At some point during the summer of 1636, a group of English fishermen on a small island off Cape Elizabeth finally had enough of their bosses’ bullshit. For over a year, John Winter, agent of the English businessman Robert Trelawny, had withheld the workers’ wages. For the fishermen on Richmond Island, many with families across the ocean to support, that was the last straw. What followed could be called the first recorded strike over working conditions in the future United States.
It’s impossible to know what the strikers were thinking at the time, as there are no known writings by the men themselves, who were bonded laborers working, in part, to pay off the debt they incurred for this job opportunity in America. But we do have a letter, dated June 28, 1636, in which Winter poured out his frustration to Trelawny. “The company,” he wrote, “fell into mutany,” got onto a consort ship, and headed westward, likely to “fish for them selves.”
Winter sent word to the settlements along the coast that “no man shall entertaine” the “mutinous rabble,” which included the lead agitator, John Lander, as well as William Ham, Oliver Clarke, John Billing, William Freyhey and John Simmons. Narias Hawkin, who had what today we’d call a middle-management position in the fishing operation, described Lander as “the Ring-leader to all villanye, [a man who] … hath brought the Rest to be almost as badd as himself.” Winter advised Trelawny to send, in the future, “honester men… that will be better governed.”
The Strike of 1636 occurred during a period of rapid colonization along the New England coast, but the influx of white settlers wasn’t inevitable. The capitalists across the Atlantic had been greedily eyeing the region for decades, but the frigid winters, and the fact the land was already settled by indigenous tribes, hampered colonization efforts. The Plymouth Company’s attempt to colonize present-day Phippsburg in 1607 was an unmitigated disaster; the Popham Colony barely lasted a year. Some of the natives would trade with the white men, and they could be very hospitable at times, but visitors who lingered after business hours were reminded not to overstay their welcome. If the white men didn’t take a hint, a barrage of arrows could swiftly deliver the message.
Europeans fished off the coast of Maine throughout the 1500s, but it wasn’t until the late 1610s, when epidemics of European diseases wiped out 90 percent of the coastal tribes from Southern Maine to Massachusetts, that the English began to permanently settle in the region, often on the sites of deserted native settlements.
In 1620, Sir Fernando Gorges and a group of fellow land speculators established a joint stock company called the Council for New England, a successor to the failed Plymouth Company. They secured a charter from the King of England for the right to govern the new colony and sell off tracts of land to settlers. After the Pilgrims set up shop at Plymouth Rock, other Brits established a settlement in Pemaquid, Maine, in the 1620s, followed by outposts in York (1630), Cape Porpoise (1630), Kittery (1631), Scarborough (1632), Falmouth (1633), North Yarmouth (1636) and Wells (1642).
Robert Trelawny was an English merchant who seldom ventured outside his counting house, but he saw the New World as an opportunity to increase the substantial wealth he’d inherited. After obtaining a land grant in Maine from the Council for New England in 1631, he established a fishing station on Richmond Island (also called Richmond’s Island). The operation employed about 60 workers — mostly fishermen, as well as a few artisans, servants and farmers. The company produced a variety of products, including dried fish, cod liver oil, pipe-staves and beaver skins, all of which it exported to Europe.
According to historian Edwin A. Churchill, who wrote a detailed essay about the fishing operation for The New England Quarterly in 1984, Trelawny received the lion’s share of the profits. The workers got much smaller shares, in addition to their meager salaries. The gender wage gap was particularly egregious: female servants were paid just 40 percent of what the lowest-paid male worker earned.
Working in four-man crews, three groups of fishermen would go out to sea while a fourth stayed ashore to dry and cure the catch. The men fished in shallops, 20-foot-long masted vessels with minimal shelter from the elements and small fireplaces for cooking meals. In those days, the Gulf of Maine was teeming with marine life. Seventeenth-century fishermen described pulling buckets of fish right out of the water.
