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"Mattapoisett in the Making"

Chapter Five: Trade, War and Whaling

By Charles Mendell

In the wood lots of Mattapoisett the farmers had cut cords of smooth barked maple, dug a huge pit, and built a fire in the bottom. Then they stacked the maple logs on the fire and covered the pit over with sticks and mounds of earth. For two or three weeks they kept the fires almost smothered, and when the pits were opened, there lay great piles of charcoal to burn in the fireplace grates of the portly merchants of Newport. The coal is barreled. The oxen haul it to the landing, perhaps at the salt pond below Lieutenant John's house, perhaps at brother Samuel's landing at Brant Island Cove.

The bulk of the "Dolphin's" cargoes went to Nantucket and Newport. There are long accounts with the Coffins and Starbucks and Gardners, items of "frate to Natucet -- 4 00 00"; and on voyages to Newport: "Capt. Pope and I paid to our pilot 10 shillings." What she brought back on the return trips, we do not know. From Newport perhaps tools and gear for farm and vessel -- ploughs, harnesses, wheels, rope, canvass. From Nantucket she may have picked up a cargo of spermaceti whale oil to deliver to the candle makers in Newport.

But it couldn't have been long before the "Dolphin" or some other blunt nosed vessel from Mattapoisett set off on a longer voyage and beat down across the Gulf Stream to join the Colonies' thriving timber trade with the West Indies. Then there were long evenings of anxious thoughts while instead of weeks, wives got used to months of newsless waiting. On the landings new cargoes were swung from the vessel's holds for the waiting ox teams -- stout hogsheads of sugar, molasses, rum, and tobacco. And in Lieutenant John's tavern room the mellow firelight flickered about stories of another world, coral reefs and palm-fringed anchorages, white buildings lazing in the sun, and courtly men and graceful ladies idling on the labor of a thousand slaves.

It meant more danger too. The long backed seas of open ocean, gales, pirates and privateers without stint, unknown vicious shoals of the Bahama Banks. And on land, another war was upon them -- the long, drawn out Queen Anne's War -- with Indians whooping on the frontiers where brothers and sisters had recently gone to settle; the horrible Deerfield massacre only 100 miles away; and French privateers as thick as clams in the flats at the head of the harbor. In 1708, just at harvest time an English warship came into the Bay recruiting sailors; and Captain Ben, (and perhaps others) had to leave everything in a jumble and go on board for a five month's expedition with Her Majesty's navy.

When he gets back he is busier than ever. He loads his sloop, runs his farm, paying his men one shilling a day, lays out highways from the Center to Mattapoisett and Sippican, shoots his "animal quota of four crows and twelve blackbirds," taking the gory carcasses to the Town Clerk as proof; gets into the row about whether to build a new Meeting House up to the Center or enlarge the present one by an addition "at ye backside thereof," and takes sides in the violent argument over the new school teacher, "mrs. Jane masshell" who, some said, was "not as the law directs."

Then he added to his troubles by taking on an apprentice. If Captain Ben's hair was not already thinning at the top, Tom Tobey finished the job. That cussed boy was an imp of Satan -- he was forever running away. It was enough to try the patience of the parson. Captain Ben would come back from a trip to Nantucket. Hay not in. Where's Tom? He's gone.

Perhaps Tom can't be blamed too much. The life of a boy farmed out for his keep was often as harsh and rough as the stones he pried from the fields to pile on a wall. A man died, his widow couldn't run a farm; so the family was broken up and the children portioned out to neighboring farmers to work for their food, clothing, and a bed. Whether Captain Ben was hard on the boy, we don't know. But if he made Tom sleep in a loft with only a ragged quilt to keep out the cold, and drove him to toil from daylight till after dark, he was only doing what every other pillar of the church did in those times. Perhaps if Captain Ben had let Tom ship as a hand on the "Dolphin" Tom would have been content; for it was the old, old story of the farm boy running away to sea:

"October the 23 day -- 1713

Tom Tobey went from me to go a whaling and he came to me again in February the 15th day 1714."

Here, when Mattapoisett was still mostly wilderness, and when official records tell of whaling only from Cape Cod, Nantucket and Long Island, is a hint that some of the little sloops of Rochester or Dartmouth were beginning to forsake the timber trade and head out for blubber. It was only natural. Oil was more valuable than tar and timber. The merchants of Boston and Newport had been shipping it to London for thirty years; and farmers who were taking to the seas for profits on timber would not overlook another opportunity to use their vessels, particularly when it lay almost as close to their backyards as their woodlots. For whales were numerous along the coast and in the Sounds. On their voyages, Captain Ben and other sloop owners from the farms of Mattapoisett and Sippican had often seen, as Mather wrote of Cape Cod Bay, "mighty whales spewing up water in the air, like the smoke of a chimney, and making the sea about them white and hoary, as is said in Job, of such incredible bigness that I will never wonder that the body of Jonah could be in the belly of a whale."

Whether there was a square-bowed whaling sloop lying in Mattapoisett or Sippican or Wonioco for Tom to ship on and chew his fingers in terror at seeing Captain Ben come galloping up before she sailed, or whether he had to dog-trot over the sandy cartways to Sandwich or Plymouth to find a berth, we don't know. But the farm boys on the Necks, along the River, and down by Dexter's Dam were beginning to learn on their hay rakes, look out across the meadow to the blue waters of the Bay and dream of "greasy voyages." And above the clanking in the blacksmith shops, the crackle of the fire in Lieutenant John's tavern room, and the grating of the mill saw, voices of shrewd men in homespun discussed this other possibility of wringing wealth from the sea and ships.

So, as the years went on, come fall and the haymow bulging, the pork and beef salted down, the house banked up with seaweed, and the apples smelling sweet in the cellar bin, more and more Mattapoisett boys laid down their rakes to take up the harpoon; and a few blubber filled sloops began to come in the Bay from a three months winter voyage off Cape Hatteras and the Bahama whaling grounds. Then on winter nights when the crack of ice freezing deeper rumbled like a whip up the length of the river, the sea thrust new notes into the talk among the shadow of firelit rooms. Tales of a whale and an open boat, lines sizzling out between wooden pins so fast the gunwale caught fire, men last seen on the side of a sea midst the wreckage of a splintered boat ... Wrecks, pirates, privateers; and now the fury of the whale, and the mercy of the sea in an open boat.

At home the hard life goes on. Captain Ben builds himself a mill dam on the river, just below his house. If he can saw his logs at his own mill, it's so much money in his pocket. He begins in February (1714) to cut his timber and hire his men, when farm work is slack and it's a little chancy to risk winter gales with the Dolphin. Working in icy water requires more than "bords and nails" and logs, so he charges up to the dam "7 quarts of rum" and "one pound of shugar." By summer the mill is running and Captain Ben charges Jabez Dexter: "to sawing 1353 feet of boards -- 4(f)-04(s)-00(d)."

Meanwhile, Rochester town is getting large enough to send a Representative to the Great and General Court, so Captain Ben and the others go to Town Meeting and elect Samuel Prince and vote to pay "him four shillings a day for his panes." Prince is the great landowner at Whitehall, the memorial estate in the forest between Rochester Center and Sippican. His sloops engaged in the coastwise trade bringing him considerable wealth.

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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 fifth in an ongoing series to be published throughout the year in commemoration of Mattapoisett's sesquicentennial. This and all previous chapters can be found online at www.wanderer.com on the Mattapoisett page under the "Tri-Town Information" link.