Whaling, Fishing, Salt Works, Wharves: The Big Picture

By focusing on the south side of Blackfish Creek, and the families that lived there, I’m narrowing history down to a very limited location.  But it’s important to also have “big picture history” to understand South Wellfleet’s economy, particularly fishing and shell fishing, which employed nearly all the male residents.

The National Park Service shares many of its documents online.  One in particular has helped me with the big picture of Outer Cape history. Dr.Patricia Rubertone prepared the second chapter of the NPS report, Chapters In the Archaeology of Cape Cod, III, The Historic Period and Historic Period Archaeology. This report provides an historic overview of the linkages between the Cape landscape, ecology, resources, and the people who came to depend upon those resources.  She contrasts the Outer Cape’s “pre-history” of native resource use with the European arrival, and a totally different understanding of the uses of land and marine resources.

The story of the 1640-1644 settlement at Nauset has been told often. The settlers “bought” the land from the natives, adding Billingsgate (now Wellfleet) in 1666 – initially, they had just taken it, as the native people were not sure who owned it. The native people’s understanding included the use of land and marine resources, not ownership. Already devastated by disease brought by the Europeans who had been fishing the coast for many years, their diminished numbers succumbed to the European worldview of ownership and consequent gathering of resources for trade and sale.  

Although fishing by Europeans on the northeast coast had been underway for many years prior to the Pilgrims’ arrival, those who settled in Massachusetts in 1620 were farmers, not fishermen. Land existed to be developed, initially in common ownership, but soon in assigned land holdings. Working the land was supported by religious belief that utilizing the land was God’s will — and the native people’s habit of clearing and planting mere portions of the landscape was another sign of their heathen inclinations.

The impulse to farm soon encountered the reality of the Cape soil with its glacial outwash, supporting only certain kinds of plants, and tending to dryness. The kettle holes that dotted the landscape (another feature of the last glaciers) provided a few wet areas, suitable for other kinds of plants that could grow in bogs. The salt marshes were cow-grazing land, or a place to harvest salt hay. The trees that existed back then were used for buildings, fuel, ship building, fences for the land, and the “try works” that involved burning whale and blackfish blubber to extract oil.

The Cape’s native populations depended upon the abundance of the marine resources, and, soon after they arrived, so did the Europeans. One early method of whaling, learned from the native people, was to herd the blackfish up on the beaches and slaughter them for their oil. This on-shore whaling did not last much past the mid-18th Century. The inclination of the blackfish to beach themselves was a regular feature of life in Wellfleet, and continues today.  The early settlement of the northern part of Eastham, on the western islands of Billingsgate, Great, Bound Brook and Griffin’s, all situating the earliest settlers near the bay for in-shore whaling and fishing — and for shellfish harvesting in the spectacular natural harbor.

The story of Billingsgate’s struggle to have its own Meeting House, an event that eventually led to the establishment of Wellfleet as a separate town, is well documented in Durand Echeverria’s book about the founding of Wellfleet. Rubertone views this struggle as evidence of the need to preserve the on-shore whales as a resource for their town, while Eastham, without a bayside harbor, and with more arable land, would find farming a more profitable venture.  Billingsgate became the market for the Eastham crop surplus. The oil they were “harvesting” in Billingsgate became a profitable cash product, used for illumination, candle-making, and oiling wools for combing. The oil was recognized as a valuable town resource in a town order of 1707 that sought to forbid outsiders from making “whaling voyages to Great Island or Lieutenants Island at Billingsgate.”  The 1970’s “dig” at the Wellfleet Tavern on Great Island uncovered artifacts that confirmed the whaling activity at that site.

Schooner at Sunset

As the in-shore whaling waned, deep-sea whaling became necessary, but this activity required much more capital to build and equip large, sturdy ships that could go the distance. Just prior to the Revolutionary War, Wellfleet had twenty such vessels, but they were dependent on wealthy owners for financing.

Fishing also moved from an activity that could be done close to land, to one that required trips out to sea of longer duration. In the 18th century, fishing was reorganized also. Elisha Doane of Eastham became one of the wealthiest men of colonial Massachusetts by investing in the ships that would fish off the Grand Banks, sail with their catch to the West Indies, where they traded their catch as food for the slave population for rum and molasses.

The New England coast was blockaded by the British during the Revolutionary War. In 1783, all American fish exports were prohibited from being shipped to the West Indies. These  changes meant that both whaling and fishing had to be reorganized. Wellfleet’s whaling ships never recovered from the War’s devastation. However, fishing was re-organized, and became a more equitable venture. The fishing took place off the Grand Banks, initially requiring somewhat smaller schooners that on trips of three to four weeks that allowed fishermen to be at home for part of the year. The vessels were owned in a share system, in part by their crews, and also by investors, some from Boston. The mariners furnished their own lines and gear, and shared in the proceeds of the catch. Food, such as salted meat and biscuits, and ship chandlery, was furnished by the owners, who deducted their cost from the gross proceeds before the shares were divided.

