From the Files of the Rochester Historical Society

            Pretty much all of Rochester’s early settlers began as farmers. Even the owners of the gristmill and smithy had gardens and kept chickens and probably a cow. Like the original Pilgrims, many of these settlers had not been farmers in their former lives. While Rochester’s fields were good for pasturage, they weren’t as fertile as those in other areas. This made farming more challenging, so many industrious settlers who had been mechanics or had plied other trades took on other jobs to supplement their incomes.

            Many of our residents came from the area of Kent in England, an area known for its shipbuilding. Also, some of the “first comers” came to town by way of Scituate and Marshfield where shipbuilding had been going on for 30 years. Given the poor quality of the early paths and roads and the proximity of the ocean, it made good sense to turn to boatbuilding, both because there was a market for selling ships and also using them for trade.

            Early on, the boats were both worked on and jointly owned by a group. Working during the winter, when farmers had more free time, each man’s skills and abilities were used to do mechanical work, to furnish timber, to do iron work or to contribute money. William Barstow who lived to be over 90 before his death in 1891, said, “vessels were built here as early as 1740 or 1750, sloops and small schooners. There was no science, they were built by sight of eye and good judgment.” In other words, there was no preconstruction drafting.

            First, a keel would be put down and then the “stem and stern” would be attached. Next, midship a frame or rib would be fastened to the keel with several more ribs between the midship frame and both ends of the vessel. The next step was to run “rib bands” or thin strips of board from bow to stern at varying heights.

            With no models to work from, some strange ships resulted. To again quote Barstow, “Mr. Hastings was put in a towering passion by being told his starboard bow was all on one side.” One locally built sloop was christened “Bowline”, “because she was so crooked.” Another old whaling ship named “Trident” and built in 1828 was so much out of true that she carried 150 more barrels of oil on one side of the keel than the other. According to those who sailed her, “she was logy on one tack, but sailed like mischief on the other.”

            At first, builders of the sloops or schooners made money by selling them in Nantucket or Dartmouth and splitting the money amongst themselves. Others, like the sloop, “Planter” built in Rochester was run as a freighter from there, prior to the Revolution.

            Rochester could also lay claim to small sailing vessels. While the information on many have been lost to history, we know the sloop “Defiance” was a Rochester ship that began its voyage in 1771. Part of the reason that the vessels are hard to track is because Rochester at this time was not a “port.” A “port” at this point in time was a “place from which merchandise could lawfully leave or enter the country.” It was at these ports where records were kept and where proper papers that were carried on ships “to provide protection as a regular British craft” were handed out.

            Some records kept in Nantucket prior to the Revolution give information on ships built in Rochester. One was the “Rochester” which was purchased by Nathaniel Macy of Nantucket and which sailed from there in June, 1774. Unfortunately, the “Rochester” struck Great Point Rip and both ship and crew were lost at sea. This was not an uncommon fate with all the dangers that came with storms, privateers and the lack of navigational aids like charts, buoys and lighthouses.

            The ship, pictured here, the” Niger” was built in 1844 toward the end of the area’s shipbuilding days. The “Niger” weighed 437 tons and was built at “Holmes’s yard east of Long Wharf, at the south of the post office” in what was then the Mattapoisett section of Rochester.

By Connie Eshbach

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