John Winter, the manager of Trelawny’s operation, was known as a “grave and discreet man” who drove the workers hard. It was backbreaking labor, and the men often toiled day and night when the fishing was good. Each fisherman tended two lines and could be expected to catch upwards of 300 fish on a good day. The crews made three or more daylong trips a week in the winter, and if the fishing was poor, they’d often stay out for several days. During the height of fishing season, Saturday was the only night the crews could count on getting a good night’s sleep, notes Churchill, and sometimes they were so exhausted they’d pass out while eating supper.
This was also incredibly dangerous work. One frigid February evening in 1634, the boat that had left in the morning didn’t return as expected. The next day, the vessel was discovered lying at anchor and full of water. The master and midshipman were found dead inside, and the foreshipman was never found. Three years later, a shallop capsized and two men drowned in the frigid water before help could arrive.
Seventeenth-century fishermen like those on Richmond Island have typically been described by historians as hooligans prone to gambling, womanizing and drunken brawls. Sir Fernando Gorges described English fishermen in New England as “behaving worse than the very savages.” Winter often complained that his workers were lazy and shiftless. But as Churchill notes, the historians’ accounts are likely based on classist stereotypes held by the merchants and noblemen of the era.
Churchill points out that these “lazy” laborers were working six days a week for most of their waking hours. Sure, on Sundays some might gamble with cards or dice for small stakes, go out hunting for small game or court the eligible young women in the settlements. On most Sundays they probably just hung out and drank wine or brandy, telling stories and smoking their pipes. “Undoubtedly there were the typical tall tales,” Churchill wrote, “however, conversations more often centered on complaints about shortages of clothing, milk, meat, and wages.”
The workers had ample reason to complain. Winter frequently derided their work ethic, but he was paying fishermen in the colony a third of the going wage in England. Some of the young men had apprenticed in England and were hired by Trelawny from their masters, who received part of the workers’ wages.
“Once these persons arrived, [Winter] looked for loopholes to withhold portions of their wages,” wrote Churchill. “Not surprisingly, the men complained and several deserted. Local fishermen refused to work at the station. Meanwhile, Winter was over-charging local settlers whom he was actively disparaging. Winter did not care for ordinary people.”
Labor unrest continued to plague the settlement. The next summer, in response to continued strife, Winter recommended that in the future Trelawny should bind his men by “sumsion,” or assumpsit, a type of contract that contains a penalty for non-fulfillment. Just days later, he wrote that he was forced to send Thomas Samson, the island’s beer brewer, back home, lest he “poyson som of men on[e] tyme or other yff he had stayed heare with us.”
Carpenters on the island staged a work slowdown in June of 1641 to protest the inadequate food, which very well could have been lobster — considered “poverty food” only fit for prisoners, indentured servants, and children. Recognizing their collective power, the carpenters knew Winter would be unable to find suitable replacements.
“Our Carpenters haue been very slacke in their worke, & we ar in a straite in this Country for Carpenters worke,” Winter wrote to Trelawny. “[They] worke very sparingly, & we speake vnto them for yt, the answere is, yf you do not like vs we will be gon, [they] knowing our worke must be donn & no other to be gotten.”
After their stint on Richmond Island, many workers settled on the mainland of future Maine. Consistent with the stereotype, some fishermen from Richmond did run afoul of the colony’s strict Puritan laws against swearing, drinking, quarrelling, or “profaning the Sabbath” — laws that were usually only enforced against the lower classes.
Former Richmond worker George Rogers was convicted of adultery after he and a woman named Mary Batchelder, whose philandering preacher husband had left her, were found to be “upon vehement suspicion of incontenancy for liveing in one house together and lieing in one rome.” George was given 39 lashes and Mary was to receive the same “at the First Towne meeting held at Kittery 6 weekes after her delivery.” She was also to be “branded with the letter A.”
Most of the fishermen, however, seem to have settled without incident into the daily life of the communities they joined. Some married local women and acquired small tracts of land to farm. A few even served as selectmen and constables, and one was elected to the general court of the region.
Churchill believes the strikers who deserted in 1636 likely went to Piscataqua (present-day Portsmouth, New Hampshire). John Lander, the leader, helped found a church, and later filed suit against Winter. He won exactly one pound in damages shortly before he died, in 1645.