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Title: The Bounty of the Chesapeake - Fishing in Colonial Virginia
Author: Wharton, James
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Bounty of the Chesapeake - Fishing in Colonial Virginia" ***

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      Research indicates that the copyright on this book
      was not renewed.


Fishing in Colonial Virginia



      *      *      *      *      *


_Editor_--E. G. SWEM, Librarian Emeritus, College of William and Mary

Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia, _Chairman_. FRANCIS L.
BERKELEY, JR., Archivist, Alderman Library, University of Virginia,
Charlottesville, Virginia. LYMAN H. BUTTERFIELD, Editor-in-Chief of the
Adams Papers, Boston, Mass. EDWARD M. RILEY, Director of Research,
Colonial Williamsburg, Inc., Williamsburg, Virginia. E. G. SWEM,
Librarian Emeritus, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg,
Virginia. WILLIAM J. VAN SCHREEVEN, Chief, Division of Archives,
Virginia State Library, Richmond, Virginia.

 1. _A Selected Bibliography of Virginia, 1607-1699._ By E. G. Swem,
John M. Jennings and James A. Servies.

 2. _A Virginia Chronology, 1585-1783._ By William W. Abbot.

 3. _John Smith's Map of Virginia, with a Brief Account of its History._
By Ben C. McCary.

 4. _The Three Charters of the Virginia Company of London, with Seven
Related Documents; 1606-1621._ Introduction by Samuel M. Bemiss.

 5. _The Virginia Company of London, 1606-1624._ By Wesley Frank Craven.

 6. _The First Seventeen Years, Virginia, 1607-1624._ By Charles E.
Hatch, Jr.

 7. _Virginia under Charles I and Cromwell, 1625-1660._ By Wilcomb E.

 8. _Bacon's Rebellion, 1676._ By Thomas J. Wertenbaker.

 9. _Struggle Against Tyranny and the Beginning of a New Era, Virginia,
1677-1699._ By Richard L. Morton.

10. _Religious Life of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century._ By George
MacLaren Brydon.

11. _Virginia Architecture in the Seventeenth Century._ By Henry
Chandlee Forman.

12. _Mother Earth--Land Grants in Virginia, 1607-1699._ By W. Stitt
Robinson, Jr.

13. _The Bounty of the Chesapeake; Fishing in Colonial Virginia._ By
James Wharton.

14. _Agriculture in Virginia, 1607-1699._ By Lyman Carrier.

15. _Reading, Writing and Arithmetic in Virginia, 1607-1699._ By Susie
M. Ames.

16. _The Government of Virginia in the Seventeenth Century._ By Thomas
J. Wertenbaker.

17. _Domestic Life in Virginia in the Seventeenth Century._ By Annie
Lash Jester.

18. _Indians in Seventeenth-Century Virginia._ By Ben C. McCary.

19. _How Justice Grew. Virginia Counties._ By Martha W. Hiden.

20. _Tobacco in Colonial Virginia; "The Sovereign Remedy."_ By Melvin

21. _Medicine in Virginia, 1607-1699._ By Thomas P. Hughes.

22. _Some Notes on Shipping and Ship-building in Colonial Virginia._ By
Cerinda W. Evans.

23. _A Pictorial Booklet on Early Jamestown Commodities and
Industries._ By J. Paul Hudson.

Price 50¢ Each

Printed in the United States of America

      *      *      *      *      *


Fishing in Colonial Virginia



The University Press of Virginia

Copyright© 1957 by
Virginia 350th Anniversary Celebration
Corporation, Williamsburg, Virginia

Second printing 1973

Jamestown 350th Anniversary
Historical Booklet Number 13


Just as a series of personal letters may constitute an autobiography,
so the extracts from Colonial writings that follow tell the unique
story of the fisheries of Virginia's great Tidewater. In them it is
possible to trace the measured growth of a vital industry. The
interspersed comments of the compiler are to be understood as mere
annotations. This is the testimony, then, of those who from the
beginning participated in one of the foremost natural resources of this

I gratefully acknowledge guidance in research to Mr. John C. Pearson of
the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who masterfully surveyed the field
and first brought the early fishery reports to public notice.

Weems, Virginia


The Bounty of The Chesapeake

The voyage to America in 1607 was like a journey to a star. Veteran
rovers though the English were, none of them had any clear idea of what
to expect in the new land of Virginia. Only one thing was certain: they
would have nothing there but what they took with them or wrought from
the raw materials of the country.

What raw materials?

They had reliable information that the climate was mild. Therefore,
crops could be raised. They learned of inexhaustible timber: so ships
and dwellings and industrial works could be built. They hoped for gold
and dreamed of access to uncharted lands of adventure. But putting
first things first, how would they eat in the meantime?

When Sir Walter Raleigh established the first English colony in
"Virginia"--on what is now Roanoke island, North Carolina--two good
reporters, one a writer, the other an illustrator, were commissioned to
describe what they saw. This was twenty-two years before Jamestown and
naturally all the material consisted of Indian life and customs. Thomas
Hariot wrote:

    For four months of the year, February, March, April and May, there
    are plenty of sturgeon; and also in the same months of herrings,
    some of the ordinary bigness as ours in England, but the most part
    far greater, of eighteen, twenty inches, and some two feet in
    length and better; both these kinds of fish in these months are
    most plentiful and in best season which we found to be most
    delicate and pleasant meat.

    There are also trouts, porpoises, rays, oldwives, mullets, plaice,
    and very many other sorts of excellent good fish, which we have
    taken and eaten, whose names I know not but in the country language
    we have of twelve sorts more the pictures as they were drawn in the
    country with their names.

    The inhabitants use to take them two manner of ways, the one is by
    a kind of weir made of reeds which in that country are very strong.
    The other way which is more strange, is with poles made sharp at
    one end, by shooting them into the fish after the manner as
    Irishmen cast darts; either as they are rowing in their boats or
    else as they are wading in the shallows for the purpose.

    There are also in many places plenty of these kinds which follow:

    Sea crabs, such as we have in England.

    Oysters, some very great, and some small; some round and some of a
    long shape. They are found both in salt water and brackish, and
    those that we had out of salt water are far better than the other
    as in our own country.

    Also mussels, scallops, periwinkles and crevises.

    _Seekanauk_, a kind of crusty shellfish which is good meat about a
    foot in breadth, having a crusty tail, many legs like a crab, and
    her eyes in her back. They are found in shallows of salty waters;
    and sometimes on the shore.

    There are many tortoises both of land and sea kind, their backs and
    bellies are shelled very thick; their head, feet and tail, which
    are in appearance, seem ugly as though they were members of a
    serpent or venomous; but notwithstanding they are very good meat,
    as also their eggs. Some have been found of a yard in breadth and

In a charming drawing of a group of Indian maidens John White, the
artist associate, commented: "They delight ... in seeing fish taken in
the rivers."

Over and over the first visitors to the Chesapeake bay painted rosy
pictures of its marine life, stressing the abundance, variety and
tastiness of the fish and shellfish. Exploration and communication were
chiefly by water: it was natural that emphasis be laid on water
resources. Though it is proverbial that fish stories partake of
fiction, in the case of John Smith and his successors, it is doubtful
whether they were greatly exaggerated. This was a world where nature,
especially in the waters, was immeasurably prolific.

On the other hand, the conclusions drawn by many of those reading the
reports were probably unjustified. The infinite plenty was one thing.
Making constant and profitable use of it was another.

Thus, although Smith cited an impressive roster of edible fish in the
vicinity of Jamestown, it was not to follow that the settlers were
always able to turn them to advantage. There were several good reasons.

Long before Jamestown the fisheries off the coast of Northern America
and Canada were known to be richly productive, with promise of an
organized and dependable industry. But farther south conditions were
found to be quite different. The fishing in the Chesapeake bay had
frustrating ways. Sometimes there were hordes of fish. Again they
stayed away in large numbers. They were usually present during warm
weather when spoilage was worst. The first colonists had no ice at all
and very little salt. Frequent spells of damp weather made sun-drying
impractical. If more fish were caught than could be eaten at once, the
excess was very likely wasted. Fishing gear was consistently
inadequate. But from the very first, fishing and its development had
been kept in mind by the promoters of the colony.

Fishing rights were defined in 1606 in letters patent to Sir Thomas
Gates, Sir George Somers and others, as recorded in the Charter granted
in 1606:

    They shall have all ... fishings ... from the said first seat of
    their plantation and habitation by the space of fifty miles of
    English statute measure, all along the said coast of Virginia and
    America, towards the west and southwest, as the coast lies ... and
    also all ... fishings for the space of fifty English miles ... all
    along the said coast of Virginia and America, towards the east and
    northeast ... and also ... fishings ... from the same, fifty miles
    every way on the sea coast, directly into the mainland by the space
    of one hundred like English miles.

In the new fishing territory around Jamestown the Indians were the
professionals and their methods were of great interest to the English
novices. A description is furnished by William Strachey, secretary of
state of the colony and author of _The Historie of Travaile into
Virginia Britannia_:

    Their fishing is much in boats. These they call quintans, as the
    West Indians call their canoas. They make them with one tree, by
    burning and scraping away the coals with stones and shells till
    they have made them in the form of a trough. Some of them are an
    ell deep and forty or fifty foot in length and some will transport
    forty men, but the most ordinary are smaller and will ferry ten or
    twenty, with some luggage, over their broadest rivers. Instead of
    oars, they use paddles and sticks, with which they will row faster
    than we in our barges. They have nets for fishing, for the quantity
    as formerly braided and meshed as ours and these are made of bark
    of certain trees, deer sinews, or a kind of grass, which they call
    pemmenaw, of which their women between their hands and thighs, spin
    a thread very even and readily, and this thread serves for many
    uses, as about their housing, their mantles of feathers and their
    [?] and they also with it make lines for angles.

    Their angles are long small rods at the end whereof they have a
    cleft to which the line is fastened, and at the line they hang a
    hook, made either of a bone grated (as they nock their arrows) in
    the form of a crooked pin or fishhook, or of the splinter of a
    bone, and with a thread of the line they tie on the bait. They use
    also long arrows tied on a line, wherewith they shoot at fish in
    the rivers. Those of Accowmack use staves, like unto javelins,
    headed with bone; with these they dart fish, swimming in the

    By their houses they have sometimes a scaena or high stage, raised
    like a scaffold, or small spelts, reeds, or dried osiers covered
    with mats which gives a shadow and is a shelter ... where on a loft
    of hurdles they lay forth their corn and fish to dry....

