The creation of the great landed estates was accompanied by the slow development of the small trader and merchant. Necessarily, they first established themselves in the sea ports where business was concentrated.

Many obstacles long held them down to a narrow sphere. The great chartered companies monopolized the profitable resources. The land magnates exacted tribute for the slightest privilege granted. Drastic laws forbade competition with the companies, and the power of law and the severities of class government were severely felt by the merchants. The chartered corporations and the land dignitaries were often one group with an identity of men and interests. Against their strength and capital the petty trader or merchant could not prevail. Daring and enterprising though he be, he was forced to a certain compressed routine of business. He could sell the goods which the companies sold to him but could not undertake to set up manufacturing. And after the companies had passed away, the landed aristocracy used its power to suppress all undue initiative on his part.


This was especially so in New York, where all power was concentrated in the hands of a few landowners. „To say,” says Sabine, „that the political institutions of New York formed a feudal aristocracy is to define them with tolerable accuracy. The soil was owned by a few. The masses were mere retainers or tenants as in the monarchies of Europe.”[31] The feudal lord was also the dominant manufacturer and trader. He forced his tenants to sign covenants that they should trade in nothing else than the produce of the manor; that they should trade nowhere else but at his store; that they should grind their flour at his mill, and buy bread at his bakery, lumber at his sawmills and liquor at his brewery. Thus he was not only able to squeeze the last penny from them by exorbitant prices, but it was in his power to keep them everlastingly in debt to him. He claimed, and held, a monopoly in his domain of whatever trade he could seize. These feudal tenures were established in law; woe to the tenant who presumed to infract them! He became a criminal and was punished as a felon. The petty merchant could not, and dared not, compete with the trading monopolies of the manorial lords within these feudal jurisdictions. In such a system the merchant’s place for a century and a half was a minor one, although far above that of the drudging laborer. Merchants resorted to sharp and frequently dubious ways of getting money together. They bargained and sold shrewdly, kept their wits ever open, turned sycophant to the aristocracy and a fleecer of the laborer.

It would appear that in New York, at least, the practice of the most audacious usury was an early and favorite means of acquiring the property of others. These others were invariably the mechanic or laborer; the merchant dared not attempt to overreach the aristocrat whose power he had good reason to fear. Money which was taken in by selling rum and by wheedling the unsophisticated Indians into yielding up valuable furs, was loaned at frightfully onerous rates. The loans unpaid, the lender swooped mercilessly upon the property of the unfortunate and gathered it in.

The richest merchant of his period in the province of New York was Cornelius Steenwyck, a liquor merchant, who died in 1686. He left a total estate of £4,382 and a long list of book debts which disclosed that almost every man in New York City owed money to him, partly for rum, in part for loans.[32] The same was true of Peter Jacob Marius, a rich merchant who died in 1706, leaving behind a host of debtors, „which included about all the male population on Manhattan Island.”[33] This eminent counter-man was „buried like a gentleman.” At his funeral large sums were spent for wine, cookies, pipes and tobacco, beer, spice for burnt wine and sugar – all according to approved and reverent Dutch fashion. The actual currency left by some of these rich men was a curious conglomeration of almost every stamp, showing the results of a mixed assemblage of customers. There were Spanish pistoles, guineas, Arabian coin, bank dollars, Dutch and French money – a motley assortment all carefully heaped together. Without doubt, those enterprising pirate captains, Kidd and Burgess, and their crews, were good customers of these accommodating and undiscriminating merchants. It was a time when money was triply valued, for little of it passed in circulation. To a people who traded largely by barter and whose media of exchange, for a long time, were wampum, peltries and other articles, the touch and clink of gold and silver were extremely precious and fascinating. Buccaneers Kidd and Burgess deserved the credit for introducing into New York much of the variegated gold and silver coin, and it was believed that they long had some of the leading merchants as their allies in disposing of their plundered goods, in giving them information and affording them protection.


