Thursday, October 18, 2012

Lady Pirates: Colonel Tangier's Lady

A lot is going on, as usual, including a very sick kiddo at my house. But rather than completely forgo a post, here is one from the archives: the fascinating story of Martha Tunstall Smith and her "whaling design". I am indebted to Joan Druett and her incomparable book on women at sea She Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea as primary research material.

Almost as soon as the Coastal areas of New England were developed by European settlers, and certainly prior to that by Native people, whales were big business. They were even bigger business for smugglers. By as early as 1650, enterprising men and some intrepid 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, to share the bounty of the sea. The Europeans would be given the blubber to boil down for salable oil in return for assistance with butchering the enormous bodies. 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 Native people, 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. As direct trade with any other European country was banned by the English crown, the whalers took to the ancient art of smuggling.

Enter Colonel William Smith who would become known locally, and possibly derisively, as Tangier. Smith seems to have been an adventurer who fought Barbary pirates at one point; thus his nickname. He told tales, probably very tall, of being made English Governor of Tangiers. The truth is that he had most likely been nothing more than a prisoner of that state, but how would the colonial bumpkins be able to fact-check his story?

The Colonel came to New York on the coat tails of another soldier, Thomas Dongan, who was made Governor in 1682. Dongan granted Smith extensive land which the Colonel 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 the profitable whaling consortium.

Martha Tunstall was probably a native of New York. The year of her birth and the circumstanced of her youth are lost to us, but some interesting facts survive. Her family name is one of those listed in a complaint made by the afore mentioned Reverend Southampton about the poaching not of whales bu 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 and, needing good help, they stole employees from the good Reverend.

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 survived. 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 the lungs and liver of a frog. Mix the powder in rum and drink this down. If the fever does not subside repeat a second and 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 the Colonel, but this did not stop her work in the whale oil trade or on 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 a number of able bodied men prepared to go about the mistress' business. The oil was boiled down, barreled and shipped via smuggling vessels 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 more taxes and harsh penalties for non-payment, particularly on the middle class. In 1689, when James II was ousted by his daughter and son-in-law back in England, local New Yorkers staged a coup. They appointed Captain James Leiser of Fort James as their leader and marched against the owners of large estates. This included St. George's Manor.

Nicholson turned to these landowners for help and some of them responded. The result was a lot of burning and ransacking that accomplished very little. 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, however, 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. In contrast to her neighbors, Martha Tunstall Smith seems to have been able to keep her family afloat without much trouble. By now her sons, how many we do not know, were old enough to help in her "whaling design" and smuggling business. Despite the death of Colonel Smith 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. The entry lists her having paid "... Nathan Simon ye sum 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. What we know of Martha Tunstall Smith and her hard headed Yankee work ethic is, at the very least, remarkable.

Header: Henrietta de Chastaigner by Henrietta Johnson via 17th Century American Women


Keri@AWH said...

Very interesting! I love learning about obscure women like this. Sometimes it can take so much work just to scrape together the barest hints of their life, but it's so worth it. Martha sounds like a hard-working and wily woman. I love her recipe—yum, frog lungs. ;D

Pauline said...

Thanks, Keri; I very much appreciate you stopping by and leaving your thoughts. You know as well as I do how hard it can be to get information about all the strong, capable and sometimes gritty women of history (that the Victorians hoped we would never know).

I thought about mixing up the "receipt" for my youngest's fever, but only briefly. I don't think I've got it in me forgo the Tylenol and start cutting up frogs :)

Anonymous said...

Facinating. Thank you so much for your post. I hope you child gets better.

Undine said...

Her story was well worth an encore. It's true we usually know little about such woman, but it still does a great service to disseminate what information you can about them.

Sorry to hear about the sickness in your household. Hope all is well post-haste. Even without the frog lungs.

Alison Stuart said...

Fascinating post, Pauline. I have been researching the Barbary Pirates of this period and it makes for interesting, but depressing reading!

Pauline said...

Ladies, thank you all for stopping by and taking the time to leave a comment.

Thanks for your kind thoughts Ella and Undine. We're healing up I think (sans frog's lungs); Mairin's fever was down to a manageable 100 degrees this afternoon.

And I agree, Undine, as far as so called "distaff history." Even if all we do is manage to dig up a name and a salient fact or two, we're still overcoming well over 100 years of historical prejudice, for lack of a better word.

Well put, Alison; the history of piracy in Barbary doesn't recommend itself to "light reading" by any means.

Timmy! said...

That was a fun one to read again, Pauline. Glad to hear that the monkey's fever is down a little today. See you soon.

Pauline said...

You have to hand it to Martha; she seems to have made good decisions about her life...

Blue Lou Logan said...

In addition to good wishes for the "monkey," I hope you are doing better as well. Personally, I think I'll keep the amphibian bits out of my grog; any recommendations in the receipts for diverticulitis,or at least for a crampy tummy?

And I'll stand, too, for adding what what my great mentor in colonial archaeology, Jim Deetz, called the "small things forgotten" of history.

Pauline said...

Thankee for the good wishes, Lou. Our ship's monkey seems to be bouncing back slowly but surely.

You know what was a popular but probably toxic cure-all for tummy trouble in colonial days? Turpentine. I can't find any two sources that agree on dosage but a tablespoon or two were usually added to tea or ale. Caveat imbiber on that one my friend.

And, as I've found so often, archaeologist tend to have a far more gracious and less rigid approach to history than historians. Probably because they work among it not just with it. It sounds like Prof. Deetz was no exception, nor are you.