Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Leading Early American Scholarship Since 1943


Unless otherwise indicated, all OI books are published and distributed by The University of North Carolina Press.

Farmers and Fishermen

Two Centuries of Work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630–1850

Daniel Vickers

Paper: 978-0-8078-4458-8 ($28.95)

Copyright 1994
University of North Carolina Press

A Prize-Winning Book

  • Louis Gottschalk Prize, American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (1994-95)
  • John H. Dunning Prize, American Historical Association (1995)


Daniel Vickers examines the shifting labor strategies used by colonists as New England evolved from a string of frontier settlements to a mature society on the brink of industrialization. Lacking a means to purchase slaves or hire help, seventeenth-century settlers adapted the labor systems of Europe to cope with the shortages of capital and workers they encountered on the edge of the wilderness. As their world developed, changes in labor arrangements paved the way for the economic transformations of the nineteenth century. By reconstructing the work experiences of thousands of farmers and fishermen in eastern Massachusetts, Vickers identifies who worked for whom and under what terms. Seventeenth-century farmers, for example, maintained patriarchal control over their sons largely to assure themselves of a labor force. The first generation of fish merchants relied on a system of clientage that bound poor fishermen to deliver their hauls in exchange for goods. Toward the end of the colonial period, land scarcity forced farmers and fishermen to search for ways to support themselves through wage employment and home manufacture. Out of these adjustments, says Vickers, emerged a labor market sufficient for industrialization.

About the Author

Daniel Vickers is currently Chair of the Maritime Studies Research Unit at Memorial University of Newfoundland.


Rich in detail, convincing in argument, and broad in its implications, Farmers and Fishermen is at once a superb study of the capitalist transformation of the fishing industry and an important addition to the existing literature on the farm economy of New England. Vickers’s coherent analysis of two centuries of economic development will immediately become the point of departure for subsequent scholarship. An impressive achievement!”

--James A. Henretta

Farmers and Fishermen is an extraordinary account of ‘Adam’s curse’ in New England—how Puritans worked, by land and by sea, how they built a new society by the sweat of their collective brow. Had Max Weber read it, he would have thought differently about the Protestant work ethic. But this is not the only triumph of the book; Daniel Vickers has here explained the deepest inner workings of New England society. He has also given the greatest form of early American history, the community study, a new sophistication and a new originality.

--Marcus Rediker

Meticulously researched, cogently argued, and beautifully written, this is—quite simply—the best study available on patterns of work and economic development in early New England.

--Stephen Innes

Provides insight into the working relationships of individuals, as well as to the broader pattern of transformation of labor into capitalism. This well-written book is an important contribution to the new labor history of America.

--Journal of the Early Republic

Farmers and Fishermen is an original and significant addition to the literature on economic development in Puritan New England. . . . At the core of this study is a deep and illuminating understanding of Puritan accomplishment and struggle, and how those struggles shaped New England, sometimes ironically, into a re-creation of so much of the world the Puritans left behind during the Great Migration.

--Technology and Culture

One of the best works yet written on early American economy and society. Its intelligence and sophistication is matched by its clarity and accessibility. . . . It deserves to be read by all historians of early America, and it sets a very high standard for future studies of this kind to match.

--Reviews in American History

Vickers's depiction of the working life of farmers and fishermen makes this book an especially valuable contribution to labor history, providing an excellent analysis of the experience of common people in an era of capitalist transformation.

--Journal of Interdisciplinary History

An incisive study of changing dynamics in the social relations of colonial New Englanders.

--New England Quarterly

Making effective use of narrative and statistical evidence, Vickers skillfully traces the evolution of farming and fishing in Essex County, Massachusetts, from 1630 to 1850. . . . A first-rate work.


A splendid book. . . . A superior work of historical scholarship.

--William and Mary Quarterly