It’s summertime in the Lowcountry, and the fish are jumping. Seafood season is definitely here, even if the shrimp are running a bit late this year. Fishing has been a big part of our community’s history since, well, long before Europeans and Africans arrived first here more than three centuries ago. In today’s program we’ll dip our toes into Charleston’s seafood history by sampling a description of the community’s “Fish and Fishermen” from the pages of the local newspaper in 1888.
The consumption of seafood in Charleston has a long and colorful history, much too long for one bite-sized podcast. This story has many, many facets, including such topics as the types of fish, shrimp, oyster, crabs, and clams people ate in former days, the arduous labors of the early fishermen and fisherwomen, and the types of boats, nets, lines, and bait they used. And don’t forget about Charleston’s seafood vending traditions, such as the city’s various fish markets and the long-forgotten ambulatory seafood hucksters crying their wares through the streets at sunrise. I’ve been collecting information about all of these topics for years as I comb through old newspapers and dusty government records in search of interesting nuggets about the life and culture of Charleston’s past, and one day I hope to assemble this material into a book or two.
In the meantime, I’m going to cook up some podcast-sized morsels of market history and periodically bring them to this table. Rather than focusing on one small aspect of seafood history in today’s program, I’d like to begin with an overview of the scene, as described by a Charleston newspaper reporter in early February of 1888. The Lowcountry’s fishing season was just warming up at that time, and the anonymous reporter provided a valuable description of the people, places, and customs associated with Charleston’s important fishing business. It’s such a good article that I’d like to share the entire text with you, along with a few of my own notes. This 130-year-old, illustrated news story contains some arcane vocabulary and some references to forgotten place names, so I’ve added some annotations here and there in an effort to make the text more meaningful.
Charleston Sunday News, 5 February 1888, page 1:
About Fish and Fisherman.—Charleston’s Food Fish and How It Is Procured.—The Mosquito Fleet--A Day on the Banks—Some Historic Characters—How to Catch Porgies and Whiting—Some Interesting Facts and Figures.
“Shad! Shad! Shad!” is the slogan of the peripatetic fish monger at this season of the year, with an occasional variation in the shape of “Mullet! Mullet!” Both of these come from the streams in the Land of Flowers [Florida], and together with “red snapper,” and an occasional mess of the perennial blackfish constitute Charleston’s fish supply at this particular season. But it will not be long before the “raw shrimp” will be ripe and the appearances of that delicious crustacean will be the signal for the appearance of the “pawgee” [porgy], the bull-head whiting, the sailor’s choice, the speckled salmon trout, the yellow tail, the skip jack and all the numerous varieties of pan fish with which the waters around Charleston teem.
In a very few weeks the air in Charleston will ring with the familiar cries of the fish dealer, “Yeh Pawgee! Yeddem! Yeddem!” These criers are only the middlemen, who place the fish at your doors. They do not represent the sturdy, hearty, fearless army of fishermen who supply Charleston and all portions of the State with salt water fish. Very few people in Charleston know anything about the risks, the dangers and the trials of the men who furnish to the city the enormous quantity of fish food which is required by a fish-eating population of over 60,000 souls.
There are probably between seven hundred and eight hundred men, most of them colored men, engaged in furnishing this food to Charleston and its tributary territory, and the fleet consists of about one hundred small craft, canoes, bateaux, yawls, jolly boats, whale boats, and in fact boats of every description. The fishing fleet is divided into several squadrons, with various places of rendezvous. The principal of these is the fish basin at Market wharf [at the east end of Market Street], which, by the way, may be said to be a stench in the nostrils of the community—especially of that portion of the community which summers on the Island [that is, those folks who take the ferry from the Market Street wharf, next to the fish basin, to Sullivan’s Island].
The Fish Basin was originally built [in the mid-1850s] to accommodate the fishermen of Charleston, for whose benefit a [new fish] market over it was built. It was found, however, that the [new fish] market was unavailable for the reason that it entailed too great a walk [from the rest of the market buildings on the opposite end of Market Street]. Then the basin gradually filled up with mud owing to a failure to keep the dock, into which it emptied, properly dredged, and so the fish basin has come to be a nuisance. The fishermen however moor their boats there, taking care, however, to get out of it before low tide, which leaves the boats high if not dry in the mud.
There is also a squadron at Moreland’s wharf on South Bay [near the south end of Legare Street], which is the point of departure and landing for what is known in the fisherman’s vocabulary as “De Sous Bay Fleet.”
The Ashley River fleet start from Chisolm and West Point Mills [now part of the Charleston City Marina], and the Cooper River fleet from the east end of Calhoun Street [where the South Carolina Aquarium now stands].
