington, addressed a letter to him in 1775:
The people are running mad about salt. You would hardly think it possible there could be such a scarcity. Five and six shillings per bushel. Conway's sloop came to Alexandria Monday last with a load.
A couple of months later the crisis was reached:
I have had 300 bushels more of salt put into fish barrels, which I intend to move into Muddy Hole barn, for if it should be destroyed by the enemy we shall not be able to get more. There is still fifty or sixty more bushels, perhaps a hundred in the house. I was unwilling to sell it, knowing we could not get more and our people must have fish. Therefore I told the people I had none.
Two more years of adversity went by. Lund wrote in 1778:
I was told a day or two past that Congress had ordered a quantity of shad to be cured on this river. I expect as everything sells high, shad will also. I should be fond of curing about 100 barrels of them, they finding salt. We have been unfortunate in our crops, therefore I could wish to make something by fish.
He proposed that he cure fish "for the Continent" and make "upwards of 200 pounds":
I have very little salt, of which we must make the most. I mean to make a brine and after cutting off the head and bellies, dipping them in the brine for but a short time, then hang them up and cure them by smoke, or dry them in the sun; for our people being so long accustomed to have fish whenever they wanted, would think it very bad to have none at all.
All ended well for that season. Lund wrote:
I have cured a sufficient quantity of fish for our people, together with about 160 or 170 barrels of shad for the Continent.
One of the most interesting diarists of Revolutionary days was young Nicholas Cresswell, an Englishman of 24 when he arrived in America for a three-years visit. He was in Leesburg, Virginia, in December 1776 when he recorded this occurrence:
A Dutch mob of about forty horsemen went through the town today on their way to Alexandria to search for salt. If they find any they will take it by force.... This article is exceedingly scarce; if none comes the people will revolt. They cannot possibly subsist without a considerable quantity of this article.
The raiders were pacified by an allotment of three pints of salt per man.
A vivid picture of what the lack of salt entailed was given by Cresswell in April 1777:
Saw a seine drawn for herrings and caught upwards of 40,000 with about 300 shad fish. The shads they use but the herrings are left upon the shore useless for want of salt. Such immense quantities of this fish is left upon the shore to rot, I am surprised it does not bring some epidemic disorder to the inhabitants by the nauseous stench arising from such a mass of putrefaction.
A fishery by-product of importance to early Virginians, lime, was of interest to Washington. It was extensively obtained by burning oyster shells.
Early Virginia masonry shows that such lime was mixed in mortar and it was usually of poor quality, perhaps because of crude facilities for burning. Today's shell lime is much in demand in agriculture and its price is higher than mined lime. George Washington found that for the purpose of building it left much to be desired. He wrote to Henry Knox from Mt. Vernon in 1785:
I use a great deal of lime every year, made of the oyster shells, which, before they are burnt, cost me twenty-five to thirty shillings per hundred bushels; but it is of mean quality, which makes me desirous of trying stone lime.
He was paying about seven cents a bushel for shells, which seems high for those days of abundant oysters and cheap labor. Until recently the Virginia market price was very little more.
Washington's probing, weighing mind slighted no phase of his fishery. About to fertilize crops with fish experimentally, he wrote to his overseer: "If you tried both fresh and salt fish as a manure the different aspects of them should be attended to." A few weeks later, after watching results, he wrote: "The corn that is manured with fish, though it does not appear to promise much at first, may nevertheless be fine.... It is not only possible but highly probable."
This opinion was abundantly confirmed years later when vast quantities of menhaden were converted into guano for crops by Atlantic coast factories, a practice changed only when livestock-nutrition studies showed that menhaden scrap was too valuable a protein source to be spread on land. The fish referred to by Washington were in all probability river-herring, or alewives, used as fertilizer at such times as they were caught in greater abundance than the food market could absorb.
