Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Watery Villagers: sea creatures of colonial New England

As observed by William Wood in New Englands Prospect, published in 1634-35 as an advertisement for Englishmen to emigrate to Massachusetts Bay Colony. Some of the species Wood mentions may have become extinct from over-fishing in the 17th and 18th centuries. Fishing and whaling in the North Atlantic were big business even before the New England colonies were established, and became one of the chief recreational pursuits of the settlers.

Let me leade you from the land to the Sea, to view what commodities may come from thence; there is no countrey knowne, that yeelds more variety of fish winter and summer: and that not onely for the present spending and sustentation of the plantations, but likewise for trade into other countries, so that those which have had stages & make fishing voyages into those parts, have gained (it is thought) more than the Newfoundland Jobbers. Codfish in these seas are larger than in Newfoundland, six or seven making a quintall, whereas there they have fifteene to the same weight; and though this they seeme a base and more contemptible commoditie in the judgement of more neate adventurers, yet it hath bin the enrichment of other nations, and is likely to prove no small commoditie to the planters, and likewise to England if it were thorowly undertaken. Salt may be had from the salt Islands, and as is supposed may be made in the countrey. The chiefe fish for trade is Cod, but for the use of the countrey, there is all manner of fish as followeth.

The king of waters, the Sea shouldering Whale,
The snuffing Grampus, with the oyly Seale,
The Storme presaging Porpus, Herring-Hogge,
Lineshearing Sharke, the Catfish, and Sea Dogge,
Still-Life of Fish and Cat by Clara Peeters, 1594-1657.
The Scale-fenc'd Sturgeon, wry mouthd Hollibut,
The flounsing Sammon, Codfish, Greediguts [see below].
Cole, Haddocke, Haicke, the Thornebacke, and the Scale,
Whose Slimie outside makes himselfe in date, 

The stately Basse old Neptunes sleeting post,
That tides it out and in from Sea to Coast.
Consorting Herrings, and the bony Shad,
Big bellied Alewives, Machrills richly clad
With Rainebow colours, thy Frost fist and the Smelt,
As good as ever lady Gustus [taste] felt.
The spotted Lamprons, Eeles, the Lamperies,
That seeke fresh water brookes with Argus eyes;
These waterie villagers with thousands more,
Doe passe and repasse neare the verdant store.

Broyling Fish Over Fire, by John White c 1540-1593.
“The men bestow their time in fishing,
hunting, wars, and such man-like exercises,”
William Strachey wrote of Native Americans in 1609-1610.
Kinds of all Shel-fish.
The luscious Lobster, with the Crabfish raw,
The Briniy Osier, Muscle, Periwigge,
And Tortoise sought for by the Indian Squaw,
Which to the slats daunce many a winters Jigge,
To dive for Coddes, and to digge for Clamms,
Whereby her lazie husbands guts hee cramms.

To omit such of these as are not usefull, therefore not to be spoken of, and onely to certifie you of such as be usefull.

First the Seale which is that which is called the Sea Calfe, his skinne is good for divers uses, his body being betweene fish and flesh, it is not very delectable to the pallate, or congruent with the stomack; his Oyle is very good to burne in Lampes, of which he affords a great deale.

Late 17th century fishing vessel.
Ships such as this one often frequented the coastal waters
around the island of Newfoundland on a seasonal
basis during the 17th and 18th centuries. Ship detail
from a French woodcut of unknown origins. In 1710,
a similar scene appeared on the Herman Moll map
of North America with the English description,

 The Sharke is a kinde of fish as bigge as a man, some as bigge as a horse, with three rowes of teeth within his mouth, with which he snaps asunder the fishermans lines, if he be not very circumspect: This fish will leape at a mans hand if it be over board, and with his teeth snap off a mans legge or hand if he be a swimming; These are often taken, being good for nothing but to put on the ground for manuring of land.

The Sturgeons be all over the countrey, but the best catching of them be upon the shoales of Cape Codde, and in the River of Mirrimacke, where much is taken, pickled and brought for England, some of these be 12. 14. 18. foote long: I set not downe the price of fish there, because it is so cheape, so that one may have as much for two pence, as would give him an angell in England. The Sammon is as good as it is in England and in great plenty. The Hollibut is not much unlike a plaice or Turbot, some being two yards long and one wide: and a foot thicke; the plenty of better fish makes these of little esteeme, except the head and finnes, which stewed or baked is very good: these Hollibuts be little set by while Basse is in season. Thornebacke and Scates [rays] is given to the dogges, being not counted worth the dressing in many places.

Atlantic bass, William Wood's favorite fish.
He thought sea bass was better than lobster.
Do not neglect the "sweet, good, pleasant to the palate,
wholesome" marrow in the headbone. (Ack!)

Wood describes bass as 3-4 feet long or larger,  so today's
bass must be wimps compared to those in the 1630s.
The Basse is one of the best fishes in the countrey, and though men are soone wearied with other fish, yet are they never with Basse; it is a delicate, fine, fat, fast fish, having a bone in his head, which containes a sawcerfull of marrow sweet and good, pleasant to the pallat, and wholsome to the stomack. When there be great store of them,we onely eate the heads, and salt up the bodies for winter, which exceedes Ling or Haberdine. Of these fishes some be three and some foure foot long, some bigger, some lesser: at some tides a man may catch a dozen or twenty of these in three houres, the way to catch them is with hooke and line: The Fisherman taking a great Cod-line, to which he fastneth a peece of Lobster, and throwes it into the Sea, the fish biting at it he pulls her to him, and knockes her on the head with a sticke.

