The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight

"We ask only the right of casting our hooks
into the ocean and owning
what we may catch ... "

Throughout the troubled seventeenth century, up-and-coming Marbleheaders were temperamentally disposed to keep to themselves, mind their own business and live as they saw fit. Marblehead was just a tiny, struggling semi-isolated seaport populated by a gathering of clannish, close-knit men, women and children. In the opinion of a number of their more prim and proper fellow colonists, Marbleheaders were an enigma -- a salty, hardheaded crew given to whipping the snake (hitting the bottle!) more than to piety and obedience to provincial authorities.

Several decades passed, the Marblehead fishing fleet grew, and the town soon became the Bay Colony's premier port, a title held until the outbreak of the American Revolution. Just before the war, however, a series of restrictive measures enacted by the British Parliament aroused not only the anger of the New England colonies, but especially those whose livelihood was wrested from the sea. And of the several Acts passed by the British Parliament, the so-called Fisheries Bill was considered the most mischievous. The measure closed the ports of Europe to the merchants and deprived New England fishermen access to the Grand Banks after 1774!

The bill would have dealt Marblehead's economy a staggering blow, but by chance the oppressive measure died aborning when on April 19, 1775, "the shot heard 'round the world" was fired at Lexington, Massachusetts. That shot made history, but oddly enough it did not put to rest the critical issue. The issue surfaced again in 1779 when members of the Continental Congress discussed the nation's aims and objectives, including the need to be prepared if the British indicated a willingness to discuss a treaty of peace.

Among other things that the congressional committee deemed essential was the right to comb the banks for cod and haddock. When this point came under discussion, however, a Marbleheader named Elbridge Gerry sparked what soon became one of the most heated controversies ever waged on the floor of Congress. Gerry, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a statesman destined to die in 1814 as Vice President of the United States, was anxious to protect the New England fisheries and offered the following resolution:
"That it is essential to the welfare of these United States that the inhabitants thereof, at the expiration of the war, should continue to enjoy the free and undisturbed exercise of their common right to fish the banks of Newfoundland and other fishing banks of North America, preserving inviolate the treaties between France and the said states."

Having grown up in Marblehead and acquired an intimate knowledge of the fishing trade, Gerry firmly believed that fishing was a God-given right. He believed that the denial of access to the fishing grounds was morally and legally indefensible. The sea, he said, was common property. Cod and haddock taken from its depths, Gerry explained, fed untold thousands of the world's hungry, provided employment for hundreds who would otherwise be idle, and put money in the pockets of the poor and penniless. He believed that the fisheries were of the utmost importance to the American colonies, particularly New England, and believed the right to scour the banks was no less important than winning the War for Independence:
"Where the winds can carry us upon the ocean, there we may sail, and where we sail, there we occupy, and what we occupy we may of right use for the purposes for which occupation is valuable; and it might as well be claimed by any nation to restrain us from navigation as fishery.... We ask only the right of casting our hooks into the ocean and owning what we may catch; and to say that this is not the right of independent people, is to say that we have purchased a nominal independence."

To Gerry's dismay, his arguments failed to persuade the delegates to the Congress, especially those from the South. And when France unexpectedly announced to the congressional body that it was unwilling to aid and abet a war to preserve the right of American colonies to fish the banks, Gerry's proposal was defeated. His opponents also asserted that it was sheer madness to continue a war so that the New England fishermen would be awarded "the humble privilege of catching a few cod and haddock."

France's negative response to Gerry's arguments made him so darn mad that he even thought of asking Congress to sever its relations with that nation. However, after weighing the angles and analyzing the motives of several European nations party to the negotiations such as England, Holland and Spain, he cooled down. Then, not long after that, he saw an opportunity to continue his drive to protect America's fishing rights. In Gerry's opinion, it was absolutely essential that the colonies send to the peace table a delegate familiar with the fishing industry, one who knew exactly how much the fisheries would contribute to the economy of a new and struggling nation, who possessed the ability to argue, persuade and press home the United Colonies' demands. Gerry had in mind a man whom he considered fully qualified to represent the American colonies, and nominated none other than Boston's own John Adams!

However, the nomination ignited yet another long and heated controversy. Each region was determined to appoint one of its own to be a delegate to the peace table, and Adams, a brusque and able lawyer, was not the most popular member of Congress. Consequently, the wrangling and strife caused by the nomination so angered Adams that he testily announced he would not accept it.

But Gerry and Adams were tried and true friends. So, Adams yielded finally to the pleas of Gerry and accepted the nomination and subsequent appointment when his name was submitted again to go abroad "To talk about the mackerel." Adams, who eventually won the American colonies the right to continue to fish the banks, was so elated by the victory that he seated himself at his desk and penned the following lines...

"Thanks be to God my dear Gerry - Our Tom Cod are safe in spite of the malice of enemies, the finess of Allies, and the mistakes of Congress. I congratulate you on the event, and shall ever be your friend."

Today, the remains of Elbridge Gerry -- the Marbleheader who fought long and hard to preserve our nation's fishing industry -- rest beneath a headstone bearing these words:
"It is the duty of every man, though he may have but one day to live, to devote that day to the good of his country": and needless to say, Gerry lived by those very words.