This system made it possible for many residents of Wellfleet to make a living from the sea. For many whose shares might be small, it may not have been more than subsistence, so that some farming became an additional necessity. Later, as fishing expanded, it became more profitable. David Balch, in his paper on the mackerel fishing in Wellfleet during the 1860’s, commented that the share of a “good” fishing trip, at perhaps $90 per crew member, allowed many young men to purchase a share in a vessel, at $50 or $60. He comments that buildable land was then selling for $10 to $15 an acre, and that it cost $500-$600 to build a house, so a few good fishing trips could result in modest property ownership for many.

In 1802, Wellfleet had 25 vessels: five whaling, four cod and mackerel fishing, four carrying oysters to the eastern coastal towns, and twelve fishing around the Cape. Levi Whitman, Wellfleet’s minister at that time, is perhaps more famous today for his written pieces about the town, preserved in the proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society and used by historians in many Cape Cod articles and books. In 1794 he wrote “There are few towns so well supplied with fish of all kinds as Wellfleet and no part of the world has better oysters.”

Richard Rich built Wellfleet’s first wharf on Griffin Island. In the 1800’s more wharves were built along Duck Creek as Wellfleet relocated its town center there.  Commercial Wharf was built in 1835, Enterprise Wharf prior to 1837, and South Wharf on Blackfish Creek in 1830. Fleets expanded during the antebellum period. Central Wharf was built later, in 1863, and finally Mercantile Wharf in 1870.

Schooner sails down

By 1860, according to a paper by David Balch on Wellfleet’s fishing economy, there were 70 schooners in Wellfleet. By that time, mackerel fishing had become the main focus, along with moving oysters from seed in the Chesapeake Bay, back to Wellfleet for planting and flavor development, and then finally shipping to New York, Boston and elsewhere. Whitman talks about the death of the oysters in 1773, and then the discovery that oyster seed brought from elsewhere and replanted could give the oysters their “Wellfleet flavor.”

The investment in the South Wharf on Blackfish Creek, and its store, by the two “Boston men”, Leonard Battelle and Robert Little, along with Richard Arey, was on land purchased from Major John Witherell.  Arey served as the local agent. I’ll write more about the operation of the South Wharf in my next piece.

Tied up

This maritime activity was supported by the salt works that also became a local investment through the 1850’s. Wellfleet had four salt works in 1802. In 1821, the Salt Manufacturing Company of Billingsgate was organized. By 1837, there were 39 salt works producing 17,500 bushels of salt annually. I’ve already mentioned in an earlier piece Richard Arey’s operation at Cannon Hill on Blackfish Creek. Mr. Townsend’s was at the foot of Paine Hollow, and Mr. Lewis’s “east of the Highway.” The cedar swamp in South Wellfleet provided a nearby source of the logs needed for the salt works. Salt works declined, however, as fish increasingly became a fresh food rather than a salted and preserved one. The fish were caught, iced, and shipped to urban markets where populations were growing fast.

Other subsidiary activities such as sail-making developed to supply the fishing boats. Of interest in South Wellfleet was “the store” whose owner would supply clothing, food, and make loans or extend credit to the mariners, not unlike the function that the owners provided in a mining or factory town. When I cover the story of the Barker family of South Wellfleet, the first to arrive in South Wellfleet was Isaiah, a cooper, who made the barrels needed at the South Wharf.

Eventually the fishing diminished, and South Wellfleet suffered the decline of an area whose economy has crashed.  But that is another story that I’ll cover in a future piece.


Nye, Everett History of Wellfleet from Early days to Present Time 1920 (online at Google Books)

National Park Service Chapters In The Archaeology of Cape Cod, III: The Historic Period and Historic Period Archaeology  Cultural Resources Management Study No. 13. Division of Cultural Resources, North Atlantic Regional Office, National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1983

Quinn, William P. The Saltworks of Historic Cape Cod  Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, Mass. 1993

Balch, David “The Anatomy of A Fishing Village, Wellfleet, Mass. 1860-1865” (1985 paper)  available at the Wellfleet Public Library

Levi Whitman 1784 letter and 1802 note in the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 8, online at   www.books.google.com.

Deyo, Simon. History of Barnstable County, New York, 1898.   Wellfleet chapter on line at www.capecodhistory.net.

About pamticeblog@gmail.com

Family history researcher living in New York City.
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