This story was originally published in January 2020.
CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — The first organized labor strike over working conditions and wages in the history of what would become the United States happened in Maine in 1636. Toiling in brutal conditions, with their pay withheld for more than a year, six fishermen walked off the job and never came back.
“The story of the fishermen strike shows us that Maine workers have resisted and fought back against unfair treatment since before Maine was even a state,” said Andy O’Brien, communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a federation of more than 160 local labor unions representing roughly 40,000 workers across the state. “At a time of record wealth and income inequality, we need to keep telling these stories to inspire a new generation of Maine workers.”
The strike happened on Richmond Island, just off Cape Elizabeth. The 226-acre island is reachable at low tide and is now privately owned. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 because of its archaeological importance.
In the early 17th century, Maine’s coastal waters were teeming with cod, an important, money-making commodity in Europe. Fishermen from across the seas had already been coming seasonally for a hundred years but by the 1630s they were starting to establish permanent, year-round settlements.
Wealthy English merchants were making fortunes, setting up fishing operations they never actually saw. The fishermen who performed the dangerous labor, not so much.
The business on Richmond Island was owned by Robert Trelawney. His son-in-law, John Winter, managed it on site.
Most of what we know of what happened comes from the Trelawney Papers. The papers consist of detailed letters and reports Winter sent to Trelawney in England.
Maine Historical Society member John Wingate Thornton discovered the papers in 1872 at the Trelawney family seat in Devon, England. Thornton arranged for the owner to donate them to the society. Later, James Phinney Baxter researched and annotated them. Baxter was president of the historical society, a former Portland mayor and father to Gov. Percival Baxter — who gave Katahdin to the state of Maine.
The Richmond Island settlement commenced business in 1632. Fishermen, recruited from England, signed on to work there for three year stints. They were paid an annual wage, a share of the catch or a combination of the two. But once the men arrived on Richmond Island, they discovered Winter would only be paying them a third of the going rate in America, historian E.A. Churchill wrote in a 1984 article in The New England Quarterly. What’s more, Winter didn’t even intend to pay them what he promised.
“Once these persons arrived,” Churchill wrote, “he looked for loopholes to withhold portions of their wages.”
There was not much the fisherman could do about it. By then, they were stuck on a tiny island off the coast of what would later be Maine.
“They didn’t stand a chance,” Maine labor historian Charlie Scontras said. “They were under three-year contracts. It was a kind of servitude.”
The fishing was dangerous and went on six days a week. It didn’t stop in winter unless storms raged. The men worked in teams of four. Three of them would fish in open, 20-foot sailing boats while the fourth finished cutting and salting the previous day’s catch.
According to Churchill, each fisherman tended two single-hooked lines and could catch as many as 300 cod per day. They cut out the tongues, impaling them on spikes to keep track of how many fish they’d caught.
They fished from morning until afternoon, then processed cod till after dark. The fishermen would then often need to go back out and net mackerel for the next day’s bait.
Their only guaranteed day off was Sunday, and then “the men sometimes were so exhausted they fell asleep while eating supper,” Churchill wrote.
More than once, fishermen died in pursuit of their catch. One crew went missing in the winter of 1634-35. When their boat was located the next day, two soaked men were found at the bottom, frozen to death. The third body was never recovered.
Waterproof clothing didn’t exist in the 17th century. The fishermen would have been wearing only wool, leather and linen. In the summer of 1637, a boat capsized, drowning two men.
At least four different women worked on the island, mostly cooking, cleaning and tending livestock. They were paid even more poorly than the men. While the lowest-paid man made five pounds a year, the women only made two. One woman, a maid in Winter’s household named Pricilla Bickford, was regularly beaten by his wife, Joan.
“A fair way will not do,” Winter wrote to his boss in England in 1639, “beatings must sometimes [come] upon idle girls as she is.”
Winter also reported that Bickford would sometimes run away from the house and hide in the woods on the mainland. He’d send men to find her and then lock her inside at night. Another woman servant, named Thompson, drowned while fetching cows.
Winter spends a lot of time in his reports complaining how lazy his help is and pleading with Trelawny to send him more cooperative workers.
By June 1636, six fishermen decided they’d had enough. Winter was still withholding their previous year’s wages. That’s when John Lander, William Ham, Oliver Clarke, John Bellin, William Freythey and John Simmons made history and walked off the job.
“Taking such distaste … [they] fell into such mutiny,” Winter wrote to Trelawney. “They are gone away from the plantation and do purpose to fish for themselves.”
Because there are no surviving documents written by the fishermen, we’ll never know why they chose that moment to leave, or what they hoped to gain by walking away.
“Too often local history books focus solely on the politicians, ship captains and factory owners, but ignore the workers who built the ships, cut down the trees, fished the oceans and produced massive wealth for the prominent businessmen of the day,” O’Brien said.
Scontras would like to see a monument on the mainland in memory of what happened on the island. A possible location would be at Crescent Beach State Park, which has a good view of the island.
“You can stand on the beach and see that island,” Scontras said. “With a strong arm and a rock in your hand — and a strong wind — you could strike that island. it’s hard to believe it’s so rich with memories.”
In his annotations to the Trelawney Papers, Baxter posits that the men probably all went to Portsmouth. He then does his best to track each one down in the historic record. A few did well, two eventually went back to work for Winter, one was fined for profaning on the Sabbath.
Lander, the walkout’s ringleader, sued Winter for his back wages. The court awarded him one pound nearly 10 years later, in 1645. He died shortly thereafter.