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Originally published in the Historic Nantucket Vol. 43, Number 3. (Fall 1994) p. 70-73

The Beginnings: Indian Fish and Fishing Off Coastal Massachusetts
By J. Clinton Andrews

Aerial photography and navigational charts show how near to the surface of the sea lie the Nantucket shoals. Geologists tell us that the floor of the ocean to the south and east of New England was above sea level at the time the Wisconsinan glacier began to recede about eighteen thousand years ago. Rivers of meltwater from the glacier cut trenches and channels through this coastal plain, forming deltas where they met the sea. The ponds, bays, and harbors of today were the upper reaches of those streams. Most of the area between the terminal moraine and the ancient shoreline is now under water, and the inundation is still going on. The waves of the ocean erode the higher land and throw sand bars across the depressions. Comparison of modern maps and charts with the earliest ones shows the recession of the shoreline and the erosion and temporary replacement of barrier beaches and sandy points. Personal observation convinces me that the erosion at the surf line extends as far below the surface as the height of land above it. Some of the sand stirred up by this process is deposited in long sandy points, diverting the mouths of streams along the shore, or enclosing bays. Those points are prime fishing areas.

It is doubtful that the early Indians fished the ocean side of the points the way modern anglers do. On the protected bay side the sand drops sharply into waters of varying depths. Fish follow the shores closely, bringing them within easy reach. Before the introduction of otter trawling (c. 1900) summer flounder were plentiful here. They could be caught with a torch and spear at night, when many fish come close to land. No elaborate gear was required. We assume the technique the Indians used was to pin the fish to the sand with a simple sharpened stick, then grasp it by the gills and toss it ashore. Skate could be caught the same way. As there is no calcium in the skeletal structure of skate, no residue exists to show whether or not the Indians ate them as well.

The smooth dogfish, or shark, is like the skate, good to eat and easy to catch, but with no hard parts to survive over time and leave an archaeological record behind.

A fish weir would also be effective along these shores. A fish weir is a barrier of netting or brush anchored to the bottom at right angles to the shore. It ends in a circular or heart-shaped enclosure with an opening on one or both sides of the leader. Schools of fish tend to swim parallel to obstructions, so after entering the enclosure they circle around the walls. When they reach the vicinity of the entrance they are headed away from it. Since they are unable to look backwards, they do not discover the way to escape, so continue circling. Once confined, the fish may be taken out with a net. Larger ones may be speared. If the tidal range is great enough, they may be stranded at low tide.

Striped bass, which were highly prized by both Indians and early settlers, run into the salt marsh creeks and ponds on a rising tide in late June. When the tide begins to ebb they head back to deeper waters in a rush. A traditional method of catching them is to place a temporary blockage across the channel, leaving a gap that herds the fish into a net, or spearing them as they pass through the narrow slot. At Muskeget Island, west of Nantucket, both a long point and an inner bay provide a double choice of good fishing spots. I have seen schools of large bass three to four feet long rooting the bottom of the inner bay.

A well-documented species is the alewife. Tradition has it that the Indians used the alewife as fertilizer for their corn crops. It is certainly the easiest fish to catch in great numbers with the most primitive equipment. Alewives figure prominently in the accounts of early settlers, probably because they were such an important source of food.

Herring cured in various ways were as common a food for the English of that time as hamburgers are for us today. Nantucket's Madaket Ditch was dug by the combined efforts of settlers and Indians. The Indians were allotted half of the catch of a fish weir in Long Pond, provided they tended it diligently; history does not record whether or not they did so. The Madaket Ditch herring run continues to this day, and some twenty thousand fish run through it each year. Today's catch, however, is very small, as is the market for alewives.

Alewives are a schooling fish, moving in large groups that act as a single large fish, which is why they can be herded into a fish weir with such ease. When they run up a small brook they may separate and move individually through shallow stretches, where they are easily scooped up. But there is some sort of communication among them, and unless some get through safely the run will stop until the way is clear.

White perch run in the opposite direction, between alewife runs. In the spring alewives move from salt water into fresh water ponds to spawn. White perch go from the ponds to spawn in the brackish water of estuaries. They bite readily at baited hooks. It is assumed that the Indians used nets to catch these small fish. I would like to know about the type of net they made. Nets are quite bulky as opposed to spears and lines. A lot of labor goes into the making of a net, particularly when one has to manufacture the cord as well as knit the mesh. Natural fiber nets require a lot of care in drying and must be stored safely when not in use, protected from the ravages of weather and rodents.

On Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard the ponds of the south shore have been connected to the sea by digging a ditch across the barrier beach when the pond level is high. The pond water rushes out, cutting a wide channel and dropping the pond level to that of the ocean. This allows alewives to enter the pond and eels to leave it. Fishing has to be done in the short time before the channel gets too wide and deep, or before the natural forces of the tides close it up again. It is believed by today's fishermen that this practice of opening the ponds originated with the Indians long, long ago.