By one means or another, some of the New York merchants of the period attained a standing in point of wealth equal to not a few of the land magnates. William Lawrence of Flushing, Long Island, was „a man of great wealth and social standing.” Like the rest of his class he affected to despise the merchant class. After his death, an inventory showed his estate to be worth £4,032, mostly in land and in slaves, of which he left ten.[34] While the landed men often spent much of their time carousing, hunting, gambling, and dispersing their money, the merchants were hawk-eyed alert for every opportunity to gather in money. They wasted no time in frivolous pursuits, had no use for sentiment or scruples, saved money in infinitesimal ways and thought and dreamed of nothing but business.

Throughout the colonies, not excepting Pennsylvania, it was the general practice of the merchants and traders to take advantage of the Indians by cunning and treacherous methods. The agents of the chartered companies and the land owners first started the trick of getting the Indians drunk, and then obtaining, for almost nothing, the furs that they had gathered – for a couple of bottles of rum, a blanket or an axe. After the charters of the companies were annulled or expired, the landgraves kept up the practice, and the merchants improved on it in various ingenious ways. „The Indians,” says Felt,[35] „were ever ready to give up their furs for knives, hatchets, beads, blankets, and especially were anxious to obtain tobacco, guns, powder, shot and strong water; the latter being a powerful instrument enabling the cunning trader to perpetuate the grossest frauds. Immense quantities of furs were shipped to Europe at a great profit.”

This description appropriately applied also to New York, New Jersey, and the South. In New York there were severe laws against Indians who got drunk, and in Massachusetts colony an Indian found drunk was subject to a fine of ten shillings or whipping, at the discretion of the magistrate. As to the whites who, for purposes of gain, got the Indians drunk, the law was strangely inactive. Everyone knew that drink might incite the Indians to uprisings and imperil the lives of men, women and children. But the considerations of trade were stronger than even the instinct of self-preservation and the practice went on, not infrequently resulting in the butchery of innocent white victims and in great cost and suspense to the whole community.

Strict laws which pronounced penalties for profaneness and for not attending church, connived at the systematic defrauding and swindling of the Indians of land and furs. Two strong considerations were held to justify this. The first was that the Indians were heathen and must give way to civilization; that they were fair prey. The demands of trade, upon which the colonies flourished was the second. The fact was that the code of the trading class was everywhere gradually becoming the dominant one, even breaking down the austere, almost ascetic, Puritan moral professions. Among the common people – those who were ordinary wage laborers – the methods of the rich were looked upon with suspicion and enmity, and there was a prevalent consciousness that wealth was being amassed by one-sided laws and fraud. Some of the noted sea pirates of the age made this their strong justification for preying upon commerce.[36]

In Virginia the life of the community depended upon agriculture; therefore slavery was thought to be its labor prop and was joyfully welcomed and earnestly defended. In Massachusetts and New York trading was an elemental factor, and whatever swelled the volume and profits was accounted a blessing to the community and was held justified. Laws, the judges who enforced them, and the spirit of the age reflected not so much the morality of the people as their trading necessities. The one was often mistaken for the other.


This condition was shown repeatedly in the trade conflicts of the competing merchants, their system of bonded laborers and in the long contests between the traders of the colonies and those of England, culminating in the Revolution. In the churches the colonists prayed to God as the Father of all men and showed great humility. But in actual practice the propertied men recognized no such thing as equality and dispensed with humility. The merchants imitated in a small way the seignorial pretensions of the land nabobs. Few merchants there were who did not deal in negro slaves, and few also were there who did not have a bonded laborer or two, whose labor they monopolized and whose career was their property for a long term of years. Limited bondage, called apprenticeship, was general.

Penniless boys, girls and adults were impressed by sheer necessity into service. Nicholas Auger, 10 years old, binds himself, in 1694, to Wessell Evertson, a cooper, for a term of nine years, and swears that „he will truly serve the commandments of his master Lawfull, shall do no hurt to his master, nor waste nor purloin his goods, nor lend them to anybody at Dice, or other unlawful game, shall not contract matrimony, nor frequent taverns, shall not absent himself from his master’s service day or night.” In return Evertson will teach Nicholas the trade of a cooper, give him „apparell, meat, drink and bedding” and at the expiration of the term will supply him with „two good suits of wearing apparell from head to foot.” Cornelius Hendricks, a laborer, binds himself in 1695 as an apprentice and servant to John Molet for five years. Hendricks is to get £3 current silver money and two suits of apparell – one for holy days, the other for working days, and also board is to be provided. Elizabeth Morris, a spinster, in consideration of her transportation from England to New York on the barkentine, „Antegun,” binds herself in 1696 as a servant to Captain William Kidd for four years for board. When her term is over she is to get two dresses. These are a few specific instances of the bonding system – a system which served its purpose in being highly advantageous to the merchants and traders.


