Origins of the Project
Between the Fall of 1993 and the close of 1994, the staff of Mystic Seaport carried out a series of interviews and audio recordings in the field with fishermen, members of their families, and others who were associated with the community of Stonington and its fishing fleet. In addition to recording these oral histories, Museum staff also photographed the informants, scenes along the Town Dock, aboard fishing vessels and during special events like the annual Blessing of the Fleet.
The purpose of this effort was to document the Stonington fishing fleet during much of the twentieth century, its vessels, its operation, and most of all its people. The goal of this project is to offer historians, researchers and the general public a collection of materials that can familiarize them with this significant and changing part of the region's history. The value of this collection lies in the character of both its subject matter and its informants. Around the world, fishing communities are under great strain and many of them are disappearing altogether. In the story of Stonington fishing we can see changing perspectives of the generations, the influence of advancing technologies, the interaction of ethnic groups, the state of the fishing industry past and present, and the changing face of a community of people engaged in one of the most ancient of endeavors.
The Stonington Oral History Project
"You could take my two boys, for example... They're individuals, they're proud individuals. And they take great pride in what they do. And they also take great pride in their vessels. It's a heritage. it's a way of life. Good or bad. And we'll be there, we're not going anywhere..."
Since colonial days, Stonington Borough has been tied to fishing. Today it is the home to Connecticut's only commercial fishing fleet. Its people are a repository of information, a unique source of knowledge, wisdom and lore dealing with a way of life that is becoming increasingly unfamiliar to many Americans. Through the Stonington Fishing Oral History Project, Mystic Seaport has preserved a spoken and visual record of this way of life. The collection of interviews with, and photographs of fishermen, members of their families and others associated with the fisheries, documents elements of a vital regional industry, and forms a permanent record of the recalled memory of the region's commercial fishery throughout much of the twentieth century. This could not have been accomplished without the support, good spirit and cooperation of the fishing people of Stonington. Through their experiences we can learn much about the fortunes of America's fishing industries.
The Fleet Yesterday and Today
At the time of the American Revolution most of Stonington Borough's 500 residents made their living principally by the whale and cod fishery. During the century that followed, the community's fame was tied to its whaling and sealing fleets, but commercial fishing continued to be an important part of the town's economy and culture. By the 1890s there were nearly fifty sloops fishing out of Stonington, landing as much as 20,000,000 pounds of fish in a year. The advent of the internal combustion engine in the early 1900s transformed the Stonington fleet, like that of the rest of the nation. Yet the fortunes of Stonington's fishermen continued to fluctuate with the economy and the vagaries of nature. The devastation of the Hurricane of 1938 was followed by the boom years associated with the Second World War. Throughout these decades the very nature of Stonington Borough was closely linked with the fishing industry. Much of the community's economy was dependent on fishing as was the makeup of its populace. As many as half the fishermen and their families were of Portuguese decent and it was common to hear that language spoken on the docks and streets of Stonington. Foreign competition, reductions in fishing stocks, regulations, and other factors have conspired to make the fishing life difficult in more recent years. These factors combined with increased real estate values and the mobility linked to the automobile have resulted in a reduced presence of the fishermen and their families in the Borough. Currently the fishing fleet consists of about 25 vessels, but only a handful of community residents are involved in fishing. Although most of those who work at the fishing dock live in outlying communities the fishing fleet of Stonington remains a vital element of the town's character, both unique and valuable.