    They are inconstant in everything but what fear constrain them to
    keep; crafty, timorous, quick of apprehension, ingenious enough in
    their own works, as may testify their weirs in which they take
    their fish, which are certain enclosures made of reeds and framed
    in the fashion of a labyrinth or maze set a fathom deep in the
    water with divers chambers or beds out of which the entangled fish
    cannot return or get out, being once in. Well may a great one by
    chance break the reeds and so escape, otherwise he remains a prey
    to the fishermen the next low water which they fish with a net at
    the end of a pole....

The earliest observers reveal how intimately food from the waters was
linked with the colonists' experiences. George Percy wrote in 1607:

    We came to a place [Cape Henry] where they [natives] had made a
    great fire and had been newly roasting oysters. When they perceived
    our coming, they fled away to the mountains and left many of the
    oysters in the fire. We ate some of the oysters which were very
    large and delicate in taste.

This was April 27 of that year. Oyster roasts have been a Virginia
institution ever since. He continued:

    Upon this plot of ground [Lynnhaven Bay] we got good store of
    mussels and oysters, which lay on the ground as thick as stones. We
    opened some and found in many of them pearls.

The pearls would probably not have been worth mentioning, except as a
novelty, if they had come from oysters alone. The Virginia oyster pearl
lacks luster. But the mussel, particularly the one found in the James
river, yields an iridescent pearl of some little value.

A month later more oysters, in a form unknown in Virginia today, were
obtained from Indians by Captain Christopher Newport in return for
ornaments, according to Gabriel Archer in 1607:

    He notwithstanding with two women and another fellow of his own
    consort followed us some six miles with baskets full of dried
    oysters and met us at a point, where calling to us, we went ashore
    and bartered with them for most of their victuals.

A letter from the Council in Virginia to the Council in England in 1607

    We are set down eighty miles within a river, for breadth, sweetness
    of water, length navigable up into the country, deep and bold
    channel, so stored with sturgeon and other sweet fish as no man's
    fortune has ever possessed the like. And, as we think, if more may
    be wished in a river it will be found.

After various vicissitudes John Smith confessed:

    Though there be fish in the sea, fowls in the air, and beasts in
    the woods, their bounds are so large, they so wild, and we so weak
    and ignorant, we cannot much trouble them.

George Percy introduced a happier note:

    It pleased God, after a while, to send those people which were our
    mortal enemies [Indians] to relieve us with victuals, as bread,
    corn, fish, and flesh in great plenty, which was the setting up of
    our feeble men, otherwise we had all perished.

John Smith tells about another crisis:

    Our victuals being within eighteen days spent and the Indians'
    trade decreasing, I was sent to the mouth of the river, to
    Kecoughtan [Hampton], an Indian town, to trade for corn and try the
    river for fish, but our fishing we could not effect by reason of
    the stormy weather.... Only of sturgeon we had great store, whereon
    our men would so greedily surfeit, as it cost many their lives.

And still another:

    From May to September, those that escaped lived upon sturgeon and
    sea crabs.

And this:

    So it happened that neither we nor they had anything to eat but
    what the country afforded naturally. Yet of eighty who lived upon
    oysters in June or July, with a pint of corn a week for a man lying
    under trees, and one hundred twenty for the most part living upon
    sturgeon, which are dried till we pounded it to powder for meal,
    yet in ten weeks but seven died.

For once he paints a brighter picture:

    The next night, being lodged at Kecoughtan, six or seven days the
    extreme wind, rain, frost, and snow caused us to keep Christmas
    among the savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more
    plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild fowl, and good bread.

He describes further ups and downs:

    Now we so quietly followed our business that in three months, we
    ... provided nets and weirs for fishing.

    Sixty or eighty with Ensign Laxon were sent down the river to live
    upon oysters, and twenty with Lieutenant Percy to try fishing at
    Point Comfort. But in six weeks, they would not agree once to cast
    out their net.

    We had more sturgeon than could be devoured by dog or man, of which
    the industrious by drying and pounding, mingled with caviar,
    sorrel, and other wholesome herbs, would make bread and good meat.

Despite the privations much food is available, Smith avers:

    In summer no place affords more plenty of sturgeon, nor in winter
    more abundance of fowl, especially in time of frost. There was once
    taken fifty-two sturgeon at a draught, at another draught
    sixty-eight. From the latter end of May till the end of June are
    taken few but young sturgeon of two foot or a yard long. From
    thence till the midst of September them of two or three yards long
    and a few others. And in four or five hours with one net were
    ordinarily taken seven or eight; often more, seldom less. In the
    small rivers all the year there is a good plenty of small fish, so
    that with hooks those that would take pains had sufficient....

    Of fish we were best acquainted with sturgeon, grampus, porpoise,
    seals, stingrays whose tails are very dangerous, brits, mullets,
    white salmon, trouts, soles, plaice, herring, conyfish, rockfish,
    eels, lampreys, catfish, shad, perch of three sorts, crabs,
    shrimps, crevises, oysters, cockles, and mussels. But the most
    strange fish is a small one so like the picture of St. George's
    dragon as possibly can be, except his legs and wings; and the
    toadfish which will swell till it be like to burst when it comes
    into the air.

When Smith spoke of sturgeon he was most probably referring to the
James river, the best waters for sturgeon in Virginia to this day. The
"small rivers" were the fresh-water tributaries of the large salty
ones. The small fish to be found there which would take the hook in
winter were probably the non-migratory species like perch, catfish and
suckers. If some of the names Smith gives seem puzzling today, it
should be remembered that often the same fish name has applied
throughout history to different fish at different times or in different
areas. Contrariwise, different names, in regional usage, may apply to
the same fish. Thus it is virtually impossible to say whether all the
fish named by Colonial reporters are to be found in Virginia waters
today. For example, though no "white salmon" are known in Virginia, it
is possible that Smith referred to a fish that merely resembled a
salmon without belonging to that family. On the other hand, it is
conceivable that Virginia boats caught "white salmon" in the Atlantic
Ocean. "Conyfish" can mean several different fishes, so that it is not
possible to be sure what Smith had in mind; so with "brit." "Crevise"
is an older name for crawfish. Seals still make rare appearances in the
bay. As for the stingrays, he spoke from experience; he was spiked by
one. Almost all of his list are still being caught off Jamestown. The
"St. George's dragon" or sea horse, is among them.

There are many more varieties of fish caught by Virginia fishermen
today than were ever mentioned in Colonial records. This is due to
superior gear and the more intensive use of it.

Captain Christopher Newport was among the earliest observers confirming
Smith. He wrote in 1607:

    The main river [James] abounds with sturgeon, very large and
    excellent good, having also at the mouth of every brook and in
    every creek both store and exceedingly good fish of divers kinds.
    In the large sounds near the sea are multitudes of fish, banks of
    oysters, and many great crabs rather better, in fact, than ours and
    able to suffice four men. And within sight of land into the sea we
    expect at time of year to have a good fishing for cod, as both at
    our entering we might perceive by palpable conjectures, seeing the
    cod follow the ship ... as also out of my own experience not far
    off to the northward the fishing I found in my first voyage to

    The commodities of the country, what they are in else, is not much
    to be regarded, the inhabitants having no concern with any nation,
    no respect of profit.... Yet this for the present, by the consent
    of all our seamen, merely fishing for sturgeon cannot be worth less
    than £1,000 a year, leaving herring and cod as possibilities....

    We have a good fishing for mussels which resemble mother-of-pearl,
    and if the pearl we have seen in the king's ears and about their
    necks come from these shells we know the banks.

The crab "able to suffice four men" could scarcely have been other than
the horseshoe. It has never been considered a delicacy.

It is usually by contraries that the truth is determined. Even in the
midst of the apparent plenty of fish, fishing crews sometimes came home
empty-handed after continued effort. Often storms interfered.

From personal experience John Smith was able to sound the warning about
Chesapeake weather:

    Our mast and sail blew overboard and such mighty waves overraked us
    in that small barge that with great danger we kept her from sinking
    by freeing out the water.

    The winds are variable, but the like thunder and lightning to
    purify the air I have seldom either seen or heard in Europe.

As if struck by the helplessness of the settlers, a compassionate chief
extended aid to them in 1608. A letter from Francis Perkins tells the

    So excessive are the frosts that one night the river froze over
    almost from bank to bank in front of our harbour, although it was
    there as wide as that of London. There died from the frost some
    fish in the river, which when taken out after the frost was over,
    were very good and so fat that they could be fried in their own fat
    without adding any butter or such thing....

    Their own great emperor or the wuarravance, which is the name of
    their kings, has sent some of his people that they may teach us how
    to sow the grain of this country and to make certain traps with
    which they are going to fish.

A letter from the Council in Virginia to the Virginia Company in London
in 1610 shows that such favors were returned:

    Whilst we were fishing divers Indians came down from the woods unto
    us and ... I gave unto them such fish as we took ... for indeed at
    this time of the year [July] they live poor, their corn being but
    newly put into the ground and their own store spent. Oysters and
    crabs and such fish as they take in their weirs is their best

Oysters occurred in vast banks and shoals within sight of the Jamestown
fort. During the 1609-10 "starving time" a minimum force was retained
at the settlement while everyone else was turned out to forage as best
he could. Most sought the oyster grounds where they ate oysters nine
weeks, a diet varied only by a pitifully negligible allowance of corn
meal. In the words of one of the foragers, "this kind of feeding caused
all our skin to peel off from head to foot as if we had been dead." The
arrival of supplies ended the ordeal. But soon hunger descended again
and the oyster beds would have been the natural recourse if it had not
been winter and the water too cold to wade in. So the oysters were no

That conscientious reporter, William Strachey, wrote in 1610:

    In this desolation and misery our Governor found the condition and
    state of the Colony. Nor was there at the fort, as they whom we
    found related unto us, any means to take fish; neither sufficient
    seine, nor other convenient net, and yet of their need, there was
    not one eye of sturgeon yet come into the river.

    The river which was wont before this time of the year to be
    plentiful of sturgeon had not now a fish to be seen in it, and
    albeit we laboured and hauled our net twenty times day and night,
    yet we took not so much as would content half the fishermen. Our
    Governor therefore, sent away his long boat to coast the river
    downward as far as Point Comfort, and from thence to Cape Henry and
    Cape Charles, and all within the bay, which after a seven nights
    trial and travail, returned without any fruits of their labours,
    scarce getting so much fish as served their own company.

