Enslaved Laborers in the Fishing and Maritime Economy
With approximately 50,000 miles of rivers and access to the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, fishing and other maritime work has played a vital role in Virginia’s economy throughout its history. Anyone traveling along Virginia’s waterways during the colonial period was likely to see fishermen bringing in their catch. Rich and poor alike consumed large quantities of fish and other seafood, and Virginia’s plentiful fisheries were essential both as a means of sustenance and as a valuable export commodity. On July 16, 1774,, a tutor to the family of of Nomony Hall plantation on Virginia’s Northern Neck, noted in his journal that “from the time of our setting out as we were going down Machodock, & along the Potowmack-Shore, & especially as we were rowing up Nominy we saw Fishermen in great numbers in Canoes, & almost constantly taking in Fish, Bass & Perch.”
Many of the plantations in Tidewater Virginia had access to rivers or to the Chesapeake Bay, making fishing a critical part of the plantation economy. For instance, fish harvested from the four fisheries surrounding’s on the Potomac River consistently provided a larger income than did wheat and other crops. Washington wrote in a letter to Arthur Young on December 12, 1793, that the Potomac River “is well supplied with various kinds of Fish at all Seasons of the year, and in the Spring with the greatest profusion of Shad, Herring, Bass, Carp, Perch Sturgeon &ca.”
Like most other plantation owners, Washington relied heavily onto catch and process fish. Enslaved workers fished using seine nets, weighted nets that hang vertically in the water, which they would draw to shore from rowboats. Once the trapped fish were brought ashore, enslaved workers would sort and clean the fish. Washington noted in his diary on April 11, 1760, that he had “set the People to Hauling the Sein and by Night; and in the Night catched and dressed – Barrels of Herring and 60 White Fish.” Much of the herring from the annual spring run was salted and packed in barrels, which would preserve it, by enslaved workers. This provided the plantation community with fish throughout the winter and allowed Washington to sell the excess. Washington’s enslaved workers processed approximately one million herring each spring, much of which was shipped abroad.
Fish was an important part of enslaved workers’ diets. Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz, who visited Mount Vernon in June 1798, noted in his travel account Under Their Vine and Fig Tree (1965) that alongside a weekly ration of maize, salt pork at harvest time, and chickens they raised themselves, enslaved individuals received “20 herrings each per month.” Enslaved workers also received fish considered undesirable by whites, such as garfish, whose red flesh Niemcewicz explained “is little esteemed, serving only as food for negroes,” and black catfish, which held less appeal for whites than white catfish, which was “considered excellent.” Enslaved workers alsoto supplement their rations. On October 9, 1774, Philip Vickers Fithian noted in a letter that enslaved workers often spent Sundays, their only day off, “fishing making Potatoes &c., building & patching their Quarters or rather Cabins.” George Washington noted on April 13, 1760, “My Negroes asked the lent of the Sein today, but caught little or no Fish” because the “Wind blew upon the Shore today.”
On the Chesapeake Bay, enslaved watermen harvested crabs and oysters in addition to working on fishing boats. Enslaved watermen stood for hours in boats harvesting oysters using hand tongs—long, scissor-like wooden poles with rakes on the end that would pull oysters off the bottom of the bay when drawn together. According to Richard H. Edmonds in his Review of the Oyster Industry (1887), before the Civil War, “the oystermen of Virginia were composed of Negroes working for their masters and a very rough class of whites.”
Enslaved African Americans also could be found working as boat pilots, guiding fishing and cargo boats up and down Virginia’s waterways and around the Chesapeake Bay. Some skippered boats owned by their enslavers and others werefor the season to the owners of the boats. Enslaved pilots also were hired out to guide boats passing through tricky stretches of navigation, with their enslavers being paid for their knowledge of local waterways. Black bateaumen poled the flat-bottomed bateaux that were a major means of cargo transportation on rivers above the fall line. Enslaved mariners served as crew on cargo boats and in a variety of maritime trades, such as ship’s carpenter or caulkers responsible for sealing the joints in a vessel’s hull.
Work on the water gave enslaved laborers access to potential routes to freedom, as documented by advertisements seeking the return of enslaved fishermen or mariners who. Such advertisements sometimes noted that the enslaved had “been used to the sea” to alert slave catchers that the enslaved person may attempt to escape by boat or use their skill handling watercraft to pass as a free person. An advertisement in the January 28, 1768, issue of the Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon) warned that an enslaved man named Tom who “has frequently gone up and down the rivers, in vessels belonging to Mr. William Meredith…who has Negro skippers on board his vessels,” may have “changed his cloaths and name, and endeavour to pass for a freeman.”
