Monday, 7 November 2011

Connecticut Men Who Sailed

Connecticut Men Who Sailed In Tiny Cockleshells of Boats Built Rich Sea Trade In Which Cash Hardly Ever Figured

A. Hyatt Verrill

The Hartford Courant; Jan 5, 1936; researched by Alan Schenker, digitized by Doug Frizzle, Nov 2011.

Luck Alone At the Helm On Voyages

Inland Farmers, Ignorant Of Navigation, Put to Sea For Any Port They Might Strike

All Transactions Based On Barter

Lumber, Cloth, Nails, Flour and Tobacco Traded for Rum, Sugar, Molasses and Indigo

Nowadays, when we are accustomed to using paper and silver currency, bank checks and drafts, when all commerce and trade is conducted on a monetary basis, we rarely stop to think of the difficulties our pioneer ancestors met in the days when actual currency was seldom seen. And few persons are aware of the means by which this difficulty was overcome or what a highly important part actual barter played in the history of New England and New England's commerce.

Wampum Scorned By Whites.

In their dealings with the Indians, the early settlers, of course found barter was necessary. The redmen had no use for shillings or pence but they had their own currency in the form of wampum or "peak." And here it may be of interest to explain that both these terms were derived from the Algonquin word "Warapumpeag" or "Yanpunpeeg," meaning "Strings of white beads." (Wamp or Yanp—white; Umpi or Unpe—a string of beads and Ag or Eg meaning more than one or many). Among most of the eastern tribes wampum was the standard of exchange, the blue being worth several times as much as the white, but with the arrival of the whitemen with entirely new goods, and desiring furs rather than shell beads, a new medium of exchange became essential. As a result a more or less uniform and recognized system of relative values was established with the standard, as we might say, based on some particular animal pelt.

Marten Skin As Standard.

My own great-great-grandfather, who maintained a trading post in Maine adopted the marten as his standard, and the system he followed was typical of all the outlying communities at that time. A marten pelt had a value of either half a pound of tobacco, four ounces of gunpowder, two yards of calico or two pounds of flour. Mink skins had one-half the trade value of marten but varied somewhat from year to year, and all other pelts were estimated on the trade value of marten skins. In cases where there was a small balance over, the "change" was made in articles of small exchange value, such as beads, lead, hoop iron, pins, and so forth.

Similar methods were followed in all business deals. Grain and corn brought to the mill were ground in exchange for a certain portion of the meal or flour, and logs were sawed in return for one board or plank in every five cut in the mill.

Good Profits to Be Had.

Once each year the furs, skins and forest products which had been obtained were taken to some coast town where they were disposed of for debit notes, supplies and various goods for trade. It may appear at first thought, as though there could be little or no gain by trading powder and shot or cutlery for furs, and then bartering the pelts for more ammunition and hardware. But as a matter of fact, there were immense profits to be made. Thus a marten skin, for which the trader had given four ounces of gunpowder, might be sold in Portland or Boston for several pounds of powder, which in turn would buy 10 or 12 marten skins.

In most portions of New England, however, the beaver skin was the ordinary accepted "standard." and instead of keeping accounts, recording sales and other transactions in terms of pounds, shillings and pence, they were kept in terms of beaver skins. It is recorded that Samoset sold an area of land to the British for "50 beavers." Not that the chief received payment for the real estate in beavers' pelts, which would have been about the last things he needed, but in powder and shot, hatchets and blankets, cloth, beads and trinkets to the value of 50 beaver skins. Very often, in the old documents still preserved, there is mention of cattle, household goods, grain and produce, even the cost of building ships, having been paid for in "beavers."

Currency Practically Disappears.

But very frequently no genuine beaver skins were passed from hand to hand, the actual deal being made in equivalents of beaver pelts. Indeed, so universal and well recognized did this "beaver" standard become that for greater convenience coins or tokens were struck bearing a rude figure of a beaver and which were known as "beavers." These took the place of true currency and had the value of a prime beaver skin. This led to the widely adopted use of tokens, usually of lead, brass or copper, which for a number of years served throughout New England in place of real money. They were issued by established merchants and shipping firms in the coastwise towns and were stamped with the values of the existing British coins in circulation. Real currency being extremely scarce, it was retained by the merchants and shipping firms for the purpose of liquidating taxes, port charges, customs dues and other debts which called for payment in specie, the artisans, laborers and public at large being paid in tokens which were accepted at their face value, although their worth depended entirely upon the integrity and financial status of those who issued them, the tokens being in effect, merely promissary notes, as one might say.

Even up to 50 years ago many of these old New England tokens were in use to some extent, and I can remember when, as a boy in Maine, I bought many a stick of candy, and many a marble, kite or other toy with brass tokens given to me by my grandmother along with big copper pennies and half-pennies. Often, too, these tokens greatly simplified the problems of international exchange, and many of the New England ship owners issued tokens which passed current in the British, Dutch and French West Indies as well as in New England.