Toward the close of the seventeenth century the merchants of Boston were the richest in the colonies. Trade there was the briskest. By 1687, according to the records of the Massachusetts Historical Society, there were ten to fifteen merchants in Boston whose aggregate property amounted to £50,000, or about £5,000 each, and five hundred persons who were worth £3,000 each. Some of these fortunes came from furs, timber and vending merchandise.

But the great stimuli were the fisheries of the New England coast. Bellomont in 1700 ascribed the superior trade of Massachusetts to the fact that Fletcher had corruptly sold the best lands in New York province and had thus brought on bad conditions. Had it not been for this, he wrote, New York „would outthrive the Massachusetts Province and quickly outdoe them in people and trade.” While the people of the South took to agriculture as a main support, and the merchants of New York were contented with the more comfortable method of taking in coin over counters, a large proportion of the 12,000 inhabitants of Boston and those of Salem and Plymouth braved dangers to drag the sea of its spoil. They developed hardy traits of character, a bold adventurousness and a singular independence of movement which in time engendered a bustling race of traders who navigated the world for trade.

It was from shipping that the noted fortunes of the early decades of the eighteenth century came. The origin of the means by which these fortunes were got together lay greatly in the fisheries. The emblem of the codfish in the Massachusetts State House is a survival of the days when the fisheries were the great and most prolific sources of wealth and the chief incentive of all kinds of trade. A tremendous energy was shown in the hazards of the business. So thoroughly were the fisheries recognized as important to the life of the whole New England community that vessels were often built by public subscription, as was instanced in Plymouth, where public subscription on one occasion defrayed the expense.[37]

In response to the general incessant demand for ships, the business of shipbuilding soon sprang up; presently there were nearly thirty ship yards in Boston alone and sixty ships a year were built. It was a lucrative industry. The price of a vessel was dear, while the wages of the carpenters, smiths, caulkers and sparmakers were low. Not a few of the merchants and traders or their sons who made their money by debauching and cheating the Indians went into this highly profitable business and became men of greater wealth. By 1700 Boston was shipping 50,000 quintals of dried codfish every year. The fish was divided into several kinds. The choice quality went to the Catholic countries, where there was a great demand for it, principally to Bilboa, Lisbon and Oporto. The refuse was shipped to the West India Islands for sale to the negro slaves and laborers. The price varied. In 1699 it was eighteen shillings a quintal; the next year, we read, it had fallen to twelve shillings because the French fisheries had glutted the market abroad.[38]


Along with the fisheries, considerable wealth was extracted in New England, as elsewhere in the colonies, from the shipment of timber. Sharp traders easily got the advantage of Indians and landowners in buying the privilege of cutting timber. In some cases, particularly in New Hampshire, which Allen claimed to own, the timber was simply taken without leave. The word was passed that force was as good as force, fraud as good as fraud. Allen had got the province by force and fraud; let him stop the timber cutters if he dare. Ship timber was eagerly sought in European ports. One Boston merchant is recorded as having taken a cargo of this timber to Lisbon and clearing a profit of £1,600 on an expenditure of £300. „Everybody is excited,” wrote Bellomont on June 22, 1700, to the Lords Commissioners for Trades and Plantations. „Some of the merchants of Salem are now loading a ship with 12,000 feet of the noblest ships timber that was ever seen.”[39]

The whale fishery sprang up about this time and brought in great profits. The original method was to sight the whale from a lookout on shore, push out in a boat, capture him and return to the shore with the carcass. The oil was extracted from the blubber and readily sold. As whales became scarce around the New England islands the whalers pushed off into the ocean in small vessels. Within fifty years at least sixty craft were engaged in the venture. By degrees larger and larger vessels were built until they began to double Cape Horn, and were sometimes absent from a year and a half to three years. The labors of the cruise were often richly rewarded with a thousand barrels of sperm oil and two hundred and fifty barrels of whale oil.