    And, likewise, because at the Lord Governor and Captain General's
    first coming, there was found in our own river no store of fish
    after many trials, the Lord Governor and Captain General dispatched
    in the _Virginia_, with instructions, the seventeenth of June,
    1610, Robert Tyndall, master of the _De la Warre_, to fish unto,
    all along, and between Cape Henry and Cape Charles within the
    bay.... Nor was the Lord Governor and Captain General in the
    meanwhile idle at the fort, but every day and night he caused the
    nets to be hauled, sometimes a dozen times one after another. But
    it pleased not God so to bless our labours that we did at any time
    take one quarter so much as would give unto our people one pound at
    a meal apiece, by which we might have better husbanded our peas and
    oatmeal, notwithstanding the great store we now saw daily in our
    river. But let the blame of this lie where it is, both upon our
    nets and the unskilfulness of our men to lay them.

The matter of sturgeon was of prime importance not only for subsistence
but for export, particularly of the roe. Caviar was in great demand in
England. But with uncertainty as to when the sturgeon would appear in
the river, plus hot weather, plus feeble facilities, the growth of the
industry was impeded. When tobacco, first commercially grown by John
Rolfe, appeared on the scene in 1612 and proved to be a sure money
maker, the export of sturgeon products came to a standstill. It was
having hard going anyway. Complaints from England regarding quality
were familiar enough. According to Lord De La Warr in 1610, on the
subject, "Virginia Commodities":

    Sturgeon which was last sent came ill-conditioned, not being well
    boiled. If it were cut in small pieces and powdered, put up in
    cask, the heads pickled by themselves, and sent here, it would do
    far better.

    Roes of the said sturgeon make caviar according to instructions
    formerly given. Sounds of the said sturgeon will make isinglass
    according to the same instructions. Isinglass is worth here 13s.
    4d. per 100 pounds, and caviar well conditioned is worth £40 per

Other instances stressed the undependable fishing. Lord De La Warr
wrote to the Earl of Salisbury in England in 1610: "I sent fishermen
out to provide fish for our men, to save other provision, but they had
ill success."

Captain Samuel Argall was specially commissioned by the authorities in
England to deep-sea fish for the benefit of the Colony. After ranging
over a wide area between Bermuda and Canada, he reported in 1610:

    ... The weather continuing very foggy, thick, and rainy, about five
    of the clock it began to cease and then we began to fish and so
    continued until seven of the clock in between thirty and forty
    fathoms, and then we could fish no longer. So having gotten between
    twenty and thirty cods we left for that night, and at five of the
    clock, the 26th, in the morning we began to fish again and so
    continued until ten of the clock, and then it would fish no longer,
    in which time we had taken near one hundred cods and a couple of

    Then I tried whether there were any fish there or not [off Maine
    coast], and I found reasonable good store there. So I stayed there
    fishing till the 12th of August, [1610] and then finding that the
    fishing did fail, I thought good to return to the island

Captain Argall also offered his opinion of the usefulness of the
islands off Virginia's seacoast peninsula, later known as the Eastern

    Salt might easily be made there, if there were any ponds digged,
    for that I found salt kernel where the water had overflowed in
    certain places. Here also is great store of fish, both shellfish
    and others.

The root of the trouble, so far as local fishing conditions were
concerned, was the lack of adequate equipment together with ignorance
of its proper use. Perhaps the ease with which fish were caught at
certain times had spoiled the hardy settlers.

A low opinion of their attitude in this vital pursuit came from Sir
Thomas Gates in 1610:

    A colony is therefore denominated because they should be coloni,
    the tillers of the earth and stewards of fertility. Our mutinous
    loiterers would not sow with providence and therefore they reaped
    the fruits of far too dear bought repentance. An incredible example
    of their idleness is the report of Sir Thomas Gates who affirms
    that after his first coming thither he had seen some of them eat
    their fish raw rather than they would go a stone's cast to fetch
    wood and dress it.

    Joined unto these another evil: There is great store of fish in the
    river, especially of sturgeon, but our men provided no more of them
    than present necessity, not barreling up any store against the
    season [when] the sturgeon returned to the sea. And not to
    dissemble their folly, they suffered fourteen nets, which was all
    they had, to rot and spoil, which by orderly drying and mending
    might have been preserved but being lost, all help of fishing

Very few of them had come equipped for fishing. Their seines were as
old-fashioned as those used by the Apostles in the New Testament, the
simple kind you lowered from a boat and dragged ashore. The Indians had
taught them how to spear large fish and erect weirs out of stakes and
brushwood to entrap migrating schools. Such methods worked well enough
during the season. But in cold weather, when provisions ran low,
scarcely any fish were present in the bay proper.

It was different in New England and Canada. There the fishing was good
the year round. The sea bottom was dragged by efficient trawl-nets, and
fished with gang-lines of baited hooks, as it still is today. The cool
temperatures over many months of the year made the catches much less
perishable. Conditions favored an organized fish-salting industry.

Though the Jamestown people had easy access to some 3,000 square miles
of inland tidal water and were only a little way from the open sea,
they never developed their marine riches. One good reason was that
their original aims were in other directions. When the first intentions
to colonize New England came to the King's notice, he asked the leaders
what drew them there. The one-word answer: "Fishing." If the Virginians
had been similarly queried they would have given various replies, but
certainly not that one.

In describing the fisheries of New England, John Smith had enthused:

    Let not the meanness of the word fish distaste you, for it will
    afford us good gold as the mines of Guiana or Tumbata, with less
    hazard and charge, and more certainty and facility.

The need for fishermen in Virginia was officially recognized to only a
slight degree. A 1610 memorandum from the Virginia Council to the
authorities in London asked that an effort be made to include among the
next immigrants 20 fishermen and 6 net makers. Select them with care
was the word sent out in England by means of a broadside issued by the
Council of Virginia, December, 1610:

    Whereas the good ship called the _Hercules_ is now preparing and
    almost in a readiness with necessary provisions to make a supply to
    the Lord Governor and the Colony in Virginia, it is thought meet,
    for the avoiding of such vagrant and unnecessary persons as do
    commonly proffer themselves being altogether unserviceable, that
    none but honest sufficient artificers, as carpenters, smiths,
    coopers, fishermen, brickmen, and such like, shall be entertained
    into this voyage. Of whom so many as will in due time repair to the
    house of Sir Thomas Smith in Philpot Lane, with sufficient
    testimony to their skill and good behavior, they shall receive
    entertainment accordingly.

It was only a question of time before the Virginia colonists would,
though surrounded all the while by their own huge marine resources,
subsist on salt fish from the North. Sir Thomas Dale, governor from
1611 to 1616, perceived the trend. One of his first moves was to ask
the President of the Virginia Company to provide men trained enough to
build a coastal trade in furs, corn and fish:

    Let me intreat that we may have both an admiral and hired mariners,
    to be all times resident here. The benefit will quickly make good
    the charge as well by a trade of furs to be obtained with the
    savages in the northern rivers to be returned home as also to
    furnish us here with corn and fish. The waste of such men all this
    time whom we might trust with our pinnaces leaves us destitute this
    season of so great a quantity of fish as not far from our own bay
    would sufficiently satisfy the whole Colony for a whole year.

There were no boats available even for simple oystering. During the
term of the stringent Governor Dale some disaffected colonists tried to
escape in a shallop and a barge, which were "all the boats that were
then in the Colony."

Ironically punctuating the sagas of hardship were the marveling
descriptions publicized in England. Corroborating the mouth-watering
tales of Smith, William Strachey wrote in 1612:

    To the natural commodities which the country has of fruit, beasts,
    and fowl, we may also add the no mean commodity of fish, of which,
    in March and April, are great shoals of herrings, sturgeon, great
    store commonly in May if the year be forward. I have been at the
    taking of some before Algernoone fort and in Southampton river in
    the middle of March, and they remain with us June, July, and August
    and in that plenty as before expressed.

    Shad, great store, of a yard long and for sweetness and fatness a
    reasonable food fish; he is only full of small bones, like our
    barbels in England. There is the garfish, some of which are a yard
    long, small and round like an eel and as big as a mare's leg,
    having a long snout full of sharp teeth.

    Oysters there be in whole banks and beds, and those of the best. I
    have seen some thirteen inches long. The savages use to boil
    oysters and mussels together and with the broth they make a good
    spoon meat, thickened with the flour of their wheat and it is a
    great thrift and husbandry with them to hang the oysters upon
    strings ... and dried in the smoke, thereby to preserve them all
    the year.

    There be two sorts of sea crabs. One our people call a king crab
    and they are taken in shoal waters from off the shore a dozen at a
    time hanging one upon another's tail; they are of a foot in length
    and half a foot in breadth, having legs and a long tail. The
    Indians seldom eat of this kind. There is a shellfish of the
    proportion of a cockle but far greater [conch]. It has a smooth
    shell, not ragged as our cockles; 'tis good meat though somewhat

And, according to Alexander Whitaker in 1613:

    The rivers abound with fish both small and great. The sea-fish come
    into our rivers in March and continue the end of September. Great
    schools of herrings come in first; shads of a great bigness and the
    rockfish follow them. Trout, bass, flounders, and other dainty fish
    come in before the others be gone. Then come multitudes of great
    sturgeons, whereof we catch many and should do more, but that we
    want good nets answerable to the breadth and depth of our rivers.
    Besides our channels are so foul in the bottom with great logs and
    trees that we often break our nets upon them. I cannot reckon nor
    give proper names to the divers kinds of fresh fish in our rivers.
    I have caught with mine angle, carp, pike, eel, perches of six
    several kinds, crayfish and the torope or little turtle, besides
    many small kinds.

When Whitaker penned the word "torope," he was giving the
English-speaking world a new term, new because the animal it defined
was unknown in Europe. Later spelled "terrapin," it meant the
diamond-back, the esoteric little creature that spread the fame of the
Chesapeake bay around the world and became an indispensable course on
menus designed for the entertainment of royalty and the discriminating
elect. The colonists probably ate it prepared Indian fashion, that is,
roasted whole in live coals and opened at table where the savory meat
was extracted by appreciative fingers. Over generations of
terrapin-fanciers it evolved into one of the stars of the gastronomic
firmament. It is a wholly American dish and it was born at Jamestown.

