HOW THE CODFISH CAME TO THE STATE HOUSE.
When Captain John Smith, the "discoverer" of
Pocahontas and "Admiral of New England," first sailed into
Massachusetts waters, he came a-fishing, and had such good luck that he
returned to England with a fare of forty thousand cod,—whereupon he told
the usual "fish story," for he declared he had caught sixty
The fame of those fishing grounds spread so quickly
that soon after, as Captain Smith himself records, "thirty or forty
sail went yearly into those waters to trade and fish."
For generations the codfishery of the New England
waters had been known to the hardy sea folk of western Europe. It was the
codfishery of the Massachusetts bays and banks that drew the attention and
determined the settlement of the Pilgrims of Plymouth; it was the
fishermen of Cape Ann who saved those same Plymouth Pilgrims from
starvation; and the monopoly of the codfishery of Massachusetts was the
object of the English syndicate from which grew the Massachusetts Company
and the settlement of Boston.
Within ten years after the beginnings of Boston her
merchants were sending across the sea to England
annually three hundred thousand dried
codfish; and so prominent a factor was the codfish in the growth and
development of early Massachusetts that, in the year 1639,
the General Court exempted from taxation "all
estates" engaged in the fish business, and excused from militia
duty all fishermen and shipbuilders.
The fishing fleets of Gloucester and Salem and
Marblehead, of Boston and Barnstable and Falmouth, laid the basis for
the money-making commerce of Massachusetts, while, at the beginning of
the Revolution, Nantucket alone had a fishing fleet of one hundred and
fifty sail, with twenty-five hundred seamen, and contributed each year
to the wealth of Massachusetts eight hundred thousand dollars.
From all this it is easy to understand why the
fisheries were called the "gold mines of Massachusetts.’ And as
men will risk all for that which brings them their living and their
profit, it was for their fishing rights and their fishing trade that the
men of Massachusetts were ever ready to struggle in politics, or, if
need be, to fight in war.
It was the fishing rights of Massachusetts that very
nearly wrecked the treaty of peace with Great Britain; and only the
stubborn persistence of Samuel Adams at home and the set determination
of John Adams abroad saved the fisheries of Massachusetts from sacrifice
by the other States in Congress, or from destruction by the treatymakers
at Paris. In any battle for right Sam Adams and John, his cousin, could
always be found in the van.
In those same revolutionary days there lived in
Boston an enterprising merchant and shipowner whose name
was John Rowe. His memory lives in" Rowe’s
Wharf," familiar to all eastern Massachusetts as one of Boston’s
landmarks; but his memory deserves to live as that of one who proved
himself, so we are assured,
"as true a friend to his country as any whose
names have reached a greater renown."
He was part owner in one of the objectionable ships
upon which was brought to Boston the taxed tea that raised such a
tempest. But in a fight for principle no thought of personal gain or
loss moved John Rowe.
He made a speech in the Old South Meetinghouse, when
all Boston went wild with excitement, one memorable December day in the
year 1773. Seven
thousand men were in and about that historic meetinghouse, clamoring
against tea and taxes, while Sam Adams exhorted them to stand firm but
And in his" Old
South" speech John Rowe said significantly: "Who knows how tea
will mix with salt water?"
There was great applause. Many of his hearers caught
the hint; they knew what he meant, and at six o’clock in
the evening of that sixteenth day of December,
1773 certain " Sons
of Liberty," thinly disguised as Mohawks, rushed down to Griffin’s
Wharf, and tossed overboard from the ships the hated tea, quickly answering
John Rowe’s bold question, though at his own
expense. But for this loss he cared not. The story has it
that he himself was one of the "
Indians," but this is not certain. At any
rate, his loss was liberty’s gain. That tea, at least, was so well
salted that its memory is preserved for all time.
How the fishermen of Massachusetts proved themselves on
the battlefields of the Revolution you have read in the story of John
Glover and his men. Their training for this test of courage was
undisputed. Even in the Parliament of England, that great orator Edmund
Burke, seeking to prevent war with the colonies, had pictured the
hardihood and bravery of the fishermen of Massachusetts.
