New England early took the lead in building ships and manning them, and this was but natural since her coasts abounded in harbors; navigable streams ran through forests of trees fit for the ship-builder’s adze; her soil was hard and obdurate to the cultivator’s efforts; and her people had not, like those who settled the South, been drawn from the agricultural classes. Moreover, as I shall show in other chapters, the sea itself thrust upon the New Englanders its riches for them to gather. The cod-fishery was long pursued within a few miles of Cape Ann, and the New Englanders had become well habituated to it before the growing scarcity of the fish compelled them to seek the teeming waters of Newfoundland banks. The value of the whale was first taught them by great carcasses washed up on the shore of Cape Cod, and for years this gigantic game was pursued in open boats within sight of the coast. From neighborhood seafaring such as this the progress was easy to coasting voyages, and so to Europe and to Asia.
There is some conflict of historians over the time and place of the beginning of ship-building in America. The first vessel of which we have record was the “Virginia,” built at the mouth of the Kennebec River in 1608, to carry home a discontented English colony at Stage Island. She was a two-master of 30 tons burden. The next American vessel recorded was the Dutch “yacht” “Onrest,” built at New York in 1615. Nowadays sailors define a yacht as a vessel that carries no cargo but food and champagne, but the “Onrest” was not a yacht of this type. She was of 16 tons burden, and this small size explains her description.
The first ship built for commercial purposes in New England was “The Blessing of the Bay,” a sturdy little sloop of 60 tons. Fate surely designed to give a special significance to this venture, for she was owned by John Winthrop, the first of New England statesmen, and her keel was laid on the Fourth of July, 1631—a day destined after the lapse of one hundred and forty-five years to mean much in the world’s calendar. Sixty tons is not an awe-inspiring register. The pleasure yacht of some millionaire stock-jobber to-day will be ten times that size, while 20,000 tons has come to be an every-day register for an ocean vessel; but our pleasure-seeking “Corsairs,” and our castellated “City of New York” will never fill so big a place in history as this little sloop, the size of a river lighter, launched at Mistick, and straightway dispatched to the trade with the Dutch at New Amsterdam. Long before her time, however, in 1526, the Spanish adventurer, Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, losing on the coast of Florida a brigantine out of the squadron of three ships which formed his expedition, built a small craft called a gavarra to replace it.