Chapter 10 Introduction Chapter 12
Pre-Revolutionary Ropemaking in the American Colonies

11. Life as a Ropemaker

The ropemakers lived in stone huts inside the cave entrance.
Journal of a Sabbatical Year in Warwickshire
Rob Hardy 2006[365]


Ropemaker's Place in Society

Ropemaking has never been a glamourous occupation. The quote at the top of the page isn't talking about pre-historic ropemakers, but people working and living in England, into the 1900s.

At the Colonial ropewalk, there was a distinct hierarchy. If you were the owner of the ropewalk, the chances are you weren't directly involved in making rope. You hired people to do that. The owners often had several other businesses going at the same time. One of which might include renting lodging to the wage earning employees. The ropewalk owners were in the top one percent economically. [273]

This advertisement in the Virginia Gazette, from 1777, gives an idea of the next two steps down the economic ladder.

"The new Ropery now erecting at this Place by Archibald Cary & Co. is in immediate Want of a Manager who perfectly understands the conducting and managing that Branch of Business, also two or three good Spinners, to whom extraordinary Wages will be given, and proper Dwelling Houses provided for them convenient to their Work. The Company proposes that the Manager shall be (if he chooses) interested in one Share, and the Money advanced him clear of Interest, until he finds it convenient to repay it, also to furnish him with a complete Dwelling-House, with all other convenient Outhouses, Garden, and Pasturage, Rent free, either for a single Man or Family, Provisions for the same, at the expense of the Company." [881]

The "spinners" were the men who added the new fibers to the ever lengthening yarn while walking backwards. They were the most skilled workers.

Below the spinners came everyone else. These were the people who worked the tar pots, cleaned the hemp, and turned the cranks.

The King's soldiers quartered in Boston in 1770, were allowed to seek day work to augment their pay. A favorite place to pick up short term work was as an unskilled day laborer at the ropewalks. The regular workers objected to the soldiers taking work away from them, often for reduced wages. This accounts for some of the animosity between the soldiers and ropemakers in the days leading up to the Boston Massacre. [063] [100]

But not all workers in Colonial Virginia worked for wages. There were actually four different groups of laborers.

Free Laborers

Free laborers were people without any constraints on their work or mobility. This is what we consider normal today. This is the only class of ropemakers that earned a wage. "In addition to money wages, the employment contract often included food and rum, particularly in out-of-doors trades." [618] This provided food was called "found" or "diet" in the labor records. It isn't clear how "found" applied to ropemakers with families. There was discussion, and ordinances on whether workers should be offered or allowed wine and spirits as part of their "found", or if it should be prohibited, as leading to a degenerate life.

Labor in the cities was in short supply, and men willing to work with their hands could demand reasonable pay. A man could live with a small degree of comfort on a ropemaker's wage. Comfort being a very subjective term. In Boston, in the Winter time, the ink in rich people's houses would often freeze. A married couple could squeak by. A large family would have a hard time living off of a laborer's pay.

Before the Revolution, and for a long while after, most people did not live in cities. The ideal was to have a piece of land to call your own, raise your family and your food, and not be subjected to the rules of an employer. At the lower end of the pay scale, the laborers were trying to earn enough money to escape the city.

But paying wages for workers wasn't the only option for business owners.

Slave Labor

The use of enslaved labor varied by colony, date, and the size of the ropewalk. [910] The situation could often change rapidly. Georgia, in 1735, under James Oglethorpe, banned slavery. But it was legalized again in 1751.

Slavery was legal and not-uncommon in Massachusetts from the mid-1600s until it finally died out after the Revolutionary War.

In Virginia,

"By 1705, and the passage of 'An act concerning Servants and Slaves', slavery had become ensconced at all levels of Virginia society..." [915]

But owning slaves was a long term investment. Slaves were fed, clothed, and housed, from birth through childhood, into the productive adult years, and then through infirmity, old age, until death. While farming offered kinds of work that could be done by different aged workers, a ropewalk was mostly vigorous work, less suitable for the very young or very old. [605]

Wage earners were not happy to compete with slave labor.

"Throughout the colonies white mechanics joined forces to protest against black competition, but the problem seems to have been especially critical in Charleston, South Carolina. There, in 1744, the shipwrights complained that they were reduced to poverty owing to black competition. Their protest, supported by white mechanics in other trades, persuaded the town authorities to enact an ordinance forbidding the inhabitants from keeping more than two slaves "to work out for hire as porters, labourers, fishermen or handicraftsmen." This resentment on the part of white mechanics was also evident in most Northern towns." [618]

One ropewalk in Fredericksburg, Virginia, wanted to borrow the labor of slaves for six months, in exchange for teaching the enslaved workers the valuable skills of ropemaking and flax processing. [135]

Indentured Labor

An indentured servant agreed to work for a master, for a fixed period of time, in exchange for transport from the bleak living conditions in Europe, to the well advertised opportunities in the Colonies. Five to seven years' service was about average term of the contracts. During that time, the master fed, clothed, and housed the servant. The servant was not allowed to leave the master, marry, or conduct his own business during the term of the indenture.