The first thing to be looked after is the matter of bait. The delightful shrimp, which constitutes part of a Charleston breakfast, is the bait with which the successful fisherman’s hook must be covered. Before any other preparations for sailing are made a plate of shrimp has to be secured. Shrimp are caught in the creeks and shallow places around the harbor by men who make a business of it. At this season of the year they are by no means plentiful, and the fisherman have to pay from 35 to 50 cents a plate for their bait, the price depending on the supply that has been taken by the shrimp men. A half-dozen “casters” [that is, men and women who catch shrimp with cast nets] make the Market dock their headquarters and furnish the supply of bait for thirty or forty fishing boats which sail from that point. Some of the crews engage their shrimp a day in advance, and these invariably get out first. Other less provident fishermen trust to luck, and, like all people who put their faith in chance, frequently “get left.”
The fleet in the spring and summer months generally get under way shortly after daybreak. At that hour one may stand on the High Battery and witness a glorious sight, the mosquito fleet on its way to sea with all sail set, and when the wind is not in the right quarter with spoons out [that is, rowing with oars].
The ‘Sarah Jane Pinckney,’ whose picture is given here, may be taken as a model fishing craft. She is what is known as a “banker,” which means that her crew fish on the outer banks at sea. She is a large yawl or jolly boat, 20 feet long and 6 feet 8 inches broad, and is commanded by the Capt. J. H. Matthews, who has a crew of five men. Her equipment consists of jib, foresail and mainsail, which is about the equipment of all the other boats, three cars, three short sculls, a five gallon water keg, an anchor and about twenty fathoms of “painter,” (rope,) a “bailer,” a sounding line and the necessary “booms” and spreets [sprits] which are used for spreading the sails. Some of the boats carry an additional sail, a flying jib or a jibtopsail. All have adjustable jibbooms and adjustable masts. Each man carries his fishing box containing his lines and his lunch, a basket containing his plate of shrimps and an oil-skin suit called “an oiler.”
Going to Sea.
The fishermen never carry a compass with them. They “cut the banks” by instinct, and by the help of the sounding line. The line, to which is attached the sounding lead has a piece of palmetto tied to it, which indicates eight fathoms. After sailing out in a southeasterly direction for two hours after crossing the Bar, the lead is hove and a “sounding” made. The bottom of the lead is scooped out and the opening is filled with tallow. The fishermen are governed entirely by the nature of the soil which adheres to the tallow on the bottom of the lead when they make soundings. As soon as eight fathoms [forty-eight feet] of water is reached they are on the lookout for the “banks.” There are three kinds of bottom—“sand,” which means nothing; “mortar shell,” which means indications, and “rank rock,” which means fish. When the man who is sounding shouts ‘rank rock’ the captain brings the boat immediately up to the wind, and everybody throws a line overboard. If anybody gets a bite the sails are taken in and the boat is allowed to drift. If the fish bite rapidly the anchor is thrown over and two hours are spent on the “bank.”
The fishermen of Charleston are a brave and hardy set of men and their lives are full of peril and adventure. Occasionally a paragraph appears in the newspapers stating that a fishing boat is missing, but many of the men go down to the bottom without anyone knowing anything about it. The fleet numbers probably 100 boats. They go out in all kinds of weather, and take all kinds of risks at all times. The boats are of various build [sic]. There are canoes and clinkers, yawls and jolly boats, bateaux and gigs, whale boats, whitehalls and dories, and it rarely occurs that one of them is lost at sea.
The Food Fish of Charleston.
There are taken in this harbor and off the coast over twenty varieties of food fish. These are whiting, salmon trout, bluefish or skipjacks, croakers, yellowtails, blackfish, porgies, crevalle, sheephead, Spanish mackerel, cats, cobia, mullet, flounders, drum, bass, sailor’s choice, grunt, white-bone porgies, jackfish and chub.
Besides these, there are found on the coast sea robins (flying fish,) pincushion fish (called by the fishermen “bank rabbits,”) toadfish and Providence whiting, none of which is considered edible. Of the edible fish the most numerous are blackfish, porgies, whiting, trout, croakers and mullet. Shark steaks are considered a delicacy by the colored people, and the fishermen find no difficulty in disposing of the young sharks which they frequently catch.