By the middle of the seventeenth century the colonial merchants were in a position to establish manufactures to compete with the British. A seafaring race and a mercantile fleet had come into a militant existence; and ambitious designs were meditated of conquering a part of the import and export trade held by the British. The colonial shipowner, sending tobacco, corn, timber or fish to Europe did not see why he should not load his ship with commodities on the return trip and make a double profit. It was now that the British trading class peremptorily stepped in and used the power of government to suppress in its infancy a competition that alarmed them.

Heavy export duties were now declared on every colonial article which would interfere with the monopoly which the British trading class held, and aimed to hold, while the most exacting duties were put on non-British imports. Colonial factories were killed off by summary legislation. In 1699 Parliament enacted that no wool yarn or woolen manufactures of the American colonies should be exported to any place whatever. This was a destructive bit of legislation, as nearly every colonial rural family kept sheep and raised flax and were getting expert at the making of coarse linen and woolen cloths. No sooner had the colonists begun to make paper than that industry was likewise choked. With hats it was the same. The colonists had scarcely begun to export hats to Spain, Portugal and the West Indies before the British Company of Hatters called upon the Government to put a stop to this colonial interference with their trade. An act was thereupon passed by Parliament forbidding the exportation of hats from any American colony, and the selling in one colony of hats made in another. Colonial iron mills began to blast; they were promptly declared a nuisance, and Parliament ordered that no mill or engine for slitting or rolling iron be used, but graciously allowed pig and bar iron to be imported from England into the colonies. Distilleries were common; molasses was extensively used in the making of rum and also by the fishermen; a heavy duty was put upon molasses and sugar as also on tea, nails, glass and paints. Smuggling became general; a narrative of the adroit devices resorted to would make an interesting tale.

These restrictive acts brought about various momentous results. They not only arrayed the whole trading class against Great Britain, and in turn the great body of the colonists, but they operated to keep down in size and latitude the private fortunes by limiting the ways in which the wealth of individuals could be employed. Much money was withdrawn from active business and invested in land and mortgages. Still, despite the crushing laws with which colonial capitalists had to contend, the fisheries were an incessant source of profit. By 1765 they employed 4,000 seamen and had 28,000 tons of shipping and did a business estimated at somewhat more than a million dollars.


[31] „Lives of the Loyalists,”:18.

[32] „Abstracts of Wills,” ii:444-445.

[33] Ibid., 1:323-324.

[34] „Abstracts of Wills,” 1:108.

[35] „An Historical Account of Massachusetts Currency.” See also Colonial Documents, iii:242, and the Records of New Amsterdam. See the chapters on the Astor fortune in Part II for full details of the methods in debauching and swindling the Indians in trading operations.

[36] Thus Captain Bellamy’s speech in 1717 to Captain Baer of Boston, whose sloop he had just sunk and rifled: „I am sorry that they [his crew] won’t let you have your sloop again, for I scorn to do any one a mischief when it is not for my advantage; damn the sloop, we must sink her, and she might be of use to you. Though you are a sneaking puppy, and so are all those who will submit to be governed by laws which rich men have made for their own security – for the cowardly whelps have not the courage otherwise to defend what they get by their knavery. But damn ye altogether; damn them for a pack of crafty rascals, and ye who serve them, for a parcel of hen-hearted numbskulls. They villify us, the scoundrels do, when there is only this difference: they rob the poor under cover of law, forsooth, and we plunder the rich under protection of our own courage. Had you better not make one of us than sneak after these villains for employment.” Baer refused and was put ashore. – „The Lives and Bloody Exploits of the Most Noted Pirates”:129-130.

[37] „A Commercial Sketch of Boston,” Hunt’s Merchant’s Magazine, 1839, 1:125.

[38] Colonial Documents, iv:790.

[39] Ibid., 678.

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