Contemporary Historian Ralph Hamor added his testimony in 1614:

    For fish, the rivers are plentifully stored with sturgeon, porpoise,
    bass, rockfish, carp, shad, herring, eel, catfish, perch, flat-fish,
    trout, sheepshead, drummers, jewfish, crevises, crabs, oysters, and
    divers other kinds. Of all which myself has seen great quantity
    taken, especially the last summer at Smith's Island at one haul a
    frigate's lading of sturgeon, bass, and other great fish in Captain
    Argall's seine, and even at the very place which is not above
    fifteen miles from Point Comfort. If we had been furnished with
    salt to have saved it, we might have taken as much fish as would
    have served us that whole year.

The mention of carp will interest those who believe carp to have been
introduced into Virginia much later. The jewfish is common in more
southern waters but there may well have been some strays in the
Chesapeake. Although croakers, one of the bay's most abundant fish in
modern times, are not mentioned, it would not be unreasonable to assume
that they were included under "drummers." So with spot, a member of the
drum family bearing a superficial resemblance to a bass or perch. The
term "spot," as applied to a Virginia fish does not seem to have become
current till the late 19th century.

An event of special interest to statisticians occurred in 1612. The
first attempt made in the New World to require certain fish catches to
be reported was among the regulations propounded by Governor Thomas
Dale. The penalty for violation would shock today's delinquent record

    All fishermen, dressers of sturgeon, or such like appointed to fish
    or to cure the said sturgeon for the use of the Colony, shall give
    a just and true account of all such fish as they shall take by day
    or night, of whatsoever kind, the same to bring unto the Governor.
    As also all such kegs of sturgeon or caviar as they shall prepare
    and cure upon peril for the first time offending herein of losing
    his ears, and for the second time to be condemned a year to the
    galleys, and for the third time offending to be condemned to the
    galleys for three years.

The years of trial and error fishing had brought their return in
increased knowledge, according to John Rolfe in 1616:

    About two years since, Sir Thomas Dale ... found out two seasons in
    the year to catch fish, namely, the spring and the fall. He himself
    took no small pains in the trial and at one haul with a seine
    caught five thousand three hundred of them, as big as cod. The
    least of the residue or kind of salmon trout, two foot long, yet he
    durst not adventure on the main school for breaking his net.
    Likewise, two men with axes and such like weapons have taken and
    killed near the shore and brought home forty [fish] as great as cod
    in two or three hours space....

There was a hint that the Virginia Company was interfering with free
ocean fishing by claiming all the land to Newfoundland,--not that it
was getting much out of it. One complaint as published in London
sometime before February 22, 1615, in the anonymous tract, _The Trades
Increase_, read:

    The Virginia Company pretend almost all that main twixt it and
    Newfoundland to be their fee-simple, whereby many honest and able
    minds, disposed to adventure, are hindered and stopped from
    repairing to those places that they either know or would discover,
    even for fishing.

As a matter of fact, there was continuous wrangling in London over the
fishing rights off the entire coast administered by the Virginia
Company. The proposed settlers of the Northern Colony in New England
had fishing uppermost in their minds and would have been glad to
exclude fishermen coming from the Southern Colony. Minutes of meetings
of the Company reveal how earnest was the struggle:

    December 1, 1619. The last great general court being read, Mr.
    Treasurer acquainted them that Mr. John Delbridge, purposing to
    settle a particular colony in Virginia, desired of the Company that
    for defraying some part of his charge he might be admitted to fish
    at Cape Cod. Which request was opposed by Sir Ferdinando Gorges,
    alleging that he always favored Mr. Delbridge but in this he
    thought himself something touched that he should sue to this
    Company and not rather to him as the matter properly belonged to
    the Northern Colony to give liberty for fishing in that place, it
    lying within their latitude. This was answered by Mr. Treasurer
    that the Companies of the South and North Plantations are free of
    one another and that the patent is clear that each may fish within
    the territory of the other, the sea being free for both. If the
    Northern Company abridged them of this, they would take away their
    means and encouragement for sending out men. To which Sir
    Ferdinando Gorges replied that if he was not mistaken both the
    Companies were limited by the patents unto which he would submit.
    For the deciding whereof it is referred to the Council, who are of
    both Companies, to examine the patents tomorrow afternoon at the
    Lord Southampton's and accordingly to determine the dispute.

Two weeks later the Council gave its decision: Either Colony could fish
within the bounds of the other. But this was by no means an end to the
matter. The Northern Colony requested a new patent to resolve the
disputes. With suggestions and counter-suggestions, the debate dragged
on through the spring, summer and fall. About the time the Northern
Colony had arranged to exclude the Southern Colony from free fishing,
the King stepped in, declaring that "if anything were passed in the New
England patent that might be prejudicial to the Southern Colony it was
done without his knowledge and that he has been abused thereby by those
that pretended otherwise to him." Finally, after a year-and-a-half of
cross-purposes, agreement was reached:

    June 18, 1621. There was a petition exhibited unto His Majesty in
    the name of the patentees and adventurers in the plantation of New
    England concerning some difference between the Southern and
    Northern Colonies, the said petition was by His Majesty referred to
    the consideration of the Lords. Their Lordships, upon the hearing
    and debating of the matter at large and by the consent of both
    Colonies, did establish and confirm two former orders, the one
    bearing date of the 16th of March 1620, agreed upon by the Duke of
    Lenox and the Earl of Arundell; the other of the 21st of July 1620
    ordered by the Board whereby it was thought fit that the said
    colonies should fish at sea within the limits and bounds of each
    other reciprocally, with this limitation that it be only for the
    sustentation of the people of the Colonies there and for the
    transportation of people into either Colony. Further it was ordered
    at this time by their Lordships that they should have freedom of
    the shore for drying of their nets and taking and saving of their
    fish and to have wood for their necessary uses, by the assignment
    of the Governors at reasonable rates. Lastly the patent of the
    Northern Colony shall be renewed according to the premises, and
    those of the Southern plantation to have a sight thereof before it
    be engrossed and the former patent to be delivered into the hand of
    the patentees.

In an effort to encourage Virginians to salt their own fish, an order
from London recommended the reopening of the old sea-water-evaporators
on Smith's island, off Cape Charles, where salt had been produced in
the first days. The Virginia Company advised the Governor and Council
in 1620:

    The last commodity, but not of least importance for health, is
    SALT: the works whereof having been lately suffered to decay; we
    now intending to restore in so great plenty, as not only to serve
    the Colony for the present, but as is hoped, in short time, the
    great fishings on those coasts, a matter of inestimable advancement
    to the Colony, do upon mature deliberation ordain as followeth:
    First, that you the Governor and Council, do chose out of the
    tenants for the Company, 20 fit persons to be employed in salt
    works, which are to be renewed in Smith's Island, where they were
    before; as also in taking of fish there, for the use of the Colony,
    as in former times was also done. These 20 shall be furnished out
    at the first, at the charges of the Company, with all implements
    and instruments necessary for those works. They shall have also
    assigned to each of them for their occupation or use, 50 acres of
    land within the island, to be land of the Company. The one moiety
    of salt, fish, and profits of the land shall be for the tenants,
    the other for us the Company, to be delivered into our store: and
    this contract shall be continued for five years.

The reply of Secretary of the Colony, John Pory, was something less
than complacent:

    The last commodity spoken of in your charter is salt; the works
    whereof, we do much marvel, you would have restored to their former
    use; whereas I will undertake in one day to make as much salt by
    the heat of the sun, after the manner used in France, Spain, and
    Italy, as can be made in a year by that toilsome and erroneous way
    of boiling sea water into salt in kettles as our people at Smith's
    Island hitherto accustomed. And therefore when you enter into this
    work, you must send men skillful in salt ponds, such as you may
    easily procure from Rochell, and if you can have none there, yet
    some will be found in Lymington, and in many other places in
    England. And this indeed in a short time might prove a real work of
    great sustenance to the Colony at home, as of gain abroad, here
    being such schools of excellent fish, as ought rather to be admired
    of such as have not seen the same, than credited. Whereas the
    Company do give their tenants fifty acres upon Smith's Island some
    there are that smile at it here, saying there is no ground in all
    the whole island worth the manuring.

Following this exchange, attempts at salt making, especially on the
Eastern Shore where the waters were saltiest, were renewed. John Rolfe
reported in 1621:

    At Dale's Gift, being upon the sea near unto Cape Charles, about
    thirty miles from Kecoughtan, are seventeen inhabitants under
    command of Lieutenant Cradock. All these are fed and maintained by
    the Colony. Their labor is to make salt and catch fish....

Secretary Pory soon expressed his disagreement with the project in more
than words and succeeded in effecting the removal of the salt works to
a more convenient location. That this hardly fulfilled expectations is
evidenced by a letter written in 1628 to the King by the Governor and

    Great likeliness of the certainty of bay salt, the benefit that
    will thereby accrue to the Colony will be great, and they shall
    willingly assist Mr. Capps in making his experiment, which, brought
    to perfection, will draw a certain trade to them. And they hope
    that the fishing upon their coasts will be very near as good as

Mr. Capps, a citizen of Accomack, had proposed that if the Colony would
subsidize him he would undertake to supply it with salt from evaporated
sea water. His offer was accepted and the enterprise set up. After
waiting patiently and seeing little salt the Council took him to task.
His plea was the familiar one of most operations that fail: lack of
capital. He had worked hard, he said; he had all the firewood he needed,
workmen were available, and the sun shone bright. The bottle-neck was
too few evaporating pans. But apparently he had not won the Council's
confidence. The Capps salt company was dissolved.

Another one sprang up about 30 years later under the sponsorship of
Colonel Edmund Scarborough of Northampton County. Such was the public
interest aroused by this influential man, who, among other
distinctions, had been a Burgess between 1642 and 1659, that the
importation of salt into the county was prohibited to encourage him.
Finally, in 1666, this project was abandoned for reasons that remain
obscure. Most probably the quality of the product was inferior.

The salt shortage continued despite other random attempts to alleviate
it. For example, in 1660 one Daniel Dawen of Accomack was exempted from
taxes and granted public funds for his "experiments of salt."

The trouble that attended obtaining salt in needed quantity and of
satisfactory quality accompanied the development of Virginia right up
to George Washington's time.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, reliance on salt fish from the
North kept gaining. The General Assembly that had met in 1619 censured
a Captain Warde for establishing a plantation in Virginia without
asking anybody's permission. But when it was brought out that he had
conveyed quantities of salt fish to the Colony from Canada on his ship
he was forgiven. This captain was an important link between the Colony
and the North. John Rolfe wrote to Sir Edwin Sandys in 1619:

    Captain Warde in his ship went to Monhegan [island, Maine] in the
    Northern Colony in May and returned the latter end of July with
    fish which he caught there. He brought but a small quantity by
    reason he had but little salt. There were some Plymouth ships where
    he harbored, who made great store of fish which is far larger than
    Newland [Newfoundland] fish.

