SHIPBUILDERS OF MATTAPOISETT
By Charles S. Mendell, Jr.
PAPER READ AT MEETING OF THE
OLD DARTMOUTH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
JULY 15th, 1937
AT THE HOME OF F. GILBERT HINSDALE
In the Series of Sketches
of New Bedford's Early History
SHIPBUILDERS OF MATTAPOISETT
IT IS a great pleasure to welcome you here today. Mattapoisett
is indeed honored by this visit of the Old Dartmouth His-
torical Society; and, as I hope to show, it is entirely fitting
that such a visit should take place. From the earliest settle-
ments in Mattapoisett, the relationships between the seafaring
and shipbuilding citizens of this village and those of all portions
of Old Dartmouth were of the closest nature. Unfortunately,
with the exception of those wise people of New Bedford who
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show their good taste by choosing Mattapoisett's shores for
their summer homes, there has been in recent years a deplorable
tendency on the part of New Bedfordites to regard Mattapoisett
as the furthest outpost of the wilderness. On many occasions
have I driven the short seven miles to New Bedford for an
evening's entertainment, only to be greeted with an astonished,
"What! You came all the way from Mattapoisett?"
But in the great days of whaling the people of New Bedford
were well acquainted with Mattapoisett and what the name stood
for. New Bedford merchants, shipowners, whaling agents, cap-
tains, and sailors — which meant, of course, the entire male
population of the city — knew that from the Mattapoisett ship-
yards came many and many of the finest whaleships that New
Bedford's great fleet could boast. Nor was that all. Mattapoi-
sett shipmasters captained New Bedford whalers; many young
men of this village helped swell the crews of your ships; timber
from the forests hereabouts was used in your shipyards; and on
several occasions Mattapoisett shipbuilders established yards in
New Bedford. I won't go so far as to say that they showed
your shipbuilders a trick or two in the business, but at least they
were highly regarded for what they were — experts in their
In its day Mattapoisett was the most famous whaleship
building port in the world. The list of vessels known to have
been built at Mattapoisett now numbers 300; and all indica-
tions show that if the early Custom House records of Nantucket
and New Bedford were available, this number would be doubled.
Mattapoisett built ships not only for Nantucket and New Bed-
ford, but for Salem, Boston, Yarmouth, Barnstable, Fairhaven,
Edgartown, Dartmouth, Wcstport, Newport, Providence, New
London, Sag Harbor, New York, and as far south as Delaware.
Her vessels were not only whalers, but sailed in the general
North European trade, in the wine trade to France and Italy,
and the salt trade with the islands off the coast of North Africa.
She provided a fleet of coasters for the West Indies and southern
coastwise trade, and vessels built where we sit today brought
back tea and spices from China to Boston and New York.
It was from New Bedford and Nantucket, however, that
the bulk of Mattapoisett-built vessels sailed. It was in par-
ticular the great industry of your whaling city that kept the
shipyards and their 300 workers bustling along this waterfront.
And so this afternoon I want to show how closely connected
was the shipbuilding and maritime commerce of Mattapoisett
and New Bedford for two centuries.
The shipbuilders came to Mattapoisett some 2 5 years before
the American Revolution, but before I come to that I wish to
speak of the first link between Old Mattapoisett and Old
One of the best known citizens of Old Dartmouth was
Benjamin Crane, your noted land surveyor. The man who
worked with him for many years was Captain Benjamm Ham-
mond, one of the first settlers of Mattapoisett, and a very famous
land surveyor in his own right. Some of his surveys of Old
Rochester lands are in the Plymouth Registry today. Thus, at
the very beginning of Mattapoisett's existence, one of her fore-
most citizens helped to lay out and plan much of the property
and some of the towns of Old Dartmouth.
But this was by no means Captain Hammond's only occu-
pation, nor his only link with Old Dartmouth. His is the
first record of maritime commerce between the two townships.
But before we look into his homemade pigskin journal, let us
glimpse the background of the events it brings to us.
