Friday, September 30, 2011

The Ropewalks of Boston

   In early March 1770, the city of Boston seethed with frustration, anger, and resentment at the manner in which the British Government had treated it through seventeen months of military occupation and a decade of economic hardships. The Bostonians view of themselves as British citizens equal to the citizens of the motherland was being shattered as they came to realize that the British authorities saw them as subordinates rather than as equal members of the empire. The colony's acting governor and his allies fretted that power had shifted to the Whigs and, as they saw it, their mobs. Isolated, these commissioners feared, with good reason, for their personal safety and property, but were still eager to zealously prosecute infractions of the onerous trade laws imposed on the colonists, no matter how trivial. In the midst of this cauldron, were approximately 2,000 British troops quartered in the midst of the townspeople. But often overlooked is that the British troops were accompanied by wives, children and the "hangers-on" that accompanied any mid eighteenth century European army. Add to this the officers and crews of the British naval ships that were constantly in and out of Boston harbor and you have an overwhelming British presence in a city of 15,500. Historians have calculated that, at this time, one-third of the male population of Boston were soldiers.
   The British military presence was not a discreet one. Redcoats, on and off-duty, were everywhere; in the streets, in the taverns and coffee house, in the shops, at various checkpoints, and on the Common, day and night. This in a Boston very much different from the Boston of today. A person, walking briskly, could see all of 1770's Boston in about an hour.

   The events that would lead to and trigger the event  that occurred on Monday, March 5th, 1770 and known today as "The Boston Massacre" started on Friday, March 2nd, 1770 at a ropewalk in Boston's South End. John Gray owned a ropewalk which consisted of a ropewalk, a warehouse, a residence and several buildings, located a few hundred yards from a British barracks. Gray employed a regular crew of journeymen and apprentices but often hired temporary workers as well. That morning a British soldier ambled by the ropeworks and a journeymen shouted to him asking him if he wanted to work. The poorly paid British soldiers were always trying to supplement their incomes with off duty work and the Boston ropeworks provided  a splendid opportunity. This particular British soldier from the 29th Regiment, however, was being setup. When the soldier eagerly answered yes, the journeyman responded gleefully - "Then go and clean my shithouse!" The soldier, humiliated and furious, answered that he would "seek satisfaction" and that he was not afraid of any rope worker. While the soldier tried to restore his dignity, a day worker at the ropeworks stealthily approached the soldier and pulled his feet out from under him. As the soldier fell, his coat flew open, revealing an unsheathed cutlass. Another ropeworker spotted the cutlass, grabbed it, and took it inside. Without his weapon and badly outnumbered, the soldier retreated.
   Twenty minutes later, the soldier returned with eight or nine of his fellow soldiers armed with clubs. The group entered Gray's warehouse and challenged the three or four men there to explain the treatment received by their fellow soldier. Recognizing that these soldiers would not be mollified with soothing words, the besieged warehouse men called for help. Approximately 15 workers responded to this plea and the assembled force drove off the soldiers. Undaunted, the soldiers of the 29th rallied 30 or 40 more soldiers and, armed with clubs and cutlasses, they set off for revenge. An elderly justice of the peace saw what was about to happen and attempted to intervene. The soldiers paid him absolutely no attention  but when the soldiers knocked down a ropeworker and began to beat him with their clubs, the justice of the peace started to intervene, only narrowly escaping a blow himself. Although outnumbered they may have been, the ropeworkers manged to fend off the soldiers who then retreated to their barracks. Both sides, however, swore to continue the battle over the weekend.
   Over the weekend there was at least one other minor skirmish and numerous rumors of an impending fight between soldiers and ropeworkers; one that threatened to escalate into wide spread violence. As three apprentices were spinning at McNeil's ropewalk, located right next to Gray's establishment, late Saturday afternoon, three grenadiers carrying bludgeons accosted them. "You damned dogs," they cried,"don't you deserve to be killed? Are you fit to die?" The apprentices caught unawares and unarmed, remained silent. A passerby, overhearing what was said, approached one of the grenadiers and taunted him by saying, "Damn it, I know what a soldier is." That prompted the grenadier to swing his club at the passerby and then at one of the apprentices. A nearby journeyman went to a tan house and brought out two bats. With the help of another bystander, he chased the soldiers from the site.
This  cutout from the above map clearly shows the location of "MacNeal's" rope yard.  Gray's was next to it.

   We will end the story here but will note that the town was tense that entire weekend with rumors of impending clashes and small teams of workers and soldiers roaming the streets armed with clubs and other weapons. The town would explode on Monday and lead to the withdrawal of British troops from the streets of Boston.
  But, what is a ropewalk and how important were they to Boston and its industry?

ropewalkers and the 700-900 foot shed where they worked was called a ropewalk. The twisting of the fiber was accomplished by a man who walked backward down the "walk"spinning from the hemp which was strung around his waist. The twist was imparted to the rope by a wheel turned by a boy. These men worked long hours, sheltered from the rain and snow, but not the heat and cold, their clothes impregnated with the smell of tar. By one account, there were fourteen ropewalks in Boston spinning for at least sixty years.
An image from Stark's "Antique Views of Boston" shows a ropewalk running through Beacon Hill.
   The first ropewalk appeared in Boston in 1642, just 12 years after the town was founded, and its first proprietor was a man by the name of John Harrison. Harrison was invited into Boston by the town selectmen after the town started to build bigger ships and it recognized the advantage of making its own rope. In fact, Harrison was enticed to move to Boston from Salisbury by being given a monopoly for 21 years. Harrison managed to extend that monopoly well beyond the 21 years and it lasted until his death. After his death, the number of ropewalks in Boston grew exponentially. It's difficult to state precisely how many ropewalks were actively in business in Boston in the 1770s, fire being a real hazard to them as we shall see shortly, but this 1722 map of Boston shows ropewalks located in both the north and south ends of Boston. The location of the Gray ropewalks shows several ropewalks in this location in 1722 and, as best as I can determine, there probably were seven of them at this location at the time of the revolution.
Bonner's 1722 map of Boston. Ropewalk locations are in red.
   Before we go further, it should be noted that these ropewalks were supported by a number of New England farms as far west as the Connecticut River valley grew the hemp (non-THC strain) that was used to make the ropes. A large quantity of hemp was also imported.
   Ropewalks were built on the edge of Boston until the last days of the eighteenth century. The barren slopes located there were perfect locations not only as sites for the unusually long and narrow sheds, but also because rope making was a highly combustible (In 1794 seven ropewalks burned down in Boston) and smelly operation that no one wanted for a neighbor. After the coils of rope were spun they were dipped in heated tar as a preservative against seawater rot. These tar kettles created quite a stench and could make the air virtually unbreathable on a hot day. Even worse were the fires that started when sparks from the kettle fire lit the dry supplies of hemp. And fires were an enormous threat in colonial Boston.
   Rope walking continued well after the revolution and the Charlestown Naval Yard has preserved an example of a 19th century ropewalk on its grounds.



  1. Thank you for this. Very informative.

  2. Thank very much!
    I am from Bilbao in the Basque Country (in the north of Spain) I have been looking for the meaning of the word "ropewalks" but it is not in nowdays' dictionaries. In fact, I wanted to know that word because your second president, John Adams, mentions it in a visit that he paid to Bilbao in January 1780 (when he was not president yet) He says "...Went to see a new packet of the King's on the stocks, and his new ropewalks, which are two hundred and ten fathoms long.
    Javier Ibarra