The Historic Early Commercial Fisherman of Sheboygan County

By Tom Lutz

Who Were They and From Where Did They Come?

From mid the 1840s until the early 1850s, one of the few ways early pioneers in Sheboygan County could make a good, steady living was to own a mill and produce lumber and shingles, mostly for export by lake vessel to points elsewhere. Being a shop keeper left one to the vagaries of local barter, as there was precious little legal tender to be had, and the yearly ups and downs, mostly downs, of the economic fortunes of one’s local customers created much merchant turnover. As for the vast majority of early pioneer farmers, they were only too happy for the first few years to grow enough to just keep themselves and their families from starvation until they could clear enough land to sell a little extra product in fledgling area markets. Surprisingly, commercial fishing was one of the only other ways to earn an immediate, decent living. It attracted a large number of local men, and for many this occupation proved to be a rewarding, if often dangerous and sometimes fatal choice.

Today, those who are old enough might still remember the many fishing tugs that called Sheboygan home as late as the 1950s, and who daily brought their catches back to the city in late afternoon. They would string their nets around giant wheels to dry in front of their shanties lining the Sheboygan River. The first local fishermen didn’t use tugs, however, or any kind of mechanical equipment, just their own brute strength to set and haul in their nets. Some waded into the shallows, using dip nets or seines to fish. Others worked from rowboats to set up complex “pond” or “pound” netting systems near shore. The more fortunate and prosperous ones fished with sleek, little two-masted sailing sloops called “mackinaws”.

Some folks might even remember a few of the names associated with these long gone fishermen, mostly Dutch and Norwegian, with a few Germans thrown in for good measure. The first weren’t immigrants, however, and their base of operation wasn’t at Sheboygan, but small fishing “camps” or settlements strung along the lakeshore from the mouth of the Black River south to the Ozaukee County Line. They were mostly Ohioans and upstate New Yorkers, the majority coming during the 1840s from the west end of Lake Erie. Few may now know, but they established in Sheboygan County one of the first great commercial fishing grounds anywhere on Lake Michigan.

The names of these fishermen included some that are now enshrined in local places to this day. One is David Wilson of New York State who was likely the first fisherman to arrive in 1840 and for whom the Town of Wilson is named. Another was fellow New Yorker Gilbert Smith who founded the now ghost town of Amsterdam, near Cedar Grove, and whose sons established the famed Smith Bros. fish and restaurant business at Port Washington. Interestingly, some of their distant relatives founded the Smith Bros. Cough Drop Company in Poughkeepsie, NY, about the same time.

Just before 1850, these transplanted easterners began to welcome a few immigrants and others into their ranks. A careful review of the 1850 county census reveals that sixty-five men listed their occupation as fisherman, the most for any occupation, excepting farmers and common laborers. Forty-seven were native born, including thirty in New York State alone, another ten in three New England states, and another seven in Ohio, although the latter mostly had New York parentage. The remaining eighteen were foreign born, five coming from Canada, another four apiece from Germany, Ireland, and England, and one from France. Noteworthy, none were Dutch or Scandinavian. Indicating how strongly the lakeshore south of Sheboygan dominated their place of residence, only five lived in Sheboygan, city or town. All the rest settled along the lakeshore in Town Wilson and Town Holland. Their largest concentrations were at two locations. One was a sundry collection of residences and outbuildings known as “Pine Grove” at what is today the old Terry Andrae portion of Kohler­Andrae State Park. The other was a small settlement, later to be called Amsterdam, in the very southeastern corner of the county, east of present-day Cedar Grove.

By the time of the 1860 census, the county’s array of fishermen was already shifting substantially. Only thirty-one people listed fishing as their occupation. The number living in the City of Sheboygan rose to eleven, but of the remaining twenty, nineteen resided in Town Wilson, and only one in Town Holland. What could account for such a significant drop-off in the latter place, known for its impressive commercial fishing history? The 1860 census was notoriously undercounted all across the country, not just locally. So, it is very possible that some fishermen in Town Holland were simply missed. Also, it appears that some listed in 1850 disappeared, dying or moving on, while others became farmers. One of the most surprising examples of this occupational transition came from Town Holland’s own Smith family. Four of the five Smith brothers were listed as commercial fishermen back in 1850, but all five were enumerated as farmers ten years later, including the most famous, Gilbert Smith. Yet, Gilbert was well known as a commercial fisherman for many more years. Was the census taker wrong? Some may have indeed given up their initial occupation, plowing their fishing profits back into their property to clear and develop successful farms. Others like Gilbert Smith, however, did not forego their initial way of making a living, despite becoming successful farmers, no matter what the census taker recorded.

Also interestingly, of the thirty-one “fishermen” listed in Sheboygan County in 1860, one was actually a woman. Her name was Amanda Wilson of Town Wilson. She was the widow of David Wilson who drowned while fishing on the lake in 1855, not unlike the Osgood brothers and many others still unknown who came to the county soon after the Wilsons. Fourteen of the county’s fishermen were still foreign-born, including five now from Germany, two each from Canada, England, Norway, France and one from Ireland. The remaining seventeen were native born, with New York and Ohio again leading the way with eight and four respectively, followed by Wisconsin and Michigan with two each, and one from Vermont. Surprisingly, still no Dutch or Norwegian names were listed. By this time, Sheboygan County, especially Sheboygan, had a sizable Norwegian population working on the lake, but predominantly as sailors and boat builders, rather than as fishermen. It should also be noted that some of the shifts in nativity represent offspring of earlier fishermen coming of age and entering the occupation, having been born in locations other than their parents.

By the time of the 1870 census, Sheboygan County could boast thirty-four fishermen, and again one “fishing” women. Her name was Henrietta Barry in the Town of Holland and she was a Wisconsin native, fishing with her brother Albert. Of these thirty-five, thirteen were foreign-born, including four now from Holland, four others from Germany, two from Norway and one apiece from Ireland, France and Canada. Of the native born, New York State still held sway with eleven, Wisconsin and Ohio five each and Pennsylvania one. The enclaves of Pine Grove in Town Wilson and Amsterdam in Town Holland still held the greatest number of fisherman with twelve and nine fishermen respectively, but Sheboygan now listed eight, the remaining six scattered along the lakeshore, all in Town Holland.

That Town Holland’s numbers rebounded so greatly clearly indicates that the 1860 census is misleading and the township remained a major area for commercial fishing during the 1850s and 1860s. Its many new names listed there also indicate that the area continued to draw newcomers to the occupation, specifically to Gilbert Smith’s successful fishing based settlement at Amsterdam. That his community now included four Dutch fishermen shows that both the occupation and the community were beginning to draw increasing numbers of such immigrants off neighboring farms. By the turn of the century, the Dutch and their children came to dominate commercial fishing in Sheboygan County, principally around Amsterdam, and the situation would remain so for decades to follow.

The Historic Early Commercial Fisherman of Sheboygan County; Photo Number 261-31 SCHRC; Amsterdam Fish Shanties- Town of Holland; Mid 1900s
Photo Number 261-31 SCHRC
Amsterdam Fish Shanties- Town of Holland
Mid 1900s