The Maine waters were far busier than those of Virginia. For more than
a century vessels from half-a-dozen European nations had thronged
there, even to Greenland, attracted by the fishing, and the furs
available on the mainland. When some of the early experiments at
colonization failed, fishing became all the more emphasized. There was
usually excellent demand for the catches whether landed in Plymouth
(England) or Plymouth (Massachusetts), Portugal, Holland, the West
Indies or Virginia. These bold adventurers made use of the land in the
New World only for drying, salting and barreling their fish. If
conditions permitted, they transported them fresh, in a cargo commonly
known as "corfish." Oil made from whale and cod was a profitable

Fishermen were the pioneers and explorers of America's first days just
as the miners, trappers and traders were those of a later period.

The importance of fish was thus underlined. In addition, conceding the
value to the untrained whites of Indians as fishermen, the 1619
Assembly agreed to a proposal that Indians to the limit of six be
permitted to live in white settlements if they engaged in fishing for
the benefit of the settlement. Indian methods were first described by
Hariot of the Roanoke island colony:

    They have likewise a notable way to catch fish in their rivers, for
    whereas they lack both iron and steel, they fasten unto their
    reeds, or long rods, the hollow tail of a certain fish like to a
    sea crab instead of a point, wherewith by night or day they strike
    fishes, and take them up into their boats. They also know how to
    use the prickles, and pricks of other fishes. They also make weirs,
    with setting up reeds or twigs in the water, which they so plant
    one with another, that they grow still narrower, and narrower.
    There was never seen among us so cunning a way to take fish withal,
    whereof sundry sorts as they found in their rivers unlike ours,
    which are also of a very good taste. Doubtless it is a pleasant
    sight to see the people, sometimes wading, and going sometimes
    sailing in those rivers, which are shallow and not deep, free from
    all care of heaping up riches for their posterity, content with
    their state, and living friendly together of those things which God
    of His bounty hath given unto them, yet without giving Him any
    thanks according to His deserts.

The most vivid and comprehensive description of Indian fishing was
given by historian Robert Beverley. Though his work was not published
until 1705, he dealt with an earlier period:

    Before the arrival of the English there, the Indians had fish in
    such vast plenty that the boys and girls would take a pointed stick
    and strike the lesser sort as they swam upon the flats. The larger
    fish that kept in deeper water, they were put to a little more
    difficulty to take. But for these they made weirs, that is, a hedge
    of small rived sticks or reeds of the thickness of a man's finger.
    These they wove together in a row with straps of green oak or other
    tough wood, so close that the small fish could not pass through.
    Upon high water mark they pitched one end of this hedge and the
    other they extended into the river to the depth of eight or ten
    foot, fastening it with stakes, making cods out from the hedge on
    one side, almost at the end, and leaving a gap for the fish to go
    into them. These were contrived so that the fish could easily find
    their passage into those cods when they were at the gap, but not
    see their way out again when they were in. Thus if they offered to
    pass through, they were taken.

    Sometimes they made such a hedge as this quite across a creek at
    high water and at low would go into the run, so contracted into a
    narrow stream, and take out what fish they pleased.

    At the falls of the rivers where the water is shallow and the
    current strong, the Indians use another kind of weir thus made.
    They make a dam of loose stone, whereof there is plenty at hand,
    quite across the river, leaving one, two, or more spaces or
    trunnels for the water to pass through. At the mouth they set a pot
    of reeds, wove in form of a cone, whose base is about three foot
    [wide] and ten [foot] perpendicular, into which the swiftness of
    the current carries the fish and wedges them so fast that they
    cannot possibly return.

    The Indian way of catching sturgeon, when they came into the narrow
    part of the rivers, was by a man's clapping a noose over their
    tails and by keeping fast his hold. Thus a fish, finding itself
    entangled, would flounce and often pull him under water. Then that
    man was counted a cockarouse, or brave fellow, that would not let
    go till with swimming, wading and diving, he had tired the sturgeon
    and brought it ashore. These sturgeon would also leap into their
    canoes in crossing the river, as many of them do still every year
    into the boats of the English.

    They have also another way of fishing like those on the Euxine Sea,
    by the help of a blazing fire by night. They make a hearth in the
    middle of their canoe, raising it within two inches of the edge.
    Upon this they lay their burning lightwood, split into small
    shivers, each splinter whereof will blaze and burn end for end like
    a candle. 'Tis one man's work to tend this fire and keep it
    flaming. At each end of the canoe stands an Indian with a gig or
    point spear, setting the canoe forward with the butt end of the
    spear as gently as he can, by that means stealing upon the fish
    without any noise or disturbing of the water. Then they with great
    dexterity dart these spears into the fish and so take them. Now
    there is a double convenience in the blaze of this fire, for it not
    only dazzles the eyes of the fish, which will lie still glaring
    upon it, but likewise discovers the bottom of the river clearly to
    the fisherman, which the daylight does not.

Under Governor George Yeardley in 1616, there were 400 people at
Jamestown and one old frigate, one old shallop and one boat belonging
to the community. There were two boats privately owned. The boats best
suited to local fishing, and the most easily available, were the Indian
dugout canoes. Such was the size of the trees that it was possible to
make them comparatively roomy, as Strachey noted.

Every passing year brought home to the steadily growing Colony the need
of improving its fishing practices. Most nets had to be bought in
England. Here is a London item from a 1623 _List of Subscribers and
Subscriptions for Relief of the Colony_: "Richard Tatem will adventure
[speculate] in cheese and fishing nets the sum of £30 sterling."

Jamestown had by 1624 begun to spawn little Jamestowns throughout the
countryside. A census was ordered of all settlements. In January, 1625,
there were 1209 white persons, and 23 negroes. This first American
census listed, among general provisions, the stocks of salt fish. On
hand at thirteen settlements was 58,380 pounds. James City had the
largest supply, 24,880 pounds. Elizabeth City was next with 10,550
pounds. A community listed only as "Neck of Land" adjacent to
Jamestown, consisting of perhaps ten dwellings and plantations, had
4,050 pounds. The smallest store, 450 pounds, was credited to another
"Neck of Land" in Charles City. From the accumulated evidences of
disorganized home fishing, coupled with the deficiency of salt, it is
to be concluded that most of this supply had come from the Northern
fishing grounds.

There were 40 boats of various sizes and uses listed in this census.
For example, at Jamestown a "barque of 40 tons, a shallop of 4 tons and
one skiff" were among the ten there.

A token of the stress resulting from inadequate fisheries even after 16
years of active colonization is this letter preserved in the records of
the Virginia Company. A Virginia citizen named Arundle in 1623 wrote to
his friend, Mr. Caning, in London:

    The most evident hope from altogether starving is oysters, and for
    the easier getting of them I have agreed for a canoe which will
    cost me 6 livres sterling.

    Emigrants had been advised not to leave for Virginia without some
    fishing equipment. In his _Travels_, John Smith had included the
    warning: "A particular of such necessaries as either private
    families or single persons shall have cause to provide to go to
    Virginia ... nets, hooks and lines must be added."

Records of the Virginia Company in London throw light on the
extensiveness of the fish trade. Robert Bennett wrote from Virginia to
Edward Bennett in London in 1623:

    My last letter I wrote you was in the _Adam_ from Newfoundland,
    which I hope you shall receive before this. God send her back in
    safety and this from Canada. I hope the fish will come to a good
    reckoning for victuals is very scarce in the country. Your
    Newfoundland fish is worth 30s. per hundred, your dry Canada [fish]
    £3, 10s. and the wet £5, 10s. per hundred. I do not know nor hear
    of any that is coming hither with fish but only the _Tiger_ which
    went in company with the _Adam_ from this place and I know the
    country will carry away all this forthwith.

And again from the records of the Company, this extract from _An
Account of Sums Subscribed and Supplies Sent Since April_, dated July
23, 1623:

    ... We have received advice that from Canada there departed this
    last month a ship called Furtherance with above forty thousand of
    that fish which is little inferior to ling for the supply of the
    Colony in Virginia and that fish is worth not less than £600.

[Illustration: _The broyling of their fish over the flame of fire._

Library of Congress Photo

The first settlers did not have to learn from the Indians how to cook
fish, but this method was perhaps as appetizing as any they knew.]

[Illustration: _The manner of their fishing._

Library of Congress Photo

The first colonists saw the Indians engaged in fishing practices that
included spearing, luring with firelight, and entrapping in staked-off

[Illustration: The sheepshead was one of the favorite seafoods of
Tidewater Virginians from the beginning. It was fairly abundant,
according to their records, and remained so until the twentieth
century, when it became almost extinct in Chesapeake waters.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photos]

[Illustration: The ugly-looking but delicious-tasting sturgeon was the
fish that principally engaged the attention of the first colonists.
They were impressed by its abundance and were busy for a time in
shipping its roe to England for [1]caviar.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photos]

      [1] (we cannot be certain that much actual caviar was produced at
      Jamestown. The chances are that the roe was merely salted down
      and that the final processing took place in England)

[Illustration: Haul-seining or dragging fish ashore by enclosing them
in a long net, is a form of fishing that has thrived almost unchanged
through the ages. Its practice at Jamestown was limited by the lack of

[Illustration: The toothsome Chesapeake Bay hard crab was, and is still
to a great extent today, taken by baits spaced along lines sunk to the
bottom and then raised and the tenacious crabs removed.]

[Illustration: Vast quantities of river herring were taken in
haul-seines in the spring throughout Tidewater Virginia. A crew dragged
the fish ashore to a force of women cutters waiting to prepare them for
salting down.]

[Illustration: Great living oyster mounds, built up by nature through
the ages, impeded ships in the lower James river. At high tide they
were hidden so that unwary pilots struck them; at low they could be
picked over by hand. They remained a threat to navigation until they
disappeared under three centuries of harvesting.

Original drawing by Esther Derieux]

[Illustration: Fishing implements excavated at Jamestown. The large
fish-hook was for ocean cod fishing or possibly for snagging sturgeon
in the river. The spear, attached to a wooden handle, was for stalking
big fish in shallow water, or for capturing those that could be
attracted to a light in a boat at night. The lead weights were suitable
for (right) a handline, (left) a net.

