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View of Boston, 1723
Explain the importance of maritime commerce in the development of the economy of colonial Massachusetts
Focus Question: What was the role of maritime commerce in Massachusetts's colonial economy?
Topics on the Page
Beginnings of Maritime Commerce
Native American Fishing
Maritime Commerce and Taxation
The Sacred Cod
The Trans-Atlantic Trade
Port Cities of Massachusetts
The Salem Witch Trials
See Influential Literature Page on The Crucible by Arthur Miller
"Massachusetts went to the sea, not by choice, but by necessity,"
said historian Samuel Eliot Morrison.
Beginnings of Maritime Commerce in Colonial Massachusetts
The early colonial economy of Massachusetts was primarily based on agriculture. The constant flow of English immigrants enabled the first Massachusetts farmers to profit for approximately one decade by growing corn and raising cattle. However, the rocky and nutrient-depleted nature of Massachusetts soil could not permanently support the growing number of colonists, and the shift towards a maritime-based economy began. By 1641, the characteristic activities of Massachusetts—fishing, shipping and trading—were well underway. Deep, sheltered harbors and a long coastline, together with abundant fish and timber, fostered the emerging maritime economy.
The soil was too poor and the climate too extreme to support year-round agriculture.
The colonists turned to seafaring and trading, steps that would lead them directly into conflict with British mercantile policies.
Settlers cut down trees and floated them down to sawmills near the ports in Boston, which created a major shipbuilding center.
1633, began exported cod and mackerel from Newfoundland
In 1602 Bartholemew Gosnold explored the bay and christened Cape Cod for the fish that swarmed about it
Lumber was not only imported from other parts of the continent, but came from Massachusetts itself; colonists used it to build ships to promote trade routes; to trade fish for other goods like molasses.
As a result, by the early 18th century, Massachusetts used its close proximity to the Grand Banks and its good coastal harbors to become the "primary commercial fishing community in the world" (
Historical Atlas of Massachusetts
, Richard W. Wilkie and Jack Tager, eds., University of Massachusetts Press, p. 20).
Fishing was centered at the ports of Gloucester, Marblehead, New Bedford, and Nantucket. By 1740, 150 whaling ships sailed from Nantucket alone.
The fishing industry has been a backbone of Massachusetts for over 400 years.
Great fleets of vessels sailed from Gloucester and Boston to the eastern- most reaches of North America -- the Grand Banks of Newfoundland.
Catches of cod supported nearly 400 schooners in each of these ports, and a multitude of shore-side businesses thrived including ropemaking, sailmaking, salt mining, ice harvesting in fresh-water ponds, and a boat building industry that made the shipyards on the Essex River among the busiest and best known in the world.
Native American Fishing
Long before Europeans arrived and "discovered" America, Native Americans fished along its shores, using hooks they made from bones and nets made from natural fibers.
Cod bones such as otoliths (an ear bone) are plentiful in Native American middens, indicating they were an important part of the Native American diet.
Native Americans taught the Plymouth colonists how to plant seeds with a small fish as fertilizer and how to catch eels.\
Indian Fish and Fishing Off Coastal Massachusetts,
Nantucket Historical Association
A Thanksgiving Fish Story
Squanto (Tisquantum) taught colonists to plan seeds with a small fish and how to catch ells.
The whaling industry flourished throughout Massachusetts from the late 17th century to the mid-19th century.
Into the Deep: America, Whaling and the World
from PBS American Experience
from the New Beford Whaling Museum
Commercial Fishers: Whaling
from On the Water, Smithsonian Museum of American History
Forgotten Port: Provincetown's Whaling Heritage
How Nantucket Came to be the Whaling Capital of the World
from Smithsonian (December 2015)
for the New Bedford Whaling Museum's website.
Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship
from the Martha's Vineyard Museum
Final chase of Moby-Dick
Moby Dick, e-book version
Moby Dick Teachers' Notes
Shipbuilding is one of the oldest industries in the United States with roots in the earliest colonial settlements. Shipbuilding quickly became a successful and profitable industry in Massachusetts, with its miles of coastline featuring protected harbors and bays, and extensive supplies of raw materials. The early wooden vessels built for commercial fishing and foreign trade also gave rise to a variety of ancillary trades and industries in the area, including sail making, chandleries, rope walks and marine railways. Shipyards in Essex and Suffolk counties are credited with the invention of the traditional American dory and built those that comprised the renowned Gloucester fishing fleet, helped free the colonies from British rule.
Early settlements, combined with the abundance of oak forests and nearby newly established sawmills on Cape Ann, played a major role in the emergence of the shipbuilding industry on the Essex and Merrimack Rivers and in areas along the northern Massachusetts coastline during the mid-17th century. A shipbuilding boom in the area commenced around 1710. In the beginning, people built their own boats for fishing and transportation. By the late 18th century, experienced shipbuilders began building a new vessel each winter, fishing it during the summer, and selling the vessel during the fall. Captains traveled from other ports to the town of Essex and contracted for a new vessel because the Essex shipbuilders possessed unsurpassed skill and craftsmanship. Much of the skills required of shipwrights or shipbuilders were obtained through on-the-job-training, and many of the earliest shipyards and boat shops operated as family businesses passed down from generation to generation.