These are at one time (when Alewives passe up the Rivers) to be catched in Rivers, in Lobster time at the Rockes, in Macrill time in the Bayes, at Michelmas in the Seas. When they use to tide it in and out to the Rivers and Creekes, the English at the top of an high water do crosse the Creekes with long seines or Basse Netts, which stop in the fish; and the water ebbing from them they are left on the dry ground, sometimes two or three thousand at a set, which are salted up against winter, or distributed to such as have present occasion either to spend them in their houses, or use them for their ground. The Herrings be much like them that be caught on the English coasts. Alewives be a kind of fish which is much like a Herring, which in the latter end of Aprill come up to the fresh Rivers to spawne, in such multitudes as is allmost incredible, pressing up in such shallow waters as will scarce permit them to swimme, having likewise such longing desire after the fresh water ponds, that no beatings with poles, or forcive agitations by other devices, will cause them to returne to the sea, till they have cast their Spawne. The Shaddes be bigger than the English Shaddes and fatter.

The Macrills [mackerel] be of two sorts, in the beginning of the yeare are great ones, which be upon the coast; some are 18. inches long. In Summer as in May, June, July, and August, come in a smaller kind of them: These Macrills are taken with drailes which is a long small line, with a lead and hooke at the end of it, being baited with a peece of red cloath: this kind of fish is counted a leane fish in England, but there it is so fat, that it can scarce be saved against winter without reisting.
Eel and lampern
There be a great store of Salt water Eeles, especially in such places where grasse growes: for to take these there be certaine Eele pots made of Osyers, which must be baited with a peece of Lobster, into which the Eeles entering cannot returne backe againe: some take a bushel in a night in this manner, eating as many as they have neede of for the present, and salt up the rest against winter. These Eeles be not of so luscious a taste as they be in England, neyther are they so aguish [feverish? shivering? quivering?], but are both wholesome for the body, and delightfull for the taste: Lamprons and Lampreyes be not much set by. 

Lobsters be in plenty in most places, very large ones, some being 20. pound in weight; these are taken at a low water amongst the rockes, they are very good fish, the small ones being the best, their plenty makes them little esteemed and seldome eaten. The Indians get many of them every day for to baite their hookes withall, and to eate when they can get no Basse.

The Oisters be great ones in forme of a shoo horne, some be a foote long, these breede on certaine bankes that are bare every spring tide. This fish without the shell is so big that it must admit of a division before you can well get it into your mouth.
The "periwig fish" is
probably the starlet sea
anemone, which lives in
salt marshes. Thanks to
Alysa Farrell for
help in identification.

The Perewig is a kind of fish that lyeth in the ooze like a head of haire, which being touched conveyes it selfe leaving nothing to bee seene but a small round hole.  

Muscles [mussels] be in great plenty, left onely for the Hogges, which if they were in England would be more esteemed of the poorer sort. Clamms or Clamps is a shel-fish not much unlike a cockle, it lyeth under the sand, every six or seven of them having a round hole to take ayre and receive water at. When the tide ebbs and flowes, a man running over these Clamm bankes will presently be made all wet, by their spouting of water out of those small holes: These fishes be in great plenty in most places of the countrey, which is a great commoditie for the feeding of Swine, both in winter, and Summer; for being once used to those places, they will repaire to them as duely every ebbe, as if they were driven to them by keepers: In some places of the countrey there bee Clamms as bigge as a pennie white loafe, which are great dainties amongst the natives, and would bee in good esteeme amongst the English were it not for better fish.

 Greediguts fish (Lophius piscatorius) is one U.G.L.Y. fish! 
'The singular appearance and habits of the goosefish have gained it numerous appellations. In Massachusetts the fishermen know it by the names "goosefish," "angler," or "fishing frog." In Maine it is the "monkfish," in Rhode Island the "bellows-fish," in eastern Connecticut the "molligut," and in South Carolina "allmouth." The early colonial writers refer to it as the "greedigut." It is also known as the "wide-gap," "kettle-maw," and "sea devil."' ~Unutilized fishes and their relation to the fishing industries, by Irving Angell Field.
Color photo of greediguts fish: http://www.marlin.ac.uk/imgs/o_loppis2.jpg

More about New England fish: http://www.narragansettbay.info/swgamefish.cfm 
See Kathleen Wall's article on Eels--Fat and Sweet HERE.
Massachusetts Bay underwater: http://www.mwra.state.ma.us/harbor/html/mb_images.htm  
17th-century sea monsters: http://scolarcardiff.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/science-and-sea-monsters/ 
If they had Shark Week in the 17th century: http://marybarrettdyer.blogspot.com/2014/08/if-they-had-shark-week-in-17th-century.html 

If you enjoy articles like this, you’ll love the book The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport  (The Dyers #3), by Christy K Robinson. It’s packed with illustrations, trivia, new research, and facts about the people and culture of the 17th century.  

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