National Park Service]

[Illustration: Early salt-evaporating houses were located close by the
sea, from which the water was channeled in by slow stages to take
advantage of natural evaporation before wood fires finished the job.
When the crystals formed they were shoveled into conical baskets and

[Illustration: Courtesy Mariners Museum

An 18th century plan of a solar-evaporating works. Sea water is
channeled into the primary reservoir (DD), from which it is conducted
to (FFF) and (KKK) by progressive stages to the final basins where it

The kernel of the situation was reflected by the Dutch traveler,
David De Vries, who made voyages to America from 1632 to

    In going down to Jamestown on board of a sloop, a sturgeon sprang
    out of the river, into the sloop. We killed it, and it was eight
    feet long. This river is full of sturgeon, as also are the two
    rivers of New Netherland. When the English first began to plant
    their Colony here, there came an English ship from England for the
    purpose of fishing for sturgeon; but they found that this fishery
    would not answer, because it is so hot in summer, which is the best
    time for fishing, that the salt or pickle would not keep them as in
    Muscovy whence the English obtain many sturgeon and where the
    climate is colder than in the Virginias.

The effects of the Virginians' favoring tobacco-growing above fishing
were also noted by De Vries on a visit to Canada:

    Besides my vessel [at Newfoundland] there was a small boat of fifty
    or sixty lasts [110 tons], with six guns, which had come out of the
    Virginias with tobacco, in order to exchange the tobacco for fish.

A rather aggrieved reaction to the tales of abundant natural resources
in Virginia is contained in this letter from one Tho. Niccolls to Sir
Jo. Worstenholme in London in 1623:

    If the Company would allow to each man a pound of butter and a
    portion of cheese weekly, they would find more comfort therein then
    by all the deer, fish, and fowl [that] is so talked of in England,
    of which, I can assure you, your poor servants have not had so much
    as the scent since their coming into the country.

To prevent profiteering in Canadian fish the Virginia authorities had
set the selling prices:

    January 3, 1625-6: Proclamation by the Governor and Council of
    Virginia renewing a former proclamation of August 31, 1623,
    restraining the excessive rates of commodities--commanding that no
    person in Virginia, either adventurer or planter, shall vend,
    utter, barter, or sell any of the commodities following above the
    prices hereafter mentioned, viz: New Foundland fish, the hundred
    ... 10 pounds of tobacco; Canada dry fish, the hundred ... 24
    pounds of tobacco; Canada wet fish, the hundred.... 30 pounds of

In one proposed deal of fish for tobacco the owner of the fish got
scared off, as recorded in the Minutes of the Council and General
Court, 1622-29:

    Luke Edan, sworn and examined, says that there were sixteen
    thousand fish offered him by one Corbin at Canada which afterward
    the said Corbin refused to sell him for it was told him his tobacco
    was not good, and as the examiner heard, it was Henry Hewat that
    told him so.

A case of special concession for the sale of fish was shown in a ruling
of the Virginia Council in 1626:

    It is ordered that whereas Mr. Weston came up to James City, he
    shall sell 3,000 of his fish there, which he has promised to sell
    at reasonable rates. Therefore, in regard the proclamations are not
    published for the choosing of merchants and factors, it is
    permitted that such as are desirous to buy any of the said fish he
    may have leave to deal with Mr. Weston, notwithstanding orders to
    the contrary.

Another dissuading factor in the unsubstantial fishing in Virginia was
the threat of Indian attack. The Assembly in 1626 ruled:

    It is ordered, according to the act of the late General Assembly,
    that no man go or send abroad either upon fowling, fishing, or
    otherwise whatsoever without a sufficient plenty of men, well armed
    and provided of munition, upon penalty of undergoing severe censure
    of punishment by the Governor and Council.

It was characteristic of Virginia's fisheries that the pessimists
occupied the stage for a while, then the optimists. An example of the
whipping-up of enthusiasm is this discourse of Edward Williams writing
on Virginia at mid-century. China was a fabulous country, therefore he
compared Virginia with it. Ideas ran riot as he contemplated the
resources crying to be developed:

    ... What multitudes of fish to satisfy the most voluptuous of
    wishes, can China glory in which Virginia may not in justice boast
    of?... Let her publish a precedent so worthy of admiration (and
    which will not admit belief in those bosoms where the eye cannot be
    witness of the action) of five thousand fish taken at one draught
    near Cape Charles, at the entry into Chesapeake bay, and which
    swells the wonder greater, not one fish under the measure of two
    feet in length. What fleets come yearly upon the coasts of
    Newfoundland and New England for fish, with an incredible return?
    Yet it is a most assured truth that if they would make experiment
    upon the south of Cape Cod, and from thence to the coast of this
    happy country, they would find fish of greater delicacy, and as
    full handed plenty, which though foreigners know not, yet if our
    own planters would make use of it, would yield them a revenue which
    cannot admit of any diminution while there are ebbs and floods,
    rivers feed and receive the ocean, or nature fails in (the
    elemental original of all things) waters.

    There wants nothing but industrious spirits and encouragement to
    make a rich staple of this commodity; and would the Virginians but
    make salt pits, in which they have a greater convenience of tides
    (that part of the universe by reason of a full influence of the
    moon upon the almost limitless Atlantic causing the most spacious
    fluxes and refluxes, that any shore of the other divisions in the
    world is sensible of) to leave their pits full of salt-water, and
    more friendly and warm sunbeams to concoct it into salt, than
    Rochel, or any parts of Europe. Yet notwithstanding these
    advantages which prefer Virginia before Rochel, the French king
    raises a large proportion of his revenues out of that staple
    yearly, with which he supplies a great part of Christendom.

    Nor would it be such a long interval (salt being first made)
    betwixt the undertaking of this fishing, and the bringing it to
    perfection, for if every servant were enjoined to practice rowing,
    to be taught to handle sails, and trim a vessel, a work easily
    practised, and suddenly learned, the pleasantness of weather in
    fishing season, the delicacy of the fish, of which they usually
    feed themselves with the best, the encouragement of some share in
    the profit, and their understanding what their own benefit may be
    when their freedom gives them an equality, will make them willing
    and able fishermen and seamen. To add further to this, if we
    consider the abundance, largeness, and peculiar excellency of the
    sturgeon in that country, it will not fall into the least of
    scruples, but that one species will be of an invaluable profit to
    the buyer, or if we repeat to our thoughts the singular plenty of
    herrings and mackerel, in goodness and greatness much exceeding
    whatever of that kind these our seas produce, a very ordinary
    understanding may at the first inspection perceive that it will be
    no great difficulty to out-labor and out-vie the Hollander in that
    his almost only staple.

This flowery author goes on to make ingenious suggestions about raising
fish in captivity, like domesticated animals, by inclosing a creek
against their egress but keeping it sluiced to permit the action of
tides. He even guesses that a nutritious and medicinal oil could be
produced from fish livers. It is worth noting that both these
suggestions have been proved practical but they had to wait until
modern times to be carried out.

In the anonymous _A Perfect Description of Virginia_, published in
1649, the population is given as 15,000 English and 300 negroes. The
count of boats, remembering the shortage of 40 years before, is
impressive: "They have in their Colony pinnaces, barks, great and small
boats many hundreds, for most of their plantations stand upon the river
sides or up little creeks, and but a small way into the land so that
for transportation and fishing they use many boats."

The enmity of the Indians had been a constant irritation, and worse,
ever since the first days. As soon as it became possible to do so,
effort was made to cut them off from the resources of the tidal waters.
It was reasoned, and as it turned out, rightly, that with them unable
to supplement their food supplies with fish and shellfish, especially
oysters, they would be weakened in body and more easily subdued. The
word early went out: Keep the Indians away from the water. This
strategy worked so successfully that by 1662 it was deemed safe to ease
the pressure. Thus another milestone was reached: the first oyster
licensing law, as recorded in Hening's _Statutes_:

    Be it further enacted that for the better relief of the poor
    Indians whom the seating of the English had forced from their
    wonted convenience of oystering, fishing ... that the said Indians
    upon address made to two of the justices of that county they desire
    to oyster ... they, the said justices, shall grant a license to the
    said Indians to oyster ... provided the said justices limit the
    time the Indians are to stay, and the Indians bring not with them
    any guns, or ammunition or any other offensive weapon but only such
    tools or implements as serve for the end of their coming. If any
    Englishman shall presume to take from the Indians so coming in any
    of their goods, or shall kill, wound, maim any Indian, he shall
    suffer as he had done the same to an Englishman and be fined for
    his contempt.

This was followed, according to Hening, in 1676 by another cavalier
gesture to the oppressed:

    ... It is hereby intended that our neighbor Indian friends be not
    debarred from fishing and hunting within their own limits and
    bounds, using bows and arrows only. Provided also that such
    neighbor Indian friends who have occasion for corn to relieve their
    lives and it shall and may be lawful for any English to employ in
    fishing or deal with fish, canoes, bowls, mats, or baskets, and to
    pay the said Indians for the same in Indian corn, but no other

Thomas Glover, author of _An Account of Virginia_, addressed to the
Royal Society in London, published in 1676, sides with the optimists.
His catalogue has a familiar sound but it is valuable as substantiating
many of the earlier reports. One impression to be gained from it is
that after more than 60 years of occupancy of the new territory, the
settlers had in no way depleted their fishery resources, had not, in
fact, even scratched the surface:

    In the rivers are great plenty and variety of delicate fish. One
    kind whereof is by the English called a sheepshead from the
    resemblance the eye of it bears with the eye of a sheep. This fish
    is generally about fifteen or sixteen inches long and about half a
    foot broad. It is a wholesome and pleasant fish and of easy
    digestion. A planter does often times take a dozen or fourteen in
    an hour's time with hook and line.

    There is another sort which the English call a drum, many of which
    are two foot and a half or three foot long. This is likewise a very
    good fish, and there is plenty of them. In the head of this fish
    there is a jelly, which being taken and dried in the sun, then
    beaten to powder and given in broth, procures speedy delivery to
    women in labour.

    At the heads of the rivers there are sturgeon and in the creeks are
    great store of small fish, as perch, croakers, taylors, eels, and
    divers others whose name I know not. Here are such plenty of
    oysters as they may load ships with them. At the mouth of Elizabeth
    River, when it is low water, they appear in rocks a foot above
    water. There are also in some places great store of mussels and
    cockles. There is also a fish called a stingray, which resembles a
    skate, only on one side of his tail grows out a sharp bone like a
    bodkin about four or five inches long, with which he sticks and
    wounds other fish and then preys upon them.

