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Fishhooks Mulford Goes to London

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 13:46

Item of the Week from the East Hampton Library Long Island Collection

The manuscript seen here is the draft of a response Samuel (Fishhooks) Mulford wrote in his ongoing fight with Brig. Gen. Robert Hunter, the colonial governor of New York, on Jan. 20, 1717/18. (The use of the two years reflects the Gregorian calendar change discussed in an Item of the Week earlier this year.)

Samuel Mulford was an early whaler, fisherman, militia captain, and member of the New York General Assembly who objected to Governor Hunter’s fishing licenses and 1711 whale oil tax. Mulford fought with local authorities, refusing to pay the tax, and in 1716, at the age of 70, traveled to London to present his case to Parliament and the king.

His crafty effort to deter London’s pickpockets by sewing fishhooks into his pockets during his trip led to his famous nickname. While the success of his MacGyvered security system is frequently credited with getting Parliament to read his grievances, historians aren’t sure that’s true.

His argument proved persuasive, however, and within a year the whale oil tax and fishing licenses were repealed, much to the outrage of Governor Hunter. In 1717, Hunter sent a letter to the British government calling Mulford a “crazed man” who didn’t deserve attention.

In this draft, Mulford embraces Hunter’s “crazed man” description, arguing that the “oppressions and unjust measures” of the governor may cause “thousands . . . to be as crazed as I am.”

Mulford then offers a brief history of whaling on Long Island, going back to the period when Connecticut still governed here. Mulford’s historical account describes “whal[e]s killed by Indians in my employ,” who were probably Montauk or Shinnecock people. Mulford’s account chronicles 50 years of the colonists’ shore-based whaling expeditions, which relied on small boats launched from beaches near their properties.

Mulford and Hunter continued their quarrel for the next several years, with Hunter expelling him from the New York General Assembly twice, before Mulford retired from political life in 1720 at age 75.

Andrea Meyer is a librarian and archivist in the Long Island Collection at the East Hampton Library.


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