The probable yield of his fish trade was always carefully calculated, even when the pressure of national affairs required his absence from home. From Philadelphia we find him writing to his manager about a fish merchant's offer: "Ten shillings per hundred for shad is very low. I am at this moment paying six shillings apiece for every shad I buy." He usually tried to get at least twelve shillings a hundred for his shad, which were salted prior to marketing, although there were instances when he let them go for as little as one pence apiece. The extraordinary price of six shillings for one shad cited by him in Philadelphia is hard to explain. It probably referred to a fresh one caught early in the season and prepared especially for his table. Though records of the average weight of shad in those days are lacking, seven pounds is a fair estimate, and it may have been greater. The weights now seldom exceed three or four pounds, because in the more recent years of intensive fishing, shad have been widely caught up as they returned from the ocean to spawn for the first time. Shad, along with other anadromous, or "up-running," fish are born near the head-waters of rivers, and seek the ocean for feeding and growth. Unlike salmon they do not perish after one spawning and the oftener they return, the larger they are. What conservationists call "escapement," or the freedom to get back to the ocean from the rivers, is considered vital to their survival in quantity.
All through the two-score years of fishing at Mount Vernon, Washington suffered, judging by his unceasing preoccupation with minor details, from the lack of a fishing foreman to whom he could entrust the operation with any confidence. Letters toward the close of his life bearing on this subject are still replete with reminders concerning trifles which would have been routine for any competent boss. The fish runs start about March; therefore, in January he finds it necessary to write; "It would be well to have the seines overhauled immediately, that is, if new ones are wanting, or the old ones requiring much repair, they may be set about without loss of time." He must even look beyond his own help for the skill necessary to put his nets in order. "I would have you immediately upon the receipt of this letter send for the man who usually does this work for me.... Let him choose his twine (if it is to be had in Alexandria) and set about them immediately."
Abundance of fish created a bottleneck:
In the height of the fishery they are not prepared to cure or otherwise dispose of them as fast as they could be caught; of course the seines slacken in their work, or the fish lie and spoil when that is the only time I can make anything by the seine, for small hauls will hardly pay the wear and tear of the seine and the hire of the hands.
However, then as now, fishing was a gamble:
Unless the weather grows warmer your fishing this season will, I fear, prove unproductive; for it has always been observed that in cold and windy weather the fish keep in deep water and are never caught in numbers, especially at shallow landings.
And in 1794, he states, with the rather weary voice of experience,
I am of opinion that selling the fish all to one man is best ... if Mr. Smith will give five shillings per thousand for herrings and twelve shillings a hundred for shad, and will oblige himself to take all you have to spare, you had better strike and enter into a written agreement with him.... I never choose to sell to wagoners; their horses have always been found troublesome, and themselves indeed not less so, being much addicted to the pulling down and burning the fences. If you do not sell to Smith the next best thing is to sell to the watermen.... I again repeat that when the schools of fish run you must draw night and day; and whether Smith is prepared to take them or not, they must be caught and charged to him; for it is then and then only I have a return for my expenses; and then it is the want of several purchasers is felt; for unless one person is extremely well prepared he cannot dispose of the fish as fast as they can be drawn at those times and if the seine or seines do no more than keep pace with his convenience my harvest is lost and of course my profit; for the herrings will not wait to be caught as they are wanted to be cured.
Thus did Washington become one of the first to encounter the besetting plague of American mass production: the problem of distribution.
That fishing was a vital prop in plantation economy is evidenced by a letter of April 24, 1796, to his manager:
As your prospect for gain is discouraging, it may, in a degree, be made up in a good fishing season for herrings; that for shad must, I presume, be almost, if not quite, over.
Salt herrings were a staple in the feeding of the "black people," and were issued to those at Mount Vernon at the rate of twenty a month per head. But he warned about waiting for the annually expected herring "glut" to occur before the slaves were provided for. If it should fail to materialize—as had been known—what then? Save a "sufficiency of fish" from the first runs, he wisely ordered.
In 1781 he suggested that salt fish be contracted for the troops, and possibly it was tried for a while, but the year following, army leaders voted to exclude fish from the rations.
Accounting records for 1774, presumably an average fishing year, show receipts of L170 for the catch at the Posey's ferry fishery, with L26 debited to operating cost. At the Johnson's ferry fishery L114 was taken in and L28 paid out. The catch here represented consisted of 9,862 shad and 1,591,500 river herring, but other large hauls were also made on the estate. Profits would seem to be adequate, although costs of nets and boats were not figured in. Fishing boats were usually small maneuverable craft that never had to put out very far from shore, and cost about L5 to build.