The first settlers came to Old Dartmouth about 1652, but
it was not until King Philip's head was safely perched on a pole
in Boston that white men dared to come into the "Plantacion of
Mattapoyst," as it was then called. This "Plantacion of Matta-
poyst" was the southwestern portion of the Lands of Sippican,
incorporated in 1686 as "Rochester Towne-in-New England,"
and including the present towns of Rochester, Marion, Matta-
poisett, and a very large share of Wareham. The first settlers
who came to their wilderness home in Mattapoisett in 1680 did
not take up their homesteads along the harbor where the village
is now, but to the East in Pine Islands, where William Dexter
and his four sons built their houses and a grist mill; and to the
West, along the Mattapoisett River and on the Necks, where
Benjamin Hammond and his four sons raised their houses and
cleared their farms. Captain Benjamin Hammond, the sur-
veyor, was the youngest of these sons.
The more one reads the early records, the more one realizes
that the opportunity of profitable commerce by sea was one
of the prime appeals of this territory. In 1687, but seven years
after these first settlers arrived, little sloops were engaged in
such a brisk coasting trade that the Proprietors had to order
angrily "that all timber, Bourdes, Bolts, Shinales, Clabourde
Cooper Stuff, or Shuch like, that is brought to the water side or
any landing place" for transportation out of the town "shall
be forfited" . . . ; and this prohibition was followed by several
equally sharp warnings.
Now although Captain Hammond was a busy surveyor, a
prosperous farmer with vast properties and over 100 head of
cattle, a Justice of the Peace holding his commission from Queen
Anne, a Representative to the Great and General Court, and a
Selectman of the Town of Rochester, he still found time to take
advantage of this profitable commerce in "Timber, Bourdes,
Shinales, Clabourde Cooper Stuff, or Shuch like." In his jour-
nal, a remarkable picture of homemade life in those days, he
records loading cargo in his sloop, the Dolphin.
"1703 (mark how early is the date) April the 10th, We loded
at Cushnot for Jonathan Hathaway 7 cords of wood and 2 do.
of rals and 40 post; for Seth Pope 100 rals and 20 post, (and) on
Sat of whol timbor."
"April the 27th we loded at ponagansett ... 9 cords of rals
and 110 posts."
These records continue for the years 1703, 1704, and 1705,
loading at these ports of Old Dartmouth and at Mattapoisett,
Sippican, and Wareham. The cargos show plainly that the
wealth of these lands lay in the forest — fence posts, rails, tar,
barrel staves, shingles, cord wood, maple coal, timber, and even
"bongs". They were transported to Nantucket and Newport,
and it must have been a perilous business, what with the unwield-
iness of the homemade craft, the uncharted treacherous tides
and shoals, and the horrible menace of pirates. Pirates hovered
all along the coast in those far off days, and their danger is
evinced by the bold lettered relief with which Captain Ben-
jamin wrote, on the occasion when 30 of them were condemned
at Newport, "The pirats was hanged at Rhodisland juK' the
19th day 1723."
Captain Ren iiad a young apprentice named Tom Toby, and
if Captain Ben's hair was not already grey, Tom must have fin-
ished the job. For this footloose youth was forever running away,
and his good master again and again charged up to Tom the
expenses occurred in looking for him and dragging him back
to the farm. Perhaps the most important items in the journal
are the following:
"October the 23 da) — 1713
Tom Toby went from me to go a whaling and he came to
me again in february the Hthe day — 1714"
And the next year:
"October the 29th day 1714
Tom Toby went from me to go a whaling and he came to
again in jannuary the 31st day 17H.
for looking (for him) when he run away from me — 20
It has always been supposed that whaling in this vicinity
was started by Joseph Russel in New Bedford in the 175 O's;
yet here is a whaling record of 1713. It is fairly obvious that
Tom Toby, a poor boy bound to a farmer as an apprentice, could
have travelled neither to Nantucket nor to the Cape, where
whaling is known to have been under weigh at this early date.
Moreover there is in existence a record of a whaling voyage
from Wareham in 1736. In other words, then, in addition to
the coastwise trade in timber products, whaling was an estab-
lished maritime pursuit along these northern shores of Buz-
zards Bay from almost the earliest dates of settlement.
Captain Ben Hammond lived just to the northwest of the
picturesque Arch Bridge a half mile up the Mattapoisett River,
where the cellar hole of his house may still be seen. As the
years rolled on, the descendants of Captain Ben and his three
brothers populated a whole village along this river. It was a
flourishing community with grist and saw and shingle mills, a
church, a tannery, iron works and blacksmith shops, a school.
stores, and, below the Herring Weir, many little landings built
along the shores of the capacious salt pond which ran in there
before the railroad embankment closed up its mouth. For
over a hundred years sloops and schooners sailed from these
wharves with timber, cord wood, tar, resin, turpentine, and
pink granite for mill stones, carrying these cargos to Nan-
tucket and Newport, to Savanah and the West Indies.
