[ A Balancing Act ]

illustration of codfish


Timber, Fish & Furs -There for the taking

Timber, fish and furs were once plentiful in New England; this was exactly what Europe was looking for in a colony – natural resources that could be shipped to the mother country to use in the manufacture of finished goods which would then be sold back to the colonists.

Fish, long a staple food for Native Americans, became the first “seemingly inexhaustible” trade commodity, as colonists began hauling in and salting the fish that gave Cape Cod its name. With their perceived entitlement and righteousness of “doing God’s work,” the colonists also took enormous amounts of lumber, charcoal, iron, ore and granite from the same forests the natives had been cultivating for thousands of years.

William Allen Wall, “Saltworks at Ricketson’s Point.” 1930.11, 6 x 14 inches

Mary Morton Wall, Saltworks at Ricketson’s Point. 1930.11, 6 x 14 inches. By 1820 another industry, salt making sprang up on the shores of Dartmouth. Windmills were employed to pump saltwater into drying vats and the salt was then used for preserving meat and fish, a very important industry in the seafaring community.



“…a man’s religion is one thing, and this practical world quite another. This world pays dividends.” Moby-Dick, Chapter 16, Herman Melville, 1851.


From Forests to Timber

Illustration of shipbuildingThe timber resources of the New World were a wonder to settlers from Europe, where virgin forests had long ago been leveled.  Trees of many useful species including hemlock, chestnut, elm, oak, pine, hickory, ash, sycamore, maple and cedar were here for the taking.  This seemingly inexhaustible forest storehouse stretched from New Brunswick to Florida and one thousand miles into the continent.

Tales of the abundance of wood across the Atlantic were enough to propel English colonists to the New World.  England had become timber poor; so much of their wood had gone into building their powerful navy, leaving little for the daily needs of the citizenry.  Of great advantage to Great Britain in settling New England were the vast forests of white pine trees used for masts.  Various other pine products such as resin, pitch and turpentine were used for building and maintaining wooden ships.  Huge amounts of oak were also cut for cooperage, or barrel making.  In fact, barrel staves were among the top export commodities of the English colonies to the West Indies.

The colonists depended on wood for everything from houses to utensils and from furniture to firewood.  Timber was used to lay roadways, produce charcoal and for shipbuilding, enabling the colonists to maintain a maritime economy.  This lucrative endeavor would support the production of whale oil, sperm oil and eventually candles, the cornerstones of the whaling industrial market. 


From Arrows to Iron

From as early as the late Pleistocene epoch (12,000 years ago) Native Americans lived well, hunting mastodons and many other North American mammals, fishing in the coastal waters, spreading out and settling all across the continent.

Native Americans made their tools (including bows, arrows, spear points, axes, mallets and hoes) from stone, wood, shell or bone.  Wood fires were commonly used for large woodworking projects like making dugout canoes and felling trees.

In contrast, the Europeans brought with them a knowledge of iron and metal-working used to make firearms, tools and other mechanical innovations.  The settlers mined iron ore from local bogs and cut down entire forests for fuel, housing, tools and road building.  Of particular importance was charcoal, a key ingredient in the production of iron in smelting and blacksmithing.

Native Americans, having no such technology of their own, were gradually deprived of their hunting parks, and became increasingly reliant upon the iron products of the colonists.  Having only worked with stone tools, these Native people recognized at once the value of iron.  Their subsequent reliance on English goods was a profound turning point weakening their culture.


From Bark to Blubber

beached whale Like the depletion of the forests, whaling was a powerful example of colonial overexploitation of a natural resource for commercial profit.  After the earliest shoreside whaling along Cape Cod and Long Island in the 1670s, colonists began deep-sea voyages by the 1720s for highly lucrative sperm whale oil.

By the mid-18th century, Massachusetts and Rhode Island colonists were regularly setting out on two to four month voyages hunting sperm whales deep in the Atlantic Ocean and bowhead and right whales along the coast of Labrador and into the Davis Strait.  By 1750, shipboard try-works (large cast-iron pots set over a furnace made of brick, iron and wood) were installed directly on whale ships.  Try-works allowed the crew to render blubber into oil at sea without having to go ashore.  This technology led to larger vessels and longer voyages.  Yankee whalers eventually penetrated every sea and ocean on the planet in the hunt for whales.


Run of the Mill?

Colonists brought many European technologies with them to the New World, including harnessing the power of wind and water in mills of various kinds.  These included grist mills for grain, fulling mills for beating and cleaning cloth and saw mills for lumber.  Mills were so ubiquitous they inspired the saying, “run of the mill,” which originally implied consistency and reliability, but now means “nothing special.”

In the depths of winter, colonists cut white cedar trees for shingles from the swamps of Dartmouth and therefore shingle mills are plentiful on 19th-century maps of the region.  These production centers were so important to their communities they became the names of places themselves, including Russell’s Mills, Smith Mills and the Shingle Island River.


What Was The Value of Massachusetts Exports Compared to the Other Colonies?

England’s North American colonies produced commodities valued at over £439,000 between 1768 and 1772, including fish, furs, livestock, timber products, whale products, grain, rum and potash.  Fourteen percent of this total amount were whale products from New England, more than half of which was shipped directly to Great Britain.  This export was mostly raw, unmanufactured oil and spermaceti.  The bulk of the valuable colonial spermaceti candle trade was shipped to the plantations of the West Indies, along with vast amounts of dried cod in exchange for molasses, sugar and other goods.  During this time, New England earned over half of its living from the sea.

But the middle and southern colonies produced over three times the value of New England.  The South in particular was the great colonial money-maker for England, providing bulk commodities of agricultural produce including tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo and processed naval stores.


Who owns the land? …the beach? …the ocean? Can we still make a living from the sea?


(click on map below for a larger view)
Charcoal Production Map of Southeastern Mass., Early 19th Century, Paper. #00.222.232











Six mammals / Tab. LXVIII, ca. 1657, Engraving. #2001.100.6486










Destruction Brook by William Wall

William Allen Wall, Destruction Brook, ca 1870, Watercolor on Paper. #1978.34.1






Major support for this exhibition comes from the William M. Wood Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Last modified: December 19, 2017