Occasionally Washington was approached by speculators offering to rent the season's privileges at one of his fisheries for a flat sum. About one such proposal in 1796 he expressed the opinion to his manager that "under all chances fishing yourself will be more profitable than hiring out the landing for L60." Nevertheless, the headaches had for years made the transference of fishing to someone for cash on the barrelhead a temptation. In February, 1770, he had entered into an agreement as to sales while retaining the responsibility of catching:
Mr. Robert Adams is obliged to take all I catch at Posey's landing provided the quantity does not exceed 500 barrels and will take more than this quantity if he can get casks to put them in. He is to take them as fast as they are catched, without giving any interruption to my people, and is to have the use of the fish house for his salt, fish, etc., taking care to have the house clear at least before the next fishing season; is to pay L10 for the use of the house and 3 shillings 4 pence, Maryland currency, per hundred for white fish.
But in 1787 he wrote: "A good rent would induce me to let the fishery that I have no trouble or perplexity about it." The Diary shows a good deal more interest during the early years in how the fish ran than it does later. In April, 1760, he writes:
Apprehending the herring were come, hauled the seine but catched only a few of them, though a good many of other sorts.... Hauled the seine again, catched two or three white fish, more herring than yesterday and a great number of cats.
August, 1768: Hauling the seine upon the bar of Cedar Point for sheepshead but catched none.
April, 1769: The white fish ran plentifully at my seine landing, having catched about 300 at one haul....
The term "white fish" is not now generally applied to any species caught in the Potomac, but a good guess is that, with Washington, it was an alternate for shad.
The Revolution was fought, but even before the surrender the minds of America's statesmen were actively considering peace terms. Both Richard Henry Lee and Thomas Jefferson suggested that the valuable fisheries off Newfoundland be freely open to American ships. This time it was not a question of the Northern Colony keeping the Southern Colony out as it had been 150 years before. Thomas Jefferson, writing in 1778, wanted the United Colonies to exclude England:
If they [Britain] really are coming to their senses at last, and it should be proposed to treat of peace, will not Newfoundland fisheries be worthy particular attention to exclude them and all others from them except our tres grand and chers amis and allies? Their great value to whatever nation possesses them is as a nursery for seamen. In the present very prosperous situation of our affairs, I have thought it would be wise to endeavor to gain a regular and acknowledged access in every court in Europe but most the Southern. The countries bordering on the Mediterranean I think will merit our earliest attention. They will be the important markets for our great commodities of fish, wheat, tobacco, and rice.
Lee saw how fishing in Northern waters had started America on its way to being a maritime power. In a series of letters to George Mason and others he expresses his opinions forcibly:
Our news here is most excellent; both from Williamsburg and from Richmond it comes that our countrymen have given the enemy in the South a complete overthrow.... Heaven grant it may be so. I shall then with infinite pleasure congratulate my friend on the recovery of his property, and our common country on so great a step towards really putting a period to the war. I think that in this case we may insist on our full share of the fishery, and the free navigation of the Mississippi. These are things of very great and lasting importance to America, the yielding of which will not procure the Congress thanks either from the present age or posterity.
I rejoice greatly at the news from South Carolina. God grant it may be true. If this should force the enemy to reason and to peace, would you give up the navigation of the Mississippi and our domestic fishery on the Banks of Newfoundland? The former almost infinitely depreciating our back country and the latter totally destroying us as a maritime power. That is taking the name of independence without the means of supporting it.
I rejoice exceedingly at our successes both in the North and in the South. If we continue to do thus, it will not be in the power of the execrable junto to prevent us from having a safe and honorable peace next winter. In this idea I shall ever include the fisheries and the navigation of the Mississippi. These, Sir, are the strong legs on which North America can alone walk securely in independence.
If you do not get a wise and very firm friend to negotiate the fishery, it is my clear opinion that it will be lost, and upon this principle that it is the interest of every European power to weaken us and strengthen themselves.
I heartily wish you success in your negotiations and that when you secure one valuable point for us (the fishery) that you will not less exert yourself for another very important object,—the free navigation of the Mississippi, provided guilty Britain should remain in possession of the Floridas.
