The Fabric of Gloucester Economy (Part 1)

February 07, 2023 / History/Maritime

This year Gloucester, Massachusetts celebrates its 400-year anniversary. Over the course of this auspicious year, Gloucester 400+ will be highlighting Gloucester’s rich history and heritage that encompass its extraordinary ethnic diversities, art, and culture, remarkable industrial achievements, and stellar natural resources.

As a part of this celebration, Discover Gloucester will spotlight featured businesses and ongoing events throughout this quadricentennial anniversary year. 

Today we will look back at Gloucester’s rich maritime history and how the fishing industry has played such an integral role in our economy both then and now. 

Folly Cove by Kendra Dott

Pre-Colonial Era 

The fishing industry on the Atlantic coast has existed since well before written history began. For hundreds of years, Gloucester has been at the center of the local and international fishing industry and continues to do so even now. 

Before European colonization of North America began, Gloucester and the surrounding land was inhabited by the Pawtucket people and their neighbors the Massachuset, Nipmuc, Penacook, and Wampanoag. Evidence exists that these indigenous inhabitants lived on the lands in the northeast corner of what would become Massachusetts for an estimated 12,000 years prior to the first meeting with Europeans. They used the land as a fishing resource that began thousands of years ago, with vessels, like the Mush8n, similar to a modern canoe. 

In the early 1600s, European explorers such as Samuel Champlain and John Smith explored the area we now know as Gloucester and Rockport (Sandy Bay). In 1623, men from the Dorchester Company established a permanent fishing outpost in the area. Life was harsh for the first settlers in this region due to the rocky soil and meager agricultural lands. Due to that many settlers moved to Naumkeag (Salem, Massachusetts) where the land was more fertile. However, the settlers from the Gloucester area were aware of the deep water harbor that was perfect for a fishing port to be developed. 

Early settlers who decided to stay in the area set up wharves or “stages” that would allow them to fish in the local waters and provide a staging area for fishing operations to be headquartered. This happened in both the waters of the Annisquam River and what would become Gloucester Harbor. 

The Colonial Era 

According to Down To The Sea, it wasn’t until between 1680 and 1700 that Gloucester’s fisheries began to reach a volume that identified them as an industry. It was during this time that small boats and sloops were used to fish fairly close to shore. By the mid-1700’s more distant fisheries were developed reaching as far as the Nova Scotia shores. 

Fishing during this time was done with hook-and-reel and during the relatively good weather of the summers could be found as far off as the Grand Bank of Newfoundland. This movement further from the shore meant the need for bigger and stronger vessels that would eventually become well-known worldwide. During these Grand Bank excursions, each fisher would keep track of their catch and benefit accordingly. 

During the American Revolution much of the fishing, except for that near the coast, was limited due to the English control of the waters. Prior to and after this time, many Gloucester fishermen had begun freighting their salted catches to far-off places such as ​​Lisbon, Bilbao, Cadiz, and also the West Indies Islands. 

Fishing Improvements in the 1800s

Immediately following the Revolution and through the 1800s, the size and capabilities of the fishery boats increased dramatically. This is the time of schooners and larger bilges that could handle the tonnage of fish being caught during each excursion. It was also at this time that French-style trawl line fishing became popular and allowed for a replacement of the hook-and-line style of fishing previously utilized. 

Additionally, new methods of catching fish, such as fishing vessels, would improve the amount of catch to be brought in daily as well as the location that the fishing vessel could get to. Improvements such as the Gill-net fishing and Otter trawl line would prove to increase the amount of catch and strengthen Gloucester’s fishing economy. 

These improvements began the era of modern fishing around the region and along the Atlantic coast which marked a shift in Gloucester’s status as the primary fishing port in the region. 

Visit our blog next month as we continue to look at the Fabric of Gloucester’s Economy in more modern times and how it has become so much more than just a fishing industry city.