“Fish Hook” Mulford: East Hampton Man Protests Whale Oil Tax in UK

Mulford Farm
Mulford Farm

According to historians, the causes of the American Revolution date back to 1764, 11 years before it began, when the British imposed the Sugar Act, the Currency Act and then the Stamp Act on the colonists here. The Crown was determined to increase taxes for the treasury from their prospering colonies, and they felt that the pain inflicted by doing this would be easy for colonial governors to deal with. It wasn’t. Those acts, followed by others, resulted in the Boston Tea Party, in 1773, which was the spark that led the colonies over the edge. Independence was declared in 1776.

But consider the activities of an East Hampton merchant, whaling captain and member of the Provincial Assembly of New York between 1700 and 1720, and decide for yourself when it all began.

His name was Captain Samuel “Fish Hook” Mulford. He was born in 1644 in Southampton, four years after that town was settled by his father and others, then moved with his family in 1648 to East Hampton, where his father, a judge, helped found that town. He was the oldest child of eight, and he grew up to become a whaling boat captain and a captain in the militia. Later, in 1689, he became a justice of the peace of that town and also the town recorder.

Mulford, by many accounts, was intelligent and principled, and determined to the point of stubbornness. An account of him turns up in 1686, when the Governor of the New York colony arranged for several people to be awarded land in East Hampton, essentially circumventing the laws of the town. Mulford, on behalf of the townspeople, wrote and signed a protest, which he nailed to the wall of the meeting house.

Mulford had a whaling company of 24 men in those years. When whales were sighted off the coast, they’d go out in small boats and harpoon them and bring them to shore, then cut them up on the beach and boil the blubber into whale oil to be packed in barrels.

In 1702, Mulford, then 58, bought waterfront land at Northwest Harbor and on it built a wharf and warehouse. This was the first wharf in the Hamptons. Farmers now could ship out their merchandise, including whale oil, to New London or New York or other places.

A little community, now abandoned, thrived in the 1700s in Northwest. It consisted of a school, a mill, a series of farms and homes and the wharf and storehouses. It lasted about 70 years, to a time when Long Wharf was built in Sag Harbor, a bigger wharf with better access to the sea. There are remains of Northwest there today.

In 1705, Mulford, now in his 60s, was elected as one of two men from eastern Long Island to the General Assembly in the New York colony. And it was there, in Manhattan at that time, that Mulford began what for the next 15 years would be a fireworks of rebellion against the English Governor, his toady Assembly (of which he was now a part), and several repressive tax collectors on eastern Long Island, which, ultimately, to everyone’s shock, caused him, as a sitting Assemblyman getting nowhere with the colonial government, to drop everything, take a ship from Boston to London, and once there demand the removal of the taxes by directly appealing to Parliament—which at first considered him an amusing rustic—to the Board of Trade, and to the King of England.

It was while standing outside the gates of the king’s residence, waiting to get an audience with the king with a crowd of others, that Mulford earned his name “Fish Hook.” It was the second day he had been out there. On the first day, someone standing next to him jostled him and picked his pocket. He could not get anyone to do anything about it, though. That night, at his lodgings, he decided to surprise future pickpockets by sewing fishhooks into his pockets. The next morning in front of the gates a man next to him let out a scream. He was, bloody, subsequently arrested, the incident got into the newspapers, and shortly thereafter, legend has it, Mulford got his audience with the king.

The cause of Mulford’s ire was threefold. He felt eastern Long Island was not given its fair share of Assemblymen in that colonial body. He felt they were unfairly taxed compared to other districts. And then, of national importance, he protested the Whale Oil Tax.

Some years earlier, the English Governor of New York Colony had caused his Assembly to pass a Whale Oil Tax. Hunting whales, both the drift whales that came ashore and the whales that became available by swimming too close to shore, had become a major industry. Whale oil lit the lanterns of the homes. (An entry in Fish Hook Mulford’s diary from 1702 reported 13 drift whales ashore that year between East Hampton and Bridgehampton). Now the Crown wanted its cut.