These vessels, many of them, were built along the lower
A'lattapoisett River, on the harbor, and in Pine Island; but their
builders can in no real sense be called shipbuilders. They were
farmers who went down to the sea as a means to make more
money than they could farming; and their vessels, although cal-
culated to withstand the pounding of the Atlantic Ocean, were
clumsy and blunt-bowed, and today would seem little better
than scows. But even as Hammondtown, as this settlement on
the River was rightly named, grew into a thriving Yankee
community, the future center of the village of Mattapoisett be-
came established along the harbor — and it was professional ship-
builders who put it there.
Strangely enough, one of the first shipbuilders, perhaps the
first, to come to Mattapoisett, was a man named William Rotch.
Whether this was the William Rotch later of Nantucket, Lon-
don, Paris, and New Bedford, I don't know. In fact, the only
thing I know is that in 1760, William Rotch, of Rochester, ship-
wright, sold the present Lowe property on the harbor, and
then disappears from sight.
Aside from this mysterious figure, the first shipbuilder to
come to Mattapoisett was Charles Stetson, a shipwright from
the yards of Scituate in the North River, where his ancestors
had been building ships for several generations. In 17S2 Stetson
made a dicker with Deacon Constant Dexter, whose homestead
comprised almost this entire village and more besides, and
purchased, along with numerous woodlots, a strip of land —
roughly betv/een the present Pearl and Barstow Streets — ex-
tending from the shore three-quarters of a mile back into the
forest to what is now Park Street, but was then the main highway
from Hammondtown to Pine Islands. As far as I know, there
was not then a house in what is now Mattapoisett village; but
within 2 5 years — that is, by the time the Minute Men rushed
to Lexington, — no less than eight other shipbuilders, besides
numerous mariners and shipyard laborers, came to this shore.
established shipyards and wharves, built their homes and cleared
So, 185 years ago this summer, the sound of the hammers of
the shipcarpcnters was heard along this harbor for the first time
— a resonance that rang over the fields and woods for more than a
century, a sound so penetrating that woodsmen getting ship-
timber in the forest needed no watches to tell them when
noon and suppertime had arrived, a hammering so all-pervading
that old people still remember it as the dominant feature of
At first glance one might wonder why skilled craftsmen
would leave established businesses and come to this out-of-the-
way, almost uninhabited spot. But a moment's reflection will
show that it possessed the prime requisites for a desirable ship-
building location. Here was a fine harbor — in those days of
small wooden ships the best between the North River and New
Bedford. Here was a source of supply — an almost untouched
supply of virgin timber extending miles and miles inland. And
close at hand was the third necessity — markets that were greedy
for ships; for Nantucket's whaling and maritime commerce was
booming, and the little village on the West side of the Acushnet
River was sending out more and more vessels every year.
Charles Stetson's shipyard lay at the foot of Pearl Street
extending from the present Town Wharf property over to
where Mr. Stackpole lives. His house, which was built before
1757, was, it it almost certain, the lovely old house now occupied
by Mrs. Barklie. He must have prospered; for before long
others came — in 1760 Nathaniel Gushing from Pembroke and
Gideon Barstow of the famous Barstow builders in Hanover;
in 1762 Stephen Gushing from Pembroke; in 1767, Joshua
Studley, and later Seth Barstow, from Tisbury; and from then
on the property along the harbor passed to so many shipbuilders
and with such frequency, that it is hard to keep track of it.
Most of these men bought strips of land extending inland from
the harbor half a mile or more. They built their houses and
barns close to the shore, almost in their shipyards; and from
these their plowed fields, pastures, and orchards stretched back;
for in those pioneering days a shipbuilder was also a farmer if he
wanted to eat.
Of course, at this early date, it is impossible to learn of the
precise position of each shipyard, but in general it suffices to
say that the Nathaniel Gushing yard lay in the corner of the
harbor at Cannonville; the Joshua Studley and later Seth Bar-
stow's yard on the present R. L. Barstow waterfront, and Gideon
Barstow's yard between Mrs. Hinsdale's and the present An-
chorage property. Of the vessels that were built before the
Revolution nothing is known, save for one, and that only be-
cause it was named the Kochestcv and was wrecked off Nan-
tucket in 1774 while starting on a whaling voyage. But from
scattered sources we find that the shipyards were active; that
more mariners came, more wharves were built, more men sailed
south and returned with molasses, corn, and sugar; more men
came to work in the shipyards, — blacksmiths, blockmakers, sail-
makers, caulkers, and various other craftsmen; and the houses
along the cartpaths from shore to forest increased in number.
