American History and Genealogy Project


The Fishing Industry

From time immemorial it has been an honorable calling "to those that went down to the sea in boats". These brave and hardy mariners, inured from early life to exposure and countless dangers, acquire a courage and calmness in the hour of peril that are sublime. The brilliant and daring achievements of our little navy in its unequal contest with the "Mistress of the Sea" in 181214, which attracted the notice and compelled the respect of the whole world, were made possible by our plucky seamen who manned those ships.

In the future, when warfare will be practically settled on the ocean, this country will not turn in vain to our brave sailors and fishermen to defend the nation's honor in the time of peril. For this reason the interests of the mariners have always been watched with the greatest solicitude, and their rights jealously protected both by national laws and international treaties since the foundation of the government.

The fisheries at Swan's Island must have begun with, and, in fact, led to, its settlement; in after years they became the sole means of support to its inhabitants. Few, if any other town in the State, ever had its entire population dependent upon one industry for a livelihood. During the first half century after its settlement, and even later, every man and boy in this town was perfectly familiar with and had been employed on a boat or vessel in this dangerous but oftentimes lucrative employment of following the sea.

Most of the settlers who came here had been fishermen in the places from which they came, and their chief attraction here was the abundance and variety of fish that could be caught near the shore, and the excellent harbor which afforded shelter for their boats. Even those who were engaged for a time in cutting and hauling logs that were manufactured at Swan's mills, soon began to see a more lucrative employment in the shore fisheries, which industry was beginning to be stimulated by a demand in the market.

Even in those early times, with what could be earned from the fisheries, with the crops that could be raised from the fairly productive soil, and cutting kiln wood in the winter, the settler could make ample provision for his family. Others engaged in freighting Swan's lumber to market. Among those who came here for this purpose were the Nutters, Kents and Sadlers. Kiln wood was carried to what is now the city of Rockland, where lime burning had begun. Paving stones taken from the surf worn beaches of the outer shores were disposed of in the older towns of Massachusetts. Traders came here in vessels from a distance, and offered liquor, manufactured articles and other wares in exchange for such products as could readily be handled, such as dried fish, wool and such products of the soil as could be spared.

Near the year 1800 the market for salt fish increased, and the price was good considering the ease with which they could be taken; the business drew the attention of the settlers more and more to this means of obtaining a livelihood. Unfortunately their lack of the means to engage in the business on a large scale, as well as a lack of knowledge of the business conditions at a distance, prevented them from securing the profit they otherwise could have made. Years elapsed before anything larger than open boats were used at this island. Both the boat and the mode of fishing were of the most primitive character. The largest boats were called chebacco boats. They were small two-masted boats of about fifteen tons. Cod and haddock were the only fish for which there was a call in the market. Halibut were plenty, often so abundant as to make it necessary for a boat to change her berth to avoid them, but they were not marketable. Occasionally a fisherman would catch one and smoke it for use in his own family. The larger part of the fishing, however, was done in small rowboats called wherries. The fishermen would usually get an early start so as to be on the fishing grounds by daylight. Often a large number of boats would go out in company. Here they would fish with hand lines until near sundown, when they would get up their killick and start for the harbor.

When brought to shore the fish were split, dressed and thoroughly washed, then carried on a hand barrow to the little fish house where they were salted. During the day women spread the fish on flakes to dry, turning them to dry both sides alike and often shading them with green boughs in the heat of the day to save them from being burned by the sun. When sufficiently cured, they were stored in the loft of the fish house until fall when they were carried to market and exchanged for shoes, clothes and provisions to last the family through the long, bleak winters. The fisherman's wife found few moments in the day to be idle. Besides the care of a large family of children, she carded, spun and wove the wool into cloth for the use of the family; and, with the aid of the children, planted a little garden, tending it whenever there was a spare moment. In the fall she would gather in a good harvest to reward her for her toil. Such hardships and privations of these pioneer settlers on these inhospitable shores, and the firm and cheerful willingness and power to overcome all these obstacles, have certainly transmitted to their descendants on this island the thrift, frugality and self reliance which have been the means of surrounding them with homes of comfort and luxury.

Many of the early settlers here were boat builders. They could get out their building material from the forest around them, and work on boats during odd hours in the winter when they could not go out fishing. Moses Staples not only built boats for home use, but also small vessels, which he sold to people from other places. The Joyces were also ship carpenters.