Increasingly restrictive whaling laws were passed over the years, and the last was the worst. In 1696, at the Governor’s order, whales were now to be considered a “royal fish,” and hunting them would require the purchase of an expensive license. Also, every 16th barrel and a similar part of bone had to be given to the Crown in New York City, in person, 100 miles away.

The industry was almost destroyed by this harsh law. Indeed, early on, the laws were hardly enforced by the governor because of their difficulty. But that changed under Governor Hunter.

Mulford actually went to London twice to protest the Whale Oil Tax. Little is known about his first visit, which took place in 1706. But when he returned, enforcement of the tax vanished. Mulford was a hero.

But then when this harsh Governor Robert Hunter arrived, everything changed. And this caused Mulford to take action.

The first thing he did, in April of 1714, was to make a speech before the General Assembly in New York City denouncing the port of New York. The speech was taken down in shorthand and afterwards printed.

Mulford, describing ships, including those bringing whale oil, spoke about ships not only being levied with heavy duties, but that an entire ship would be seized if one article on board was not declared.

“Not any man is fit for Master of a vessel to go to New York except he were a lawyer, and then they should not escape except it was by favour.”

The speech caused such furor that the Assembly was dissolved and a new one was chosen. In June of 1715, Mulford was called before the new Assembly, who demanded that he declare the content of the infamous speech false.

Mulford replied, “The worst of it is it was too true!” and was expelled from the assembly.

As it happened, Mulford’s expulsion forced a new election to fill his vacant seat. Guess who won in East Hampton and was now back as a sitting Assemblyman?

Mulford was a fiery orator. He declared that if eastern Long Island hadn’t been forcibly made part of the colony of New York—it had been loosely connected to Connecticut until 1664, when Mulford was in his early 20s—all this high taxation and the dreaded Whale Oil Tax never would have happened. He declared that Long Island taxes were high because the colony districts were paying heavy tributes to the Mohawk Indians to keep them from attacking colony settlements and that eastern Long Islanders had to pay their part. “Ransom,” he called it. And he accused the governor of corruption.

“Is the government carried on for his Majesties Benefit and the Good of his subjects according to the Laws and Customs of the Colony, and according to the English Government,” he asked, “or is it Arbitrary, Illegal, Grievous, Progressive, Unjust and Destructive?”

And then, in 1716, Mulford disappeared. It was said he had secretly taken a boat from East Hampton to New London, then a coach to Newport, and then gone by horseback
through the woods to Boston, where he was on a schooner headed to London. That was not the last Governor Hunter was to hear from him.

Appearing first before the House of Commons, Mulford read a speech he called a “memorial”—a bold denunciation of the misrule of the Governor of New York, his corruption and his burdensome taxes, particularly the Whale Oil Tax, which Mulford said had never been enforced until the Governor came along.  Mulford declared the tax completely unfair. He pointed out that the Dongan Patent of 1686 had given the rivers, riverlets, lakes, ponds, brooks, streams, harbors and other waters in the town to the people of the town, for which the Town was paying 40 shillings a year to the Crown. How could they be paying that and at the same time now have to pay a tax on what they had been given?

“We have Waters and Lakes, which is sea granted to us,” he declared.  “In the 8th chapter of St. Matthew, verse 32, it is said ‘the herd of swine ran into the sea,’ And in St. Mark, Chapter 5, verse 13 saith ‘They ran into the sea;” St. Luke, Chapter 8, Verse 33 saith ‘they ran into the lake and were choked.’  So that by the most Infallible Rule, the Lake is Sea and the Sea adjacent to the Land is Lake which is granted to us…”

Mulford distributed his speech to every member of Parliament, and a copy of it soon made its way back to Governor Hunter in Manhattan. Hunter was enraged, particularly about the Colony settlers and the Mohawks and the tribute paid.

At this particular time in London, a Colonel Schuyler, who was in charge of the Indian Department in New York Colony, had taken some of the chiefs of the Five Indian Nations to London and had them on exhibit in the palace and in Parliament. That made Mulford bring up the matter of the colony’s tribute to the Mohawks. Mulford’s solution? In his speech he said that there should be no payment of ransom. The Mohawks should be attacked and gotten rid of.

