Greenfield fishery, Chowan County, N.C., circa 1905. This is a small, early season catch at Frank Wood’s fishery on the Albemarle Sound. A hinged board on the wharf has been raised so that the fish won’t slide back into the water.
The fishermen caught an assortment of herring, perch and catfish in this haul, but no shad that we can see. In the background, we can see the broad waters of the Albemarle Sound.
We are looking out of the main fishing shelter, where a large group of mostly women and children called the Pioneers will soon scoop up these fish with short-handled shovels and sort them into tubs with rope handles.
They will carry the fish inside the shelter and empty them onto troughs with plank counters and get down to business: gutting the fish and cutting heads at blinding speeds, then salting many of them, packing them into kegs and getting them ready to ship across the U.S.
The owner of the Greenfield fishery, Frank Wood, was the son of Edward Wood, a merchant and planter originally from Gates County. He bought Greenfield in the 1840s. Located on the north shore of the Albemarle Sound, 12 miles east of Edenton, the plantation had more than 1,900 acres of fields, orchards and woods. He started the fishery there in or about 1842.
Edward Wood was a successful planter, businessman and fishery manager prior to the Civil War, but his importance in Chowan County grew considerably after he inherited James Cathcart Johnston’s local properties in 1865.
The son of a former governor of North Carolina and probably the largest planter and slaveholder in northeast N.C., Johnston never married and had no legitimate children.
As a result, he willed his property—including several large plantations, more than 550 slaves, a fleet of schooners and canal boats, and fisheries— to Edward Wood and two other business associates.
He left Edward Wood his Chowan County estates, including Hayes Plantation, Johnston’s home and the site of an 1817 manor house that is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful residences constructed in North Carolina prior to the Civil War.
By the time of his death in 1872, Edward Wood owned 9 plantations and, in addition to Greenfield, operated four other seine fisheries along the north shore of the Albemarle Sound—Drummond Point, Montpelier, Skinner Point, and Frying Pan.
A side note: I mentioned above that James Cathcart Johnston never married and did not have any legitimate children to whom he might have left his estates. That is correct, but he did, however, have four daughters by his manumitted mistress, Edith “Edy” Wood.
Edy Wood and her mother had been the slaves of Capt. James Wood, the owner of the Eagle Inn and Tavern in Hertford, a small town on the Perquimans River north of Greenfield.
Johnston purchased and freed Edy Wood and the couple’s children in 1832 and settled them in Philadelphia. Under North Carolina’s racial purity laws, of course, Johnston could not have married Edy Wood nor left her his estates.
The couple had some illustrious descendents, however. One of their granddaughters, for instance, was the famous African American poet, educator and anti-slavery activist, Charlotte Forten Grimke.
Another footnote: James Carthcart Johnston and Edy Wood’s youngest daughter, Annie, eventually moved to Salem, Mass., and married one of Aaron Burr’s grandsons. That means that Annie Wood— born a slave—was the granddaughter of a governor and married the grandson of a vice president!
Somehow Lin-Manuel Miranda should have found a way to work that into Hamilton (just saying).
At Greenfield, as at all the great seine fisheries on Albemarle Sound and its tributaries, success depended on the knowledge, experience and skill of the African American workers. Typically, a superintendent and clerk were a seine fishery’s only white employees.
African Americans made up the rest of a typical fishery’s laborers, including fishermen, engineers, fish cutters, packers, cooks, coopers and a carpenter.
Even fishery managers were often African American, as well as the captains of the two fishing flats on which everything ultimately depended. At Greenfield, Obadiah Faulk was captain of the Fish Hawk, while Mack Towe was captain of the Greenfield.
The fishery’s female hands were tenants on Frank Wood’s farm. A small number of the male tenants at Greenfield also worked at the fishing beach, but Wood does not seem to have been able to afford to take more away from his fields.
Instead, Wood employed men from other parts of the Albemarle at the fishery. Some lived as close as Edenton, but others traveled to the fishing beach from as far away as Bertie, Perquimans, Hertford and Gates counties. Some may even have come down the Roanoke River from as far inland as Northampton and Halifax counties.
Their journeys from their homes to the Albemarle sometimes took many days and the sight of troupes of fishermen and women traveling to the shore, excited at the prospect of fish dinners and a rare bit of cash in their pockets, was its own seasonal rite in the counties along the Albemarle Sound.
In many cases, they were re-tracing a migratory route that they had followed since they were children and that their ancestors had made every winter long before the Civil War.
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A special acknowledgment– I’ll be listing my most important historical sources at the end of my “Herring Week” series, but I want to make special mention here of one of them– Mary Maillard’s article, “`Faithfully Drawn from Real Life:’ Autobiographical Elements in Frank J. Webb’s The Garies and Their Friends,” which appeared in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography vol. 103 (fall 2013), pages 261-300. The article focuses on one of the earliest African American novels, which was written by Annie Wood’s brother-in-law, Frank J. Webb, and includes excellent new research on the relationship of her mother, Edith “Edy” Wood, and James Cathcart Johnston.
Next up– Herring Week, Day 5– The Lay of the Land