300 Years of Nautical History Right in Your Backyard
When the colonists first settled in America, as you might imagine, it was a very difficult life. It would be another hundred years or so before any exploration westward would or could occur. Settlements up and down the northeast coast proved hostile when it came to survival and sustenance. Farming the land was difficult as the coastal geography proved rocky with poor soil and harsh winters. Thus, in the spirit of American ingenuity, the brave settlers turned to the sea for survival. There is a reason why the New England states of Maine and Massachusetts are known for their lobster, clams, and cod; while New York, New Jersey, and Maryland are known for their delicious blue crab and oysters.
Here’s an interesting tidbit: Lobster was so plentiful in colonial days and was not considered the delicacy it is today… in fact, quite the opposite was true. Lobster was the main food fed to prisoners in colonial times.
The fishing industry in New England is a fascinating story of great seamanship and bravery and told well in the 2000 movie The Perfect Storm.
Boston and New York became the largest ports in the Americas for trade and commerce, vital to the survival of the new settlement and ultimately the survival of the colonies. Britain’s great steamship company Cunard Lines (Samuel Cunard was from Halifax) made the New York waterfront fashionable with the arrival and departures of some of the grandest ocean liners ever to sail the seas such as the RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth. The earlier Cunard fleet of ships actually called on the port of Boston before their move to New York in the early 1900’s. Many of Americas greatest fortunes were built from the shipping industry of the 18th and 19th centuries.
Long before the invention of electricity and the electric light bulb that lit the world, the light was provided by kerosene lanterns for a period of time. Prior to the discovery of oil and kerosene, our world was lit by whale oil in those same lanterns. The hundreds of years of whaling in America is told in countless communities like New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts. Any RV’ers bucket list of trips should certainly include a trip up the coast of New England in the late summer and early fall. The coast from Rhode Island to Maine has thousands of beautiful old homes of sea captain’s and seafarers. Of particular note on many of these old homes are the beautiful lookouts high on the peak of roofs. These “widows walk” as they are known tell amazing stories. It was very common for a whaling ship to put to sea for many years before returning with a cargo hold of whale oil vital to lighting the country. At the sight of a sail on the horizon, the wives and ladies of seafarers who had not seen their spouses in years would rush to the rooftop in the hopes that the arriving sailing ship was their loved ones returning from sea. Imagine the heartbreak, disappointment, and suffering of families for those who never returned from sea.
America has always been a maritime nation. The United States Navy was formed in 1775 by the threat to merchant ships from Barbary pirates. Merchant ships were armed to defend themselves and thus America’s Navy was born.
There are hundreds of tiny maritime museums all across this country. Some tell the stories above, others tell of the great tuna fleets, the shrimping industry, ship construction, boat building, whaling, and the many great stories of bravery at sea. Visit these museums in your travels and you will come away with a newfound appreciation of America’s maritime culture.
In later blogs, we will talk about the maritime history of the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest. By 1940, nearly 40% of America’s population lived around the Great Lakes as that was where the fresh water was and that is where America’s industrial heartland was. Imagine what wonderful nautical history and stories are to be told there?
Until next time, be happy and safe in your travels and please feel free to comment below.