The Sloop Polly on the Tar River, 1771-1784

At the Boston Athenaeum, I also looked at the shipping records of a Boston sea captain that traded in North Carolina in the 1770s.

William Kent was the master of the sloop Polly. The records at the Boston Athenaeum concern the Polly’s voyages to ports along the Tar River from 1771 to 1775, as well as one other voyage in 1784.

Robert Ball Hughes' "Little Nell," ca. 1851, a plaster sculpture depicting the popular character from Charles Dickens' novel The Old Curiosity Shop, sits outside the Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room at the Boston Athenaeum.

Robert Ball Hughes’ “Little Nell,” ca. 1851, a plaster sculpture depicting the popular character from Charles Dickens’ novel The Old Curiosity Shop, sits outside the Vershbow Special Collections Reading Room at the Boston Athenaeum. Photo by David Cecelski

Capt. Kent’s records include receipts and promissory notes for cargos consigned to him, sales of cargo, and payments of seamen’s wages and piloting fees.

They’re only a few dozen scraps of parchment, but I found them surprisingly interesting: they provide a fascinating glimpse at how the shipping trade connected even the most out-of-the-way river ports and plantation landings in Revolutionary N.C. with New England’s great seaports.

And that’s interesting to me because that waterborne trade didn’t just mean that farmers in Tarboro, N.C., had Yankee plows and candle sticks, or that Boston’s ship chandleries sold Tarboro’s turpentine and barrel staves (though that’s interesting, too).

But it meant something more, too: as they always had been, trade routes became paths for migration, for an intermarriage of north and south, and for the spread of culture, religion, music, political thought and sometimes revolutionary ideas—or even, as I chronicled in my book The Waterman’s Song, for the flight of fugitive slaves.

And while the Civil War and the rupture between North and South that preceded the war tends to make us forget it: one of the places that most influenced the shaping of the North Carolina coast in the 18th century was New England.

A remarkable collection of historic sites and public art can be found within a few hundred yards of the Boston Athenaeum. This famous bronze relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the African American soldiers of the 54th Mass. Volunteer Infantry. It depicts them marching down Beacon St. on May 28, 1863.

A remarkable collection of historic sites and public art can be found within a few hundred yards of the Boston Athenaeum. This bronze relief by Augustus Saint-Gaudens is a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and the African American soldiers of the 54th Mass. Volunteer Infantry. It depicts them marching down Beacon St. on May 28, 1863. Photo by David Cecelski

I’ll be talking a lot more about the North Carolina coast’s historic connections to coastal New England and other parts of the U.S. in upcoming posts, but for now let’s look briefly just at Capt. William Kent’s records of his voyages to the Tar River in the 1770s.

A resident of Marshfield, a coastal town between Boston and Plymouth, Mass., Capt. Kent wasn’t simply carrying cargos back and forth between Boston and Tar River ports like Tarboro and Washington. He didn’t just pick up a cargo, sail south and deliver it—the Polly was practically a floating peddler’s wagon, pawnshop and a flea market, all rolled into one.

And that’s important, because the Polly was part of a fleet of relatively small coastal trading vessels, manned by scrappy captains like William Kent and the proverbial “mate and a boy,” that roamed wharf districts and plantation landings looking for business.

They found their own cargos, made their own trades, extended credit when they had to, and bought on credit, or time, more often than not.

According to his records at the Boston Athenaeum, for instance, Capt. Kent rustled up investors to pay for his voyages, even down to the 14 shillings that he needed for Polly’s piloting fees at Ocracoke Inlet.

Across the street from the Boston Athenaeum, in front of the Massachusetts State House, you can find this statue of Mary Dyer, a Quaker dissenter hung on the Boston Commons in 1660 for repeatedly breaking a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony.

Across the street from the Boston Athenaeum, in front of the Massachusetts State House, you can find this statue of Mary Dyer, a Quaker dissenter hung on the Boston Commons in 1660 for repeatedly breaking a Puritan law banning Quakers from the colony. Photo by David Cecelski

On some occasions, Boston merchants entrusted him with funds and gave him a wide degree of discretion to make purchases on their behalf.

On June 11, 1771, for example, a Boston merchant named Thomas Waterman handed him 146 pounds, 13 shillings and 8 pence. The Polly’s master was to carry that amount “to North Carolina and lay it out for him to the Best advantage in Naval Stores and Bring them to Boston…”

But Capt. Kent wasn’t just doing business with wealthy merchants. A receipt dated March 23, 1773, for instance, shows that the captain returned to Boston with 3 pounds, 19 shillings and 2 pence for William Sherlock. Capt. Kent had sold 4 and ½ Wt “Chocalat for him in North Carolina.”

No deal was too small for Capt Kent. A couple days after giving Mr. Sherlock his profit (after taking his commission, of course), he agreed to carry a gentleman’s silver watch to the Tar River.

A March 25, 1773 receipt indicated that he promised to sell the watch “at this best Advantage at Carolina and Return him the neat proceeds or the watch again, at five pounds lawful money.”

On the Tar, Capt. Kent looked for buyers for his cargos, but he also looked for new consignments so that he could carry goods back to Boston and sell them either for a share of the profits or a commission.

A receipt for one such consignment was dated Dec. 5, 1775. “Rec’d of William Kent the Sum of Three pounds Lawful Money for one hundred & eighty Wt. of pork….” Capt. Kent had sold the pickled pork in Boston for Thomas Hood, a Tar River planter.

Another, later receipt showed a similar deal for pork, this time with a planter on the Pungo River (near present-day Belhaven, N.C.). In addition to anchoring in river ports, Capt. Kent obviously also drummed up business on the wharves that were located at many riverside plantations.

The important point here is that the shipping trade wasn’t just about the coming and going of goods. To make the kinds of deals that Capt. Kent relied to empty the Polly’s cargo hold, and then to re-fill it again, he had to get to know the Tar River communities well. He had to spend time in them, and he had to develop relationships.

Capt. Kent never abandoned Marshfield to make his home on the Tar River, but other sea captains and crewmen on vessels like the Polly did. They left New England and made new homes on the North Carolina coast in the 18th and 19th century. Many fishermen, shipbuilders and whalers did, too.

The Park Street Church, a block from the Boston Athenaeum. The great abolitionist orator and publisher William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech there in 1829, and the church was the site of the first singing of "My Country Tis of Thee" (also known as "America") in 1831.

The Park Street Church, a block from the Boston Athenaeum. The great abolitionist orator and publisher William Lloyd Garrison gave his first major anti-slavery speech there in 1829. The church was also the site of the first singing of “My Country Tis of Thee” (also known as “America”) in 1831. Photo by David Cecelski

On their trips south, they recognized business opportunities, or they struck up partnerships with a local merchant or planter and moved south. Some married local women and settled down.

Others took the chance to escape debtor’s prison back home, or goodness knows what charge of vice and wrongdoing.

Some started business and/or family relationships that would connect a particular port in New England and a particular river town or fishing village in North Carolina for generations.

In a way, it was a lot like the relationship between many of eastern N.C.’s towns and cities today and dozens of specific communities in Mexico, Haiti and Central America. As if by long, invisible strands of silk, our lives here are now indelibly a part of their lives there, and vice versa.

In much the same way, along the sea and our rivers, coastal trading vessels like the Polly brought two far-flung parts of Revolutionary America together, shaping both and playing an important role in who we are today.

 

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