Date of Award

Fall 12-2023

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Committee Chair

Max Grivno

Committee Chair School


Committee Member 2

Matthew Casey

Committee Member 2 School


Committee Member 3

Andrew Haley

Committee Member 3 School


Committee Member 4

Deanne Stephens

Committee Member 4 School



Maritime historians have argued for a highpoint in maritime activity during the antebellum years. This peak was fed by Americans travelling on tall wooden sailing ships in international trade, in the whaling industries, and as members of the US Navy. The prowess of the American Merchant Marine faded quickly in the middle of the nineteenth century due to military losses during the American Civil War and due to the rise of steamships and steel hulls. This peak was followed by another lesser peak in the Twentieth Century as American ships caught up with technological changes. World War One provided a temporary boom to the shipping industries which fed European war markets.

This dissertation examines sailors along the Gulf Coast during the nadir period between those two better known eras. It argues that the nadir posited by previous historians is largely illusory. The maritime industries remained active along the coast throughout the late nineteenth century. However, these sailors did not work in the famous blue water trades that fascinated the general public. Instead, they worked in liminal industries that relied on the southern estuary to survive. They fished, coasted, piloted larger ships into port, and oftentimes a mix of all three.

To prosper in these conditions, coastal mariners relied on older communities and older forms of work, even as industrialized shipping and fishing made inroads into the region. Small seaside towns and ports provided subordinate economies to the largely foreign blue water trades. Subsistence fishing and small-scale trading had long been a mainstay of the coastal economy. These did not require the monetary investment nor the risk of larger operations. Coastal denizens could make use of small boats, changing industries as necessary to adjust for the seasons and the tides. Canneries and railroads put pressure on these communities to extract more resources for the growing American economy. For a time, communities attempted to maintain their ways of work, creating a mixed economy of contract laborers working for more industrialized businesses on shore.