Maritime History in the U.S.: Hiding in Plain Sight


The United States, for the most part, ignores maritime history—including our own. We have thought of ourselves as “continental” for so long that we no longer feel connected to the seas around us in a historical sense. We have only a vague awareness of our histories as maritime colonies of European empires—Spanish, Dutch, French, English. When we think of the sea historically, we tend to think of it as a barrier, crossed by intrepid (or rapacious, or both) adventurers, and then settlers, who survived long ocean crossings, settled along the coasts, then moved inland. We tend to forget that, for the first three hundred years of European settlement and African enslavement in North America, our ancestors were connected to each other and to their extended networks of kin, culture, political allegiance, trade, and in many cases sustenance by the sea. These people moved in ships, whether by choice or by force, and not just one way. They went west, but they went east, too—and south, and north, and every other point of the compass that swung in the binnacles of thousands of wooden ships under sail.

We no longer move in ships—though our stuff does: about 90% of it. We are as connected by the sea economically as we ever were, but not politically or socially. We are no longer primarily a maritime society—but our ancestors were. Ships crossed the oceans and landed in ports. Boats carried people and small cargoes along the coasts, up and down creeks and rivers, to trade, to move, or just to visit neighbors. Forests were thick and roads were few and bad. The railroads did not “open up” the West to white settlement. Steamboats did.

The peoples who were here before all that did not use the oceans the way Europeans did. They had come here in the distant past over a land bridge that was long gone. But they used the streams and rivers and bays and sounds just as much as anyone, for travel and trade and fishing. Africans had long done the same. Those who were captured and chained and brought here—over twelve million were loaded on ships, though not nearly that many survived the passage—either found themselves on labor gangs, producing crops for export overseas, or, if they were more fortunate, living lives that allowed them some degree of direct participation in the American water-world—padding a canoe, steering a periauger, sailing a ship.

The economy of what became the United States was built on shipping crops grown on slave plantations to market, and building the ships, barrels, and supplies necessary to do that, and to bring manufactures to people in the Americas who wanted and needed to buy them. It was built on sailing ships to Africa, loading prisoners, and bringing them back to America for sale as forced labor. The revolution that fractured the British Atlantic Empire started on the water. The party in the power in London saw a chance to use the Navy to enforce customs and taxes on British American ships—in their own waters. It was effective—too effective. Angry British Americans attacked ships flying the Royal Navy ensign but built in British America by American shipwrights.

The Revolution ruined the British American economy because the British American economy was maritime, and it only recovered when the Royal Navy once again allowed it to use the sea. By the 1860s, American ships were giving British ships a run for their money around the world. The races of the British and American tea clippers from China to western markets weren’t just business; they competed under their countries’ flags, like Olympic teams, and the results were the hottest news.

The catastrophe of the Civil War and the drive to conquer the Far West put an end to that. Eventually, we became a naval power—later the greatest—but we were no longer a maritime people. Not in general, anyway. New England, naturally enough, has always tried to keep the flame of our maritime history burning. The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, published our premier scholarly maritime history journal, The American Neptune, for 61 years, but it finally folded in 2002. There is no scholarly print journal in maritime history published in the United States. Of the two premier journals in the field, one was founded in Canada and published there for 25 years. It is now edited and published in England, along with the other. The International Journal of Nautical Archaeology is published in England. The journal of the North American Society for Oceanic History is edited and published in Canada.

Our task as U.S. maritime historians is, in one sense, the same as for every other maritime historian: to write the best maritime history we can, based on the best research we can do. But for the public, it is to do our best to remind people of the story I just sketched out—to remind people how central our maritime history is to who we are and where we came from. To commit professionally to maritime history in the U.S. is walking uphill. There is very little funding because there is so little interest. We are a thoroughly international discipline, appropriately enough, and those of us who live in this wealthy nation are acutely aware of the challenges we face in getting our work paid for relative to those elsewhere. That will change when and if we manage to tell this story to enough people. There’s a thriving group of talented people working in the field here. Help us get our story out, because it isn’t our story. It’s the country’s story.


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