Exports by sea began before the American Revolution
The first ships that left Connecticut for Barbados were loaded
with produce in the 1650s. This was the start of a trade to the
West Indies that was extremely important to Connecticut
agriculture. The West Indies dominated the Connecticut economy
for more than 200 years. Connecticut sent to the West Indies
just prodigious quantities of pressed hay, barrels of pork and
beef, onions, all sorts of vegetables and cider. Butter and
cheese were sent in just unbelievable quantities.
But I think the thing that stands out in my mind as being
something not unique but very important to Connecticut’s
contribution to the West Indies trade was livestock. Stock was
the principle commodity out of Connecticut within the Greater
West Indies trade and particularly important out of eastern
Connecticut where, in the late 1790s, seven, eight, nine
thousand head of cattle and horses, mules, were out of the Port
of New London alone. So you can get a little bit of a sense of
the scale of that trade and that was just one year out of, many,
many years of this important trade.
Of course, similar vessels and similar commodities were
sailing out of every port in Connecticut from all the way down
Fairfield County. I mean, there were ships lined up in New Haven
for the whole length of Long Wharf with these West Indies
traders. Middletown, Hartford, New London and Norwich also were
very much engaged particularly in sending stock to the West
Now, a lot of these vessels were built here in Connecticut. In
fact, Connecticut shipbuilders in Mystic and in New London and
on the Connecticut River became known for their proficiency in
building vessels designed for the West Indies trade and
particularly for carrying livestock. These ships had a very high
freeboard and low decks. They became so well known in the trade
that they were called horse jockeys at the time. These vessels
would carry anywhere from a half a dozen to 50 or 60 head of
cattle or horses.
Connecticut supplied the plantation system essentially. A lot
of these animals were used in raising sugar cane, which was the
principle product out of many of the West Indian islands, and it
was sustained by a slave economy.
A lot of the food that was sent down was to sustain the slave
labor, but it was also to supply the horses that brought the
cane from the fields to the docks. The cane mills themselves,
the sugar mills themselves were operated by horsepower and food
was needed for those horses.
The Connecticut West Indies trade probably began as early as
the 1640s , when we know some voyages were made to Barbados. The
height of the trade probably was just prior to the American
Revolution, and then there was a very big resurgence of the
trade right after the American Revolution.
The American colonies before the Revolution obviously were
trading to islands that were dominated by the British Empire and
were within the English mercantile empire. After the Revolution
that changed. The English prohibited, for a while, American
vessels from trading with their formerly very lucrative islands.
And Americans were trading to the Dutch, the French and the
Spanish West Indian islands when they could. But it was a very
fickle, fickle trade because all these countries were at war
with one another at various times during a large part of this
200-year period, ending with the Napoleonic Era in 1815,
The post-Revolutionary trade was a dangerous trade. Your
vessel was liable to be seized or the cargo seized by a
belligerent power. You could lose your vessel, your cargo or
your life. But it was also very lucrative and so it didn’t stop
investors and owners of vessels from sending out more vessels
because if you lost one and made three successful voyages, you
were doing very, very well.
The guano trade
Where I work, at Mystic Seaport, we’re always trying to make
connections. “The sea connects all things,” in the words of
Gaddis Smith at Yale University. And so Connecticut’s
agricultural economy has been very much tied up with sea born
enterprise in various ways. The West Indies trade was only one.
Another unique little example is the guano trade to the
Chincha Islands and Baker’s Island and the west coast of Peru
and Chile. Guano was seabird droppings. Over the centuries,
literally mountains of this guano were deposited on these
islands, and it became pretty apparent to some people that this
was a very, very nitrogen-rich fertilizer. So, they started to
mine it, essentially.
Among the initial people involved with that were whalers out
of New London, Connecticut. They weren’t totally alone but they
certainly were among those that started the unique trade.
Farmers in Connecticut and throughout the Northeast particularly
highly valued the guano for their farms.
Most of this guano trade took place from the 1850’s right up
through the end of the 19th century. It was probably
at its height in the 1860s and 1870s.
Fish guano is another source of fertilizer for Connecticut
farmers. In fact, there were quite a number of Menhaden
companies with factories that dotted the Connecticut shoreline,
all the way from Stonington down to the Stamford area.
What they did was catch Menhaden, known as an industrial fish
not a food fish. Large schools of fish were caught, brought into
the factories, boiled and pressed for oil. The pumice or gerry
or fish guano, or whatever you want to call it, that was left
over was highly, highly valued by many Connecticut farmers,
particularly Connecticut River tobacco farmers.
More sea products for farmers
Salt hay is also another sea borne product, if you will. And
again, farmers who lived along the shore on Long Island Sound,
particularly around Saybrook and in the Stonington area and
Groton, harvested salt hay. Salt hay was highly valued by many
farmers because it had certain nutrients that you couldn’t find
in regular hay. Also it came without weed seed with it, so as a
winter covering, for example, it was particularly useful for
Seaweed, likewise, was used as a fertilizer and as a winter
covering. And you would see these small barges and punts coming
up the Mystic River, the Thames River, even the Connecticut
River, loaded with hay and sometimes seaweed going to a lot of
these trunk farms that were located a little bit further up the