Colonial Shipbuilding and the Coasting Trade

“I suppose you go great voyages,” said the Water Rat with growing interest. “Months and months out of sight of land, and provisions running short, and allowanced as to water, and your mind communing with the mighty ocean, and all that sort of thing?”

“By no means,” said the Sea Rat frankly. “Such a life you describe would not suit me at all. I’m in the coasting trade, and rarely out of sight of land. It’s the jolly times on shore that appeal to me, as much as any seafaring. O, those southern seaports! The smell of them, the riding-lights at night, the glamour!”—from The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

This romantic vision of life at sea within sight of land was unlike the coasting trade of our ancestors.

Travel in the 1630s and 1640s to far-distant Boston, for example, for settlers of the Great Migration residing in Maine or New Hampshire, was irregular and infrequent.[1] Pathways consisted of a network of ancient Indian trails. The highways such as the Boston Post Road to New York City (now U.S. Route 1), which followed these paths, were decades in the future. What our ancestors all did have available was coastal waterways–rivers leading directly to the Atlantic Ocean.

Apparently prescient, prior to 1641, Edmund Littlefield built his sawmill at the Webhannet Falls in Wells, Maine. Timber was plentiful and a means of processing it for profit was at hand. Rivers like the Webhannet, Mousam, and Kennebunk on the Maine coast provided the means of navigation to move the felled timber to sawmills near the coast, ready for local and distant shipbuilding. When shipbuilding began at the Webhannet or Mousam rivers is unknown. The early mills, like the houses of the settlers, were destroyed during the European-Indian wars or were [3]

swept away by recurrent freshets. They were rebuilt, and additional mills were built on Kennebunk’s major waterways, for the harvesting of local timber was an important economic enterprise during the early years of settlement. Small costing vessels came up the Mousam and Kennebunk Rivers for lumber processed at these mills.

During the Indian wars, until around 1714, “no vessels could have been built.”[4]

Shipbuilding in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire

In 1640, in Salem, Massachusetts, Hugh Peters built The Trial, a ship of 300 tons. This was followed by another ship of 160 tons built in Boston in 1642.

However, the Massachusetts Colony was poor and money was scarce. Shipwrights, like a lot of other business men, were “paid in ‘truck’.” Regardless, the shipbuilding business flourished. By 1676, the Massachusetts Colony had “30 vessels of from 100 to 250 tons, 200 of from 50 to 100 tons, 200 of from 30 to 50 tons, and 300 smaller vessels. Of the smaller class, the ‘ketch’ with two masts carrying lanteen sails, did a coasting trade and even ventured on foreign voyages. Vessels could be built and sold at a profit of £4 per ton, and they found a ready market in the West Indies and in Holland.” [The Dial (January 1891):281]

New England, and New Englanders, became ship-building giants. New York, with its Hudson River, could not compete:

[New England] enjoyed the great advantage of a steady demand for the fisheries and the coasting trade, and its ship-yards had something to do nearly all the time. If the men were not hewing out the timbers and putting together the materials for a new sloop, ketch, or bark, they were kept busy repairing an old vessel; and as wages are lower and labor more skillful where work is steady, the New England yards could build better and cheaper ships than those in other provinces. [U.S. Census Office 1884]

In fact, the New England shipbuilders were so successful that, in 1724, shipbuilders on the Thames “complained to the King that their trade was injured on account of the New England competition, and that their workmen were migrating.” [The Dial (January 1891):281]

From 1698 to 1714, a registry of merchant sailing vessels was kept. An assortment of sloops (10-50 tons), pinks (about 15 tons), ketches (about 24 tons), brigantines (20 to 60 tons), and ships (60 to 160 tons) were built at Salem, Beverly, Lynn, and Newbury in Massachusetts; Portsmouth, Piscataqua, and Hampton in New Hampshire; and Kittery, Pemaquid, York, and Berwick in Maine.

In 1728, Pelatiah Littlefield built a sloop for Robert Barrett, as well as one named the Triton for himself and John Low. The Triton was engaged in the coasting trade to Boston and Virginia. The following year, Joseph Hill and John Batson built a “coaster” named the Wells’ Trial of 55 tons. It was sold at Louisburg (Nova Scotia) in 1735. Francis Littlefield owned the sloop Defiance in 1733; it was presumably built at Wells. In 1737, James Littlefield, John Webber, and John Winn purchased a York schooner, the Prosperous, which was employed in the coasting business.[5]

In 1746, York had twenty vessels and five fishermen. In 1752, Kittery had 944 tons and York 1680; Wells had only sixty. In 1757, Pelatiah Littlefield owned the sloop Maryland, of 70 tons.

“There was no foreign trade. Some of the vessels made voyages to Canso [Nova Scotia] and up the St. Lawrence. They carried cattle to Montreal. The voyages up to Canso were perhaps the most profitable.”[6]


James S. Leamon writes in Revolution Downeast: The War for American Independence in Maine (1995:135-6):

For Mainers, the single most all-embracing impact of the Revolution was the destruction of their coasting and overseas trade. From Kittery to Machias, seaborne commerce was the lifeblood of the economy. Without trade, the commercial-agricultural towns of York County faced stagnation; communities in Cumberland and especially Lincoln counties faced far worse, for even in the best of times they depended on imported food. By the time war broke out, nonimportation agreements and embargoes had already destroyed Maine’s normal rhythm of trade. The port of Boston reopened in March 1776 with the evacuation of the British, but by that time British cruisers made even the coasting trade precarious. Throughout the war some vessels succeeded in reaching France, Spain, the Netherlands, and their island possessions in the West Indies. But as early as the fall of 1775, York reported it had lost half of its oceangoing vessels, and Falmouth lost thirteen merchant vessels all at once when the British burned the town in October of that year. At the end of the war, Falmouth merchants owned only three-quarters of one ship, half a brig, and several small coasters and fishing boats. Spokesman for Frenchman’s Bay complained that in the fall of 1777 all of their coasting vessels had been taken by the enemy. Even small boats scuttling along the bays and inlets were liable to seizure as the settlers at Pleasant River sadly related.

Boston’s commerce also suffered.[7] Between 1771 and 1773, “parliamentary legislation forbade the colonists direct contact with the orient, or with Northern Europe outside Great Britain; and permitted only a limited trade with Southern Europe and Ireland.”

“Free trade”, meaning unrestricted trade, was allowed with the “west coast of Africa and West Indies, British and foreign, subject only to certain customs duties and regulation.” There were no constraints at all regarding trade between the colonies from Labrador all the way to Florida, except for a “few export duties”.

“Wool yarns, woolens, hats and felts may not be exported at all, even coastwise.” The English colonists were also “forbidden to trade with Spanish and Portugese America” according to their own laws.

After the war, shipbuilding and the coasting trade again flourished.

This entry was posted in Great Migration, Immigrant Ancestor, Littlefield and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.