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State agriculture created a sea trade for the early colony
Ships sailed from Connecticut ports carried bounty to the West Indies

As early as the 1650s, ships from Connecticut brought meats, vegetables, apple cider, butter and cheese to the West Indies to support the sugar plantations. Livestock to power their operations represented and even more important agricultural export in a sea trade that dominated the Connecticut economy for more than 200 years. Trade in bird droppings for fertilizer was also carried on by Connecticut ships, especially whalers out of New London. Mystic Seaport curator William Peterson talks about these and other connections between Connecticut agriculture and Connecticut’s seafaring past.  (CONTINUED BELOW)

William Peterson
Senior Curator, Mystic Seaport

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Exports by sea began before the American Revolution

The first ships that left Connecticut for Barbados were loaded with produce in the 1650s. This was the start of a trade to the West Indies that was extremely important to Connecticut agriculture. The West Indies dominated the Connecticut economy for more than 200 years. Connecticut sent to the West Indies just prodigious quantities of pressed hay, barrels of pork and beef, onions, all sorts of vegetables and cider. Butter and cheese were sent in just unbelievable quantities.

But I think the thing that stands out in my mind as being something not unique but very important to Connecticut’s contribution to the West Indies trade was livestock. Stock was the principle commodity out of Connecticut within the Greater West Indies trade and particularly important out of eastern Connecticut where, in the late 1790s, seven, eight, nine thousand head of cattle and horses, mules, were out of the Port of New London alone.  So you can get a little bit of a sense of the scale of that trade and that was just one year out of, many, many years of this important trade. 

Of course, similar vessels and similar commodities were sailing out of every port in Connecticut from all the way down Fairfield County. I mean, there were ships lined up in New Haven for the whole length of Long Wharf with these West Indies traders. Middletown, Hartford, New London and Norwich also were very much engaged particularly in sending stock to the West Indies.

Now, a lot of these vessels were built here in Connecticut. In fact, Connecticut shipbuilders in Mystic and in New London and on the Connecticut River became known for their proficiency in building vessels designed for the West Indies trade and particularly for carrying livestock. These ships had a very high freeboard and low decks. They became so well known in the trade that they were called horse jockeys at the time. These vessels would carry anywhere from a half a dozen to 50 or 60 head of cattle or horses. 

Connecticut supplied the plantation system essentially. A lot of these animals were used in raising sugar cane, which was the principle product out of many of the West Indian islands, and it was sustained by a slave economy.

A lot of the food that was sent down was to sustain the slave labor, but it was also to supply the horses that brought the cane from the fields to the docks. The cane mills themselves, the sugar mills themselves were operated by horsepower and food was needed for those horses.

The Connecticut West Indies trade probably began as early as the 1640s , when we know some voyages were made to Barbados. The height of the trade probably was just prior to the American Revolution, and then there was a very big resurgence of the trade right after the American Revolution. 

The American colonies before the Revolution obviously were trading to islands that were dominated by the British Empire and were within the English mercantile empire.  After the Revolution that changed. The English prohibited, for a while, American vessels from trading with their formerly very lucrative islands. And Americans were trading to the Dutch, the French and the Spanish West Indian islands when they could. But it was a very fickle, fickle trade because all these countries were at war with one another at various times during a large part of this 200-year period, ending with the Napoleonic Era in 1815, essentially.

The post-Revolutionary trade was a dangerous trade. Your vessel was liable to be seized or the cargo seized by a belligerent power. You could lose your vessel, your cargo or your life.  But it was also very lucrative and so it didn’t stop investors and owners of vessels from sending out more vessels because if you lost one and made three successful voyages, you were doing very, very well.

The guano trade

Where I work, at Mystic Seaport, we’re always trying to make connections. “The sea connects all things,” in the words of Gaddis Smith at Yale University.  And so Connecticut’s agricultural economy has been very much tied up with sea born enterprise in various ways. The West Indies trade was only one. 

Another unique little example is the guano trade to the Chincha Islands and Baker’s Island and the west coast of Peru and Chile. Guano was seabird droppings. Over the centuries, literally mountains of this guano were deposited on these islands, and it became pretty apparent to some people that this was a very, very nitrogen-rich fertilizer. So, they started to mine it, essentially. 

Among the initial people involved with that were whalers out of New London, Connecticut. They weren’t totally alone but they certainly were among those that started the unique trade. Farmers in Connecticut and throughout the Northeast particularly highly valued the guano for their farms.

Most of this guano trade took place from the 1850’s right up through the end of the 19th century.  It was probably at its height in the 1860s and 1870s.

Fish guano is another source of fertilizer for Connecticut farmers.  In fact, there were quite a number of Menhaden companies with factories that dotted the Connecticut shoreline, all the way from Stonington down to the Stamford area.

What they did was catch Menhaden, known as an industrial fish not a food fish. Large schools of fish were caught, brought into the factories, boiled and pressed for oil. The pumice or gerry or fish guano, or whatever you want to call it, that was left over was highly, highly valued by many Connecticut farmers, particularly Connecticut River tobacco farmers. 

More sea products for farmers

Salt hay is also another sea borne product, if you will.  And again, farmers who lived along the shore on Long Island Sound, particularly around Saybrook and in the Stonington area and Groton, harvested salt hay. Salt hay was highly valued by many farmers because it had certain nutrients that you couldn’t find in regular hay. Also it came without weed seed with it, so as a winter covering, for example, it was particularly useful for market farming. 

Seaweed, likewise, was used as a fertilizer and as a winter covering. And you would see these small barges and punts coming up the Mystic River, the Thames River, even the Connecticut River, loaded with hay and sometimes seaweed going to a lot of these trunk farms that were located a little bit further up the rivers.

Copyright 2008 SimonPure Productions, LLC

Working the Land: The Story of Connecticut Agriculture
is a Co-Production of
SimonPure Productions and Connecticut Humanities Council

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