An increase in the demand and supply of fish called for boats of larger capacity, for better fishing grounds were found farther off shore, where it was unsafe to go in small boats; besides, the latter were inconvenient in carrying their fish to market. So about the year 1810 the chebacco boat was succeeded by the jigger or pinky. The pinky had a small cuddy wherein were berths for the crew, a brick fireplace and chimney with a wooden funnel. Their food consisted mainly of fish, potatoes, pork, molasses and Indian or barley bread. In these small crafts some long and hazardous voyages were made. This was especially risky in returning from the gulf of St. Lawrence in the fall of the year, when they would often encounter severe gales where no harbor could be made, and the only alternative was to withstand the tempest as best they could, or go to their destruction on that rockbound shore. It seems almost miraculous that no more accidents occurred at that time.

Mackerel were first caught in 1800. At first little attention was paid to this kind of fish, but year by year mackerel fishing grew in importance. In 1816 the jig hook was invented by Abraham Lurvey. The earliest practice of catching mackerel was for the vessel to drift slowly under light sail, with the crew ranged along the side of the vessel or boat, each with a hook and line attached to a pole held in the hand. The hook being baited and flung out to a length of several yards, and it moving through the water, attracted the attention of the mackerel, which, upon being caught, were landed on board and thrown into a barrel or tub. It was discovered later that throwing chopped menhaden or herring into the water had the effect of attracting the mackerel in great numbers. The oily portion of the bait covering the surface of the water, acted as a guide for the fish to follow until, reaching the side of the vessel, they came in contact with the hooks baited with fresh and more palatable bait which was ravenously seized by the mackerel. Bait mills, to grind up the fish, came into use in 1820. This was a great laborsaving device, as previous to this time the fish had to be chopped with a hatchet. Poles to which lines were attached while fishing were soon dispensed with as being cumbersome and unnecessary. Soon any sized boat, from a skiff to a pinky, was serviceable for catching mackerel. Skill in catching was the main consideration. In getting crews, boys from twelve to twenty were more often selected as being more proficient than those of more mature years. This employment of boys made the burden of raising large families easy, when they were composed mostly of boys. A separate account was kept of each man's catch, so the more skillful he was the greater would be his income. One half of the gross stock went to the owners of the vessel who furnished the supplies and provisions, and the other half went to the crew. Some years, even in these small crafts, excellent y ear's work was made.

Quite a number of pinkies were owned here, among them were the "Columbia", owned by Levi Torrey, the schooner "Amelia", owned by Benjamin Stinson, the "Pearl", "Young James", "Catherine", built by Silas Hardy, and the "Arcade", built by Ebenezer Joyce and Alexander Staples in 1827.

Vessels engaged in mackerel fishing would fit out in March or April to go south and return about the first of July. The rest of the season would be spent in the Bay of Fundy and along the whole coast of Maine, and some even went to the gulf of St. Lawrence. Cod fishing, however, continued to be the principal fishery.

Recognizing the great service of the fishermen in the war, and wishing to further encourage this industry, Congress passed an act on July 29, 1813, to pay a bounty to vessels so employed. The following is a synopsis of that law: That after the last day of December, 1814, there shall be paid to the owners of vessels carrying on the bank and other cod fisheries who have been employed therein at sea for four months in the year, the following bounty: For vessels between 20 and 30 tons, $2.40 per ton; above 30 tons, $4, of which three-eighths shall go to the owners of the vessel, and five-eighths divided among the crew. The amount allowed to any one vessel was not to exceed $272. At the same time a bounty was granted to fishing boats of more than five and less than twenty tons, provided said boat landed a quantity of fish equal to twelve quintals for every ton of measurement. The codfish industry reached its height about 1832, after which it gradually declined. The bounty laws were repealed July 28, 1866.

As the other fisheries declined, The mackerel catch increased, the common practice being to engage in cod fishing, getting one fare before the mackerel appeared, either on the Maine coast or in the gulf of St. Lawrence, after which the vessel, and usually the same crew, would engage in mackerel fishing.

A day's experience on board of a hand-line mackerel fisherman of those times is so graphically described by Aaron Lightfoot that I give it below:

"The amount of moral courage and Christian fortitude required for a landsman to get up out of a comfortable bed and struggle up on a cold, wet, cheerless deck to handle cold, wet lines and colder, wetter fish, all for the 'experience', will never be known except by those who have allowed themselves to be deluded into the thing. It is diabolical. Now the mainsail is up, the jib down, and the captain is throwing bait. It is not yet quite light, but we hear other mainsails going up all around us. A cold drizzling rain does not add to the comfort of the situation, and we stand around shivering, half asleep, with our sore hands in our wet pockets, about as 'demmed moist, uncomfortable bodies', as ever dear old Mantilini saw, and all wishing we were at home, and had never heard of a mackerel. The skipper, however, is holding his line over the rail with an air that clearly intimates that the slightest kind of a nibble will be quite sufficient this morning to seal the doom of the unfortunate mack.