Yet as a whole, shipbuilders did not prosper in those days.
Few people today realize what hard times existed in Massachusetts
from 1760 to 1775, when the trouble between the colonies and
England was coming to a boil. There was practically no money
in those days. Even building a ship was done by barter — each
vessel was the property of a group of men who contributed either
labor or materials toward her construction. Then if she were
sold to some merchant in Nantucket or Dartmouth or New-
port, he promised to pay for her out of the proceeds of her
voyage. And her voyage was so apt to be a total loss. The
mortality of those little vessels was tremendous; gales, un-
charted coasts, French and Spanish privateers, pirates — all took
a heavy toll. If the merchant couldn't pay for the vessel, what
happened to the shipbuilder who was responsible to the men who
had financed her?
Charles Stetson, the first of the shipbuilders, furnishes a sad
example of this. In 1767 and 1768 numerous court executions
were obtained against him, and the plaintiffs in these cases show
plainly with whom Stetson did business and for whom he built
ships. They were Jonathan Burnell, Joseph Rotch, and Joseph
Nicols of Nantucket, and Joseph Rotch, Jr. and John McPher-
son of Dartmouth — all important shipping merchants of those
places, McPherson being the victim whose wharves, ships, and
warehouses on the Acushnet River were burned by the British
Stetson struggled along for over a year, selling his woodlots
and saltmarshes piece by piece to pay off his debts, until finally
there was but one left; and on a June day in 1768 the Constable
rode along Pine Island Way, turned down the cartpath to the
shore, drew up to the house still standing there, and pulled out
"Bristol, ss. George the I'hird, by the Grace of God, of
Great Britian, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith,
et cetera —
To the Sheriff of our County of Plymouth . . .
Whereas Joseph Rotch and Joseph Nichols both of Sher-
burn in the County of Nantucket, Merchants, and Joseph Rotch,
Jr. of Dartmouth in the County of Bristol, Merchant, by the
consideration of our Justices in our Inferior Court of Common
Pleas, holden at Taunton . . . have recovered judgement against
Charles Stetson of Rochester . . . Shipwright, for the sum of
thirty-six pounds, six shillings, and sixpense, lawful money of his
Majesty's Province of Massachusetts Bay, we command you
therefore that of the Goods, chattels, or Lands of the said Charles
. . . you cause to be paid and satisfied to the said Joseph Rotch,
Joseph Nichols, and Joseph Rotch, Jr., and for want of Goods,
Chattels, or Lands, we command you to take the body of the
said Charles Stetson and him commit into our Goal at Plymouth
And so the man who had first brought to the shores of
Mattapoisett harbor the sawpit, the scaffolding, the ox-drawn
loads of timber, and the ever sounding hammers of the caulkers,
went by the board and lost his shipyard. He continued to live
in Mattapoisett, as did his sons, for they fought in the Revolu-
tion as Rochester soldiers; but when the war was over, the sons,
and perhaps the old father, moved to New Bedford and estab-
lished a shipyard quite a way north of the present bridge, where
the Stetson sons built over SO ships for the young village of New
Bedford; and the descendants of these men were New Bedford
whaling captains for many years.
But Charles Stetson was not the only one. Every ship-
builder who came to Mattapoisett before the Revolution failed —
save one. Gidecn Barstow, who bought his first shipyard prop-
erty from William Rotch in 1760, was as prosperous as his
competitors were unfortunate, for he not only weathered the
Revolution, but by 1784 he and his sons owned every shipyard
but one along this waterfront.
In that year his son, Gideon Jr. purchased the R. L. Barstow
property and continued building there for half a century; and
eight years later, Gideon Sr. sold to another son, Captain Wilson
Barstow, his old William Rotch yard and what is now the
Lewis Bolles property, where Captain Wilson built the house
now lived in by Mr. Bolles.
As this would indicate, a younger crop of shipbuilders was
appearing. Two of these were the Cannon brothers, Ebeneezer
Jr. and Eliakim; and it was the descendants of these two, along
with those of Gideon Barstow, who made Mattapoisett famous
for shipbuilding. For three generations Cannons and Barstows
ran most of the shipyards and furnished the finest ship carpenters.