People using primitive equipment depend on great concentrations of fish to be successful. When the surf breaks over the barrier beaches of the fresh or brackish water ponds, eels, white perch, and winter flounders swarm at the very edge of the sand, particularly at night. Eels may be picked up by hand when they are left stranded between surges of the ocean waves crossing the beach. In fall, the inner beach is where the mature eels in breeding condition, with large eyes and bronze and silver coloring, cruise back and forth waiting for the storm swells to wash over the beach. These eels were called "eeshaws" by the Indians, and are still known by that name on the islands. This is one of the principal reasons leading us to believe that many of the fishing methods and much of the fishing gear originated with the Indians rather than with the European colonists.

Eels were a staple food of the early settlers and, apparently, for the Indians as well. In winter eels hibernate in muddy areas where they can be speared through holes cut in the ice. The prongs of the island's traditional eel spear terminate in hooks that grasp the eel when the spear is pulled up. This design differs from the European trident, which ends in sharp barbed points.

There is a spring run of eels as well. Beginning with the first warm rain after the ice has melted, eels that have wintered in the muddy bottoms of ponds and estuaries work their way to the salt water. They progress slowly and in the daytime, or when the temperature drops, they shelter in aquatic vegetation. Finding and catching eels during this migration is also very easy.

When salt water comes into the ponds, yellow perch and pickerel move as far from it as they can. Both take a hook very well, and pickerel often lie motionless at the surface near weed beds and can be speared from a canoe.

Ocean fishing centers on the codfish. Since the European codfishermen left no records, we don't know when their influence began to be felt over here. Wire fishhooks, which could increase their catch enormously, were a most important trade item for primitive people. William Wood wrote in 1633 that their lines were "...wrought of stronger materials than ours." The records of Nantucket's early settlers indicate that the Indians became very good codfishermen, but by that time they were fishing for trade, not for subsistence. The fact that large cod often stranded on the outer beaches in the fall complicates relating their remains in middens to prehistoric deep sea fishing. A few vertebrae used as ornaments could have come from stranded fish. However, many early accounts tell that the Indians did use their canoes in the ocean, and we know that they went back and forth between Nantucket and the mainland on a regular basis. It is not realistic to expect to find deep sea fishing equipment discarded in refuse pits because it would likely have been lost to large fish before being completely worn out.

Pollock and hake are caught with cod, and hake are subject to stranding even more than cod. Mackerel go through extreme cycles of abundance and scarcity that have not yet been related to either weather conditions or fishing pressure. Some years mackerel are plentiful and swarm into harbors and creeks in great numbers. Along with herring they are an important food fish for the larger predators of the ocean. These predators, and marine mammals, drive the mackerel into even the smallest creeks and marshes. William Wood noted that so many might be stranded that people could carry away all they could use. When not disturbed, mackerel bite readily at bait. Tautog, a fish inhabiting rocky areas, have been found in middens on Martha's Vineyard. This is a little surprising because tautog don't come close to shore at Nantucket. They have a hard mouth with heavy, rounded teeth, adapted for crushing shellfish. The Indian gear for catching tautog must have been sturdier than some of the bone hooks with which we are familiar. Tautog, the Indian name for this fish, is also its common name and the scientific name, an unusual circumstance in technical nomenclature.

Unless the balance of fish populations has been changed by modern fishing methods, sea robin should show up somewhere in middens. Their skulls are durable and distinctive. Sea robin are edible, and it is hard to do any bottom fishing without catching some of them. They also tend to strand when arriving in early spring.

Scup are in the Martha's Vineyard middens. Some follow the inner shores of the depositional sandy points. Most are caught in deeper water. They are great bait stealers and not easily hooked. Scup are quite plentiful and are around throughout the summer.

Sea bass go with the scup, more often in schools, but are not found so frequently. Bass have a large mouth, grow to a substantial size, and take a hook readily.

At various times in Nantucket's history bluefish have played an important role. Older fishermen thought that bluefish were important to the Indians, but I have no reference as to how they caught them. Dory fishermen found long lines of passing bluefish and could get near enough alongside to toss an eelskin lure and catch some. These fish could have been speared from a canoe. However, I have never seen an Indian artifact that could have been used as a lure.

Bluefish have disappeared from Nantucket waters from time to time and for varying periods of time according to both legends and records. One Indian legend says that, in prehistoric times, the bluefish disappeared and an old sachem prophesied that they would return when Nantucket suffered a disastrous fire. That legend is still remembered and, at times, events have convinced some people of its validity.

To summarize our knowledge of Indian fishing it is fair to say that we don't have a great deal. In contrast to professional explorers, fishermen have always been too secretive to leave many records of their activities. Most of the tools of the trade are too fragile to survive over long periods of time. Those artifacts which do survive are unusually important because fishing is so involved with the culture of the people. Some activities can be inferred from the materials that have survived. Netmaking is often a family affair, and their use requires the cooperation of many individuals. Therefore, the fabrication and use of large nets can be presumed to indicate a society as stable as one engaged in agriculture.


Mr. Andrews's article was first published, as entitled, in the Bulletin of the Massachusetts Archeological Society in 1986 and is reprinted here by permission of the society.

Shortly before Mr. Andrews passed away earlier this year, the author told us that he was delighted to have the article reprinted in Historic Nantucket.