George Washington's Fishery
By Mark Mancini
When we think of America’s first president, quarters, cherry trees, and false teeth often come to mind. But fishing?
Washington was, by all accounts, an accomplished and enthusiastic fisherman throughout most of his life (go here to see one of his original tackle boxes). As president, he’d often set sail and enjoy an afternoon of deep-sea fishing as he traveled about the new nation and even convinced notorious cabinet rivals Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton to accompany him on one such trip to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
More than a mere hobbyist, however, Washington transformed part of his Mount Vernon home into a highly-profitable fishery. The neighboring banks of the Potomac River, he wrote in 1793, were “well-stocked with various kinds of fish in all seasons of the year, and in the Spring with shad, herring, bass, carp, perch, sturgeon, etc., in great abundance.”
Stationed on a section of the river dubbed “Posey’s landing,” the establishment processed nearly a million herring annually. In fact, Mount Vernon’s fishery usually yielded far more profits than the various crops (such as corn and wheat) raised there.
Originally intended to feed the plantation’s slaves, Washington eventually recognized an enviable business opportunity and began shipping barrels of salted fish to the West Indies, recruiting a small fleet of ships, including a schooner and whale boat, for the cause. By all accounts, the Mount Vernon brand quickly acquired a reputation for excellence worldwide.
Intriguingly, however, the business even helped to fuel Washington’s growing anti-British sentiments before the revolution. Imperial mercantile policies forbade him from importing fish-curing salt from Lisbon, leaving him no choice but to purchase inferior salts from Liverpool. During the war, he often drew upon his extensive connections with fishermen throughout the colonies to provide food for the starving troops. Unfortunately, in the words of historians William J. Mares and Bill Mares, “the record shows that the troops responded to fish with as much enthusiasm as George Bush would greet broccoli. They held out for beef, which eventually came.”