Maritime Connections: A Means to Invigorate U.S. Survey Courses

Charles R. Foy

Figure 1. Replica of John Cabot’s Ship Matthew, Bristol, UK. Author photo.

Most faculty hope they’ll be assigned courses that match their research interests. As a historian whose research focuses on eighteenth-century black seamen, I have been fortunate to teach Golden Age of Piracy, The Age of Sail, and American Maritime History. However, it was when teaching the first-half U.S. history survey that my training as a maritime historian often proved most handy.

Teaching the history of early America presents unique challenges. A National Assessment of Educational Progress indicated that in 2014 only 18 percent of American high school students were proficient in U.S. history. The level of student knowledge of pre-1800 history is even lower as many states do not mandate teaching of early American history in high school. This blank slateof historical knowledge is depressing. But it also offers an opportunity to use maritime history to help students to think about early America, not as an American national story but as a history that emphasizes connections, particularly maritime connections, and in doing so help them contextualize America’s place in global history.[1]

Figure 2. Black Mariners on HMS Rose, 1776. Courtesy of the author.

Why the focus on maritime connections? Simply stated, pre-1800 North America was a sea-centered world, in which not only Native Americans, in Dan Richter’s famous phrase, “Faced East.” The lives of many North American residents were also oriented east, economically, politically, and socially, toward the Atlantic. To highlight such connections, I incorporate maritime history into the course in three distinct subject areas: migration, commodity exchanges, and labor. Each of these topics has the advantage of being important at various time periods between 1492 and 1877, the course’s chronological span, and thus enables students to compare and contrast how these topics shifted over time.

The migratory experience of early Americans, whether Richard Frethorne, Venture Smith, or John Winthrop, involved sailing across the Atlantic in cramped ships such as John Cabot’s Matthew (see Figure 1, above). Using excerpts from migrants’ letters and journals helps students understand the challenges of settlement, including conflicts with Natives, the difficulties of adapting to new physical environments, and the transformation of one’s identity.[2] Because America lacked an extensive roadway, migration (as well as trade) relied heavily upon the nation’s rivers into the nineteenth century.

America’s planters, whether growing rice in the Low County or tobacco in the Chesapeake, were reliant upon European markets and ships to move their commodities to those markets. Similarly, northern merchants made considerable profits shipping potash, staves, horses, and other commodities to markets in the Caribbean and Europe. An exercise whereby students had to determine why planters choose particular markets, using planters’ account books, helps illustrate this for them. The central role that the maritime sector played in moving America’s economy extended into the nineteenth century. Two economic sectors, whaling and corn farming, demonstrate this well.Ben Schmidt’s American Whaling Map offers students a vivid visualization of the expansion of America’s whaling industry. For my students in rural central Illinois, I utilize stories of French and Native canoe- and boatmen whose annual shipments of corn were critical to early settlers of New Orleans to demonstrate the central role the Mississippi River played in France’s North America empire.

Figure 3. Chesapeake Maritime Fugitives, 1777. Courtesy of the author.

Maritime labor offers some of the most compelling stories of why maritime history is central to understanding early America. John White’s pictures of Native fishermen and canoemen and early explorers’ journals describing Natives’ maritime prowess demonstrate the importance of maritime activities in the Americas. European Atlantic empires depended upon maritime labor, be it building the hundreds of ships required to move millions across the Atlantic or the manning of their merchant vessels, slave ships, and navies. As Denver Brunsman has noted, “no sailors, no navy; no navy, no empire.”[3] To assist students in understanding the indispensable role seaman played in early America I utilize exercises predicated upon my Black Mariner Database (BMD), a dataset of more than 29,500 black seamen and maritime fugitives. Students are both able to visualize the importance of black labor on Royal Navy ships (see Figure 2) as well as how the presence of naval ships during wartime offered opportunities for freedom (see Figure 3). TheBMD also enables them to quickly understand ship captains’ willingness to put muscle above slave status when hiring runaway slaves and to understand the limitations on free black mariners’ economic independence, as they often found themselves re-enslaved as prize goods when captured at sea in wartime. The movement of many of the men listed in the BMD between different nations’ ships and among different types of vessels gives students an appreciation of early America as less an American national story and one more of colonies and the new American nation set within a context of different and competing national, tribal cultures.


[1]Scholars whose works I use in crafting lesson plans with maritime history elements include Andrew Lippman, The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast(New Haven, CT, 2015); Sophie White, Wild Frenchmen and Frenchified Indians: Material Culture and Race in Colonial Louisiana (Philadelphia, 2014); Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Low Country (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998); and W. Jeffrey Bolster, Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail(Cambridge, MA, 1995).

[2]Stephen Berry, A Path in the Mighty Water: Shipboard Life and Atlantic Crossing to the New World (New Haven, CT, 2013) provides many examples of such letters and journals for eighteenth century transatlantic migrants.

[3]Denver Brunsman, The Evil Necessity: British Naval Impressment in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World (Charlottesville, VA, 2013), 9.

9 September 2019

About the Author

Charles R. Foy is Associate Professor Emeritus of History at Eastern Illinois University.

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