The assembly wrote to London. “This ‘Memorial’ [written by Mulford] is a most false, malicious and scandalous paper. Though one of the Assembly of this Colony, he is very much a Stranger to the Affairs and interests of it, and, to promote his beloved Connecticut, an enemy to it.”

And then the Assembly wrote this to the Governor, making sure a copy got to London. “The Governor should acquaint the Indians of the Five Nations that we utterly abhor and detest the suggestion in the said paper or libel, of reducing the Indians by force and possessing their lands.”

After that, another letter from the Assembly went to Parliament.

“We reassure you that the taxes imposed upon the people were cheerfully given…towards ye support of…Government (and had been) “duly and faithfully apply’d (by the Governor) to ye uses intended and accounted for to ye satisfaction of the General Assembly during the time of your Excellency’s administration.”

And then this, to the Board of Trade in London.

“Governor Hunter’s administration is free from tyranny or oppression.  And we know of no grievances in the Province, which, is in happier circumstances than ever, in great measure because of the just and mild administration of Brigadier Hunter.” (Hunter was a brigadier in the Navy.)

Mulford was to remain in London for three YEARS! He was referred by Parliament to an investigative board, and the board asked Mulford for proof of his allegations.

The next month, Mulford was back with all the proof needed, including decrees from Hunter and petitions by other whalers from East Hampton. And this investigative board took Mulford seriously.

In spite of New York’s protestations, they instructed Hunter to “encourage the whaling men in their free trade,” and they wanted to know where in any Royal decree it said that whales were a “Royal Fish” because they couldn’t find it.

In the third year of Mulford’s time in London, Hunter wrote a friend that he no longer wanted to be governor.

“It is amazing that after all I have sent to the Lords of Trade, to the agents and others relating to that poor crazed man Mulford, I should still be laid under a necessity of sending answers to such odd groundless complaints. All I want now is to come home and settle this matter personally.”

And so, in 1719, that’s what he did. But he never got to settle the matter because Parliament was not inclined to take any action about it. Also, he never encountered Mulford.  Mulford left England and returned to East Hampton that same year.

Mulford did expect, however, that the Assembly would do its worst with him.  In 1720—he was now 76 years old—he once again took his seat in that august body.

On October 17, he rose and said that as he had learned, the colony was now 35,000 pounds in debt. Therefore, according to tradition, on the elevation of a new governor (since Hunter was gone, replaced by Governor Burnet), the assembly should dissolve itself and there should be new elections.

A fellow representative then asked him whether he thought a new election would “prevent that 35,000 pounds of debt,” and Mulford replied “no, but it would remove the assembly that caused it.” There was a lot of tumult after that.

The next day Mulford rose and said he wanted to apologize for his “rash expression,” the day before.

What me meant to say was “it would remove the Assembly that had caused it, IN SOME MEASURE.”

A week later, Mulford spoke again, objecting further to something and said he would no longer sit with the Assembly until they got a new mandate from the people. The Assembly had heard enough. For the second time, the Assembly expelled Mulford.

This time, however, Mulford chose not to run for re-election. Two expulsions, three arrests (for whaling violations, libel and insubordination)—he had decided he wanted to return to East Hampton and live out the rest of his days back home.

He passed away just before his 81st birthday. He is buried in the Old South End Cemetery next to Town Pond, across from his wife Esther, who had borne him two children (and who had died while he was in London.) Mulford’s second wife, Sarah Howell, is also buried there, a bit of a distance away.

Shortly after Mulford left the Assembly, he lived to see the crown abandon its claim to the Whale Oil Tax. Four years after that, they ruled that the whale was no longer a taxable “Royal Fish.” And soon after that, they declared Sag Harbor an official “Port of Entry” to the American colonies. Goods
being shipped out from eastern Long Island no longer had to first make the long trek to the corrupt den of thieving customs officials in New York.

After that, we all know what happened.

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