NATURE by Kezia Bacon, Correspondent
On June 18, 1812, US President James Madison declared war against the United Kingdom. Trade conflicts had heated up, due to the Napoleonic Wars and the UK’s attempt to block the US from trading with France. Impressment of Americans into the British Navy was also a serious concern. “Press gangs” would search American ships and seaport taverns to find men who were unable to prove their citizenship. From 1803 to 1812, such schemes forced or coerced about 10,000 men into the British Navy.
The first major naval battle of the war took place on August 9, 1812, when the USS Constitution defeated the British ship HMS Guerrierre off the coast of Nova Scotia. The Constitution earned its nickname “Old Ironsides” that day – cannonballs fired at it seemed to bounce away without causing damage.
In the early days of the war, Britain had focused its martial efforts in places other than Massachusetts, perhaps hoping that ambivalent New Englanders would eventually throw their support its way. By the spring of 1813, things had changed. The British established a blockade along the Massachusetts shoreline, and threatened to destroy coastal towns. Many communities were attacked. On Cape Cod, some towns paid extortion fees to avoid invasion.
On June 1, 1813, the British blockade was very much in place off the coast of the South Shore. Meanwhile a more personal marine enterprise was on the minds of three local boys – Perez Hatch and Thomas Mitchell of Marshfield’s “Two Mile,” and Thomas Stetson, from across the river in present-day Norwell. With the help of an elder Hatch, the three boys, ages 12-14, had constructed a sturdy boat. Employing a team of oxen, they hauled the vessel to the water’s edge, and launched it on the North River.
They had planned an all-day excursion, intending to fish until their boat was full. After rowing several miles downstream to the mouth of the river – remember, the mouth back then was at the southern end of Humarock– they continued up the coast to Scituate.
A heavy fog set in as they arrived at a favorite spot. They proceeded to fish for cod, and hours later when their boat was full, they prepared to turn toward home. It was then that the fog began to lift. Imagine the boys’ astonishment when they observed the British HMS Shannon only a few hundred yards away!
This was frightening to behold. If the boys were spotted, they might be subject to impressment, as had been the case for their neighbor Hatch Oakman and other local fishermen. Some not much older than them had been forced to serve in the British Navy.
They rowed away quickly, hoping not to be noticed, and continued even when they heard someone bellow “Heave to!” Escape remained their priority until a shot rang out over their heads. Terrified, they decided it would be best to pull up alongside the Shannon. Beckoned aboard, they presented themselves to Captain Brock, and were relieved when he received them kindly, asking them questions about their families and what they were carrying in their boat.
When the boys responded, “Fish,” Brock ordered that it be brought up and laid on the deck. Brock offered to pay the boys for their catch. They demurred, insisting that he take it for nothing. But Brock handed each boy a shilling.
Before departing, the teenagers warned the Brock that Captain Lawrence and the USS Chesapeake would be arriving soon from Boston. The British captain knew this already. He had invited Lawrence, by letter, to battle that day. Soon after, they spotted a ship coming down the coast. As the men on the Shannon prepared to fight, Brock advised the boys to clear out. They did, and from a distance they witnessed the battle between the two ships.
The Chesapeake and its inexperienced crew were no match for the better-equipped Shannon. Eighty men were killed in the battle, and 252 wounded. The British captured the Chesapeake and piloted it to Halifax, Nova Scotia, imprisoning all on board.
The war continued for another year and a half, spreading north to Canada, west to the Great Lakes, and south to Louisiana. There were significant victories on both sides, and significant losses. In the end, frustrated by the prolonged disruption of trade and increased taxation, both nations wanted out. The war officially ended in stalemate, with no boundaries changed, on February 17, 1815.
What had changed was how Americans obtained everyday goods. An industrial revolution had begun. The long-term blockade turned the nation away from sea trade to more home-grown sources. There were already mills to cut timber and grind grain, but after the War of 1812, domestic milling and manufacturing grew exponentially. Pretty much every stream with sufficient power became home to a mill and a dam.
Well before the war, Perez Hatch’s family had established a grist mill in Marshfield on Two Mile Brook, a tributary to the North River. They would soon build three other mills on the same stream – saw, satinet/coffin and boxboard. There were similar efforts all over the South Shore. Nails and tacks were forged. Carding and fulling mills processed fiber into cloth. Wood was sliced into shingles and boxboard. Agriculture had already transformed the local landscape from forest to field. Now rivers and streams would change as well, with dams creating ponds, altering the course of the water’s flow, and preventing native fish like river herring from migrating up and downstream. But that’s a topic for another day.
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to protecting our waters. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 20 years of nature columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com