Although beaver skins had become a widely recognized standard or basis of all trade values in northern New England, the settlers in the southern sections had established their own "standards" based on local products and commodities. Thus, in Connecticut, oxen, corn, salt pork and hides were the units; on which all barter was based, and were regarded as legal tender in payment of local debts and transactions, being commonly called "country money." Thus, in a contract made on June 13, 1717, between a Mr. Whiting of Hartford and Comfort Davis, it was provided that Davis, who "hath hired my whale bote to go awhalyng to Fishers Islande," was to "pay 20 shillings for the use of "bote and gere", and three pounds "if she bee loste and they get nothinge," payment to be made in "such goodes as I may use to my advantyge." It was also agreed that if Davis were successful and took a whale, that he should pay Mr. Whiting the sum of three pounds 10 shillings "in oyle from ye fish."

In another contract made in 1681, Hugh Mould of New London agreed to build a ship, the "Alexander and Martha" for a one-eighth share in the vessel and "merchantible goodes" to the value of 165 pounds.

But it was in ocean commerce that barter really came into its own. Trade was truly trade in those days, and New England's ship masters were the greatest of all traders. The first small vessels to be built were confined to the coastwise trade carrying cloth, household goods, powder and shot, hardware and similar articles from the larger towns to outlying settlements where the products of civilization were exchanged for furs, gums, wampum, sassafras roots and other native products. Often the little trading vessels sailed from place to place with no definite objective, and trading wherever they found it to the best advantage.

Used “Hiede of Lether."

But there was a regularly established trade between Connecticut and Virginia, with a "hiede of lether" as the established "standard" of barter. In the papers of Captain John Coite, owner of the pink "Providence," of Middletown, there is a schedule of trade values based on the hide as a standard. According to this, one and one-half pounds of hides equalled one pound of buckskin. One pound of hides equalled two pounds of old iron, and two pounds of hides equalled one pound of old pewter, and it was provided that the "leaste buckskin" should "weigh not less than four and one-half pounds. In this list of "country money" or "merchantable pay," the relative trade values of corn, wheat, pease, salt beef and pork were set down, as well as wampum, the blue wampum being worth a bushel of wheat per fathom while a fathom of the while shell beads would purchase only a bushel of corn. As the monetary values of grain and some other commodities were noted, the blue wampum was worth four shillings a fathom and the white one shilling and six pence in actual cash—provided there was cash in circulation.

Striking Out for West Indies

It was not long before the farmer-sailors of New England discovered that trading ox hides for buckskin, salt pork for codfish and pewter plates for wampum and furs with their neighboring colonists was not a very lucrative form of commerce. But farther asea were the West Indies replete with sugar, rum, molasses and other goods in great demand, and the New England skippers decided to try their hands at bartering in the islands. It seems incredible that men who tilled their inland farms beside the Connecticut and in the valleys of New England, and whose only vessels were the tiny open sloops of 10 or 12 tons burden should ever have dreamed of attempting ocean voyages to the Antilles. Yet for many years these little craft hailing from Hartford, Glastonbury, Middletown, Windsor, Thompsonville and even Springfield made trip after trip to the West Indies and even to South America. It was such men braving the Atlantic and the Caribbean Sea in their tiny cockleshells of home-built boats, who were the pioneers of New England's vast West Indian trade and laid the foundations of America's once famous merchant marine.

Destination Hardly Mattered.

Possessing the most rudimentary ideas of navigation, entirely ignorant of the use of the quadrant, incapable of taking an observation without charts, depending wholly upon inaccurate compasses and dead reckoning, and with only a man and a boy as their crew, they sailed away on their long voyages to the tropics. It is not at all surprising that these daring New Englanders rarely reached the destination for which they sailed. The wonder is that they ever survived. But they could scarcely miss the West Indian islands altogether, and one island served their purpose about as well as another. And having once reached the Antilles they could sail from island to island, bartering their cargoes and eventually sailing back to New England with their sloops deep laden with tropical products.

The logs or rather the journals of these adventurous, fearless traders make most interesting, and often humorous, reading. As a usual thing more time was consumed in sailing down the rivers to the Sound than on the voyage from Long Island Sound to the West Indies or South America. And judging by their quaintly written comments, the skippers considered "makeinge the open sea" a greater feat of seamanship than the ocean voyage to the Antilles. In the Journal of Captain Lord, of Glastonbury, it is recorded that his sloop, the "Speedwell," set sail on August 20. 1755, and by September 15, the vessel had reached no farther than Rocky Hill!

"We can neither tow, warp nor sail, and I fear me we never shall," wrote the skipper-owner, who was compelled to put back to Hartford to replenish his water and provisions. Yet he must have managed eventually to have won clear of the river, for in November he was in far-distant Surinam or Dutch Guiana, and was exchanging his cargo at "this dumb dirty place," as he called it, to "goode profittc", and a little later set sail for home with a load of logwood, lignum vitae, sugar, rum, mahogany and green-heart timber.

Days of ‘Horse Jockeys.’

