American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

BROADSIDES. Broadsides were the most versatile and thus the most popular form of publication in early America. Throughout the eighteenth century, thousands of broadsides were published and distributed for many reasons, and often their content directly pertained to the sea and maritime life. From broadsides readers along the coasts learned about naval battles, pirates,* shipwrecks,* shipping news, trade regulations, and even the latest imported goods for sale.

The broadside itself was a convenient vehicle for printers to publish a variety of news expeditiously. Although the size varied, broadsides were usually a single large sheet that averaged ten by fifteen inches. Since newspapers were published only once a week for much of the eighteenth century, and since they often contained little space for extended description, broadsides conveyed news, advertisements, proclamations, and ballads when immediacy, directness, and amplification were required; thus some of colonial America’s most interesting and important narrative accounts were published as broadsides. Once printed, they were hawked in streets, posted on walls, and passed around in taverns and coffeehouses. With the exception of a few determined balladmongers, notably Jonathan Plummer of Newburyport, Massachusetts, few authors ever bothered to sign their names. Because of their fragility and popularity, broadsides are the most ephemeral of early American publications.

The first broadside in colonial America was “The Oath of a Free-Man,” printed in Cambridge in 1639. Throughout the seventeenth century, broadsides were used primarily to publish official proclamations, including trade regulations. Some of the more interesting examples are proclamations seeking the arrest of pirates, such as William Stoughton’s 1699 broadside calling for the capture of a group of pirates who had scuttled their ship off Block Island and the earl of Bellomont’s 1700 broadside calling for the seizure of a group of pirates who had dispersed after arriving in New York. These were the first “wanted posters” in America.

During the early eighteenth century, broadsides became more commercial and less political, and thus their subjects and styles became more varied and diverse. Merchants used broadsides to announce the arrival of their latest cargoes, and ship owners used them to celebrate the launching of a new ship and to recruit crews. As a literary marketplace began to develop, printers increasingly produced broadsides to publish news that was lurid and sensational. Benjamin Franklin’s first two publications were broadside ballads (dates unknown); the first is “Lighthouse* Tragedy,” an account of a shipwreck, and the second is “Sailor’s Song on the Taking of the Famous Teach, or Blackbeard the Pirate.” Although Franklin reported that his “Lighthouse Tragedy” sold remarkably well, he escaped being a balladmonger after his father convinced him that poets were generally beggars.

Many eighteenth-century broadsides that dealt with the sea fall into three general categories: maritime disasters, pirates and piracy, and naval battles. Of disasters at sea, any calamity or catastrophe resulting in sudden death was liable to be printed as a broadside as soon as the news reached shore. Accounts of drownings, hurricanes, and shipwrecks were often published in broadside form, and at times fires, explosions, and even outbreaks of disease were reported as broadsides. Like Franklin, printers published and sold such broadsides while the tragic news was new and while readers were still hungry for details, though the factual accuracy of these accounts was not always reliable.

Similarly sensational, pirates inevitably became the stuff of broadsides. From the beginning of the eighteenth century, broadsides were often used to announce the last words and dying speeches of condemned pirates; it was not unusual for such broadsides to be sold to the spectators as they gathered around the gallows. In 1704 one of the earliest of all American pirate publications was published as a broadside, “An Account of the Behavior and Last Dying Speeches,” describing the final, defiant words of John Quelch and five of his crew. Notorious pirates such as William Kidd and Edward Teach often became the subject of several cheap broadside collections that competed for readers.

By far the most numerous group of broadsides concerned battles at sea. Although newspapers began to supplant broadsides as the most popular medium for the dissemination of news during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a remarkable number of broadsides described naval engagements from the Revolution and the War of 1812. Both the Boston Tea Party and the burning of the Gaspee in Narragansett Bay were celebrated as broadside ballads in 1773; a year later the British responded with a broadside salvo of their own by having the Intolerable Acts distributed around Boston on a single sheet. John Paul Jones’* career resulted in a flurry of broadsides, beginning in 1777, when a Boston printer published a recruitment poster announcing the launching of Jones’ first command, the Ranger, and offering a bounty of forty dollars. Jones’ attacks along the English coast and the famous battle between the Bonhomme Richard* and the Serapis* were memorialized on broadsides, thus contributing much to his popularity as a Revolutionary War hero.

When the United States again went to war with Great Britain, broadsides were used to announce battles and recruit sailors. After the U.S. frigate Constitution defeated the British frigate Guerriere off the coast of Massachusetts on 19 August 1812, half a dozen different broadsides were published announcing the victory and celebrating “Old Ironsides.” Similarly, when Oliver Hazard Perry wrote his fateful words after the Battle of Lake Erie, “We have met the enemy and they are ours,” several broadside ballads were soon printed describing the victory. Other successful American naval engagements were equally memorialized as broadsides, including Stephen Decatur’s victory over the British ship Macedonian and the defeat of the British flotilla on Lake Champlain.

As printing technology rapidly improved during the first half of the nineteenth century, the need for broadsides declined. The few broadsides that were published served more as commemorative issues or commercial announcements than news reports. Due to their fragile, ephemeral nature, broadsides have been difficult to collect and preserve. Those that have been collected offer invaluable insight into early American maritime history. [See also SEA MUSIC]

FURTHER READING: Bumgardner, Georgia B. American Broadsides. Barre, MA: Imprint Society, 1971; Ford, W. C. Broadsides, Ballads, & c. Printed in Massachusetts 1639-1800. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1922; Winslow, Ola Elizabeth. American Broadside Verse. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1930.

Daniel E. Williams