This hereditary craftsmanship is most interesting, and reminds
one of the old guilds in Europe, where the secrets of each craft
were handed down for generations from father to son.
After the Revolution a few names of vessels built in Mat-
tapoisett begin to appear. The first, in 1778, was the sloop
Eliza, built in Aucoot by Abncr Pease, probably to carry salt
from the Hiller saltworks in that vicinity. Abner Pease con-
tinued to own a small shipyard there, building sloops and schoon-
ers, until 1 804, when he moved to North Fairhaven where he
built vessels for many years.
Likewise, we begin to get some record of vessels built
on the Mattapoisett River. According to tradition, vessels were
built there during the Revolution which were used to dodge the
British warships in Long Island Sound. There were several small
shipyards along the River; but the last and best known was on
the East bank only a few rods below the present Flerring Weir,
and was run by George Washington Gifford, the grandfather of
Henry Rogers. Only a few sloops and schooners of his build-
ing are known, except the Brig Brutus, of 200 tons, built in
1801. Tradition has it that when she was launched, she slid
across the river with such rapidity that she stuck firmly in the
mud on the opposite side, and it took six weeks to get her out
and down into deep water. This trouble was prophetic, for
two years later she was lost at sea. Her master, Capt. Aseph
Price, who had been master of the ship Williciiu mid Mary of
New Bedford, was lost with her.
After the Revolution, shipbuilding in the village yards evi-
dently started in where it had left off, and began to flourish. In
1786 Minister Le Baron wrote: "Navigation is so much the ob-
ject of our attention as to be a great disadvantage to our hus-
bandry ... we have about 4 vessels employed in the whaling
fishery, about the principal source of our specie. Shipbuilding
and iron are two branches of manufactory not unprofitable."
Scattered records are being brought to light revealing, so far,
some 2 5 vessels built in the next twenty years for New Bedford,
Nantucket, Newport, Providence, New London, and New York.
An old account book in the Whaling Museum gives the first
vessel, whose name is known, to be built specifically for a New
Bedford merchant. She was the Brig Thonun, built by Captain
Wilst)n Barstow in 1805. She was used in the merchant trade
between New Bedford and New York for a number of years,
and then seems to have been sold back to Mattapoisett.
From 1800 to 1812, that is, just before the war with Eng-
land, this waterfront became a beehive of activity. Meager
records alone give three, four, and live vessels a year; and that
these are but a fraction is shown by an article in the Massa-
chusetts Historical Society's Collection for 1815, which states:
"At this harbor (Mattapoisett) there is an increasing village
of perhaps 40 houses, 3 or 4 wharves, a ropewalk, and shipyards,
where in 1811 . . . upwards of 8000 tons of shipping were con-
structed. Five vessels were ship rigged, and of the burthen of
300 or more tons."
Now much as I would like to believe it, that "8000 tons"
seems as if it must be a misprint. That would be twenty ships of
400 tons each, and even in the balmy days later on this figure
was never reached. But it may be so. There were at least six
shipyards going full blast, and if they built only three vessels a
piece, as often happened in later years, this total would nearly be
reached. And it is known that at this time William Moore was
building 400-ton ships for the New York-European trade. There
is a record of two of these, the Amies and the Xciiophoii, in 1810
alone. At any rate, it is obvious that a tremendous amount of
shipbuilding was being done, more than in any other port in
Of these early shipyards not much is known. Yet one
anecdote has come down the years, showing in what esteem the
skill of these ship-carpenters was held. One day a barefoot
man walked down the sandy cart-track to one of the shipyards
and asked the master carpenter for a job. The latter demanded
some proof of the applicant's skill, whereupon the newcomer
siezed a broadaxe, balanced himself on a huge stick of timber with
his toes spread wide apart and curled over the edge, raised the
axe over his head, and brought it down again and again, striking
the spaces between his toes in swift succession. He got the job.
This may or may not be an exaggeration. The skill of
these ship-carpenters was something for us to marvel at. With a
few crude tools — a broad axe, an adz, a chisel, a saw, and a ham-
mer — they could fashion rough pieces of timber into a fleet
sailing vessel. And "many a man among them could with the
broad axe hew so closely to the line, and so smoothly, that the
plane could hardly improve the surface."