The West Indies Trade Years:
In 1650, a mere four years after New London’s initial founding, a Welsh ship-builder known as “good Master [John] Coit” arrived at the fledgling town. (Missed Part 1 about New London’s founding? Find it here!)
A master carpenter, Coit had left his native Wales sometime in the 1630s for Massachusetts. But the promise of New London’s sensational harbor likely lured him south. When Coit arrived in October, 1650, he brought with him from Gloucester, Mass. a group of fellow transplants.
Coit promptly set to work, erecting a shipyard on Close Cove (now Howard Street) and operating it with help from his sons. And over the next few years, thanks to the Coit shipyard, small “pinnaces and shallops of 20 and 30 tons’ burden” began plying the New England coastal waters, making trading runs as far as Boston.
New London was too small, as yet, to produce much in the way of trade goods. So initial cargoes were simply animal pelts and shell beads known as “wampum.” These were exchanged by the traders for much-needed clothing, household goods, lead, and powder.
The spring of 1651 saw a second influx from Gloucester, Mass., this time courtesy of Rev. Richard Blinman. Originally a native of Monmouthshire, England, the good Reverend, too, had emigrated initially to Massachusetts before arriving in New London to become the town’s first minister. Best of all for the fortunes of the new town: many of his Gloucester parishioners came with him.
Rev. Blinman was granted six acres of land on Meeting-House Hill (perhaps as part of his inducement for moving). Nearby lots were also platted “beyond the brook and the ministry lot,” where his congregation could build homes.
In 1657, a decade after New London’s launch, founder John Winthrop departed for Hartford. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps with a government job, and was now the newly-elected Governor of Connecticut. But the settlement he’d started would continue to flourish.
By the following year (1658), local commerce was thriving enough that a new customs officer, John Smith, was stationed at New London. His customs district spanned all of Connecticut, enabling ships’ masters to put in at New London and clear their cargo for any of the eight ports in the state. The year 1710 brought further recognition of the town’s prominence, when New London was made the chief postal station for Connecticut by an Act of Parliament.
New London’s deep-water harbor offered obvious attractions for the maritime trade. Locals bragged in 1680 that a “ship of [as much as] 500 tons may . . . come so near the shore, that they may toss a biscuit on shore.”
More and more goods began to be produced locally to fill the pipeline of an ever-growing trade network. Small ships loaded with locally-raised “country-cured” beef and pork ranged west to New York, and then down to Virginia “in quest of tobacco, dry hides, and buckskins.” Eventually, New London’s coastal trade extended as far as Newfoundland.
Ship-builder John Coit was already middle-aged when he’d first set foot in New London, and he died less than a decade later, in August, 1659. But his pioneering shipyard was continued by his son and two sons-in-law. Among other vessels they constructed between 1666 and 1674 were “three fine barques.” Little did those early boat-builders realize at the time how one of those barques would change New London’s fortunes.
In 1666, under the command of Capt. Samuel Chester, the newly-built barque Endeavor was loaded with goods from local farmers: “pork and beef well-cured, coopers’ stock, and several tough, hardy ponies.” Securing the necessary clearance from Customs agent John Smith, the Endeavor rounded Fishers’ Island and put out to sea – and headed for the West Indies.
It took the Endeavor 28 days to reach Barbados, the southern-most island in the Caribbean chain. There, Capt. Chester’s cargo found ready buyers. In less than two months Chester was back in home waters again, his vessel now filled with barrels of Barbados sugar and hogsheads of molasses.
A cask of rum, too, had made it into the ship’s belly — a teaser from planters who hoped to “open up a trade in this article.” Sadly for Capt. Chester, however, the Connecticut magistrates had been observing the ill effects of Barbados rum on the populace of nearby Massachusetts Plantation. Shortly before the Endeavor reached port, a missive had reached Customs-keeper Smith, sternly prohibiting imports of “Barbadoes liquor, commonly called rum, kill-devil, and the like.”
