Tag Archives: shore

Mapping the American Coastal Frontier ca. 1800

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The last post explained how to use QGIS and historic census data to map population density. This post gets to that tricky “so what?” question.

So why map population density in 1800? My current project examines the social, cultural, and physical transformation of the American coast (my shorthand for coast of the United States of America) over the course of the long nineteenth century. I’m primarily interested in the oceanfront between ports, harbors, and the huge natural bays and sounds, that many a European explorer thought led to China, and how they became such a central—arguably essential—part of the American experience.

I’m currently slogging through the first chapter, a survey of the American coast on the eve of its transformation. It’s partly inspired by Marcus Rediker’s magisterial first chapter in Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and similarly favors fruitful generalization over burdensome qualification. An important subargument of the chapter is to establish the 1800 American coast as a frontier. Well…maybe I do a bit of hair-splitting in the chapter. In any case, one of the many ways to define frontier is through population density. Hence, our maps.

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Filed under Notes from the Field

So what’s that banner pic about?

You can imagine my surprise yesterday morning when, mired in 1830’s marine salvage research, I found out the day’s post had been Freshly Pressed. Sweet — over the next hour this blog had more hits than it has in an average week! In fact, it would be impossible to exaggerate how much being Freshly Pressed has bumped up my stats. It’s actually absurd — check out this graph of ‘daily clicks’ and you’ll get the picture:

So I want to truly thank everyone who took a few seconds to click, a minute or two to read, or five to comment on yesterday’s post. I hope you check back from time to time. All this traffic has its benefits–I’ve found dozens of new blogs from everyone who has left a comment or liked a post. It’s inspiring to see so many fantastic blogs out there.

But on to today’s post. A friend recently asked me about the banner pic heading this blog. Here’s the story:

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Filed under Shipwreck culture, Source of the Week, Where'd it come from?

Ireland’s shipwreck landscape

Some places just ooze shipwrecks. Take the west coast of Ireland, a wreck trap for centuries. Blogger Mary Bermingham’s lyric description (recently posted here) wonderfully captures its shipwreck landscape:

There are high winds and a strange, warm, misty rain like the end of the world. It is shipwreck weather, with two Danish sailors rescued off the coast of Cork in gale force winds and a haul of silver worth 127 million found lately off the coast of Galway. We have been cowering inside by the fire most of the week.

Bermingham, however, does not cower by her fire. She used last week’s inclement weather as an excuse to train her three-year old Connemara cros, a shipwreck breed, if you will. As Bermingham explains:

The quality and athleticism of the Connemara pony originates from Spanish bloodlines. When the Armada was wrecked off the rocky Irish shore in 1588, the white Spanish horses (something like today’s Lipizzaners) swam in and bred with the tough little native ponies.

Bermingham met with some success, but in the end she concluded: “Maybe trying to join up with the whole world collapsing around us in a hurricane was a bit ambitious; I am trying not to take it personally…” I wouldn’t–many thanks for the fantastic post (and good luck with your pony)!

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Filed under Where'd it come from?, Wrecks in the News

Source of the Week: The American Coast Pilot

What better place to start research on the history of the American coast than with the first edition of  The American Coast Pilot? Published in 1797 by Newburyport, Massachusetts bookseller Edmund March Blunt, The Pilot was, in Blunt’s words “a book of reference and direction for American mariners.” It contained 120 pages of detailed sailing directions for the the places early Republic American seafarers sailed the most: the Atlantic coast between Passamaquoddy and Key West, George’s Bank, and the West Indies. The Pilot was exclusively text and did not include any charts or sketches. It was designed to augment the limited number of poor-quality charts available to seafarers at the time.

The American Coast Pilot offered a far more detailed description of the many places American seafarers actually sailed than any other coast pilot previously published. (It also represented the first sustained effort to codify local knowledge of the American coastline). But it was just the beginning: Blunt would significantly revise the first edition over the ensuing four years, issuing a new edition in 1800 that was, in his eyes, “a perfectly accurate compendium of the American coast navigation, combining all the information on this subject, which skillful experience and modern discovery have collected.” More than twice the size of the 1796 Pilot, this edition corrected earlier errors, expanded descriptions of many parts of the coast, included relevant state and local laws, as well as vital information about customs duties and procedures. Even so, it remained an option of last resort for distressed mariners—local knowledge of dynamic coastlines simply remained “too intricate to describe” in print to outsiders.

Navigation knowledge still resided in the local pilots, fishers, and watermen dispersed along the early republic littoral—those who knew the sea and shore through their everyday labor. Indeed, outside the densely populated region between Connecticut and New Hampshire, the Atlantic shoreline was a thinly settled frontier inhabited, for the most part, by fewer than six people per square mile. Human settlement was so sparse along the coast that the occasional house, windmill, and other human-made structure became an indispensable aid to navigation for mariners. The American Coast Pilot precisely noted all of them. Captain McCobb’s mill, on the west side of Maine’s Kennebec River, for example, marked the farthest north a mariner should travel without the assistance of a local pilot. Captain Henderlon’s red house and barn offered a convenient seamark for navigating Herring Gut, a narrow channel near Bass Harbor, Maine. A cluster of “fish houses” identified Cape Cod’s Race Point as three windmills, “which stand near each other upon an eminence,” set Nantucket off from nearby Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.

The first and third (1800) editions are available (along with later iterations) for download at NOAA’s Office of Coast Survey. The site contains dozens of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sailing directions for the coastlines of American states and territories, including the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Philippine Islands. These historical coast pilots are great resources (and the prose is fantastic!).

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