"No sea," he said, "but is vexed with
their fisheries, no climate that is not witness to their toils. Neither
the perseverance of Holland, nor the activity of France, nor the
dexterous and firm sagacity of English enterprise ever carried this most
perilous mode of hardy industry to the extent to which it has been
this recent people,—a people who are still, as it
were, but in the gristle, and not yet hardened into the bone of
They were to "harden into the bone of
manhood" by the sacrifice of revolution and the harsh shock of war.
We know now how the fishermen and farmers of Massachusetts precipitated
the Revolution on the fields of Middlesex and at the battle of Bunker
And when victory at last came, when the independence
of America was won, and, in the
year 1784, across the seas in Paris, brave John Adams, in the teeth of
British opposition and French indifference, saved the fisheries of
Massachusetts for the people of Massachusetts, to whom they meant so
much,—then it was that John Rowe rose in his place in the Great and
General Court, of which he was a member, and moved that" leave
might be given to hang up the representation of a codfish in the room
where the House sits, as a memorial of the importance of the codfishery
to the welfare of the commonwealth;" and "leave" was
Then Captain John Welch, of the Ancient and Honorable
Artillery, carved out of a solid block of wood a great codfish, four
feet and eleven inches long,— big enough even to satisfy Captain John
Smith’s fish stories. And when it was painted it was duly suspended in
the representatives’ chamber in the Statehouse at the head of State
Street, and John Rowe paid the bill.
So the codfish came to the Statehouse of
Massachusetts, and in the Statehouse it has staid to this day, suspended
either above or facing the Speaker’s chair.
in 1798, the Great and
General Court removed from the old Statehouse on State Street to the new
Statehouse on Beacon Hill, the codfish went too.
And when, after ninety-seven years, the demand came for more room, and
the representatives moved into a stately apartment in the enlarged and
renovated Statehouse, the codfish, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes, was
to the new chamber, where it hangs in
an honored place opposite the Speaker’s chair and between the
emblazoned names of Massachusetts’s greatest historians,— Motley and
Humble and homely though it may be, that simple,
democratic codfish is an emblem of Massachusetts bravery, endurance, and
skill. Nothing about the grand
Statehouse on the hill is more interesting, nothing
is more suggestive.
"It tells," so said the grandson of that
stout-hearted John Adams who won the victory of the codfish in the court
of France, "of commerce, war, diplomacy,—of victories won by
Massachusetts in all three fields. It symbolizes the sources of our
original wealth, the nursery of those mariners who manned the gun decks
of Our frigates, our issues and struggles with England."
Into the second of these struggles with England did
the "followers of the codfish" sail to victory in the War of
To that leaderless war with Great Britain
Massachusetts was determinedly opposed. It meant destruction of her
commerce, stagnation of her industries, privation for her people. The
fisheries were abandoned; the farmers and mechanics felt the tightening
pressure of the cruel embargo that closed their ports and held their
ships rotting at their wharfs. Massachusetts cried out bitterly, and
some hot-heads would have turned protest into secession; but the wisdom
of leaders and the common sense of the people prevailed, and
Massachusetts remained loyal and patriotic, though stricken and
But in that war Massachusetts, despite
her disapproval, bore a noble part. Her sons were in many a land battle;
her sailors were in every sea fight; her privateers wrought woe and
destruction on the foe. The port of Salem alone sent out forty of these
wasps of the ocean to sting and wound.
From the port of Boston sailed the glorious Consti
Ironsides "—to her victory over
the Guerriere. From Boston, too, sailed the brave Lawrence in the
Chesapeake, to an honorable defeat and a
glorious death almost within sight of Boston; and though the harbor was
blockaded by British cruisers, yet American vessels, manned by American
blue-jackets, passed in and out, in open defiance of the foe. From
Massachusetts ports frigates and sloops of war, brigs and privateers,
went bowling out, to display that prowess on the seas which has ever
been the chief glory of the otherwise disastrous War of 1812.
For these victories the knights of the cod line and
the trawl have the highest honor; and as a reminder of their
dauntless courage and glorious achievements, still in its place in the
Statehouse on the hill swings the monster codfish, emblem of the
bravery, patriotism, persistence, sacrifice, energy, and skill of the
fishermen of Massachusetts.