This week I am looking at historical photographs of the great herring and shad fisheries on Albemarle Sound and its tributaries. At this very moment, as has happened since time immemorial, river herring and shad here in North Carolina are moving out of the Atlantic and headed upriver to their spawning grounds. Historically, their arrival has been a time of celebration and a symbol of spring, hope and resurrection that is especially appropriate here at Easter.
So every day this week, I’m going to honor their odyssey by posting photographs from the late 19th and early 20th century that give us a chance to explore the history of what was one of the great fisheries anywhere in North America for 250 years.
Once upon a time, the arrival of the herring and shad in northeast N.C. was an incredibly exciting, festive and exhausting time of the year.
That’s changed, but you can still get a little taste of those times at community events like the Jamesville Herring Festival and Blue Monday, the big shad fry at Lock & Dam #2 on the Cape Fear River. Both are coming up on Easter Monday.
But let me tell you: 100 years ago, and 150 years ago, and 200 years ago, the coming of the herring and shad was an unimaginably larger phenomenon than it is today! It was bigger than big—it was, as we say, something to see.
Everything about the fishery was larger than life. Late every winter, when the small, silvery little river herring began their spawning runs, thousands of fishermen, women and children made their ways to the shore to catch them. (The herring came first, then the shad.)
Schools closed, banks shut down, shops shuttered windows—and all headed down to the shore.
Many people carried hoop nets to a creek bank. Others waded into swamps and ditches and scooped up the fish with bushel baskets. Yet others harvested the fish with giant haul seines that took as many as 60 men and women and either teams of horses or a pair of steam engines to bring in and process their catches.
In the big seine fisheries, they used nets of unbelievable size: miles long, long enough to block the width of whole rivers in some cases. In the early days, a single haul could take 10 or 12 hours and the harvest from a single haul might take in a hundred thousand fish.
During the great spring runs, the fishermen and women scarcely slept for more than a few hours at a time. Before the Civil War, they worked 7 days a week, 24 hours a day, usually sleeping in 4-hour shifts like sailors used to do at sea.
The ardor and stamina required of them, a visitor observed before the Civil War, was “equal to that of a brisk military campaign in the face of an enemy”: rowing, spreading the giant nets, hauling them in with the help of horses and mules, cleaning and salting and packing.
The earliest herring fisheries began on the North Carolina coast in the 1740s. The heyday of the shad and herring fisheries, though, was roughly from 1810 to 1860.
At that time, fish species of the herring family made up the most important food fishes in the world and the Albemarle fisheries made up what was believed to be the largest herring fishery in the world.
Roughly 50 miles in length and of a width that ranges from 5 to 14 miles, Albemarle Sound is a largely fresh and brackish water estuary separated from the Atlantic by Currituck Banks, the most northern of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Large seine fisheries also operated along the Albemarle’s major tributaries in the 18th and 19th centuries—the Chowan, Roanoke, and Cashie on the sound’s west end, the Perquimans, Little, Pasquotank and North on its north shore, and the Scuppernong and Alligator on its south side.
While the great seine fisheries focused on exporting salted fish to distant markets, we shouldn’t forget the importance of herring in local homes, either. Many locals bought them at the big seine fishing beaches, but far more caught their own, salted them and ate them all year long.
In his Economic and Social History of Chowan County, North Carolina, 1880-1915, which was published in 1917, a dynamic local scholar named Warren Scott Boyce described the county’s reliance on the great springtime herring runs in the 1880s and ‘90s in this way:
At this time herring constituted the larger portion of the meat element in the diet of the majority of the people. Many a one had herring three times a day for days in succession, and little else besides, except bread and tea—his herring was either boiled in clear water or broiled on the coals; his bread was made of cornmeal and water only; his tea was `black yeopon’ (tea without milk or sugar).
Boyce noted that the typical Chowan County family’s utter and complete reliance on herring had lessened somewhat by 1915, but salt herring was still a central part of local people’s diets.
“Black yeopon,” by the way, refers to yaupon (Ilex vomitoria), an evergreen shrub that is a kind of holly. Coastal residents often dried and used its leaves as a tea, a habit apparently acquired from the Algonquin, Tuscarora and other local Indian peoples.
This week I will be talking about almost twenty photographs from two different archival collections and two different fisheries, both of which were located on the Albemarle Sound.
I’m including several photographs that were taken at the Capehart family’s fishery that was called Avoca. A photographer attached to the United States Fish Commission took most of the photographs at Avoca’s Sutton Beach in 1877, and maybe all of them. None are dated later than 1881.
They’re all so interesting that I decided to include them in this series even though the majority of the photographs I’m featuring here are from another fishing beach.
Avoca—and its Sutton Beach fishery— was located on Bachelor’s Bay, on the west end of the Albemarle Sound, in Bertie County. Like so many of the local plantations and fishing beaches that date to the 17th and early 18th centuries, Avoca was named after landmarks in the British Isles, in this case either the village or river of the same name in County Wicklow, Ireland.