Fishing as a matter of states' rights resulted in the pioneering Potomac River Compact of 1785, when representatives of Maryland and Virginia met under George Washington's sponsorship at Mt. Vernon to deal with fishing and tolls. Maryland owned the river to the Virginia shore line, and agreed to allow Virginians to fish in it in return for free entry of Maryland ships through the Virginia capes. The compact, in force to this day, was the first step taken in behalf of interstate commerce. With its example to follow, other states eased the barriers to their commercial interests, with immeasurable benefit to the Union.
Commercial fishing in Virginia was, as the century closed, on the verge of the stability it had sorely lacked. Its reliance on Indians for knowledge and skill, as in the first of the 17th century, was as dead as its reliance on England for manufactures in the last of the 18th. Just around the corner were railroads and steamboats with their comparatively swift transportation. Teeming cities needed to be fed, and after nearly two centuries of education in the ways of the Chesapeake Bay and its marine life, Virginia fishermen knew how to keep the markets stocked. In 1794 a French visitor, Moreau de Saint Mery, wrote:
Fish is the commodity that sells for a ridiculously low price in Norfolk. One can purchase weakfish weighing more than twenty pounds for 4 or 5 francs and sometimes one that weighs three times more for a gourde, 5 francs, 10 sous. Drum is also very cheap. Sturgeon, weighing up to 60 pounds, can be bought for 6 French sous a pound, about the same price paid for little codfish that are brought in alive and are delicious to eat. Shad is also plentiful there. In addition, one can get perch, porpoise, eels, leatherjackets, summer flounder, turbot, mullet, trout, blackfish, herring, sole, garfish, etc. In short, fish is so abundant in Norfolk that sometimes the police find it necessary to throw back into the water those that are not bought.
Herring fishing began to be abandoned by the planters, many of whom were up to their necks in a variety of enterprises, in favor of business men intending to specialize. Letters from a Virginia speculator, John F. Mercer, to Richard Sprigg, sketch the situation:
April 19, 1779. To cure fish properly requires two days in the brine before packing and they can only lie packed with safety in dry weather. These circumstances joined with the heading and drawing almost all the fish (a very tedious operation) will show that no time was lost—only 9 days elapsed from his arrival here to his completing his load of 15,000 herrings, a time beyond which many wagons have waited on these shores for 4,000 uncured fish and many have been obliged to return without one, after coming 40 and 50 miles and offering 2 and 5 dollars a thousand. Several indeed from my own shore and six who want 36,000 herring will, I believe, quit this night without a fish, after waiting all this storm on the shore five days.
Mr. Clarke has had his fish completed two days.... He has been delayed by the almost continual storm that has prevailed since his arrival and which has ruined us fishermen.
My fishery has been miserably conducted from the beginning as might be expected from my entire ignorance and the penury of my partner who was poorer than myself.... Still I have expectations that it may turn out an immense thing from the trial we have made. The shores being opposite to Maryland Point, the reach above and below with the mouths of the two creeks on this side form a sweep, both tides upon them, that must collect for fish; and they are kept in by a kind of pound on the Virginia shore's trend. There apparent advantages accord with the experiment for, with a desperate patched-up seine that always breaks with a good haul, we have contrived to land 20,000 a day, every day we can haul. We are nearer to the Fredericksburg and Falmouth Virginia markets than any shore that is or can be opened on the river by 10 miles notwithstanding every discouragement and particularly the activity and lies practiced against us by the Little Creek fisheries on each side, who must fail with our success.
April 10, 1795. Herrings they tell me are 10 shillings per thousand at all the shores. If I had your lease I could make a fortune. I have a great mind to send Pollard and George up for your small boat and seine.... If Peyton comes down with his seine to haul at my shore, I will seine salted herrings enough for us both.
That acidulous but always colorful roving reporter from the mid-west, Anne Royall, offers the best picture, for accuracy and detail, of hauling a seine ever presented by anyone not a technician. Though written almost 50 years after the Revolution, it describes the kind of fishing on which Virginians had principally depended since Christopher Newport began the Colonial era and George Washington ended it:
The market of Alexandria is abundant and cheap; though much inferior to any in any part of the western country, except beef and fish, which are by far superior to that of the western markets.... Their exquisite fish, oysters, crabs, and foreign fruits upon the whole bring them upon a value with us.
