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

Heeltappers & Cuttails

About three-and-a-half centuries ago, a handful of families from England's West Country (Devon, Dorset and Cornwall) left the land of their birth and embarked for the New World. The nation they left was a nation in dire straits, its people beset by hardship and want, ill-fed, ill-housed and ill-treated. A nation described by a contemporary as a land "resounding with the grievous groans of the poor," a nation where few persons lived beyond the age of 35, where many fell victim to plagues and unremitting toil.

To those who had been born and reared there, the nation in no way resembled the "Merrie England" so often lauded in prose and poetry. Those poor families had learned through the years that in the New World they would find a wilderness alive with small game and fowl, a land with fast flowing streams bordered by an ocean teeming with fish -- codfish so large and fat that six or seven of them could weigh as much as a kental (112 pounds). They had also heard that a region called "New England [had] the best land and sweetest climate in those parts." To those unhappy Englishmen, the New World was a land of opportunity, bright with promise. A wilderness that offered all who had the will and courage to meet its demands head-on, a chance to forge a richer life for themselves and their children. So, they gathered their meager belongings and sailed to New England where they had been told they could find "a very convenient place for a plantation, especially for those as will set upon the trade of fishing, and where there is a good harbor for boats and safe riding for ships." That plantation became Marblehead. A Brief Description of New England and the Several Towns Therein (ca. 1660) referred to Marblehead as the "greatest fishing town in New England," thanks to the vast quantities of edible fish the town's enterprising fishermen managed to take with hook and line from the waters lapping its shores. Of the many species of fish common to the waters of Massachusetts Bay, cod was plentiful year-round, and a highly-rated groundfish. When split, salted and properly cured, it could be kept almost indefinitely. Cod was also inexpensive, wholesome and palatable. European merchants bought the best cod by shiploads, but Salem and Boston merchants shipped and sold the poorest grade to plantations in the West Indies to feed slaves who toiled there.

The firm-fleshed cod bore out the prediction voiced by Captain John Smith, who had once declared the fish to be "a treasure greater than gold." The cod of Massachusetts Bay supplied the colonies with food, providing employment to hundreds of men and boys, spawning dozens of closely related businesses and enriching shipbuilders, merchants and traders. Cod and other riches from the sea bolstered the general welfare of the American colonies and the well-being of its new inhabitants, who were struggling to survive in the strange new land. But in spite of the benefits stemming from that trade, only those fishermen endowed with stout hearts and unlimited staying power ever combed the North Atlantic for the sacred cod. Why? Because they quickly discovered that New England's harsh weather was quite unlike their homeland's.

Nevertheless, Marbleheaders quickly learned to cope with the region's brutal winters, bone-chilling no'theasters and its rock-strewn land. They adapted to their new environment, becoming an earthy, irreverent, unschooled breed of singularly interesting men and women. Neither dour-faced Pilgrims, nor crusty Puritans, they went their own cheerful way, nonchalantly ignoring the conceits and comments expressed by a number of hide-bound scriveners.

Marbleheaders, unlike their fellow colonists, were known for their rough behavior and blunt speech. On one occasion, an over zealous man-of-the-cloth happened to overhear a few unseemly remarks voiced by a gathering of the town's old salts. The clergyman, unable to contain himself, not only raked them over the coals for blasphemy but begged them to abandon their graceless traits. Just as he ended his harangue, out of breath and words, one of the old-timers scornfully replied:

"Sir, we didn't come here fer religion--We come fer fish!"

Marblehead fishermen originally fished the Bay's inshore waters, scouring it for cod, haddock, halibut and surface-feeding schoolfish such as mackerel, shad and blue backs. The watercraft that they first used consisted only of shallops, pinkies, ketches or catches (small open-decked or half-decked vessels). Such craft were supplanted early in the eighteenth century by the ubiquitous schooner, a vessel destined to reshape the fishing industry and future of the fisheries.

Marblehead's fishermen recognized the schooner's good qualities. But as the vessel became increasingly popular, Marblehead's old salts (handliners all) contributed a truly worthwhile innovation to its design: they added a short, high quarterdeck (or half-deck), which extended from the schooner's stern to its mainmast. It was a sound, sensible addition that afforded the men fishing at the rail a greater degree of safety, especially in rough weather.
The half-deck also altered the profile of the schooner; when seen at a distance, the vessel resembled an upside-down shoe. Such schooners were soon dubbed "heeltappers" due to their appearance and the fact that when winter set in, Marblehead fishermen invariably turned to cobbling shoes for a living. Heeltappers were sturdy, roomy, seaworthy and maneuverable. They enabled the town's fishermen to comb the Georges Banks, Grand Banks and stormy North Atlantic, areas that had been beyond their reach before.