Of course, many of the boats in the fleet are owned by their crews. Others are rented by the fishermen from the owners. A stout yawl, like the Sarah Ann, is valued at about $100. She is rented by her crew, who pay twelve and one-half cents a “thwart,” that is, each of the crew pays the owner twelve and one-half cents for his seat in the boat for a day’s fishing. Every time the Sarah Jane goes out, therefore, the owner gets fifty cents. Taking an average of four days’ fishing a week the Sarah Jane earns $2 each week, or $104 per annum. She pays for herself every year. In addition to the twelve and one-half cents which he pays for his “thwart,” or seat, each fisherman has to provide his own bait. At this season of the year the cost of his plate of shrimp is about thirty-five cents. His lunch costs about ten cents; so that his total outlay per day amounts to about sixty cents. Each member of the crew keeps the fish which he may catch in a separate basket, and makes them up into strings after assorting them. A string of fish consists of from two to twelve, according to the sizes of the fish. These he sells, either to one of the large dealers or to the persons whose street cries of “Yeddem? Yeddem!” are so familiar to Charlestonians. Some of the crews fish constantly for one firm, who take all the fish they catch, paying them from 10 to 15 cents a string. Of course, the man who is lucky enough to take a large cavalli [crevalle], or Spanish mackerel, or a green turtle has an opportunity of swelling his day’s receipts. A good day’s fishing on the “Porgy Banks” will average, each man, about thirty strings, which at 12 ½ cents a string will make $3.75, leaving about $3 as the net results of a good day’s fishing. Each fisherman, of course, provides himself with his lines.
Probably the most widely known fish monger in Charleston is the citizen whose picture in costume is given here. Joe Cole is known perhaps to nine-tenths of the inhabitants of Charleston. He is an indefatigable street merchant, a very musical vender, and at one time was a very vehement politician. He hawks “pawgees” and other fish, shrimp, milk, vegetables, and anything else he can get to sell. His latest achievement was in the way of an outside orator to a side show. Whenever there is a parade of the colored militia Cole may be seen with his drum corps, provided money can be raised to pay him in advance. And when shrimp and fish are out of season, and the militia are short of funds, Cole may be seen peddling potatoes or milk, or something else. One of his favorite songs in pawgee time, runs as follows:
Pawgee walk, Pawgee talk,
Pawgee eat wid de knife and fawk.
How to Fish.
The mosquito fleet fishermen have to fish between the tides, that is on the change of the tide from flood to ebb, or vice versa. In order to do this the time of their departure is different on different days. Generally a start is made from about 3 o’clock until 6 a.m., depending on the tide, and they return to the city in the afternoon. They get an early breakfast at the wharf before leaving from several colored women, who serve huge bowls of steaming coffee and one pancake for five cents. Others get their meals from the colored restaurants in the neighborhood. No liquors of any kind are carried out.
It often happens that the wind blows from the east. When it does the fishermen never attempt to reach the banks, as the fish will not bite in an easterly wind. At other times the wind is too light to enable them to reach the banks, and they have to depend upon striking a “drop” or feeding place, where a few fish are caught.
After a successful day’s fishing, and with a good breeze from the south or southwest, the fleet, as it returns to port, presents an exciting and exhilarating spectacle. The hulls of the tiny craft are hidden from view by the crowd of canvas which they carry, or by the bounding billows, which they so daringly ride, and only a flock of sails can be seen as the boats dash in across the Bar and enter the harbor. The fisherman finally gets home to his night’s rest about sundown, to be ready at daylight for another venture.
The fisherman’s life, although it has its hardships and difficulties and perils, is not without its compensations, and an old gray-headed fisherman who has followed the business for forty years throws his “pawgee” line overboard and enters into the work with as much zeal and interest as any amateur angler. There are always the possibilities of catching something choice—a jackfish, or a crevalle or a green turtle, or a blue fish, or a halibut, or something outside the usual run of fish, and such a catch always pays. Altogether the Charleston fisherman leads a hard life, but like every other mode of life, it has its attractions and its recompenses, and the utmost recompense that a fisherman can look for is a twenty-pound cobia, or a big Spanish mackerel. He never finds the business monotonous or dull.
Charleston’s mosquito fleet continued to bring its daily catch to the city well into the twentieth century, but those brave fishermen were eventually replaced by the diesel-powered commercial trawlers you see on local waters today. Few people in Charleston remember the mosquito fleet’s principal landing site at the foot of Market Street, and most tourists tread right over it. In July of 1960, the City of Charleston ceded all of the waterfront property at the east and northeast end of Market Street to the State Ports Authority, which paved over the site by extending its massive, ugly warehouses known as Union Pier. The old fisherman’s wharf disappeared more than fifty years ago, but thousands of tourists every year walk along its path as they disembark from cruise ships anchored in the Cooper River. But that’s another topic for another day, and all this talk of seafood is making me hungry. Where can I get a mess of fried porgy today?