One of the North Carolina’s colonial governors, Seth Sothel, first established a plantation and trading post at the site in the 1680s. Sothel is best remembered for his time enslaved by Algerian pirates, his term in debtor’s prison in England and his unbridled corruption in office.
As one of his biographers wrote of him: the plantation’s first owner was motivated “largely by avarice and to have recognized no deterrent to satisfying his greed. He took what he wanted, whether it was a plantation, a pewter plate, or a piece of lace.”
That usually mild-mannered biographer did not judge Sothel discriminatory in his rapaciousness, however. “He stole,” she wrote, “from both the rich and powerful and the poor and helpless.”
A member of the Capehart family purchased Avoca in 1811, along with the 8,000-acre peninsula upon which it sat. The peninsula was formed by the juncture of Salmon Creek, the Cashie River and the Albemarle Sound. By the Civil War, the Capeharts were among the largest planters and slaveholders in North Carolina.
The larger group of photographs that I am featuring this week portrays the Greenfield fishery, in Chowan County, N.C., circa 1905. Greenfield was an expansive farm owned by Frank Wood and located 12 miles east of the town of Edenton.
Frank Wood’s granddaughter, Ms. Rebecca Warren, of Chapel Hill, N.C., presented me with an album of 12 photographs from the Greenfield fishery some years ago, a gift for which I am very grateful.
Mrs. Warren also donated a copy of the album to the North Carolina Collection at the UNC Library. I’m using digital copies of those photographs here this week.
Mrs. Warren’s sister, my old friend Ms. Frances Inglis, in Edenton, also donated a collection of photographs from Greenfield to the State Archives of North Carolina. They include the fishery photographs in my album, but also farm scenes from Greenfield. Digital copies of all those photographs can be found at the State Archives’ Flickr site here.
A gentleman named Frank Baldwin took the photographs at Greenfield. A native of Connecticut, he first visited the Albemarle Sound as a Union soldier during the Civil War. When he returned to see the site sometime around 1890, he made the acquaintance of and eventually become close friends with Greenfield farm’s overseer, Ed Hassell.
For decades, Baldwin visited Greenfield and stayed with the Hassells during the fishing season.
An interesting side note is that Baldwin made the large brass teapot that is one of Edenton’s most famous landmarks. That teapot commemorates the Edenton Tea Party, a local women’s political protest directed against the Tea Act passed by the British Parliament in 1773.
Inspired by the Boston Tea Party, 51 women in Edenton signed a petition, dated October 25, 1774, stating their determination to boycott tea and other British products “until such time that all acts which tend to enslave our Native country shall be repealed.”
Many historians consider the Edenton Tea Party to have been a landmark event in the history of women’s activism in America.
When he wasn’t visiting Greenfield, Frank Baldwin worked at a brass foundry in Watertown, Conn. Knowing this, Greenfield’s owner, Frank Wood, asked Baldwin to make the teapot to honor the Edenton Tea Party. Today Baldwin’s ornate bronze teapot can still be seen across the street from the county courthouse in Edenton.
The most extraordinary aspect of Mrs. Warren and Mrs. Inglis’s collection of photographs is their mother’s notes describing the photographs. In 1975 their mother, Mrs. Rebecca Wood Drane, looked at the Greenfield fishery photography album with Mrs. Warren.
With Mrs. Warren taking dictation, her mother offered her recollections of the scenes of Greenfield fishery in the photographs. The album preserves her memories of the once great fishing beach.
Born in 1892, Mrs. Drane lived at Greenfield every fishing season when she was a girl. The herring and shad runs lasted from late February or early March until the end of April or early May, so she spent a great deal of her young life there on the shores of the Albemarle Sound.
When she dictated her notes to her daughter Rebecca, Mrs. Drane had an excellent memory for the ways of the fishing beach, the practical aspects of its operation and the individuals involved.
I don’t want to overburden you with my thoughts on why this or that aspect of these photographs is important. I’ll mostly leave you to draw your own conclusions. Perhaps you’ll see things in them that I haven’t seen, and you might raise questions about them that I haven’t considered.
But I would like to point out one thing: as you read my commentary about these photographs, keep an eye out for two opposing tendencies that have always been at the heart of North Carolina’s coastal history.
One is the power of the local and provincial. It’s that sense of the state’s historic coastal communities being remote, secluded, marginal and self-contained, and of having fisheries with their own ways and a society uniquely shaped by the region’s swamps, rivers and seas.
The second tendency is just the opposite. It’s a sense of even the most remote and isolated coastal communities having a strong and sometimes decisive connection to markets, factories, raw materials and labor in places as far away as New England, the West Indies and Russia.
These Albemarle fishery photographs remind us: we live in a world in which our lives are local and particular to the place we are and its past, and yet also interwoven, bound as if by invisible silk threads to the people downriver, across the way, in distant cities and on the far side of the world.
That is probably true everywhere, but I find it especially striking when I look toward the edge of the sea.
That’s all for today—but stay tuned! The Discovery Channel on TV has Shark Week, but this is Herring Week! And Herring Week starts in earnest tomorrow!
Tomorrow– part 2– Tarring the Seine