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 home >> educational resources >> getting started >> publications >> maritime folklife >> introduction

Documenting Maritime Folklife: An Introductory Guide


Lighthouse - Portland, Maine Portland Head, Maine, ca. 1900-10. From Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company. Detail of photo #032986.

The United States is a country of spectacular geographical contrasts, from jagged mountain peaks to rolling prairies, from scorching deserts to lush woodlands. This panoply of natural settings includes innumerable freshwater lakes, rivers, and streams; and over eighty-eight thousand miles of coastline border the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and the Gulf of Mexico.1 Bodies of water are often the lifeblood of a region, mediating climate and providing foodstuffs, transportation routes, and recreational opportunities. The presence of water can exert a profound influence on a regional landscape, and, consequently, upon the lives of people who dwell there. As a maritime environment shapes local natural resources, so too does it shape cultural resources within local communities.2

There are thousands of small communities--along the shores of the East and West coasts, the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Lakes, and inland rivers--where waterways have shaped daily activities since earliest settlement. In many, commercial fishing has been a predominant occupation for generations. The peculiarities of local environments and fisheries have prompted the evolution and adaptation of different artifacts and technologies. On Lake Superior, many fishermen aboard fish tugs use gillnets to catch whitefish, while on the Columbia River, bordering Washington and Oregon, fishermen net salmon from small boats called bowpickers. Gulf Coast shrimpers tow trawl nets behind their boats, while New England lobstermen set wooden or wire traps for their quarry. Related pursuits, such as boat building and gear making, support commercial fishing and add to the variety of local occupations.

In addition to the techniques and paraphernalia of maritime industry, maritime communities share an array of interrelated activities and cultural expressions. Sports fishing, fly tying, sailing, waterfowl hunting, and decoy making exemplify common pastimes. Community members, whether or not from fishing families, learn good and bad luck beliefs related to being aboard a boat, weatherlore used to predict a storm, traditional names for local marine species, and legends about buried treasure. Regardless of occupation, age, gender, or economic status, maritime culture penetrates their worldview. Whether knowledge takes on a physical form, such as a boat, or a nonmaterial expression, such as a story, it represents a legacy of ideas and values.

The cultural knowledge that members of a group use to deal with everyday life includes the structure and rules of language, beliefs about nature and the supernatural, and methods for procuring food. Cultural knowledge also encompasses the range of ideas that define beauty and how aesthetic values shape the built environment, from architecture to boat types. The inhabitants of any community share a core of cultural knowledge, but every individual's experience contributes to the community's heritage.

Culture is dynamic and as such is constantly adjusting to a variety of forces. One powerful force is the natural environment, and it can determine such things as the kinds of available food, materials from which clothing, tools, and shelters can be fashioned, and the cycle of human activities necessary for survival. Environmental conditions frequently result in particular cultural adaptations. Consequently, we may observe similar patterns of behavior among groups who live in either mountainous or coastal regions, or among groups who live in coastal regions, even though those groups may be separated by time and space. Recognizing that it is a rough and external classification, the term maritime community may be attached to communities where the influence of bodies of water is strong; it acknowledges the intimate relationship between culture and habitat as an organizing principle for the description of human behavior.

Specialists from a variety of fields take culture as the subject of their investigations. These specialists, including anthropologists, archaeologists, cultural geographers, folklorists, historians, historic preservationists, and sociologists, each lend to the study perspectives on culture and methodologies for the collection and analysis of data that are characteristic of a particular discipline. Each discipline has made valuable contributions. This guide is the work of a folklorist, and one of its underlying assumptions is that community life and values can be understood by examining cultural expressions. Such expressions are part of everyday life in groups that are defined by such factors as family, ethnicity, region, religion, and occupation;3 all such communities possess the capacity for molding values into meaningful expressions.4 They include a wide range of creative and traditional knowledge that is generally learned informally and often passed from one generation to another by word-of-mouth and by observation and imitation. Some, such as diving for a cross during Epiphany at Tarpon Springs, Florida, have links to other times and places. Others, such as the crowning of the oyster king at Apalachicola, Florida, are unique to a particular place. Often expressions are taken for granted by the members of the groups that sustain them, and are viewed collectively as "just the way people do things around here." For many, the importance of these expressions may not become evident until their continuation is threatened.

This leads us to one final point. Many readers may be interested in documenting maritime cultural resources because they perceive that the survival of valued traditions is threatened and wish to save what they can through documentation. They observe with alarm the displacement of fishermen and others by the development of harbors and coastal lands; the enactment of regulations to protect fish stocks that do not give proper consideration to the impact on human activities; and the increases in water pollution, and subsequent injury to marine species, as a result of rapid population growth.

One reason why traditional ways of life are ignored is that those who carry them on are often in the minority. Another reason is that policy makers often poorly understand the significance of cultural traditions. Although they have become accustomed to dealing with the conservation of local flora and fauna, and the preservation of buildings and other tangible artifacts, most rarely come to grips with the conservation of intangible resources central to community life and values. This publication addresses the identification and documentation of cultural resources--the initial steps towards cultural conservation.5 Data on maritime culture collected with the use of this publication can be employed to teach residents of maritime communities--policy makers and average citizens alike--how to appreciate both tangible and intangible cultural resources, assess their significance, and encourage the development of strategies for their conservation.


1. U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census. Statistical Abstract of the United States 1986 (Washington: Department of Commerce, 1986), 200.

2. Although maritime is commonly defined as that which pertains to the sea, in order to eliminate the need for differentiation between fresh and salt water (and the use of terms such as lacustrine and riverine) it is used throughout this publication to mean that which applies to natural bodies of water of all kinds.

3. Section 3, (1) of the American Folklife Preservation Act of 1976, (P.L. 94-201, 86 Stat. 1129, 20 USC 2101).

4. Dell Hymes, "Folklore's Nature and the Sun's Myth," Journal of American Folklore 88 (1975), 348.

5. "Cultural conservation is a concept for organizing the profusion of private and public efforts that deal with traditional community cultural life. It envisions cultural preservation and encouragement as two faces of the same coin. Preservation involves planning, documentation, and maintenance; and encouragement involves publication, public events, and educational programs." (Ormond Loomis, coord., Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States. Publications of the American Folklife Center, no. 10 (Washington: Library of Congress, 1983), iv.) On the distinction between conservation and preservation, according to Hufford, "Preservation arrests the evolution or decay of a barn, a cucumber, or a tract of wilderness. Conservation enhances the potential of a renewable resource, efficiently moving it through a cycle of use, renewal and re-use. Conservation entails careful attention to the co-evolving features within a system." (Mary Hufford, One Space, Many Places: Folklife and Land Use in New Jersey's Pinelands National Reserve (Washington: American Folklife Center, Library of Congress), 107-8.)


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