But for some reason, the catches that the heeltapper crews brought back were sold immediately to out-of-town buyers, merchants from neighboring Salem and nearby Boston. The fish that Marblehead's fishermen sold to outside merchants represented "cash on the barrelhead." Unfortunately for the fishermen, however, the money they received was only a pittance compared to profits made by the merchants who promptly resold the fish abroad at a goodly mark-up. The system was essentially a form of voluntary servitude for Marblehead's fishermen because the money they received for their fish rarely netted them a decent profit.
This inequitable custom would have continued for years had not the pulpit committee of the Old North, Marblehead's first church, voted to hire an assistant to ease the pastoral burdens of its aged pastor, the Reverend Samuel Cheever. The committee selected John Barnard, a 34-year-old Harvard graduate, and in doing so made a wise choice for the church, the town and its sorely troubled fishermen. The background and native wit that the Boston-born cleric possessed were the very qualities the townspeople lacked. Barnard had experienced many a worldly adventure before his selection. He had traveled abroad, seriously considered becoming a businessman, been a passenger on a ship pursued by pirates, and served in the Provincial Army sent northward by the Bay Colony to capture French-occupied Port Royal (Annapolis, Nova Scotia).

There, on the battlefield, he had been ambushed and grazed by an enemy bullet. And there, while ministering to the spiritual wants of the troops, he had been caught red-handed playing cards! That lapse from grace nearly ended the young man's career as a minister of the Gospel, but fortunately, the fates were kind. When the campaign ended, Barnard returned physically unharmed and morally above reproach. His scandalous conduct was soon forgotten. The unorthodox man-of-the-cloth resumed his sacred calling, preaching here and there before he was appointed assistant to the pastor of the Old North Church in 1715. On his arrival in Marblehead, he found that the town and its fishermen were constantly beset by hardship and want. As Barnard said, the fishermen were "slaves that digged in the mines and left the merchants of Boston, Salem and Europe to carry away the gains."

The assistant minister soon realized that unless something was done to eliminate the Salem and Boston middlemen that Marblehead fishermen would remain forever at the mercy of those greedy hucksters. To better their lot, he decided to learn what was then called "the mystery of the fish trade." He not only picked the brains of visiting sea captains, but spent many an hour questioning friendly tradesmen and trusted parishioners. In the process, he soon discovered how fish were bought and sold, shipped abroad and distributed.

He then sought out a young and enterprising shipowner, and persuaded him to acquire a cargo of fish and ship it to Barbados. The shipowner's risk paid off handsomely and heralded a new and exciting era for Marblehead, an era noted for its unrivaled growth and prosperity. The ranks of the town's fishing fleet swelled as more vessels were built. More fish were caught, dried and sold abroad each year thereafter, and the demand for help soared. (Coincidentally, the payrolls of Marblehead's merchants, traders, ship chandlers and shoremen also grew longer.) It was Marblehead's Golden Age, an era whose prime mover was none other than a pious, intriguing clergyman named John Barnard. In fact, Barnard's contemporaries claimed he had worn himself out serving the people of his town!

Fishing was a precarious and rugged calling. Time and time again the town's sturdy heeltappers were clobbered by howling no'theasters, driving snowstorms, hail, sleet and bone-chilling, peasoup fogs. Glacial blasts cut visibility to zero and iced-down decks, rigging and vessels, exposing their crews to perils of every kind--head injuries, broken bones, collisions and shipwrecks. Furthermore, fishermen frequently sustained gurry sores, blood-poisoning, fevers, maladies and ailments of all kinds.

But regardless of risks and drawbacks, about a thousand men and boys depended on the fisheries for their livelihoods. Boys, ranging from eight to twelve years of age, signed on as apprentices in order to learn the "Art, Trade and Mystery of Fishing." Paid only for the fish they caught, these youngsters marked their catches by cutting a sliver from the tail of each fish they decked. Therefore, they were known as "cuttails."

Today, it would be deemed "beyond the pale" to send a mere boy -- hardly dry behind the ears -- to spend two or three months on the Grand Banks, sweating and slaving from dawn to dark. However, in those days shipping out on a "high-liner" was viewed as an opportunity for a likely youngster to better his lot in life. Those lads who learned their new skills and survived a four or five year training period could then qualify to become a "skipper," and could take command of one of the fleet's heeltappers.

