A Fish for All Times – Atlantic Menhaden’s Long History in the Chesapeake



Figure 1. Mid-nineteenth century barrel excavated at the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59).  Photograph courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

During the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology’s 1987 excavation of the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59), archaeologists uncovered an unusual find—a complete wooden barrel whose staves were held together with split tree branch bands (Figures 1 and 2).  Barrels like this one, which dated to the mid-nineteenth century, were used for storing virtually anything, including grain, salted meat, cider, whale oil and dried and pickled fish.  And indeed, removing the soil filling the interior of this barrel, revealed – among other items like a metal funnel, a shoe, rope and a broken champagne bottle—sixty menhaden (Figure 3), whose bodies had been preserved in a tarry substance (Stevens 1989).

The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a native North American schooling fish in the herring family, ranging from Nova Scotia to Florida (Figure 4).  Small and oily, menhaden are not considered an appetizing meal for humans, but are prey for larger fish like weakfish, striped bass and bluefish. Menhaden’s primary food source is phytoplankton.

Figure 2. Unidentified archaeologist excavating the Brown’s Wharf barrel. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

Menhaden have had a long and important history for the Chesapeake Bay region. Although long used by Native Americans as fertilizer, perhaps the earliest written record of menhaden was penned by Captain John Smith, who described them as “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” (Smith 1624).  Although not favored as a human food, menhaden have been used in paint, as a bait fish, for fertilizer, as animal feed, in human dietary supplements and as lamp oil (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).  Large numbers of processing plants sprang up along the Atlantic coast for converting menhaden into these valuable products.

Figure 3: BCUA curator Louis Akerson and archaeologist Scott Simmons examining the contents of the barrel. Reprinted from The Evening Sun, Perry E. Thorsvik.

Almost four hundred years later, a time-traveling John Smith would be disheartened at the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay.  Once menhaden oil began to replace whale oil for lighting and as an industrial lubricant in the late nineteenth century, menhaden populations began to decline (Franklin 2008; Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019). These numbers continued to plummet as overharvesting went on throughout the twentieth century, with the menhaden fishery being the largest in the Atlantic.

Some conservationists refer to menhaden as “the most important fish in the sea”, since they form a vital part of the marine food web (Franklin 2008).  With menhaden numbers depleted, populations of phytoplankton, “a major cause of algae blooms and brown tides” (Carini 2017), explode, to the detriment of the coastal waters.  Studies by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) have shown the striped bass population suffering malnutrition because of the reduced menhaden population (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).

Figure 4. The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Brevoortia_tyrannus1.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1674101

In an attempt to curb population reduction, the ASMFC voted in 2012 to cap the harvest of menhaden at 20 percent less than the previous three year’s catch (Carini 2017).  A population study completed in 2017 showed that menhaden numbers are increasing, but still not at levels considered healthy for the ecology of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019; Carini 2017). Since the Chesapeake Bay is the source of almost 87% of the menhaden harvested in the Atlantic (with Virginia fisherman allocated over 85% of the harvest), the population recovery has not been as successful in the Bay (Dunn 2017).  Although small in size, menhaden loom large in the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem and conservation measures need to continue.

References

Carini, Frank.  2017.  Menhaden:  The Most Important Fish at the Moment.  EcoRI News.  Website site accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.ecori.org/aquaculture/2017/11/10/menhaden-the-most-important-fish-that-the-moment.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  2019.  Atlantic Menhaden; the Chesapeake’s Unsung Hero.  Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.cbf.org/about-the-bay/more-than-just-the-bay/chesapeake-wildlife/menhaden/.

Dunn, Joel.  2017.  Bay’s History Depended on Menhaden; Its Future Will as Well.  The Bay Journal.  Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.bayjournal.com/article/bays_history_depended_on_menhaden_its_future_will_as_well.

Franklin, H. Bruce.  2008. The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.  Island Press, Washington, D. C.

Smith, Captain John.  1624. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles. I.D and I. H. for Michael Sparkes, London.  Electronic version available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/smith/smith.html.

Stevens, Kristen L.  1989.  An Investigation of the Archaeological Resources Associated with the Brown’s Wharf Site (18BC59) on Thames Street, Baltimore, Maryland.  Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology Research Series No. 28.  On file at MHT.