Their fish differ from ours, even some species. Their catfish is the only sort in which we excel; they have none that answer to our blue cat, either in size or flavor, and nothing like our mud-cat. Their catfish is from ten to fifteen inches in length, with a wide mouth, like the mud-cat of the Western waters; but their cat differ from both ours in substance and color; they are soft, pied black and white. They are principally used to make soup, which is much esteemed by the inhabitants. All their fish are small compared with ours. Besides the catfish which they take in the latter part of the winter, they have the rock, winter shad, mackerel, and perch, shad and herring. The winter shad is very fine indeed. They are like our perch, but infinitely smaller. These fish are sold very low; a large string, enough for a dozen persons, may be purchased for a few cents. No fish, however, that I have tasted, equal our trout.
The Potomac at Alexandria, is rather over a mile in width; it is celebrated for its beauty. It is certainly a great blessing to this country in supplying its inhabitants with food in the article of fish.
Fish is abundant (at Washington), and cheap at all seasons, shad is three dollars per hundred; herrings, one dollar per thousand.
Great quantities of herring and shad are taken in these waters during the fishing season, which commences in March, and lasts about ten weeks. As many as 160,000 are said to be caught at one haul. When the season commences no time is to be lost, not even Sunday. Although I am not one of those that make no scruple of breaking the Sabbath, yet, Sunday, as it was, I was anxious to see a process which I had never witnessed—I mean that of taking fish with a seine—there being no such thing in the Western country. It is very natural for one to form an opinion of some sort respecting things they have never seen, but the idea I had formed of the method of fishing with a seine was far from a correct one. In the first place, about fifteen or twenty men, and very often an hundred, repair to the place where the fish are to be taken, with a seine and a skiff. This skiff, however, must be large enough to contain the net and three men—two to row, and one to let out the net. These nets, or seines, are of different sizes, say from two to three hundred fathom in length, and from three to four fathom wide. On one edge are fastened pieces of cork-wood as large as a man's fist, about two feet asunder, and on the opposite edge are fastened pieces of lead, about the same distance—the lead is intended to keep the lower end of the seine close to the bottom of the river. The width of the seine is adapted to the depth of the river, so that the corks just appear on its surface, otherwise the lead would draw the top of the seine under water, and the fish would escape over the top. All this being understood and the seine and rowers in the boat, they give one end of the seine to a party of men on the shore, who are to hold it fast. Those in the boat then row off from the shore, letting out the seine as they go; they advance in a straight line towards the opposite shore, until they gain the middle of the river, when they proceed down the stream, until the net is all out of the boat except just sufficient to reach the shore from whence they set out, to which they immediately proceed. Here an equal number of men take hold of the net with those at the other end, and both parties commence drawing it towards the shore. As they draw, they advance towards each other, until they finally meet, and now comes the most pleasing part of the business. It is amusing enough to see what a spattering the fish make when they find themselves completely foiled: they raise the water in a perfect shower, and wet every one that stands within their reach. I ought to have mentioned, that when the fish begin to draw near the shore, one or two men step into the water, on each side of the net, and hold it close to the bottom of the channel, otherwise the fish would escape underneath. All this being accomplished, the fishermen proceed to take out the fish in greater or less numbers, as they are more or less fortunate. These fishermen make a wretched appearance, they certainly bring up the rear of the human race. They were scarcely covered with clothes, were mostly drunk, and had the looks of the veriest sots on earth.
A Virginian born in 1792, Col. T. J. Randolph of Edgehill near Charlottesville, was asked to search his earliest memories in order to record 18th century fishing conditions. He wrote a letter in 1875 to the newly-constituted Virginia fish commissioners describing an era well-nigh incredible to today's Tidewater fishermen:
Shad were abundant in the Rivanna at my earliest recollection, say prior to 1800. They penetrated into the mountains to breed. I have heard the old people, when I was young, speak of their descending the rivers in continuous streams in the fall, as large as a man's hand. The old ones so weak, that if they were forced by the current against a rock they got off with difficulty. Six miles north of Charlottesville three hundred were caught in one night with a bush seine. A negro told me he had caught seventeen in a trap at one time. I recollect the negroes bringing them to my mother continually. An entry of land near Charlottesville about 1735 crossed the Rivanna for two or three acres as a fishing shore. The dams absolutely stopped them, but they had greatly declined before their erection. In 1810 every sluice in the falls at Richmond was plied day and night by float seines. I never heard of rockfish above the falls, and supposed they were confined to Tidewater.... Rockfish were hunted on the Eastern Shore on horseback with spears. The large fish coming to feed on the creek shores, overflowed by the tide, showed themselves in the shallow water by a ripple before them. They were ridden on behind and forced into water too shallow for them to swim well, and were speared. I inferred from this fact that they confined themselves to the Tidewater. When young, I have heard the old people speak of an abundance of other fish. The supposition was that the clearing of the country, and consequent muddying of the streams, had destroyed them.