Maritime Commerce and Taxation
With the development of maritime commerce came the opportunity to regulate and tax. Prior to the American Revolution, Britain established a resident American Board of Customs in Boston based on the English Board of Trade and enacted harsh, new regulations on imports and exports in the colonies. This was not the first time that such taxes were inflicted on the colonists, who soon showed their discontent by burning local customhouses and houses of customs officers, and tarring and feathering customs officers.
for a link to a video of historian and author Richard Norton Smith about Massachusetts maritime history.
The "Sacred Cod"
The "Sacred Cod"
In the House of Representatives Hall of the Massachusetts State House hangs a sculpture known as the "Sacred Cod". The cod is five feet long and carved in pine.
The fish is suspended above the entrance to the hall in the visitors gallery, and the Speaker of the House faces the cod during the meetings.
The Sacred Cod is a symbol of the historical importance of the fishing industry in Massachusetts. It was carved in 1784 and remains an ancient symbol of prosperity for the people in the Commonwealth.
The Trans-Atlantic Trade
For more, see
World History I.12
Origins of the Atlantic Slave Trade
Click here for an
interactive map of Triangular Trade Routes
for a website from the Smithsonian on Living in the Atlantic World
Developed many trade routes; one was
carried fish, lumber, etc. from Massachusetts to the West Indies, where the “Yankees” bought sugar and molasses and sailed back to Massachusetts. Then the colonists used these goods to make rum.
: rum, guns, clothes, tools from Mass. to West Africa, where they were traded for slaves.
: ships with slaves went to the West Indies, and with those profits, traders bought more molasses.
Rum from Massachusetts went to the west coast of Africa to trade for slaves, who were carried to the West Indies and exchanged for sugar and molasses that was returned to make more rum.
Fish, food, timber and horses to the west indies for sugar which went to England to be traded for manufactured goods.
Fish, food, timber and fur to southern Europe to be exchanged for wine, silk, spices and fruit, which were brought to England and exchanged for manufactured goods.
for a teaching guide to triangle trade. This lesson gives both elementary school and middle school examples.
from the narrative of Olaudah Equiano is a primary source describes a slave auction and the feelings that an enslaved African would have.
To contextualize this primary source, this
Crash Course World History Video
explains the Atlantic slave trade concisely and complexly.
2 minute Interactive map on all Trans Atlantic trade
Port cities of New Bedford, Newburyport, Gloucester, Salem, and Boston
Settlers initially landed in Gloucester and set up the first fisheries, but soon abandoned their settlement and moved to Salem, because the land was more ideal for farming
Gloucester was eventually re-settled
Boston was the main port, part of the triangular trade route; traded internationally; closest port to England
Salem: the Witch Trials of 1692 and 1693
New Bedford is known as the "whaling city" because it was the most important port in the whaling industry
Newburyport is situated on the Merrimack River, which made it a major lumber and shipbuilding center; first place the "tea rebellion" occurred.
for the Musuem of Cape Ann website, which features art based on the maritime livelihood of Cape Ann (Gloucester, Essex, Rockport, Manchester-by-the-Sea).
for a powerpoint on port towns in Colonial American and the simplification of triangle trade
Focus Question: What were the causes of the witchcraft trials in 17th Century Massachusetts?
Salem Witch Trials (1692)
See also Influential Literature Page on the play
The Crucible by Arthur Miller
In January of 1692 two girls, the daughter and niece of Reverend Paul Samuel Parris of Salem Village, became very ill. The village doctored declared that the two girls had been bewitched. The hysteria that followed as come to be known as the
Salem Witch Trials
The conditions surrounding the 17th century Massachusetts Bay Colony, including fear of the devil, competition with nearby Salem town and a concern about attack from neighboring Indian tribes, were ideal for this rapid spread of fear of witches.
One hundred and fifty men and women were thrown into prison when the affected girls cried out their names. Those being accused awaited trail for the crime of witchcraft, which at the time was punishable by death.
The trials began in June of 1692, presided over by Chief Justice William Stoughton. Bridget Bishop of Salem was the first to be tried and sentence to death by hanging on June 10. Thirteen women and five men were sentenced to death before the court was disbanded in October of the same year.
The Superior Court of Judicature was formed to replace the "witchcraft" court and did not allow for spectral evidence. Those being accused of witchcraft were released from prison and those awaiting execution were pardoned. The craze of the witchcraft trials were over and apologies were offered to the victims families.
The Salem Witch Trials are often compared with the "witch hunt" during the
period in the United States.
Lesson Plan/Teaching Tips for Salem Witch Trials
Understanding the Salem Witch Trials
Timeline of Salem Witch Trials
For background sources, see
Salem Witchcraft Trials, 1692
Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project
For an interactive experience, see
Salem Witchcraft Hysteria
from National Geographic.
For information on an earlier outbreak of witchcraft trials In Northampton, Massachusetts, see
Jury Finds Mary Parsons Not Guilty of Witchcraft, May 13, 1675
Mary Parsons Witchcraft Trial
from Historic Northampton.
Image IDs from left to right
Map of Cape Cod
Wikimedia Commons, "Cape Cod Bay map".
Triangular trade map
Wikimedia Commons, "Triangle trade".
Wikimedia Commons, "Gloucester MA".
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