At the end of the indenture, the master was obligated, by the terms of the contract, to give the servant severance fees, usually including a new set of clothes, a gun, a hoe, and a certain amount of money or food. Sometimes a Bible.

In many cases, like at a ropewalk, an indenture could be bought, and the master only had to feed, clothe, and house the servant during their prime working years. Unlike slavery, the owner of an indenture was only contracting for the prime labor years of the worker.

Another incentive for importing indentured servants was the "headright". In Maryland and Virginia, anyone who paid for the transportation of an indentured servant from Europe was entitled to petition the government for fifty acres of land. [854] [915] The headright system was in place from 1618, right through to the Revolutionary War. "It has been estimated that the redemptioners comprised almost eighty per cent of the total British and continental immigration to America down to the coming of the Revolution." [618] Each indenture could represent 50 acres of land. Sometimes the ship's captain who transported the servant, and the purchaser of the indenture both claimed the headright, for the same person. The masters used the headright to acquire the good land near the rivers and ports, so the indentured servants, at the completion of their contract, had to go further and further west to find unclaimed land for their own farms.

Convict Labor

England started sending convicts to the new colonies as early as 1615. [740] [264] This was unpopular from the beginning, and continued to be a matter of contention up to the Revolutionary War. [854] In 1751, Benjamin Franklin wrote his famous letter suggesting the colonies "gift" England with ships filled with rattlesnakes as a fair trade for transported felons. [279]

By law, crimes punishable by death received a fourteen year indenture, those convicted of less serious crimes were only sentenced to seven years. [618] An estimated 10,000 convicts were sent just from Old Bailey in the sixty years before 1775.

"Convict laborers could be purchased for a lower price than indentured white or enslaved African laborers, and because they already existed outside society's rules, they could be more easily exploited." [740]


Along the coast, at the port cities, work was to be had at the ropewalks. A ropewalk would employ between five and two dozen men. There is some evidence that women performed some spinning in a few English ropewalks, but that does not seem to have been the case in the Colonies. With industrialization, many old customs changed.

City ropewalks produced "white", un-tarred, ropes in addition to those used for ships. As these were intended for domestic, household, and farm use, they did not have to be anywhere near as long as the tarred ropes for ships. This meant the ropewalk could be smaller, the equipment smaller, and the workforce could be smaller. City dwellers seldom had direct access to raw rope materials, and did not need to make their own rope.


People in the countryside had different rope needs, and different supplies. Richard Bland Lee's Sully, now across a busy highway from Dulles International Airport, is only 30 miles from what used to be the busy port of Alexandria, Virginia. Thirty miles was a long day's journey, one way. Richard and Elizabeth were good friends of James and Dolly Madison, and knew George and Martha Washington through family ties. [282] While Richard and his family would not be making rope around the fireside, their slaves and tenant farmers would.

But the Lees weren't your typical independent farmer. The ordinary settler, free of his indenture, with a gun, an ax, and a hoe, would start his farm even further from the major cities than Richard Bland Lee, and his labor force was his household. Colonial farms were more independent and isolated than those in England and Scotland. Although a farmer may have participated in community ropemaking back home, in the Colonies, he was on his own until the next trip to the nearest trading town.

Away from the cities and major trading towns, there wasn't enough business to support a full time ropemaker. Just like every farm did their own carpentry, butchering, cooking, sewing, etc. they also had to make their own rope.

The itinerant peddlers who supplied pins, scissors, tinware, ribbons, etc., dealt with small, light, items of value. [218] Finished rope is heavy. One hundred feet of quarter inch rope weighs just over two pounds. One hundred feet of two inch diameter rope weighs over one hundred pounds. Carrying the wide range of rope sizes that might be needed is totally impractical. Moving just one rope became a famous incident of the War of 1812, the "Great Rope Carry".[064] [293] But a travelling ropemaker could provide expertise and use of specialized tools for barter. A ropemaker might be a farmer for most of the year, only coming out to practice his "trade" at nearby fairs, where he could make custom ropes to order, and other rope based items.


Ropemaking in Literature


Chapter 10 Introduction Chapter 12
Colophon Contacts