"'There, by Jove! the captain's hauling back, I told you so! Skipper's got him, no, ah, captain, you hauled back too savagely!'

"With the first movement of the captain's arm indicating the presence of fish, everybody rushes madly to the rail, and jigs are heard on all sides splashing into the water, and eager hands and arms are stretched at their full length over the side, feeling anxiously for a nibble.

"'Sh__hist! there's something just passed my fly, I felt him,' says an old man standing alongside of me. 'Yes, and I've got him!' triumphantly shouts the next man on the other side of him, hauling in, as he speaks, a fine mackerel, and striking him off into the barrel in the most approved style.

"Zzzzip goes my line through and deep into my poor fingers, as a huge fellow rushes savagely away with what he finds is not so great a prize as he fondly supposed. I was greatly flurried, missed stroke half a dozen times in as many fathoms of line, and at length succeeded in landing my first fish safely in my barrel, where he lies floundering, 'melancholy and melodious,' as my next neighbor styles it.

"Daylight soon dawns, and the rain, which had been threatening very moistly all night, began to pour down in dead earnest; and as the big drops began to patter in the water the fish began to bite furiously.

"'Shorten up,' says the skipper, and we shorten our lines to about eight feet from the rail to the hooks, when we can hook them in just as fast as we can move our hands and arms. ' Keep your lines clear! 'is now the word, as the doomed fish flip faster and faster into our barrels. Every face wears an expression of anxious determination. Everybody moves as though he had a full set of elastic springs within him; every heart beats loud with excitement, and every hand hauls in fish and throws out hook with a method; cool precision, a kind of slow haste, which unites the greatest speed with the utmost security against foul lines.

"The rain momentarily increases. We hear jigs rattling down, and glancing up hastily, I am surprised to find our vessel surrounded on all sides by the fleet, which has already become aware that we have fish alongside.

"Meantime the wind rises, the sea struggles against the rain, which is endeavoring with its steady patter to quiet the turmoil of Old Ocean. We are already on our third barrel of fish, each, and still they come as fast as ever, and the business (sport it ceased to be some time ago) continues with undiminished vigor. Streams of perspiration course down our faces. jackets, caps and even our shirts are thrown off to give greater freedom to limbs that are worked to their utmost.

"'Hello! where are the fish?' calls out somebody; and sure enough, all at once the whole business comes to a standstill, the fish have apparently 'shut up shop' and gone home, for not the faintest nibble does one of the fishermen get. The mackerel, which a moment ago were fairly rushing on board, have in that moment disappeared so completely that not a sign of one is left. The next vessel under our lee holds them a little longer than we, but they finally also disappear from her side. And so on all around us.

"And now we have a chance to look around us; to compare notes on each other's success; to straighten our backbones, nearly broken and aching horribly with constant reaching over; to examine our fingers, cut to pieces and grown as sensationless as a piece of salt junk, with the perpetual dragging of small lines across them."

About the year 1850 a decided improvement in the moral and social condition of the people of Swan's Island took place. Increased economy resulted in placing some of the settlers in a position to obtain better fishing crafts, and the bounty paid by the government greatly stimulated the industry here. This saved the necessity of running in debt in advance for the necessaries of life and the expense of running the craft. Improved methods of fishing were learned from the crafts of the larger ports of Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine, and at the outbreak of the Civil war quite a number of fair sized vessels were owned by their captains here. The high price for fish caused by the war resulted in increased production, and a steady growth in prosperity was maintained for several years. Several captains here accumulated considerable property, and the lesson learned from them resulted in profitable returns to the generation succeeding them.

The following is a list of vessels belonging to Swan's Island which were registered at the customhouse at Castine at the close of the war: Schooners "Clarissa Person", "Eagle", "Eliza Mary", "Emerald", "Empire", "Gipsy Queen", " Golden Rule", "Huntress", "Ivy", "John Pew", "Lucy May", "Matilda", "Orinole", "Phebe", "Rainbow", "Reindeer", "S. J. Collins", "Sharpshooter", "Shawmut", "Traveler", "Traverse" and "Volant". In tonnage they ranged from ten to sixty tons.