By sluicing the dams, and prohibiting fishing in sluices, or trapping, or anything that should bar their progress, I do not see why the shad should not return.
The shad have never returned to the up-country. But they still visit the vast inland waters below the Fall line, sometimes so abundantly that the price declines, as it did so recently as 1956, to where the fishermen can scarcely make a profit. Other fish referred to by the first Virginians continue to return, and will do so as long as our outreaching civilization does not deprive them of the natural conditions they need for survival.
The years closely following the Revolution brought profound readjustment in American commerce. Observations on whaling, a minor but vital home industry, filled many pages of a 1788 communication of Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, one of his confreres in the shaping of national policy. After sketching the uses of whale oil, its economic position and its history, he took up the particular problem facing the people of Nantucket, perhaps the foremost whalers in America. As long as they had been subjects of the British Empire they had been able to sell their oil duty-free in England. Now as aliens they must pay the same tariff charged other foreign traders. This meant the difference between a profitable and unprofitable enterprise. A few Nantucket seamen had even transferred to Nova Scotia in order to become British citizens again and thus receive exemption from whale-oil import duty. This trend alarmed the French in particular, who could visualize thousands of the United States' best sailors going over to their enemies the English. The remedy was suggested: make France the most attractive market for U.S. whale oil. At the same time, English whaling had been government subsidized and could undercut competition.
The international chess game went briskly on, to the concern of Jefferson and the well-wishers of the infant Union. Before the Revolution England had fewer than 100 vessels whaling, while America had more than 300. But by 1788 England had 314 and America 80. Such was the result of the conflict, aided by the bounty paid by Britain to its own whalers. Jefferson hoped that the United States producers could develop a market in France, in part, by bartering oil for the essential work clothes which hitherto had been bought for cash in England. But he warned that without some kind of subsidy American whalers could neither compete with foreign countries nor make a living commensurate with other pursuits. The growing nation's sea-faring men would decrease to the point where the country's sea power would be in question.
As Secretary of State in 1791, Jefferson reported to Congress on the two principal American fisheries of the day, both oceanic. "The cod and whale fisheries," he began, "carried on by different persons, from different ports, in different vessels, in different seas, and seeking different markets, agree in one circumstance, as being as unprofitable to the adventurer as important to the public." Once prosperous, he said, they were now in embarrassing decline.
He traced the history of the cod fisheries back to 1517, in which year as many as 50 European ships were reported fishing off the Newfoundland banks at one time. In 1577 there were 150 French vessels, 100 Spanish and 50 Portuguese. The British limped far behind with 15. The French gradually took over as they claimed more and more territory in the region. Other nations dropped out, except England, whose cod fleet at the beginning of the seventeenth century had increased to about 150 vessels. These in due course were largely supplanted by the New England colonists. When France lost Newfoundland to England in 1713 the English and Colonial fisheries spurted ahead. By 1755 their fleets and catches equaled those of the French, and in 1768 passed them. Jefferson's statistics present an impressive picture of the fishing activity of that time and place, especially when compared with the unorganized Chesapeake fisheries just then coming of age.
In 1791 he said there were 259 French vessels totaling 24,422 tons and employing 9,722 seamen. Their catch: 20 million pounds that year. There were 665 American vessels with 25,650 tonnage, 4,405 seamen and a catch of around 40 million pounds. England's ships, tonnage and men were not given. However, her estimated catch nearly equaled that of France and America combined. Thus the Northern fishing grounds in their palmy days accounted for well over 100 million pounds of cod a year.
It is worth remarking that the size of today's New England cod fishery is not radically different from the pre-Revolutionary one described by Jefferson. Boats, men and catch remain about the same on the average.
