Thursday, February 17, 2011

Lady Pirates: Colonel Tangier's Lady

It may surprise some people to know that almost as soon as the coastal areas of New England were developed by European settlers (and certainly prior to that by the Native people) whales were big business and even bigger business for smugglers. By as early as 1650 enterprising men, and some even more enterprising women, were involved in what they knew as a “whaling design”. Essentially they negotiated with the local Montauk, who regularly harvested whale carcasses from local beaches, for a share of the spoils. The Europeans would be given the blubber to boil down for salable oil in return for assistance with butchering the enormous beasts. This went on for about fifty years with one Reverend James Southampton being among the most prominent “designers”.

By the early 1660s, others had gotten in on the action and the market was so good that actual whaling expeditions needed to be mounted. Again the Natives, both men and women, were recruited to put out to sea in cedar boats provided by their European employers. They were also given iron harpoons and their skill brought in even more valuable whale oil. To such a degree in fact that the heads of these new whaling conglomerates decided they were tired of paying English taxes on their goods before they were shipped back to England (direct trade with any Continental country being banned) and they took to the equally ancient art of smuggling.

Enter Colonel William Smith, who would become known locally – and perhaps derisively – as Tangier. Smith seems to have been an adventurer who fought Barbary pirates at one point (thus his nickname) and told tales of being made English Governor in Tangiers despite the fact that he had probably been no more than a prisoner of war in Barbary. He came to New York on the coat tails of another soldier, Thomas Dongan, who was made Governor of the colony in 1682. Dongan granted Smith extensive land which Tangier parlayed into a massive estate stretching from the current site of JFK International Airport to Little Neck Bay. He called his holding St. George’s Manor and, to top off his good fortune, he married a local woman who was already involved in a “whaling design”.

Martha Tunstall was probably a native of New York. The year of her birth and circumstances of her youth are lost to us, but some interesting facts have survived. Her family name is one of those listed in a complaint made by the afore mentioned Reverend James about the poaching, not of whales, but of “ye Indians” who were hunting those whales. Evidently the Tunstall family, or one or more of its members, was working on a “whaling design” of their own.

It has also come down to us that, by the time Martha married Smith some time prior to 1679, she was a well known and sought after “wise woman” in the greater New York area. Some of her recipes, written in a journal marked “Receipts”, have come down to us. They cover diverse ailments from simple blood blisters (apply the fat of a lamb and wrap in gauze) to more troublesome pains like broken bones, deafness and this concoction to bring down a fever:

Dry and pulverize ye lungs and liver of a frog. Mix ye powder in rum and drink it down. If fever does not subside repeat a second & third time.

Martha may have been a midwife as well as she notes the names of mothers and children with dates and times in her book of “receipts”. She herself was giving birth to children almost immediately after her marriage to Tangier but this did not stop her work on her “whaling design” or her estate. Smith’s vast holdings allowed him to live like a virtual Lord and it seems that his wife (and possibly her family) no longer had to recruit Natives from other whalers. Since their estate had, at least in part, been purchased from local tribes there were plenty of “ye Indians” available to go about the mistress’ business. The oil was boiled down, barreled and shipped via smuggling craft to the West Indies where it was traded not only for coin but for rum, cocoa, sugar and tropical fruit.

The bottom fell out of the Smith’s boat, so to say, when Governor Dongan was replaced by Sir Edmund Andros. The new Governor moved his capitol to Boston and put New York colony under the charge of Lieutenant Governor Nicholson. He was an extremely unpopular leader, imposing further taxes and harsh penalties for non-payment on the working class. In 1689, when James II was ousted by his daughter and son-in-law back in England, local New Yorkers also staged a coup. They appointed Captain James Leiser of Fort James as their leader and marched out against the holders of large estates, like Colonel Tangier and his lady.

Nicholson turned to these landowners for help and some of them responded. The result was a lot of burning and ransacking. Smith had the good sense to stay out of it, sending word to the Lieutenant Governor that he could not help in any way. Nicholson finally threw up his hands and returned to England. Uprisings of one sort or another continued until the new Governor, the aptly named Henry Sloughter, arrived and put things in order with brutal efficiency. Leiser and many of his associates were summarily hanged.

Meanwhile the landowners had suffered losses in revenue and property but Martha Tunstall Smith seems to have kept her family afloat without much trouble. By now her sons – how many there were we do not know – were old enough to help in her “whaling design” and smuggling business. Despite the death of Colonel Smith some time in late 1691 or early 1692, Martha continued to record profits in the vicinity of 300 pounds per year as late as 1707.

This is the last year we have word of Martha and her operation, interestingly in the form of a notation in a tax collector’s ledger which lists her having paid “… Nathan Simon, ye sume of fifteen pounds, fifteen shillings for act of Madam Martha Smith, it being ye 20th part of all…” What became of Martha, her business and her boys is a question for further research but what we know of Martha Tunstall Smith and her hard headed Yankee work ethic is remarkable and inspiring, at least to me.

Header: An Unknown Lady of New York c 1690 attributed to G. Duykinck


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! And way to go Martha... Stick it to the man!

Pauline said...

Ahoy, Timmy! I think Madam Smith and the Laffite brothers would have had a lot to talk about.

LostCoaster said...

She was my great, great, etc. grandmother. Wonderful to read about her. I think I have inherited alot of her spirit!! My grandmother was Martha Tangier Smith.

Pauline said...

What a thrill to meet you, Lost. Your many times removed grandmother was quite woman. I hope you're out there doing her proud.

Thank you so much for dropping by and taking the time to leave a comment. I very much appreciate it.