About the year 1871 a new mode of catching mackerel was instituted. Instead of the hook and line, large, expensive seines began to be used. The first to try this new experiment from this island was Capt. Freeman Gott in the schooner "Highland Queen" during the season of '72. So many more fish could be taken in this way, that the other vessels quickly supplied themselves with the necessary apparatus. Much more capital became invested in this industry. New, fast sailing vessels were built, and expensive seines and seine-boats were required.

Stern discipline as seen on a merchant ship does not exist on board a fisherman. Of the sixteen to eighteen men that comprise her crew, all are on equal terms, the captain often consulting with the crew, and all working with a will and in harmony, as the income depends on the activity of every man. The crew is composed mostly of Americans, who are active and experienced fishermen. The food served aboard these seiners is as good as at a hotel. The cabin is finished and furnished in a tasteful and often elegant manner. The share is managed differently from what it was on a hand liner, as the crew of the seiner usually all share the same. One half of the proceeds is thus divided among the crew, and the other half goes to furnish supplies and gear, and to compensate the owners of the vessel.

Mackerel seiners usually collect in a fleet. Often a hundred or more sail of vessels will be in view of each other at one time on the fishing grounds, or together seek the shelter of some friendly harbor during a storm. Such a fleet entering or leaving a harbor presents a most interesting view.

Mackerel having been fed on bait so long a time had become very tame, so that they would collect in great bodies, called schools, which would appear near the surface of the water. A lookout is kept at masthead. As soon as a school is seen by him, all is excitement on board the vessel. The seine-boat is manned by some ten men, who row rapidly toward where the mackerel are showing. When in the right position the seine, of about 1,500 feet, is cast in a circle around the fish and the bottom of the seine is then pursed up. The vessel is speedily brought "alongside the seine-boat, and a portion of the cork line is fastened to the rail of the vessel, so that the mackerel lie in the seine between the vessel's side and the seine-boat. A large dip-net with tackle and a long handle soon bails the mackerel out, by the half barrelful, on the deck.

Next begins the dressing of the mackerel. With a small dip-net they are thrown into square boxes, where they are split, gibbed and finally salted into barrels. The fish is also often cut by slight curves called "plowed", which gives them a fat appearance. Sometimes the seine is thrown many times a day. Often the mackerel get frightened and escape under the seine before it is pursed up; again two or three hundred barrels may be taken at one time.

Fishermen from Swan's Island soon took a leading place in this industry. Their knowledge of net fishing, previously gained in the herring and other fisheries, made them well qualified to operate the purse seine successfully. Especially during the first two or three years our vessels were noted for their phenomenal catches, from which sufficient profit was made to enable them to buy and own, even then, ten to fifteen of the best vessels in the fleet.

From 1874 to 1889 Swan's Island fishing vessels took either the first or second place every year among the fleet of the whole Atlantic coast, a fact that should awaken an honest pride in the energy and thrift of our fishermen. Many large and expensive vessels were built for and owned by our captains, and seamen came from all the surrounding towns to secure positions with our successful captains. Signs of prosperity were everywhere apparent. New, elegant houses were rapidly being erected. Roads were improved, and many horses were brought to the island. Travel greatly increased so that it made it profitable for a steamboat to connect here. No pauper called for aid; everybody had a plenty. So alluring and profitable was this occupation that almost every male inhabitant, except those enfeebled by old age or the young boys, would be gone from the island.

Among some of the notable fares it may be noticed that in 1880 the schooner "Alice", of Swan's Island, took 3,700 barrels of mackerel, stocking $19,548.75. In 1881 the schooner "Isaac Rich'' took 2,000 barrels up to the middle of July. The same year the schooner "Alice" took 4,804 barrels to Oct. 21. In 1885 the steamer "Novelty", built for and commanded by Hanson B. Joyce, was one of the largest fishing steamers in the world, carrying a crew of forty men. Although very large quantities of mackerel were taken, yet the expense of running her was large. Unfortunately about this time the mackerel, which had been so persistently chased, began to disappear. This made the experiment with the steamer rather unprofitable, so in 1889, after a four years' trial, she was sold at a considerable loss. From this time until 1891 this industry gradually declined. After this time the decline in the quantity obtainable and the difficulty of keeping track of so small a body of fish, made success more a matter of luck and circumstances than of energy and hard work. Finally, one by one, the vessels were disposed of until at this time none is owned here, and the fishermen have found new occupations.

Additional Reading:
Commanders and their Vessels
Lobster, Shellfish and Sardine on Swan Island


Source: A History of Swan's Island, Maine, by H.W. Small, MD, Ellsworth Me, Hancock County Publishing Company, Printers, 1808



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