The period 1814-1860 was the climactic age of sail, an epoch in which American square riggers scoured the world in pursuit of trade and established a reputation for being the swiftest and loveliest vessels afloat. The great opportunities which opened up for the merchant marine during this period were a direct result of the Revolution, which had freed United States commerce from the straitjacket of British domination and laid the globe itself open to American searfaring enterprise. Northerners were not slow to exploit this opportunity. British mercantile policy had fostered the shipbuilding industry in colonial days; a hardy race of skilled seamen, whalermen, and shipbuilders had developed as a result of dozens of harbors sprung up along the navigable rivers and coasts of New England and New York.
Young people, in the age of the square rigger, were lured to sea by the glittering image of adventure and romance which it presented. Here is the testimony of Richard Henry Dana, a Harvard student who served as an ordinary seaman on the merchant ships Pilgrim and Alert in the years 1834-1836 and recorded his experiences in the classic Two Years before the Mast:
There is a witchery in the sea, its songs and stories, and in the mere sight of a ship, and the sailor's dress, especially to a young mind, which has done more to man navies, and fill merchantmen, than all the press‐ gangs of Europe. I have known a young man with such passion for the sea that the very creaking of a block stirred up his imagination so that he could hardly keep his feet on dry ground; and many are the boys, in every seaport, who are drawn away, as by an almost irresistible attraction, from their work and schools, and hang about the decks and yards of vessels, with a fondness which, it is plain, will have its way.
But the beauty of sail, the grace of a ship's motion, and the boundless expanse of sea and stars and sky—all this was a painted veil. Beyond it lay agonies of toil and heartbreak. "No sooner," continued Dana, "has the young sailor begun his life in earnest, then all this fine drapery falls off, and he learns that it is but work and hardship, after all. This is the true light in which a sailor's life is to be viewed." *____________________