The same author went farther than any other reporter up to that time in
telling a real fish story:

    And now it comes into my mind, I shall here insert an account of a
    very strange fish or rather a monster, which I happened to see in
    Rappahannock River about a year before I came out of the country;
    the manner of it was thus:

    As I was coming down the forementioned river in a sloop bound for
    the bay, it happened to prove calm, at which time we were three
    leagues short of the river's mouth; the tide of ebb being then
    done, the sloop-man dropped his grapline, and he and his boy took a
    little boat belonging to the sloop, in which they went ashore for
    water, leaving me aboard alone, in which time I took a small book
    out of my pocket and sat down at the stern of the vessel to read;
    but I had not read long before I heard a great rushing and flashing
    of the water, which caused me suddenly to look up, and about half a
    stone's cast from me appeared a prodigious creature, much
    resembling a man, only somewhat larger, standing right up in the
    water with his head, neck, shoulders, breast and waist, to the
    cubits of his arms, above water; his skin was tawny, much like that
    of an Indian; the figure of his head was pyramidal, and slick,
    without hair; his eyes large and black, and so were his eyebrows;
    his mouth very wide, with a broad streak on the upper lip, which
    turned upward at each end like mustachioes; his countenance was
    grim and terrible; his neck, shoulders, arms, breast and waist were
    like unto the neck, arms, shoulders, breast and waist of a man; his
    hands if he had any, were under water; he seemed to stand with his
    eyes fixed on me for some time, and afterward dived down, and a
    little after riseth at somewhat a farther distance, and turned his
    head towards me again, and then immediately falleth a little under
    water, and swimmeth away so near the top of the water, that I could
    discern him throw out his arms, and gather them in as a man doth
    when he swimmeth. At last he shoots with his head downwards, by
    which means he cast his tail above the water, which exactly
    resembled the tail of a fish with a broad fane at the end of it.

Judging from the few piddling regulations and restrictions referred to
in extracts already cited, the Virginia lawmakers could see no need for
intensive or even active supervision of the Tidewater fisheries. A
rather epoch-making law was enacted in 1678 by the county court of
Middlesex County, which is about 50 miles from James City, at the
juncture of the Rappahannock river and Chesapeake bay:

    Whereas, by the 15th act of Assembly made in the year 1662, liberty
    is given to each respective county to make by-laws for themselves;
    which laws, by virtue of the said act are to be binding upon them
    as any other general law; and whereas several of the inhabitants of
    this county have complained against the excessive and immoderate
    striking and destroying of fish, by some fire, of the inhabitants
    of this county by striking them by a light in the night time with
    fish gigs, wherby they not only affright the fish from coming into
    the rivers and creeks, but also wound four times that quantity that
    they take, so that if a timely remedy be not applied, by that means
    the fishing with hooks and lines will be thereby spoiled to the
    great hurt and grievance of most of the inhabitants of this county.
    It is therefore by this court ordered that from and after the 20th
    day of March next ensuing, it shall not be lawful for any of the
    inhabitants of this county to take, strike, or destroy any sort of
    fish in the night time with fish gigs, harping irons, or any other
    instrument of that nature, sort or kind, within any river, creek or
    bay which are accounted belonging to or within the bounds or
    precincts of this county. And it is further ordered that if any
    person or persons being a freeman, shall offend against this order,
    he or they so offending shall for the first offence be fined five
    hundred pounds of good tobacco to be paid to the informer, and for
    every other offence committed against this order after the first,
    by any person, the said fine to be doubled and if any servants be
    permitted or encouraged by their masters to keep or have in their
    possession any fish gig, harping iron or any other instrument of
    that kind or nature and shall therewith offend against this order,
    that in such case the master of such servant or servants shall be
    liable to pay the several fines above mentioned, and if any servant
    or servants shall, contrary to and against their master's will and
    knowledge, offend against this order, that for every offence they
    receive such corporal punishment as by this court shall be thought

As population became more dense it was inevitable that rights
previously of little significance began to be asserted. This case of
1679 taken from Hening's _Statutes_, was a forerunner of countless
others like it which continue to this day:

    Robert Liny, having complained to this Grand Assembly that whereas
    he had cleared a fishing place in the river against his own land to
    his great cost and charge supposing the right thereof in himself by
    virtue of his patents, yet nevertheless several persons have
    frequently obstructed him in his just privilege of fishing there,
    and despite of him came upon his land and hauled their seines on
    shore to his great prejudice, alleging that the water was the King
    Majesty's and not by him granted away in any patent and therefore
    equally free to all His Majesty's subjects to fish in and haul
    their seines on shore, and praying for relief therein by a
    declaratory order of this Grand Assembly; it is ordered and
    declared by this Grand Assembly that every man's right by virtue of
    his patent extends into the rivers or creeks so far as low water
    mark and it is a privilege granted to him in and by his patent, and
    that therefore no person ought to come and fish there above low
    water mark or haul seines on shore without leave first obtained,
    under the hazard of comitting a trespass for which he is sueable by

In most cases this decision somewhat limited a landowner's claim. But
on the seaside of Virginia's Eastern Shore conditions have always been
so that at low tide thousands of acres of land are laid bare, with the
result that "low water mark" is in many cases difficult of
interpretation as a boundary between waterfront properties and the
public domain.

Toward the close of the century fishing methods had shaped up
advantageously compared to the crudities and hit-or-miss practices of
the first settlers. Robert Beverley described them in 1705:

    The Indian invention of weirs in fishing is mightily improved by
    the English, besides which, they make use of seines, trolls,
    casting nets, setting nets, hand fishing and angling and in each
    find abundance of diversion. I have sat in the shade at the heads
    of the rivers angling and spent as much time in taking the fish off
    the hook as in waiting for their taking it. Like those of the
    Euxine Sea, they also fish with spilyards which is a long line
    staked out in the river and hung with a great many hooks on short
    strings, fastened to the main line, about four foot asunder. The
    only difference is that our line is supported by stakes and theirs
    is buoyed up with gourds.

The abundance of the fisheries never ceased impressing visitors. A
French tourist added to the chorus in 1687:

    Fish too is wonderfully plentiful. There are so many shell oysters
    that almost every Saturday my host craved them. He had only to send
    one of his servants in one of the small boats and two hours after
    ebb tide he brought it back full. These boats, made of a single
    tree hollowed in the middle, can hold as many as fourteen people
    and twenty-five hundredweight of merchandise.

As if to crown the final emergence of recognition of the home fisheries
William Byrd I instructed his agent in Boston in 1689 to send him a
variety of commodities in return for a bill of exchange but _no salt

    By the advice of my friend, Captain Peter Perry, I made bold to
    give you the trouble of a letter of the 1st instant with two small
    bills of exchange which I desired you to receive and return the
    effects to me in the upper part of James River, either in rum,
    sugar, Madeira wine, turnery, earthenware, or anything else you may
    judge convenient to this country (fish excepted)....

Evidently at least some good salt was now at hand to preserve the roe
herring that choked the rivers and creeks in the spring. The
salt-herring breakfast was on its way to becoming a Virginia
institution, and the salt-fish monopolies of New England and Canada
were cracking after three-quarters of a century.

The score of "firsts" in the Virginia fishery world have been noted as
they occurred. Among them were the first fishery statistics, the first
licensing law, the first price control, the first diamond-back
terrapin, the first conservation measures. And now in 1698 there was
the first agitation against polluted waters:

    We, the Council and Burgesses of the present General Assembly,
    being sensible to the great mischiefs and inconveniences that
    accrue to the inhabitants of this, his Majesty's Colony and
    Dominion of Virginia, by killing of whales within the capes
    thereof, in all humility take leave to represent the same unto Your
    Excellency and withal to acquaint you that by the means thereof
    great quantities of fish are poisoned and destroyed and the rivers
    also made noisome and offensive. For prevention of which evils in
    regard the restraint of the killing of whales is a branch of His
    Majesty's royal prerogative.

    We humbly pray that Your Excellency [the Governor, Francis
    Nicholson] will be pleased to issue out a proclamation forbidding
    all persons whatsoever to strike or kill any whales within the bay
    of Chesapeake in the limits of Virginia which we hope will prove an
    effectual means to prevent the many evils that arise therefrom.

As Jamestown reached the end of its span, the fisheries came of age.
Inequities were being ironed out, methods were being perfected, and
planners were at work on ways of employing more and more of the
fast-growing population in searching out and making available the
bounty of the fair Chesapeake.

At the start of the 18th century, however, there was little evidence of
an organized industry in any phase. Everywhere were unlimited
opportunities for exploitation. The abundance of oysters still
impressed travelers. In the extract to follow, Francis Louis Michel of
Switzerland speaks of the method of tonging oysters in 1701, but note
that he says, "They usually pull from six to ten times." This could be
taken to mean that each individual procured his own oysters from the
lavish supply virtually at his doorstep, and stopped as soon as he had
a "mess" to enjoy over the week-end:

    The water is no less prolific, because an indescribably large
    number of big and little fish are found in the many creeks, as well
    as in the large rivers. The abundance is so great and they are so
    easily caught that I was much surprised. Many fish are dried,
    especially those that are fat. Those who have a line can catch as
    many as they please. Most of them are caught with the hook or the
    spear, as I know from personal experience, for when I went out
    several times with the line, I was surprised that I could pull out
    one fish after another, and, through the clear water I could see a
    large number of all kinds, whose names are unknown to me. They
    cannot be compared with our fish, except the herring, which is
    caught and dried in large numbers. Thus the so-called catfish is
    not unlike the large turbot. A very good fish and one easily caught
    is the eel, also like those here [in Switzerland]. There is also a
    kind like a pike. They have a long and pointed mouth, with which
    they like to bite into the hook. They are not wild, but it happens
    rarely that one can keep them on the line, for they cut it in two
    with their sharp teeth. We always had our harpoons and guns with us
    when we went out fishing, and when the fish came near we shot at
    them or harpooned them. A good fish, which is common and found in
    large numbers is the porpoise. They are so large that by their
    unusual leaps, especially when the weather changes, they make a
    great noise and often cause anxiety for the small boats or canoes.
    Especially do they endanger those that bathe. Once I cooled and
    amused myself in the water with swimming, not knowing that there
    was any danger, but my host informed me that there was.... The
    waters and especially the tributaries are filled with turtles. They
    show themselves in large numbers when it is warm. Then they come to
    the land or climb up on pieces of wood or trees lying in the water.
    When one travels in a ship their heads can be seen everywhere
    coming out of the water. The abundance of oysters is incredible.
    There are whole banks of them so that the ships must avoid them. A
    sloop, which was to land us at Kingscreek, struck an oyster bed,
    where we had to wait about two hours for the tide. They surpass
    those in England by far in size, indeed, they are four times as
    large. I often cut them in two, before I could put them into my
    mouth. The inhabitants usually catch them on Saturday. It is not
    troublesome. A pair of wooden tongs is needed. Below they are wide,
    tipped with iron. At the time of the ebb they row to the beds and
    with the long tongs they reach down to the bottom. They pinch them
    together tightly and then pull or tear up that which has been
    seized. They usually pull from six to ten times. In summer they are
    not very good, but unhealthy and can cause fever.