Enslaved Mariners and the American Revolution
When the Virginia Navy was formed during the American Revolution, the skills of enslaved mariners could not be ignored. Estimates of the number of African American men who sailed on the side of the patriots aboard Virginia’s naval vessels range from seventy-five to as many as 140. Records from the period are scarce, but historians agree that a significant number of these men, perhaps as many as nine in ten, were enslaved, with many serving in place of their masters. Commodore James Barron, commander of the schooner Liberty, recalled that “there were several coloured men, who I think, in justice to their merits should not be forgotten” (Sidney Kaplan and Emma Nogrady Kaplan, The Black Presence in the Era of the American Revolution, 1989).
Barron singled out an enslaved man named Harry, who “was distinguished for his zeal and daring,” as well as Cupid, who “stood forth on all occasions as the champion of liberty, and discharged all his duties with a fidelity that made him a favorite of all the officers,” and Aberdeen, who “distinguished himself so much as to attract the notice of many of first officers and citizens.” Aberdeen later became friends with, the great orator, statesman, and patriot from Virginia, and eventually earned his freedom by virtue of an act passed by the General Assembly in October 1783.
Barron also wrote about the “noble” Mark Starlins, who served as a pilot aboard the schooner Patriot. Starlins, according to Barron’s account, “died a slave soon after the peace, and just before a law was passed that gave freedom to all those devoted men of colour who had so zealously volunteered their services in the patriotic cause.” Another enslaved pilot, Caesar, lived long enough to win his freedom. On the grounds that Caesar “entered very early into the service of his country, and continued to pilot the armed vessels of this state during the late war,” and in recognition of his “meritorious services,” the Virginia General Assembly voted on November 14, 1789, to purchase Caesar and to emancipate him.
An unknown number enslaved Virginians joined the British forces, seeing this as their best chance to gain freedom. On November 7, 1775,, fourth earl of Dunmore, the last British Royal Governor, declared “all indentured Servants, Negroes, or others, (appertaining to Rebels,) free that are able and willing to bear Arms, they joining his Majesty’s Troops.” The crew of HMS Otter, a sloop active in Virginia waters early in the Revolutionary War, included at least two enslaved men. Additionally, the sloop’s pilot, Joseph Harris, was described by the Virginia Gazette (Purdie & Dixon) in September 1775 as “a mullato man” who “was the property of Henry King” of Hampton.
Enslaved Mariners in Antebellum Virginia
Enslaved mariners were so common on Virginia’s waterways after the Revolution that the General Assembly took steps to limit their numbers for fear their presence would “discourage free white seamen” from finding work. An act passed in June 1784 stipulated “that not more than one-third part of the persons employed in the navigation of any bay or river craft, below the falls of the rivers, shall consist of slaves.” The measure was eventually superseded by the new U.S. Constitution’s authority over navigable waters, however, and enslaved African Americans continued to figure prominently as pilots, navigators, and members of maritime crews in Virginia.
Enslaved mariners also continued to self-emancipate when afforded the opportunity. In April 1798, William Stratton of Northampton placed an advertisement in the Norfolk Herald seeking the return of “a Negro Man by the name of WILL,” who he supposed “has crossed the bay in a fish boat to Norfolk, in order to ship on board some vessel bound to the northern States.”
The unique position of enslaved mariners in Virginia was underscored by. In 1800, Gabriel, an enslaved blacksmith, and a number of co-conspirators plotted unsuccessfully during the spring and summer of 1800 to attack Richmond, with the goal of ending the institution of slavery in Virginia. The plot unraveled after two enslaved persons informed members of the white community of the plan. Because of the mobility they enjoyed, enslaved watermen and bateaumen were widely suspected by white Virginians of having been complicit in the plot. At least one Black bateaumen and an enslaved deckhand were detained and questioned for their role in the conspiracy, and a Black boat captain was suspected of passing information, although none were ultimately linked to the plot.
As a result, however, the General Assembly moved to curtail the number of Black Virginians who could work as pilots, passing a law in 1802 that stipulated that “no negro or mulatto shall, after the passing of this act, obtain a branch as a pilot.” The law did, however, grandfather in those Black pilots who already had a commission, attesting to their importance in the maritime economy.
Enslaved mariners and watermen continued to be found on Virginia’s waterways throughout the antebellum period. Edmond and Henry, two enslaved men who self-emancipated in January 1839, worked “on the James River Canal,” according to an advertisement in the Richmond Enquirer. Frank Padget, an enslaved headman of a bateaux, lost his life in January 1854 trying to save several men on a James River canal boat that had been swept over a dam near Balcony Falls.