In 1769, one such youngster, named Moses Merry, was apprenticed to John Oakes of Marblehead for a term of eight years, seven months. Mr. Oakes was duty-bound to provide Moses with food, clothing and shelter and to share with him the "Art, Trade and Mystery of Fishing." Moses, in return, was obligated to compensate Mr. Oakes for revealing the secret of catching codfish. The young apprentice had to swear that he would work hard and diligently, and would under no circumstances squander his master's goods, nor waste his time. Moses also had to promise to shun taverns and alehouses, to abstain from playing cards and shooting dice, and not to participate in any game or sport considered improper or unlawful. Moses also had to agree not to marry during his apprenticeship.

In exchange for his schooling, Moses was required to obey Mr. Oakes's commands, and to behave himself and act like a good and faithful apprentice. In due course, when Moses had learned how to bait a hook, gut, clean, wash and salt-down a day's catch (and Mr. Oakes had been sufficiently repaid), the boy would be given two suits of clothes (one brand-new) and sent on his way as a full-fledged fisherman. From that day on, Moses's future would be of his own making.

That future sometimes died aborning, however. It was not unusual for cuttails to have second thoughts about their calling; homesickness, grinding toil, boredom and frequent close calls with death were among the causes. One such youngster suffered a dreadful experience in July of 1789 when returning to Marblehead after several weeks on the Banks, an experience warranted to discourage even the most mettlesome boy alive. The cuttail was serving aboard a schooner commanded by Skipper Joseph Selman, when suddenly and without warning the vessel's hull was stove-in by a maddened whale!

While the schooner sank, Selman and his crew launched a dory and stocked it with a sack of hardtack, keg of water and a cask of rum. They were confident they would soon reach land, but shortly afterwards their expectations were blighted by wind and water. Their over-crowded dory was tumbled and tossed by a contrary wind that made the craft unmanageable. As the small boat wallowed and plunged, the heavy seas drenched the crew, fouling their drinking water and reducing their sack of hardtack to a soggy, inedible mess.
For four days, the crew from that sunken schooner rowed and bailed, bailed and rowed, haunted always by a fear of being capsized by a rogue wave. Two of the dory's four oars had been swept overboard earlier and lost, a blow that coupled with a lack of food and water led them to think their end was nigh. But determined to survive, they pressed on with Skipper Selman daily bolstering their flagging spirits and easing their aching muscles with a finger or two of rum! They sighted an island on the fourth day, low on the horizon "to the east of Frenchman's Bay," but stumbled ashore only to discover that the island was a bleak and barren strand. The small piece of land offered neither food, shelter, nor water so they turned back to the sea and continued their search for a safe haven. But Fate soon dealt them another blow when the schooner's cuttail collapsed, overcome by hunger, dehydration and exhaustion. His distraught shipmates judged him to be dead and made ready to consign his body to the depths, but fortunately Selman intervened. Unwilling to cast the youth to rest in a watery grave, the skipper made every effort to revive the young boy.

Happily, the comatose cuttail was restored to life. And coincidentally, his recovery marked the end of the crew's nerve-wracking ordeal. Their battered dory was spotted by a New York-bound coaster, and a few days later the emaciated fishermen were transferred from the coaster to a fishing schooner heading for Marblehead. Upon their arrival, a truly grateful Joseph Selman acknowledged that "we who have been threatened with death in various forms by drowning, by hunger, and by fatigue, were by the kind intervention of Providence restored to our friends and families."

* * *

"There's much the spirit cheer...
as rum and true religion"
--Lord Byron (1788 - 1824)

For well over fifteen minutes, two of Marblehead's saltiest characters listened to an insufferable windbag tell how he would run things if elected a selectman.

When the windbag left, one of them snorted, "If you was to ask me ... I'd say his ideas ain't worth a plugged nickel."

"Of course they ain't," said his friend with a nod, "cause his trouble is ... he always thinks before he speaks!"
Two Old Timers paused before the tombstone of a departed friend.
"It reads 'I Still Live,' " one Old Timer muttered to another, quoting the deceased's epitaph.
"He always was a liar," sneered the other.

"They tell me your husband was lost at sea."
"Off'n the Georges, 'bout a month ago."
"Hope he had some savin's."
"Close to 700 dollars."
"700 dollars! Why, he couldn't even read or write!"
"No ... nor swim."

Old age ain't for sissies.
A lusty nonagenarian, flushed with pride, boasted to a friend that he would soon marry a ravishing 19-year-old girl.

His friend, believing the marriage unseemly and unwise, attempted to dissuade him. Did not he realize that the joys of connubial bliss often demand more than flesh and blood can bear?! he warned.

"I know, I know," replied the ancient Lothario, "but ... if she dies, she dies."

Next... || Previous

Table Of Contents