Diamond City, NC Occupations

Historical Role of Fishing in Carteret County

Reprinted from Carteret County Heritage, Volume I

Long before the first Europeans, mainly English, settled in Carteret County, the coastal Indians of the region depended on fishing for much of their food. Village sites were found along Core and Bogue Sounds and along Neuse River. The larger settlements were at South River, Harkers Island, Marshallberg, Bogue and White Oak. Kitchen middens composed mainly of oyster, clam and scallop shells show that the Indians depended on fish and shellfish for much of their food.

The first settlers came about 1690, and by 1710 County Von Graffenried, founder of New Bern, noted that Englishmen along Core Sound were supplying fish to the area. Early English settlers had some nets, probably a type of gill net, but seines or drag nets were not introduced until about 1750. By around 1765, the drag net was being used by County fishermen to the extent that citizens drew up a petition to outlaw the method. They felt that the seines were catching all the fish, but no action was taken.

The earliest fishing consisted of gathering oysters, netting mullet, spot, seatrout and bluefish in the sounds, and shad, herring, sturgeon and striped bass in the rivers. Wiers made of netting, saplings and brush were built in the sounds. Whales, porpoises and turtles were taken along the ocean beaches. Whaling and porpoise fishing was conducted along Cape, often by vessels from more northern Colonies. Local residents took advantage of whale and porpoise strandings in shoal waters. Turtles were usually captured while nesting on the beaches ...
The use and trade in fish and shellfish during the early years depended on preservation and transportation. Within a short distance of the coast fish and shellfish were eaten fresh or lightly salted. During the cooler months from October to April, oysters and fish were taken inland as much as 100 miles, or occasionally to Raleigh or Salem an traded for corn. The barter, for well over a hundred years, was a bushel of fish or oysters for a bushel of corn. In the late summer and early fall, mullet and spot were salted and sent to coastal and river towns by schooner and eventually by rail. The development of fish trade in Carteret County shows a close relation between the introduction of the sharpie, a shallow draft sailboat, and the development of windmills along the outer banks for grinding the bartered corn into meal.

Whaling Industry

Some whaling by New England whalers probably took place off Cape Lookout prior to 1700, but the first local whalers were the Chadwicks that moved to Carteret County from Massachusetts in 1725. They were shore-whalers who waited for whales to come close enough to shore to be sighted, then launched boats to harpoon and secure the whale. The season was primarily during the winter and early spring, although some whales stranded throughout the year. In 1754, a French traveler in the colonies described whalers huts on Shackleford Banks. In 1800, a seine fishery for porpoises started but was short lived. Black fish or pilot whales were sought about the same time, especially for the fine lubricating oil that could be extracted from the jawbone ...

The Beginning of the 19th Century

Core Banks and Shackleford Banks entered the nineteenth century thinly populated. For four months in the summer and fall of 1806 a surveyor by the name of William Tatham examined the North Carolina coast from Portsmouth southwest along Core Banks to Cape Lookout and beyond. A good friend of President Thomas Jefferson, he was well known as an inventor and scientist. Almost everywhere he went that summer and fall he saw things on the Sea Banks which interested him.

Tatham reported on fisherman seining on upper Core Banks. He also noted that a porpoise factory on Cape Lookout and in the year previous this fishery had produced 200 hundred barrels of oil. Tatham said that there were only four small houses at the Cape, “four poor families, two very old men, two middle aged man and one boy who all subsist on the fish they can catch.” According to Tatham one of the old men was Samuel Guttery (Guthrie) who was seventy-one years old but very active. In fact, Tatham said, “the general appearance of the people on this coast bespeaks health and long life.”

Whaling — The Harpoon and Lance

From the Collection of Ken Eldred, Sr.

The following is a narration by Mr. Ken Eldred, Sr., Morehad City, great-nephew of Capt. John Lewis, Shackleford whaler. The right whale model and pilot boat model were hand-carved by Ken Eldred, Sr. The harpoon and lance were made by his son Kenny Eldred, II.

“At the time, Capt. Lewis was living on Shackleford Banks at Wades Shore. He and his father James Lewis, and four other men in their crew would go out in their pilot boat which they left on the oceanside of the Banks, handy for capturing and killing whales when they were sighted.

They would harpoon the whale first (sometimes two harpoons were used), throw out the dray to slow the whale down, and the ‘ride was one!’ As soon as the whale was tired out, they would pull ‘along side the whale’ – on the left side – and throw the lance just back of the left fluke, where the heart is located. If the lance hit just right, blood spouted from the blow hole. Then they knew the end was near. Soon the whale rolled over, ‘fin-side up.’

The crew next lashed ropes around the whale’s fin, and started rowing for the beach. After hours of pulling the oars, and sometimes using the small sail to help them move faster, they would ‘make the shore,’ feeling very tired and ‘wore out.’

But then the work really began – cutting the whale up.

Usually men from other whaling crews would have to help. Of course, they got a ‘share’ of the whale for their work. The mean was cut in chunks, put in ‘trying’ pots, and boiled until the meat was brown. Uncle John Lewis called the browned, cooked meat ‘cracklins.’ Some of the cracklin was thrown on the fire, making the fire hotter, and some was later used as fertilizer in gardens. The oil was ‘bailed out’ of the trying pots, and put in barrels. These were carried to Beaufort and sold.

My grandmother, Mary Lew Day, who was Capt. John Lewis’ sister, told me that she has seen the crews come in at times ‘all covered with blood.’ She also remembered that ‘blood and water’ were 2-3" deep in the pilot boat when the whaling crew returned to shore. Rocking in her chair as she told me the tale, she also remembered that the men were all very sick when they got back, and would rush to their homes, lie down, and couldn’t even eat for a while.

But this was their way of life — a way to make a living — and it had to be done.

From "Our Shared Past" prepared for the Diamond City & Ca'e Bankers Reunion, August 1999 as a collection of writings, research and recollections to tell the story of the Banks communities.
Copyright 1995, Core Sound Waterfowl Museum
All rights reserved.

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