"Mattapoisett in the Making"
Chapter Three: Privateers and the First Shipyards
By Charles Mendell
Due to the presence of the French privateers, the voyage to Nantucket -- twenty-five miles out in the open ocean -- became a perilous adventure and finally the privateers sail right into Buzzard's Bay. From the lookouts on the Necks, the news is quickly relayed that their sails can be seen and the French are waiting to grab any sloop or shallop that dares to leave safe harbor. In 1696 there is wild rejoicing as the news from Sandwich runs from cabin to cabin. A French privateer wrecked near the head of the Bay, her crew captured as they come ashore; and no time is lost in marching them to Boston under heavy guard. They spend the night in Plymouth, and the privateer's surgeon, Dr. Lemuel LeBaron, is allowed to stay there and practice. Three quarters of a century later, one of his grandsons, Reverend Lemuel LeBaron, will become Mattapoisett's first parson.
And so the hard years go on. There's so much to be done, somany things to be made with their hands out of the trees, stones, water and sand in the wilderness. So many things that their grandchildren will take for granted. Between cutting timber and ploughing fields, building landings and planting crops, loading sloops and building barns, making hay and sailing to Newport, the men build a dam and a sawmill and a grist mill on the Mattapoisett River and another grist mill on Pine Island Brook. They haul out great logs, shore them up with stones and boulders, and build a bridge across the River (at Arch Bridge). The ox sledges need something more than Indian trails, so from this bridge Aaron Barlow and Lieutenant John Hammond lay out a town "hiways" through the woods, along the "path side near Moses Barlow's house," and so on over hills and through swamps to Rochester Center.
Over this cartpath, and the ruts zigzagging into it from Pine Island, the scattered families of Mattapoisett walk six miles every Sunday to the Meeting House to pray long and earnestly to God. May He take good care of those at sea; may He not send droughts or heavy rains or southeast gales upon His sinful children, or epidemics of sickness sweeping swiftly through the clearings; and may He strengthen their hearts against the honeyed words of Satan, the Prince of Evil. Over this cartway also the men from the landings travel to Town Meeting; for there are many more settlers now and they begin to take up the Town's business. They chose town officers: Selectmen, a Clerk and vote bounties on wolves and wildcats and foxes. For on winter nights long drawn howls shiver the frosty air, and in 1694 the old Towns Records state that forty shillings were paid for "the killing of two grown wolves in our town."
The rapacious pirates and privateers, the easterly gales and jagged unmarked reefs in the Sounds, take a heavy toll; and more vessels are constantly needed. The seagoing farmers take passage on a timber sloop to Swansey or Rehobeth, to Sandwich or Plymouth, to Taunton or Newport, and barter at the shipyards for new sloops and pinnaces and shallops. And, before long, they begin building their own vessels on the shores of Mattapoisett. Then, mingling with the rasping of the saw mills, the chopping in the forest, and the rumble of grist mill stones, a new sound rolls across the clearings and into kitchen windows -- the pounding of caulking hammers. It is a prophetic sound. Nearly two centuries will pass before the ringing of hammers on the side of a ship will fade from the consciousness of the people of Mattapoisett.
In the late fall when the hay fills the mow and the cattle are bedded down for the winter, down to the shore swing men and oxen dragging the trunk of an oak. Axes ring out and the huge stick is hewed square and laid down for the keel. Serious discussion takes place. There is no model, no plan, no science to the building; only experience. These men know how a sloop, sluggish with a heavy timber cargo, will act in the twisting currents of Vineyard Sound. They have stowed timber and shingles and barrels in a hold. So the beam and length, sheer and deck length, are decided upon. The patient oxen haul down more heavy timber; and the stem and stern posts are hewed out and pegged to the keel. No bolts. Bolts have to be hammered out one by one on a blacksmith's anvil and that costs money. Then a midship frame is set up to establish the sloop's beam, and after squintings and arguings, a few more ribs are stayed into place. Rough hands split out long thin ribbands, run them around the ribs from stern to stern, and there's the shape of the vessel's hull.
When the remaining ribs are fitted in, it's time to think of planks. Perhaps the oxen pull a load down the rutted cartpath from the mill; perhaps a sawpit is dug. Planking is a hard cold business. The wind whips across the whitecaps and whistles through the open frame. Numb hands whittle out pegs, brush off the snow, and lay on the planks. Then oakum, to caulk the seams. Gather up all the old rope that can be found and set the children at work before the fire at home picking apart the strands. Meanwhile cut a pitch pine, burn it in a close smothering fire in a pit until the sap turns into thick, strong-smelling pitch. Tar the oakum with this, drive it snugly into the seams with a caulking iron and cover them all with more hot melted pitch. How good she smells; and she'll be as tight as a drum, her rough slides glistening, ready to be fitted out in the sunlight of early spring.
Such a vessel, "built by sight of eye and good judgement," was sometimes to be sure, startling to her owner. A Mr. Hastings, so an old story goes, "was put in a towering rage by being told that his starboard bow was all on one side." But perhaps they weren't so ill constructed. Some of the settlers came from Scituate, Marshfield, and Sandwich, and may have had experience in shipyards. And even if the pudgy little vessel was little less bulgy than a scow, she would lumber down the blue waters of Buzzards Bay with timber and "shuch like" from the woodlots and mills of the Hammonds, the Barlows and the Dexters.
The memory of the exact date and spot of the first vessel to be built in Mattapoisett mouldered long ago in unknown graves. Was it along the rim of the harbor, or on the shores of the salt pond at the mouth of the river, or at Pine Islands, or on the shore of Samuel Hammond's landing in the lee of Brant Island? Perhaps it wasn't at waterside at all. Old tales relate that these vessels were occasionally built in the woods, wherever timber was handiest, sometimes as much as a mile away from the shore; and then when finished they were pried up on two pairs of wheels and drawn to the water side by several yoke of straining oxen. One can imagine that it took quite a bit of pushing and sweating and cussing, with many shouts of "gee" and "haw," and certainly frequent swigs from a jug of rum, to drag this swaying burden over rocks and stumps and ruts to the water. Such a launching was quite an event and we may be sure that an excited group of barefoot boys and girls, to say nothing of wives and grandfathers, circled around to watch the oxen, gruntingly assisted by the men, back the wheels into the water until the vessel floated off.
Probably every cove sheltered by the half dozen necks and points of Mattapoisett sticks out into the Bay saw such launchings as the years went on, but it was along the lower half mile of the Mattapoisett River that the future shipbuilding and seagoing village had its start. Here, before the railroad embankment blocked it off from the sea, one hundred and seventy years later, a capacious salt pond extended back from the head of the harbor almost to the present Herring Weir. At high water this little tidal basin under the lee of the Neck, formed a perfect anchorage for the square-jawed, hand-hewn sloops of early times.
Communities do not spring up "by guesses and by golly." In a wilderness men plant their settlements where nature has provided the best advantage for making a living. Such as the narrow Mattapoisett River, winding over ten miles from Snipatuit Pond to the head of the harbor. Today it is known only for its herrings, that fish of many bones that must be eaten with rare skill if the eater does not wish to choke. The river supplied the early settlers with herrings, too -- multitudes of them which they salted down for winter breakfasts -- but it also supplied them with a sheltered gateway to the sea, and with water power for industry.
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The above was written by Charles Mendell, and edited for The Wanderer by his son, Seth Mendell. Charles was curator of the Mattapoisett Museum from 1958 until his death in 1975, and Seth is currently President of the Mattapoisett Historical Society. This is the third in an ongoing series to be published throughout the year in commemoration of Mattapoisett's sesquicentennial.