MARBLEHEAD CHRONICLES: Early fishing and early settlement

Pam Peterson
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King James I of England. English investors were anxious to attract new settlers to Marblehead. Capt. John Smith wrote of the advantages of fishing as a trade, and King James piously added, ‘In truth, ‘tis an honest trade, t’was the apostles own calling.’

Religious freedom and self-government were admirable reasons to come to the New World, but it was commerce that really fueled the early settlement of Marblehead.

Fishing was the first and most enduring of the trades that provided income for the colonies. Many early settlers were sponsored and funded by investors who made money on the sale of dried fish. To encourage immigration, advertising claims told of such abundance that men could walk across Marblehead Harbor on the backs of fish without ever getting their feet wet.

Marblehead was first a fishing station, serving as an outpost for fishermen who came and went. Gradually, men with families began to arrive and Marblehead was established as a village in 1629. All activities related to the fishing trade.

The lives of fishermen and their families were uncertain. Fishing vessels were small, seas were rough, weather was unpredictable, and the coastline was rocky. But they knew how to fish and understood that dried and salted cod gave them an opportunity to make their way in the new world.

Matthew Craddock was the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Though he never came to the American colonies himself, Craddock’s ships transported goods to the early settlers and returned to England loaded with barrels of dried fish for sale.

It’s not a coincidence that a golden “sacred cod” hangs in the House of Representatives chamber in Boston’s State House. Before refrigeration, salted fish and meat were essential sources of protein. There was great demand in England, and salt cod was also sold to Roman Catholic countries for meatless Fridays.

Salt cod was also part of the triangle trade, being shipped to the West Indies to feed slaves on the sugar plantations. Codfish were the mainstay of the New England economy for several centuries.

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