Fishing was of great importance in early America. For both Native Americans and European settlers, fish provided a relatively easily assessable fOOD source. Commercial fishing, already important to the ECONOMY of Europe, was also essential to the development of the New England economy.
For Native Americans in the Eastern Woodlands, Great Lakes, and Pacific Northwest, fish were an important source of nutrition and protein. Native peoples took fish with nets, spears, and lines. Along the Atlantic coast they built complex fishing weirs (fish traps) that consisted of stakes driven into shallow water with brush placed between the stakes. Some of these weirs covered areas as large as two acres. The Natives of the Pacific Northwest depended on fish more heavily than people in other regions, from both the ocean and the rivers that interlaced the area. Some peoples of the region, using large dugout canoes, harpoons, and sealskin floats, engaged in whaling.
The fishing methods used by Europeans sometimes determined who made first contact with Native Americans. It is possible that the French, British, and Basques were fishing off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland a decade before Columbus’s first voyage. Commercial fishing was a competitive industry, so those who knew of these excellent fishing grounds were not about to share the secret with others. European commercial anglers used two general
Scenes of the French colonial fishing industry in New England and Canada. Fishermen bring in the catch, then salt and dry the fish before shipping it to Europe. (Library of Congress)
Methods of fishing. In “wet,” or “green,” fishing, fish were salted immediately after being caught and placed in the ship’s hold. “Dry” fishing, usually used by the English, necessitated going ashore and setting up drying stations. The presence of English MARINERS on shore permitted the early development of trade between the English and Natives. It also likely promoted the spread of European diseases among Native peoples.
In the earliest descriptions of the New World, Europeans commented on the abundance and size of fish. A Dutch minister claimed that one could “catch in one hour as many as ten or twelve [people] can eat,” and the English who extolled the virtues of the New World in colonization tracts also noted the abundance of fish. Fish also served as fertilizer for crops in New England, probably learned from Native Americans.
Fishing became a major component of the New England economy. Indeed, in the early years of settlement, Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay sought to protect the fishing industry by protesting competition from English commercial anglers. Fishing comprised one-third of New England’s exports to the mother country between the 1680s and the American Revolution.
Further reading: Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Walker, 1997).