New England’s First Settlements: Fishing Stages

In 1498, an English merchant named Hugh Say, who wrote to Christopher Columbus under the alias name, John Day, quoted John Cabot’s description of the fishing banks found in Newfoundland. “All along the coast they found many fish like those which in Iceland are dried [and salted] in the open [on racks] and sold in England and other countries, and these fish are called in English “stockfish.” Hugh Say added that he thought stockfish would be a good source of income for England.

One of the most important staples of the English diet was, indeed, fish. Even when English explorers were not actively searching for the Northwest Passage, ships from her western and southern ports – Bristol, Weymouth, Dartmouth, Southampton, and Plymouth, known as the West Country – traveled west in search of new, plentiful fishing grounds.

By the 1500s, England’s shores were fished out, and she was satisfying her needs off the Icelandic coast, as were other European nations. Just as those waters became overly crowded, John Cabot and his crew returned from the Newfoundland Banks and disclosed their discovery of the abundant sea life. As we described in Crossing the Ocean Sea, between 1500 and 1502 Portuguese explorers Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, Pedro de Barcelos, João LabradorFernandes, and João Martins explored the coasts of Greenland, Labrador and Newfoundland. By as early as 1506, Portugal’s King Manuel I had imposed a tithe [ten-percent tax] on Newfoundland fish which was levied in Portuguese ports.(1)

By the year 1600, more than 10,000 English men and boys were employed fishing on the Newfoundland Banks each year. Eventually ships moved farther west to fish off Nova Scotia. By 1614, the Maine was a regular destination point. And by 1623, England’s fishing boats regularly made it as far as Cape Cod.

Europeans referred to the land we now call Maine as the maineland because it was the main land they discovered after passing the islands of Ireland, Greenland, Iceland, and Newfoundland. For a while they thought Nova Scotia was an island, too.

The Fishing Seasons

Fishing season for the English began in the spring. Ships left their home ports as soon as the ice melted and were gone for as long as ten months. In Newfoundland, the fish usually arrived in June and July, though sometimes in April. The season in New England was different. The fish arrived in March and stayed through November, except during the two months they were in Newfoundland. This schedule allowed a fisherman to load up in New England and then fish in Newfoundland on his return trip to Europe.

Cod and haddock were the principal catches. Mullets were netted. Salmon were caught while jumping in the rivers. Mackerel were snatched with a hook and line. One fisherman claimed he caught a large Mackerel using a piece of red cloth as bait.

Fishing Stages

By 1630, every major river with a protected cove between Newfoundland and Cape Cod had a fishing stage built on it. Large fishing ships anchored miles from shore in deep water or in a safe cove. From there they sent out shallops, long boats, and other small vessels that coasted along the shores. Sometimes the small boats were away from the mother ship for weeks or months. Fishing stages were small settlements where the fishermen could prepare their fish and sleep during the night.

Fishermen erected sturdy structures to shelter them through the winter, platforms to prepare the fish for transport back to Europe, and warehouses to store supplies they might leave behind such as hogsheads of salt, fishing tools, presses for extracting oil from cod livers, and tools for repairing boats and sails.

Preparing the Fish for Transport

There were many methods for preparing fish before packing it in a ship’s hold. For a long time fishermen used the wet or green method – simply pickling the fish in barrels of salty brine. Eventually they began drying the fish. That preserved it better for shipping to the warmer climates of Spain, where many goods fetched the best prices. Spanish markets, particularly Malaga [see the map above], were accessible to the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.

Fish to be dried were first split. Large fish were deboned. The fish were then laid on a rack, salted and let to dry out. The racks were platforms of wood hurdles pitched upon stakes breast-high “meant to keep the fish from the raccoons and other thieving creatures.” Drying took longer than pickling. But the difference in the price received in Spain made the extra effort worth it.

The Fishermen

An average crew in a fishing shallop included four fishermen and a master, or steersman. Larger crews added a midshipman and a foremastman. There was at least one shoreman responsible for taking the boat out of the water, washing it down, and drying it over a rack. Since no women were allowed on fishing boats, that fellow also “tended to the cookery.”

The fishermen hung about the beaches at night with little to do besides drinking, playing cards, and gambling. They kept the warehouses filled with plenty of tobacco and hogsheads of liquor such as brandy, the “strong water of Barbados,” and wine. As in modern times, beach parties could be merry as well as quarrelsome and mischievous.

Next article: New England’s Gold, the Beaver


  1. L.-A. Vigneras, L.A., "Gasper Corte-Real, Portuguese Explorer", University of Toronto, [