Turning to the whaling industry, Jefferson noted that Americans did not enter it until 1715, although he credited the Biscayans and Basques of Southern Europe with prosecuting it in the 15th century and leading the way to the fishing grounds off Newfoundland. Whales were sought in both the North and South Atlantic. The figures for the American Colonies in 1771 as given by Jefferson were 304 vessels engaged, totaling 27,800 tons, navigated by 4,059 men.
They were in for a difficult time in 1791. The Revolution halted their activities and deprived them of their markets. Re-establishing this fishery was a prime concern of Jefferson.
It is significant that in his painstaking consideration of the nation's fisheries he, a Virginian, apparently found no cause to deal with those of his own Chesapeake bay. They were one day nevertheless to outstrip many times over both the volume and value of American cod and whale fisheries together.
The evidence is that Jefferson was more interested in fish at Monticello than anywhere else. But there the interest was personal, not national. In his so-called Farm Book, or plantation record, he often mentions fish. A note on slave labor reads: "A barrel of fish costing $7. goes as far with the laborers as 200 ponds of pork costing $14." This was in all probability Virginia salt-herring, which had finally reached the status of a staple during the latter half of the 18th century. An 1806 memorandum to his overseer runs: "Fish is always to be got in Richmond ... and to be dealt out to the hirelings, laborers, workmen, and house servants of all sorts as has been usual." In 1812 a bill for fish, which he terms "indeed very high and discouraging, but the necessity of it is still stronger," lists the species no doubt in chief demand: "Twelve barrels herrings, $75. and one barrel of shads, $6.50." These were salted and shipped in from Tidewater fisheries like George Washington's at Mt. Vernon.
For fresh fish Jefferson and his neighbors could look to their adjacent rivers. In fact, so greatly did they rely on them that it was with feelings akin to consternation that he wrote his friend William D. Meriwether in 1809 that a neighbor, Mr. Ashlin, proposed to erect a dam which was sure to inconvenience the watermen of the vicinity. Furthermore, "to this then add the removal of our resort for fresh fish ... and the deprivation of all the intermediate inhabitants who now catch them at their door." He was not on too firm ground in objecting, however. He had a dam of his own across the Rivanna river which had been there since 1757.
He decided to build a fish pond in his garden. As he described it in 1808 it was little larger than an aquarium, 40 cubic yards contents, probably for water lilies and goldfish. It was the first of several fish ponds, constructed, no doubt, with both beauty and utility in mind. A note in his Weather Memorandum Book under date April 1812 tells us: "The two fish ponds on the Colle branch were 40 days work to grub, clean and make the dams."
A series of letters in 1812 to friends who he thought might supply him with live fish, particularly carp, for stocking, all run very much on the order of this one to Captain Mathew Wills:
I return you many thanks for the fish you have been so kind as to send me, and still more for your aid in procuring the carp, and you will further oblige me by presenting my thanks to Capt. Holman & Mr. Ashlin. I have found too late, on enquiry that the cask sent was an old and foul one, and I have no doubt that must have been the cause of the death of the fish. The carp, altho it cannot live the shortest time out of water, yet is understood to bear transportation in water the best of any fish whatever. The obtaining breeders for my pond being too interesting to be abandoned, I have had a proper smack made, such as is regularly used for transporting fish, to be towed after the boat, and have dispatched the bearer with it without delay, as the season is passing away. I have therefor again to solicit your patronage, as well as Captain Holman's in obtaining a supply of carp. I think a dozen would be enough and would therefore wish him to come away as soon as he can get that number.
From that time on his ponds came in for periodic mention, as when one was broken up by flood waters in 1814. But despite setbacks he kept faith in them as good food-producing adjuncts of a farm, thus anticipating the U.S. Department of Agriculture's modern food-fish pond-development program by more than a century.
As is likely to be the case with experimenters, Jefferson's efforts at fish propagation do not appear to have been overwhelmingly successful. At any rate, there is much more frequent reference in his records to putting fish in his ponds than taking them out. So far as he was concerned, it may be said that results were less important than example. Like all great leaders he was an originator and investigator, confining himself to the basic things that insure man's sustenance and contribute to his happiness, not the least of which is fishing.
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