The earliest of these farmer-sailors to voyage to the West Indies carried cargoes of miscellaneous merchandise consisting of lumber, barrel-shooks, cloth, nails, flour, bread, brass goods, tobacco, broom handles, peas, onions, corn, and so-forth which they traded for rum, sugar, indigo, gums, species and logwood. But they soon discovered there was a greater demand for cattle and horses than for manufactured goods and foodstuffs and presently they were carrying little cargo aside from livestock. In fact horses became such an important trade that the Connecticut River vessels were called "horse jockeys", and they frequently sailed for the Antilles with 40 or 50 of the animals as a cargo. Try and imagine what it must have been like to have voyaged from Connecticut to Barbados in a 15-ton open boat carrying 50 horses, with the necessary fodder and water, and manned by a farmer-captain, a slave and a boy.

It was even worse when swine or cattle were substituted for horses, and as might have been expected, the losses, especially in heavy weather, were very heavy. But so profitable was the business that even if all but one-third of the animals perished at sea, the long voyager, paid handsomely, for there was a profit at both ends of the cruise.

Yankee Ingenuity Triumphs.

History fails to record who was the first of these New England sea-going traders to discover that the Dutch colonists in Surinam were in need of cattle and bricks. But it must have been early in the game, for by 1720, a regular trade in these commodities was being carried on with Dutch Guiana.

And here Yankee ingenuity and shrewdness came to the fore. When a New England skipper arrived in the Dutch colony and found that for one reason or another he could not "fill up" with rum, sugar, molasses and logwood in exchange for his cargo, was he discouraged? Not a bit of it! From trader-sea captain he would transform himself to a mason-builder, contract to erect buildings with the bricks he had brought, and accept payment for his services in local products.

Just Like Glastonbury.

Most of the brick buildings to be seen in Paramaribo today were thus built by Connecticut traders, which explains why the residences and public buildings of a Dutch Colony in South America are so amazingly similar to those of a New England village. Many a visitor to Dutch Guiana has been sorely puzzled as to why fireless houses should be provided with brick chimneys, why homes sizzling under an equatorial sun should have heavy, green-painted shutters to the windows, why there should be cupolas perched atop the steeply-pitched shingled roofs, and why fan-lights and wooden pillars should frame the panelled front doors. Even the natives of Surinam can offer no explanation, but in a letter written to his wife, Captain Joshua Green of Glastonbury says: "I have this day completed the building of the stadhaus, and were I to be crossing the green in my cups, I would deem myself at home, so like to the town hall is it builded, with green shutters to its windows and cupola atop its roof, and in all matters much the same."

The Next Step.

From voyaging to South America and the Antilles it was little more than a step to extend the New England trade to Europe and Africa, and very soon the little sloops, pinks and ketches of obscure New England villages were carrying on a three cornered trade, sailing to Spain and the Barbary Coast with flour, lumber and corn which were exchanged for wines, millet, olive oil, cloth and slaves; thence to the West Indies where new cargoes were secured by barter, and finally returning to their home ports with goods worth many times the value of the original cargoes.

Trade at Its Best.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of the extent to which this New England maritime trade was really trade, is the record of the ship "Neptune" of New Haven. Under command of Captain Townsend, the "Neptune" set sail for China in 1797, carrying a general cargo and with gold coins to the value of $500 for use in case of an emergency. Putting in at the West Indies, the skipper traded a portion of his cargo for rum, sugar and the like. Then he squared away for Rio where he bartered more of his cargo for fustic, indigo, sanders and other products of Brazil. At the Falkland Islands and about Terra del Fuego, the crew devoted some time to sealing, and then, rounding Cape Horn, the "Neptune" headed for the South Sea Islands. Here a brisk trade was carried on and calico, cotton cloth, brass wire and old iron were exchanged for divi-divi, pearls and pearl shell, spices and dragons' blood. Finally reaching China, Captain Townsend bartered his seal skins and the remainder of his original cargo, receiving tea, silks, lacquer work, porcelain, sandalwood and ivory in return, and hoisted his topsails bound home.

On July 11, 1799, two years and six months after he had set sail from New Haven, he dropped anchor in the harbor with a cargo valued at $280,000 and with the original $500 in gold coin intact!

No wonder that the expression: "As sharp as a Yankee trader," became a byword throughout the world.

Long before the "Neptune" made this memorable voyage, script had come into general use throughout New England. But even after paper money and tokens were everywhere accepted as currency, the old system of barter and trade remained popular and formed the basis of practically all business and commerce.

Getting Along Without Money.

In a letter written to a friend a piano manufacturer of Saybrook stated that he had handled less than two pounds in currency in 10 years, and then described in detail how he had managed. Receiving an order for a piano from a customer in New York, he arranged with the owner of a sloop to transport the instrument and himself to Manhattan, payment for freight and passage to be made in cordage, sailcloth and gear. Arriving in New York, he was paid for the piano by debt-notes on various merchants from whom he received the cordage and other articles with which to discharge his debt to the vessel's owner; rosewood and ivory, tools and household goods, clothing, and a bolt of silk for a gown for his wife, as well as a tierce of tobacco and a cask of Holland gin. Returning to Saybrook, he exchanged the gin and some of the tobacco for a yoke of oxen and a milch cow, and having no use for the cattle he traded them in for bricks with which to erect an addition to his piano shop.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.