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Gas Lighting in Baltimore, 19th-Century Style


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Figure 1.  Gas lighting fixture from the Federal Reserve Site (18BC27).  Photo courtesy of the MAC Lab.

This unusual looking object was recovered by archaeologists excavating a Baltimore privy filled with garbage from a late 19th-century retirement home.  Historic lighting scholar Donald Linebaugh suggests that this copper alloy artifact once functioned as a gas pipe connection refitted for reuse with electricity (Linebaugh, personal communication 2017). Since the privy appeared to have been filled around 1910, when the facility moved to a new location, it is certainly feasible that the gas lighting had been converted to electricity during the forty years the facility was in operation.

While gas lighting gave way to electricity, it was once at the forefront of lighting technology. In the early 19th century, the world after sunset was a shadowy one, lit by candles and oil lamps.  But lighting with gas changed the way people lived after dark, since it burned brighter than oil and illuminated larger areas, making it effective as street lighting.  Continue reading

The Non-Importation Movement


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Figure 1.  This reconstructed creamware  plate was recovered from the Dalrymple Privy at the Albemarle Row House site (18BC50) in Baltimore.   

Refined earthenware ceramics produced in the Staffordshire region of England are among the most ubiquitous artifacts recovered from late 18th- and 19th-century archaeological sites in Maryland.  The plate to the left, molded with a rim motif known as shell edge, was made of creamware, a type of ceramic first produced in the 1760s.   Thanks largely to the ingenious marketing savvy of its creator, Josiah Wedgwood, creamware was a huge commercial success in England, Europe and the American colonies (Towner 1978).

Creamware’s rise to popularity coincided with rising economic tensions between England and the thirteen American colonies.  To raise funds to support the defense of the American frontier, the British government passed in early 1765 The Stamp Act, a tax on printed materials like newspapers, legal documents, ship’s papers and more (Brugger1988).  American colonists viewed this act, which was passed without their consent, as an ominous precedent for future taxation.  Continue reading

Beer in Baltimore – Two and Half Centuries of Sudsy Brews


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The Natty Boh man atop Natty Boh Towers.

Baltimore is a city known for its breweries and is not afraid to show it – driving into the city on Route 95, travelers are sure to see the mustachioed Natty Boh man winking at them from the top of Natty Boh Tower.  National Bohemian beer, for which the Natty Boh man was named, was first brewed in Baltimore by the National Brewing Company in 1885.  Baltimore’s love affair with sudsy brews goes as far back as the mid-eighteenth century.  The first brewery began operation in Baltimore in 1748; since that time, over 115 breweries have operated in the city (Arnett et al. 1999:274).

In 1983, the newly-formed Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology conducted an excavation at the site of the former Clagett’s Brewery, at the corner of President and Lombard Streets.  Thomas Peters opened the Baltimore Strong Beer Brewery in 1784, locating his operation along Jones Falls to take advantage of the water available for brewing the ales and beers, for carrying away brewery waste products and for constructing a wharf for export of his products.  The brewery operated under as many as ten owners (including Eli Clagett) until 1880, when the property was sold to the Maryland Burial Case Company (Akerson 1990).

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Two of the malting tiles found at the Clagett’s Brewery site.  The tile on the left shows the malting floor surface side, while the tile on the right shows the underside, with the deep cell structure.

In addition to discovering the foundation of the brewery’s malthouse, and the on-site brick townhome and privy of Peters and his family, a number of artifacts related to the brewery operations were discovered during the 1983 excavation.  Several dumps of nineteenth-century bottles, surely used for the brewery products, were uncovered.  More unusual were over three dozen perforated unglazed ceramic tiles used as flooring for the malting kiln.  Manufactured in Bridgewater, England by two different companies in operation in the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century, each tile measures one-foot square and contained 1600 small holes (Bromwich 1984).  These holes allowed hot air to enter the drying room from the floor below, preventing the sprouted barley from growing so that it could be used to produce malt (Comer et al. 1984). Continue reading

Keeping Clean in Charm City – The Rise of the Public Bathhouse in Baltimore


BaltimorePrivyDemijohnCologneBottle

Figure 1. Perfume bottle molded in the shape of a wicker covered demijohn.  Bottle dates c. 1845-1865.

