American Shipwright History

American Shipwright History

Shipwrights have played a critical role in the economic and political development of early America. From the arrival of the first colonists to the formation of the new nation, America relied on the sea for subsistence, transportation, commerce, and communication. The necessity of maritime travel demanded a strong shipbuilding and shipwright tradition.


In the early seventeenth century Shipwrights were sponsored to America from England to build ships, for the colonists. The vessels of the early seventeenth century were small fishing and costal vessels, and few larger ships were built for transatlantic crossings to Britain and Europe.


The Revolutionary War forced major changes in the American shipbuilding industry, the British blockades and the dangers of war brought shipping to a near standstill due to the British Navigation Acts. American ships were excluded from legal shipping of goods by British merchants. To assist the ailing shipbuilding industry, the new American government implemented regulations, including tax breaks, that favored American-built ships. Trade resumed between the two nations and reached an all-time high in 1807.


From the colonial period to the early nineteenth century, shipbuilders-built vessels mainly by contract. A colonial merchant chose a master shipwright they agreed on design, length and type of the vessel then signed a contract to proceed. Payment was usually made in process installments. To amass the total capital needed for the construction of a new vessel, investors purchased shares ranging from one-half to one sixty-fourth of the vessel's cost.

The master shipwright would plan the vessel's design, materials and construction schedule based the merchants’ contract. A variety of tradesmen were hired during the construction period of the vessel, including additional shipwrights, joiners, caulkers, painters, sawyers, carvers, and plumbers. For the most part, these tradesmen worked as "freelance" journeyman for various shipyards in the area.

In some cases, free blacks and slaves where trained and worked in various roles during the vessel’s construction period, most often working as caulkers. Escaped slaves could later use these skills to earn a living as free men with a much greater degree of equality and pay than most other jobs available to them in the early nineteenth century.
Shipwrights were trained under the apprenticeship / indentured to the shipbuilder usually five to seven years, then becoming a “freelance” shipwright journeyman until finding a permanent position. By 1820, a successful yard completed between two and five oceangoing vessels a year, measuring from two hundred to three hundred tons each.


Until the mid-nineteenth century, forests were the basis of sea power in all military and commercial aspects, each nation strove to maintain its independence by protecting timber supply routes that often extended over great distances.

The British encouraged shipbuilding in the American colonies, during the seventeenth century over 1,000 vessels were launched. Boston, Massachusetts was the distribution hub of natural resources that included cedar, maple, white pine, spruce, and oak timber cut in New England.

By the mid seventeenth century shipwrights were beginning to take advantage of oak, mulberry, cedar and laurel in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia. During the seventeenth century iron became increasingly used by shipwrights for bracing, bolts, anchors, and ordinance. The American colonies were able to meet their demand for iron by utilizing their expansive charcoal reserves.

The sale of colonial ships built and available on the British market allowed English merchants to secure cheap tonnage and gave American merchants an important source of income to pay for their imports. All the colonies exported shipping.