The right to fish the banks came at a time when Marblehead struggled desperately to keep its head above water, and the town faced its most trying period. The Revolution had not only drained the town of its able-bodied men, but to make matters worse, its authorities had to provide some 400 widows and 700 fatherless children with food, clothing and shelter. Worse still, Marblehead's once proud fleet of more than 200 Grand Bankers had dwindled to fewer than a score of seaworthy vessels. To put it mildly, the town's future was far from rosy.

Within a decade, however, the town's resourceful and indefatigable citizens rebuilt their merchant fleet. Marblehead's fishing industry was also revived by a bounty voted the fishermen by the Congress, at the urging of Marblehead's own Elbridge Gerry.

For two-and-a-half centuries, Marblehead's fishermen braved the stormy North Atlantic and the turbulent waters of Georges Bank. Each spring and fall they spent from eight to ten weeks combing the Bay's depths until they had "wetted their salt" and the holds of their vessels were crammed with their catch. Every morning, it was the practice of the crews to rise at dawn and fish till dark. The day's catch had to be beheaded, split lengthwise, gutted, taken to the holds and sandwiched between layers of salt before they quit. Then, and only then, could they crawl into their bunks for a few hours of shuteye.

Their days on the banks were long and physically taxing. Each man, working from his assigned station, first baited one or two lines with a shucked clam or sliver of herring. He then lowered the heavily weighted lines into waters ranging from 50 to 150 feet in depth. With sinkers, those lines weighed between three to five pounds, and were just hefty enough to carry them to the floor of the ocean for the cod that fed there. Hauling in dozens of squirming, flapping, struggling fish for hours on end -- fish which often weighed 50 to 100 pounds or more apiece -- was grueling work. Daily, every fisherman renewed the inner man with a "mug-up," a ship's biscuit (hardtack) and a huge cup of Grand Banks coffee -- a strong, robust, invigorating brew. They also ate three hearty meals a day: fish for breakfast, fish for lunch and fish for dinner. The menu was limited, confined mostly to chowders, baked halibut, minced fish, corned fish and muddled tongues. Desserts were served only on special occasions, and one of the most popular ones was a mouth-watering flour pudding that dripped with molasses!

Because crew members, except the vessel's skipper, had to take turns preparing meals, some meals were not as appetizing as others. By common consent, every manjack aboard those vessels also had to obey one inflexible rule: always to use a fork or a spoon to snag a tempting morsel from the kettle containing the food, never your fingers!

Despite such endless drudgery, treacherous weather and a calling best described as precarious, Marblehead's early fishermen achieved one noteworthy goal: they transformed Marblehead -- a remote seaside hamlet -- into a bustling, prosperous seaport!

The town's growth continued until the 19th of September 1846, on which date the Grand Banks fishing fleet was devastated by the capricious demons of wind and water. An exceedingly destructive gale lashed the banks, a gale that left a heart-rending scene of death and destruction in its wake. The storm battered, smashed and sank eleven fishing schooners and claimed the lives of 65 men and boys from Marblehead alone.

The storm was one of the worst ever recorded for New England, and the fishermen who survived it never forgot the nerve-wracking hours they endured at sea below their vessels' decks. Huddled together in cramped and creaking cabins during the gale, they awaited an untimely end, their thoughts and prayers centering on their wives and children, whom they feared they would never see again.

After that catastrophic storm, Marblehead's fishing industry gradually declined. The town's fleet started to dwindle due largely to the plight of the bereaved, and partly because the world was also changing. The age of steam power had begun to supplant the age of sail, and the dynamic growth of the nation was hatching dozens of manufacturing plants, creating a host of new job opportunities and employing hundreds of factory workers.

A fast-growing Marblehead shoe industry soon offered its employees steady work, better wages and fewer hazards to life and limb. As a result, scores of Marbleheaders gave up the sea in favor of better paying and less strenuous jobs ashore. The town's age-old quest for the sacred cod had ceased by the end of the 1800's, and lads not yet "dry behind the ears" never again learned the "Art, Trade and Mystery of Fishing."

Marbleheaders had combed the North Atlantic for cod and haddock for some 250 years, and the fish they had dragged from the ocean's depths had provided them with the wherewithal to father, raise and nurture a horde of rambunctious children. Throughout the period, the fishermen had lived to fish, talked of nothing but fish and breathed air reeking of tar, gurry, salt and fish.

A century-and-a-half ago, on the eve of one of the fleet's last departures for the banks, the following eloquent benediction was offered by a local clergyman:

"My brethren, you will soon be ready to embark, your vessels are filled, your stores are all aboard, and you await a favorable wind ... O ye sons of the main, begin to pray! ... Some of you are masters of vessels; your responsibility is great; the prudent management of your vessels is essential to the safety of all your crews . .. your stores are all on board, and you wait a favorable wind ... Your wives, your children, and your parents watch the weather with anxious concern ... and your distressed wives, the partners of your joys and sorrows, retire to weep, and we hope to put up a petition for you, although you may be strangers to prayer yourselves.

"Therefore, let all who are gathered here today pray that he who rules the raging waves and controls the elements may preserve and give success to our fishermen. That they may return with an abundance to increase the wealth of the town; to make their families happy and to fill their hearts with joy and happiness.

"Finally, we are all on life's troublesome ocean. Our souls in danger from their passions as a ship from her sails in squally weather. Therefore let us mind our helms, trim our sails and keep a sharp lookout. And may Heaven grant us a prosperous voyage and keep us secure from the quicksands and rocks and sin's rapid tide. And may we all enter the pleasant harbor of eternal rest. Amen."

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