The Civil War and Emancipation
Soon after the start of the Civil War, fugitives from slavery, or, began to make their way onto naval vessels. Writing to Flag Officer William W. McKean in a letter dated September 25, 1861, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles addressed the “large and increasing number of persons of color, commonly known as contrabands, now subsisted at the navy yard and on board of ships of war.” Welles argued that “they can neither be expelled from the service to which they have resorted nor can they be maintained unemployed, and it is not proper that they should be compelled to render necessary and regular service without a stated compensation.” Welles thereby authorized the acceptance of African American contrabands into “naval service under the same form and regulations as apply to other enlistments.”
Beyond declaring that all enslaved people held in states in rebellion against the United States were to be “forever free,” the Emancipation Proclamation signed by President Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, also facilitated the naval service of African Americans. It declared that “such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.” From a naval perspective, the Emancipation Proclamation merely codified the existing contributions of Black mariners to the war effort. In a report dated December 5, 1863, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton wrote to Lincoln that “the apt qualifications of the colored man for artillery service have long been known and recognized by the naval service.”
Black Sailors in U.S. Navy During the Civil War
A Civil War-era photograph shows an unidentified Black sailor standing in front of a painted backdrop at the Ball & Thomas Photographic Art Gallery near Race, Cincinnati. The young man probably served in the U.S. Navy during the war. He wears the distinctive federal navy "flat hat" made of dark blue wool, and a large pin in the shape of an anchor is affixed to his neckerchief.
In this Civil War-era photograph, crew members of the USS Miami, a side-wheel steam gunboat, pose in the forecastle. W.N. Wells, the executive officer of the ship, stands at the extreme prow of the vessel, and in front of him are seamen—both Black and white—at rest. Some sailors are playing checkers, another is playing a banjo, and a pair of Black sailors at right appear to be doing some mending.
An unidentified Black sailor dressed in his U.S. Navy uniform rests one arm on a table in this Civil War-era tintype. The elaborate two-tiered frame includes an inner portion decorated with American flags at the top and a war drum and cannon at the bottom. A motto beneath the image reads: "The Union Now And Forever." This image is part of the Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs at the Library of Congress.
This Medal of Honor, the highest and most prestigious military decoration conferred by the U.S. government, was awarded to a Black seaman named Joachim Pease for his courageous actions during the Civil War. Pease bravely remained at his post loading and reloading a gun on the USS Kearsarge during a fierce battle with the Confederate raider CSS Alabama off the coast of Cherbourg, France, on June 19, 1864. A divisional officer recognized Pease's gallantry under fire and recommended him for the prestigious honor. After the Kearsarge returned to the United States, no records trace Pease's subsequent life.
This five-pointed bronze Medal of Honor depicts Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom and warfare, at its center, as she holds off an opponent holding snakes with a shield blazoned with the escutcheon of the United States.
Many African American mariners seized the opportunity offered by the Union navy’s desperate need for sailors. Approximately 18,000 African Americans joined the United States Navy during the Civil War, and according to surviving muster rolls and enlistment records, 2,822 were born in Virginia. The Commonwealth contributed more Black sailors to the Union cause than any other state, accounting for 16 percent of the enlisted African Americans serving aboard U.S. Navy vessels during the war. Some experienced Black mariners began their naval service with the rank of ordinary seaman, slightly better than inexperienced men, who enlisted as landsmen, the lowest rank for new recruits.
The Oyster Business in Virginia
This circa 1900 photograph shows a number of Black watermen on the Chesapeake Bay wielding hand tongs—long scissor-like wooden poles used to harvest oysters. The low-slung boats, called Chesapeake Bay log canoes, were probably part of the fishing fleet owned by J.S. Darling & Son Oyster Packers in Hampton.
Black men shuck oysters in an unidentified seafood plant, probably in Hampton. This photograph was taken by Cheyne Studio, a photographic studio in Hampton that took many images of local oyster packing companies.
Three men stand atop—and are dwarfed by—huge piles of oyster shells after the meat inside had been shucked and packed by J.S. Darling & Son Oyster Packers in Hampton. The seafood plant is visible at left, and a workboat sits in the water in the foreground. The photograph was taken by Cheyne Studio, a local photographic studio.
As the war drew to a close, and the prospects for ratification of a constitutional amendment abolishing slavery grew brighter, the water once again offered a lifeline for formerly enslaved workers embarking on a new life as. Many returned to the water, dominating the oyster trade in Virginia as the oyster business boomed after the war and building livelihoods as captains and shipbuilders. Many of these water-based livelihoods declined in the twentieth century, however, as overfishing caused severe declines in shad and other fisheries and oyster harvests plummeted due to destructive harvesting techniques.