Thus when Captain Chester arrived back at the New London wharf, he was forced to hand over his now-contraband cask of rum. What happened to that confiscated liquor? That secret hasn’t survived. But this early version of Prohibition (like its later cousin) wouldn’t last, of course. Capt. Chester would eventually see the “obnoxious article” develop into the most lucrative trade good of the Massachusetts and Connecticut colonies.
The Endeavor’s successful West Indes trip opened the eyes of other skippers, and sparked interest from New London’s merchant class. Between 1720 and the mid-1770s the New London waterfront mushroomed, becoming jammed with docks, warehouses, offices, stores and commercial buildings, all doing a bustling business.
All this trade gave fresh impetus to local ship-builders, as well. Among the vessels constructed at New London were a 700-ton “great ship,” launched in 1725. A shipyard also began at Groton, on the east side of the river.
Trading with neighboring colonies continued, of course. But New London was no longer serving just the coastal trade; its reach now was truly international. In a single year, between spring 1748 and spring 1749, some 62 vessels departed from New London for foreign ports, while 37 arrived from foreign harbors.
Produce and other goods at the New London docks came from nearby Norwich and Gardner’s Lake, and as far away as Windham County, in the far northeast corner of the state. There were sacks of wheat, peas, and kiln-dried corn. “Tierces” (small kegs) of ham, and barrels of dried pork and beef. Pots of butter, and savory cheeses from Connecticut pastures. Craftsmen furnished pipe-staves made of spruce; hickory hoops arrived from “remote country woodshops.” Horses and cattle destined for work on the plantations were herded down to the piers by their drovers.
On any given day, dozens of wagons might lumber through New London’s streets, carrying cargo to be loaded on three or four ships in the harbor. Teamsters and drovers were so plentiful they “had a tavern of their own near the waterfront, at which they always put up, and where their teams were stabled.”
This camaraderie posed its own challenge for the town of New London. Once their goods had been delivered, teamsters would gather at the tavern and “indulge in merry carousals.” Large quantities of “vile tobacco and viler Barbadoes liquor” would be consumed, after which the revelers would “parade the streets in noisy bands, to the no small dismay of the order-loving citizens.”
These rowdy blue-collar workers occasionally caused trouble for British officers whose ships were docked in New London’s harbor, too. A lone officer making his way back to his ship after a “visit to some fair Juliet of the town” might find “himself and his smart uniform rolled in the gutter.”
And New London faced additional challenges from its growing trade. As elsewhere in the colonies, West Indies rum soon began flowing in profusion. According to later writers, the “vile liquors of the tropics” introduced a “looseness of morals from which the port suffered for years.”
Pirates, too, began roaming off the Connecticut coast. Captain Kidd himself was said to have a favorite haunt at nearby Block Island. His black-flagged ship Antonio also reportedly paid a visit to Gardiner’s Island, just across Long Island Sound, where legend has it Kidd buried iron chests full of treasure in the swamp.
Despite local rowdies, lurking pirates, and free-flowing rum, New London’s vibrant commercial trade continued as late as 1774. Trade with the West Indies was its mainstay, though coastal trading continued and an occasional vessel from England or Ireland might show up at the docks. Locally-owned sailing ships — some 72 of them — employed a total of 406 seamen. Nearly two dozen smaller “coasting vessels” were also based at New London.
New London, by now, was widely-recognized as “the best harbor in Connecticut.” A helpful lighthouse welcomed incoming ships to its wide harbor. Even for large ships, there was little danger of running aground here; the river remained 5 to 6 fathoms deep a full mile above town.
But New London’s fate was about to change.
The Revolutionary War would bring America her freedom. But for New London, it meant the fabulous West Indies trade screeched to an abrupt halt. The port was forced to close.
New London’s once-thriving docks were quiet – for a time, at least.
(To be continued in Part 3!)