This tiny and incredibly fragile perfume bottle, discovered in a Baltimore privy during the 1980 excavation at the future site of the Federal Reserve Bank, was made by the Boston & Sandwich Glass Company of Sandwich, Massachusetts (Boston and Sandwich 2017). The company operated between the years 1826 and 1888, producing blown and pressed glass containers (Barlow and Kaiser 1998).  Measuring only three inches tall, this bottle was molded in the shape of a much larger bottle called a carboy or demijohn. These bottles, ranging in size from 5 to 16 gallons and used to transport bulk liquids like vinegar or acid, were covered in woven wicker to prevent breakage. This little cologne bottle, with its wicker molded surface, dates between circa 1845 and 1865.

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Figure 2. Bathing before the advent of running water and plumbing involved hauling and heating large quantities of water. 

In Victorian America, personal cleanliness was viewed as a symbol of upstanding character and self-respect.  In America’s crowded cities, it was also an important public health matter.  Wearing perfume or toilet water could certainly help cover body odor, but there was much to be said for bathing as a way to improve personal sanitation and health. Before the days of running water and plumbing, many people kept clean through what we would call today a “sponge bath”, using basins of water or small hip baths.  In 1893, only 7.35% of the families in Baltimore lived in a house with an indoor bathroom. Fortunately for the rest of Baltimore’s citizens, public bathing facilities were soon to be a part of the city’s amenities.

Since at least Roman times, public baths have been a feature of urban life, but the public bath movement in North America did not begin until the mid-19th century and it gathered momentum late in that century. In fact, before the Victorian era, many western cultures actually believed that submersion in water would open the pores up to disease and sickness. Increasing immigration from Europe and crowded living situations in American cities created a critical need for public bathing facilities. North American cities were far behind their European counterparts in providing bath houses. The first year-round public bath opened in Yonkers, New York in 1896 (Piwinski 2011).   Baltimore lagged behind cities like New York and Boston, with its first public bath houses, administered by the city, not appearing until the turn of the 20th century (Williams 1991:28).  Continue reading

Keeping it Fizzy for Over a Century: the Crown Cap Closure


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Figure 1.  Dessicated cork from Oxon Hill Manor (18PR175). Photo courtesy MAC Lab.

Baltimore has been home to a number of important inventions over the last several centuries; among them rubber surgical gloves, telephone poles and the Ouija board.  Perhaps few of these innovations have had as widespread of an influence as the crown cap closure.  Invented in 1890 and patented in 1892 by William Painter as a device for capping carbonated beverage bottles, crown caps became one of the world’s first successful disposable products.  In his patent application, Painter stated “… I have devised metallic sealing-caps embodying certain novel characteristics which render them highly effective and so inexpensive as to warrant throwing them away after a single use thereof..” (US Patent Office 1890). Continue reading

Rocket’s Red Glare – The Battle of Baltimore and the Birth of the Star Spangled Banner


12 pounder

Figure 1.  A 12 pound solid shot found during dredging in the Patapsco River near Fort McHenry.

Resting for many years deep in the silt at the bottom of the Patapsco River, adjacent to Baltimore’s Fort McHenry, this 12 pound cannonball’s underwater fate belies its brief moment of glory. For this cannonball was fired during the momentous battle that led to the genesis of our country’s national anthem.

We all know the story from our elementary school days. Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born lawyer, was inspired by the sight of the U. S. flag that flew over Fort McHenry during the September 1814 Battle of Baltimore.  Although British shells rained down relentlessly for 25 hours, the fort held (Lineberry 2007). Key, watching the battle throughout the night from about eight miles away, was relieved to see in “the dawn’s early light” the American flag flying above the fort – a sign of American victory.  Later that morning, Key penned a poem he entitled “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” Within a month, it had been published in at least nineteen American newspapers (NMAH 2016). Key himself set the poem to music, using a popular English melody written around 1775 and entitled “To Anacreon in Heaven”.  The first documented public performance of Key’s work set to music occurred on October 19, 1814 at the Holiday Street Theater in Baltimore (SI 2016).  The song was later retitled “The Star Spangled Banner”.  Although it was a popular patriotic song throughout the nineteenth century, “The Star Spangled Banner” did not become our country’s national anthem until 1931.

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Figure 2.  A View of the Bombardment of Fort McHenry.  Print by J. Bower, Philadelphia, 1816.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fort McHenry. 

 

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