Seth Mendell, president emeritus of the Mattapoisett Historical Society, gave his audience another slice of Mattapoisett’s early years when he spoke at the museum on September 1 about how the town had been on a speedy path of growth and economic diversity from its earliest days when it separated from Rochester.
Mendell delved into the years between 1812 and 1857, years that saw the community’s fortunes and its people ebb and flow like the tide. As he shared his research and insight honed from many decades of study, Mendell’s ability to weave a story was on full display.
Starting with 1815, Mendell spoke of three major blows the budding community felt and ultimately survived. The first of these was a hurricane named” The Great September Gale”.
“It was a tremendous storm that hit at midday during a high tide,” he said. Ships that were under construction along the Water Street shipyards were driven into buildings. The salt works, an important area of business, was flooded; trees stripped of their leaves wouldn’t be green again until next spring. Crops were ruined.
“The landscape was changed by the storm,” Mendell said, noting that an area that had been marshland was filled in by tidal surges and is today a residential neighborhood, Mahoney’s Lane. The roof of a church in the Hammondtown enclave was blown completely off, ultimately causing the church to be moved, he said.
Taking a pause from natural disasters, Mendell told the audience that Route 6 meanders in its curvy fashion because, he said, “It is an old Indian trail.” These kinds of anecdotal details make listening to Mendell more like listening to old tales, ones that never grow tiresome as new tidbits are uncovered.
Churches sprang up throughout the community and its many neighborhoods, as did schools, Mendell said. Tiny residential groups each had their unique name, oftentimes originating from the first family such as Hammondtown, Randallville, Dextertown, and Cannonville. The village of Mattapoisett was growing, and by 1857, Mattapoisett would finally be released by Rochester, something Rochester had resisted for many years.
Then the second blow to pound the area was spotted fever. It was reported at the time that a sailor in Fairhaven had arrived carrying the infection. Ultimately, Mattapoisett alone would lose 200 people to the terrifying disease. It was even more frightening because, Mendell said, “It struck the young and healthy of the community. Sixty heads of households died…. No one knew how to treat it … [then] after six months it petered out.”
The third major blow was a weather event in 1816, one that had global ramifications: “the year without summer.”
Mendell said that a volcanic eruption large enough to block out the sun for months occurred that year in Indonesia. He said that frost destroyed crops throughout the growing season, forcing local residents to pay dearly for imported food stocks.
But life goes on, as they say.
Mattapoisett continued to enjoy prosperity from shipbuilding for the whaling industry, and later on for a newer, faster type of ocean vessel – the clipper ship. Robust trade from around the globe, sale of whale oil to Europe, its most lucrative trading partner, lumbering, fishing, salt production, sawmills, Mendell said, “It was a bubble of economic growth.” A bubble, of course, that would once again burst.
In 1849 there was an economic depression caused by the collapse of banks in England and other parts of Europe. Mattapoisett, as a major exporter to England, felt the sting as boat building came to a halt. It’s not surprising, then, to learn that when gold was discovered in California and the tales of vast wealth arrived via ships returning home, many men in the local area hightailed it to “them thar hills.” From Mattapoisett, 120 men headed west seeking gold.
Mendell told the story of one New Englander, Doctor Samuel Merritt, who sought his fortune in gold. However, he, like nearly every other gold miner, found his efforts were for naught. But Merritt had something most of the other forty-niners didn’t – he was a doctor. Mendell said he hung a shingle out in San Francisco, “In the first year he made $40,000.” A princely sum, indeed.
Merritt’s history is now deeply intertwined with that of the gold coast’s. He was a founder of the City of Oakland, a participant and prime mover in many business ventures, and, today, one can find his name throughout northern California. The wife and children he had left behind joined him. “They lived happily ever after,” Mendell said with a chuckle.
Throughout his presentation, stories of human interest gave the listener not only a grasp of life during those early years, but also the experiences of the people in terms that brought them to life once more.
One story that was especially endearing was that of a captain who was sailing from New England to San Francisco. During the trip, the first mate fell into the ocean during a terrible storm and the captain was knocked out cold from swing gear. There was no one left onboard who could navigate the ship. Absent someone who knew how to use a sexton, the ship would flounder aimlessly in the mighty sea. But, wait! The captain had taught his 17-year-old daughter who was traveling with him how to use a sexton. “It was she, a slip of a girl who navigated the ship around the horn and north to San Francisco,” Mendell shared. The stuff that movies are made of.
Mendell will be giving another chapter in the story of Mattapoisett on September 10 at 7:00 pm at the Mattapoisett Museum, and you can catch his walking tour of Mattapoisett Village on September 7 at 2:00 pm stepping off from the museum.
By Marilou Newell