The most comprehensive list of fish thus far given by the early
historians was offered by Robert Beverley in 1705. Again as with John
Smith, there are names that do not fit in today. But these are very
few: "greenfish," "maid," "wife," and "frogfish" perhaps, all of which,
however, are well-known in England. The recurring mention of carp in
the early authorities quoted is interesting, since it has long been
believed that carp were introduced into the Chesapeake region in 1877
by the U.S. Fish Commission. No doubt that was carp of another
species. The esteemed sheepshead is today very rare:

    As for fish, both of fresh and salt water, of shellfish, and
    others, no country can boast of more variety, greater plenty, or of
    better in their several kinds.

    In the spring of the year, herrings come up in such abundance into
    their brooks and fords to spawn that it is almost impossible to
    ride through without treading on them. Thus do those poor creatures
    expose their own lives to some hazard out of their care to find a
    more convenient reception for their young, which are not yet alive.
    Thence it is that at this time of the year, the freshes of the
    rivers, like that of the Broadruck, stink of fish.

    Besides these herrings, there come up likewise into the freshes
    from the sea multitudes of shad, rock, sturgeon, and some few
    lampreys, which fasten themselves to the shad, as the remora of
    Imperatus is said to do to the shark of Tiburon. They continue
    their stay there about three months. The shad at their first coming
    up are fat and fleshy, but they waste so extremely in milting and
    spawning that at their going down they are poor and seem fuller of
    bones, only because they have less flesh. As these are in the
    freshes, so the salts afford at certain times of the year many
    other kinds of fish in infinite shoals, such as the oldwife, a fish
    not much unlike a herring, and the sheepshead, a sort of fish which
    they esteem in the number of their best.

    There is likewise great plenty of other fish all the summer long
    and almost in every part of the rivers and brooks there are found
    of different kinds. Wherefore I shall not pretend to give a detail
    of them, but venture to mention the names only of such as I have
    eaten and seen myself and so leave the rest to those that are
    better skilled in natural history. However, I may add that besides
    all those that I have met with myself, I have heard of a great many
    very good sorts, both in the salts and freshes, and such people
    too, as have not always spent their time in that country, have
    commended them to me, beyond any they had ever eaten before.

    Those which I know myself, I remember by the names of herring,
    rock, sturgeon, shad, oldwife, sheepshead, black and red drums,
    trout, taylor, greenfish, sunfish, bass, chub, plaice, flounder,
    whiting, fatback, maid, wife, small turtle, crab, oyster, mussel,
    cockle, shrimp, needlefish, bream, carp, pike, jack, mullet, eel,
    conger eel, perch, and catfish.

    Those which I remember to have seen there of the kinds that are not
    eaten are the whale, porpoise, shark, dogfish, gar, stingray,
    thornback, sawfish, toadfish, frogfish, land crabs, fiddlers, and

Francis Makemie, often called the father of American Presbyterianism,
was concerned, in his _A Plain and Friendly Perswasive to the
Inhabitants of Virginia and Maryland for Promoting Towns and
Cohabitations_, about the dearth of markets for fishery products. It
was a condition brought about largely by a general lack of money in
circulation. It was easily possible for entire families to subsist the
year around on the fruits of land and water plus unexacting manual
labor. Wealth was concentrated in the hands of the more important
planters whose estates were usually self-sufficient and concentrating
on trade with England. The natural bounty of the Tidewater region thus
actually deterred the development of Virginia along the lines of New
England with its urban centers:

    Cohabitation would not only employ thousands of people ... others
    would be employed in hunting, fishing, and fowling, and the more
    diligently if assured of a public market....

    So also our fishing would be advanced and improved highly by
    encouraging many poor men to follow that calling, and sundry sorts
    which are now slighted would be fit for a town market, as sturgeon,
    thornback, and catfish. Our vast plenty of oysters would make a
    beneficial trade, both with the town and foreign traders, believing
    we have the best oysters for pickling and transportation if
    carefully and skillfully managed.

By 1705 the seat of government had been transferred to nearby
Williamsburg. The need of establishing towns as foci for the developing
countryside had been felt and now the legislators turned their
attention to promoting the fish markets therein, followed by some
essential protection of the rights of fishermen and others. Hening's
_Statutes_ gives the details:

    October, 1705. For the encouragement and bettering of the markets
    in the said town, Be it enacted, That no dead provision, either of
    flesh or fish shall be sold within five miles of any of the ports
    or towns appointed by this act, on the same side the great river
    the town shall stand upon, but within the limits of the town, on
    pain of forfeiture and loss of all such provision by the purchases,
    and the purchase money of such provision sold by the vendor,
    cognizable by any justice of the county....

    Be it further enacted and declared, That if any person or persons
    shall at any time hereafter shoot, hunt or range upon the lands and
    tenements, or fish or fowl in any creeks or waters included within
    the lands of any other person or persons without license for the
    same, first obtained of the owner and proprietor thereof, every
    such person so shooting, hunting, fishing, fowling, or ranging,
    shall forfeit and pay for every such offence, the sum of five
    hundred pounds of tobacco....

    Be it further enacted, That if any person shall set, or cause to be
    set, a weir in any river or creek, such person shall cause the
    stayes thereof to be taken up again, as soon as the weir becomes
    useless; and if any person shall fail of performing his duty
    herein, he shall forfeit and pay fifteen shillings current money,
    to the informer: To be recovered, with costs, before a justice of
    the peace.

The essentials of any stable industry are: control of supply and means
of distribution. The fisheries of Virginia were blessed with neither of
these advantages. Any progress had to be made in spite of uncertain
harvests and lack of packing and handling facilities. Distribution of
fresh seafoods was impossible without rapid transportation and adequate
refrigeration. Neither was available for two centuries. Virginia's huge
supply of oysters was a case in point. Consumption of oysters was
limited to those who lived on the spot, and though they figured
importantly in the Tidewater diet, as a palpable resource they were
untouched until the 19th century. The principal means of preserving
them before then was by pickling. In that form they were quite popular
during the Colonial period. Fish were salted when there was a surplus
and in certain seasons, especially the spawning time of the anadromous
river-herring, they were available in phenomenal quantities. They
remain today among Virginia's most plentiful fish but the salting
industry has now become a mere token of its former magnitude.

The Chesapeake bay blue crab which today constitutes a resource worth
about $5,000,000 a year to Virginia crabbers and packers, had to wait
even longer than fish and oysters did for development. Salting and
pickling were unsuitable to this delicate food and expeditious handling
methods did not exist.

In an exhaustive catalogue of the marine life of Virginia William Byrd
II, of Westover said:

    Herring are not as large as the European ones, but better and more
    delicious. After being salted they become red. If one prepares them
    with vinegar and olive oil, they then taste like anchovies or
    sardines, since they are far better in salt than the English or
    European herring. When they spawn, all streams and waters are
    completely filled with them, and one might believe, when he sees
    such terrible amounts of them, that there was as great a supply of
    herring as there is water. In a word, it is unbelievable, indeed,
    indescribable, as also incomprehensible, what quantity is found
    there. One must behold oneself.

At the time he wrote Virginians were beginning to compete with
Canadians and New Englanders in exporting salt fish, particularly to
the West Indies, where a large proportion of them were exchanged for
the rum so freely used on the plantations as slave rations.

There were no dams barring access to the highest reaches of the rivers
and no cities and factories to discharge pollution, so that the
river-herring and shad made their way far inland even to the Blue Ridge
mountains. There the pioneers awaited them eagerly each spring and
salted down a supply to tide them over till the next run. Small wonder,
then, that the love of salt herring--always with corn bread--became
ingrained in so many Old Virginians!

They had an illustrious exemplar. Once, in 1782, when George Washington
was due to visit Robert Howe the honored host wrote to a friend:
"General Washington dines with me tomorrow. He is exceedingly fond of
salt fish."

Despite obstacles a healthy experimentation in the various phases of
fishing was now and then manifest. For example, in 1710 one adventurous
fisherman wished to extend the home fisheries to whaling and applied to
the Virginia Council for a license. Whales, though not common in
Chesapeake bay or the ocean area near it, had been noted from time to
time ever since the birth of the Colony. Most often they were washed
ashore dead. John Custis, of Northampton County, succeeded in making 30
barrels of oil from one such in 1747. The year before that a live one
was spotted in the James river by some Scottish sailors who were able
to comer it in shallow water. After killing it, they found it to
measure 54 feet! The _Virginia Gazette_, published in Williamsburg,
carried this item in 1751:

    Some principal gentlemen of the Colony, having by voluntary
    subscription agreed to fit out vessels to be employed in the whale
    fishery on our coast, a small sloop called the _Experiment_ was
    some time ago sent on a cruise, and we have the pleasure to
    acquaint the public that she is now returned with a valuable whale.
    Though she is the first vessel sent from Virginia in this employ,
    yet her success, we hope, will give encouragement to the further
    prosecution of the design which, we doubt not, will tend very much
    to the advantage of the Colony as well as excite us to other
    profitable undertakings hitherto too much neglected.

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 [1761], 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

    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

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

    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

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
François 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

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 £15 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

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

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

    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

    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

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 £10 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 £60 or £80 more. Thus on an average every
    ship that goes now empty from these ports to America, might clear
    £70 and there are above a hundred sail to that voyage every year.
    This is an annual loss of £7,000 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

    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

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

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 £170 for the catch at the Posey's ferry fishery, with £26
debited to operating cost. At the Johnson's ferry fishery £114 was
taken in and £28 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 £5 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 £60." 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 £10 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 _très 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

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

    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

    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 Méry,

    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 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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