Trade, Travel and Communication
The basis of the Maryland economy was trade with England and with English and European colonies around the Atlantic Ocean. Maryland and the Chesapeake region provided Europe with tobacco, beaver pelts, timber, and other “exotic novelties.” In exchange, Marylanders received manufactured goods such as furniture, metalwares, glassware, cooking utensils, sewing notions, textiles, shoes, hats, clothing, pottery, and imported food stuffs (spices from the European colonies in the Caribbean, spirits, wine, sugar, etc.).
The trading ships also brought “truck” or trade items specifically intended to be used to trade with the local Indians-primarily for beaver pelts and corn.
Smaller quantities of other furs and other items were also traded. These included shell beads which functioned as currency among the Indian peoples and could be used to trade for other commodities more desirable in the European or colonial market. The most popular truck items desired by the Indians were small axes, hatchets, hoes, sheets of copper, knives, bone or horn combs, glass beads, jaw harps, hawks bells, scissors, linen shirts, wool blankets, and iron fish hooks.
Corn, furs, and some beans were regularly traded to the northern colonies for dried fish and livestock. Similar items and, occasionally, shell beads were traded to the Caribbean for manufactured goods brought from Europe, sugar, rum, servants, and later, enslaved labor. Trade ships could also transport the occasional passenger visiting another colony or visiting other areas around the Maryland colony.
Tobacco was the basis for nearly all trade that took place in Maryland. Payment for goods coming into the colony was based on profits gained from the cultivation of tobacco. Once emptied of their trade goods, the ships returned to England filled with tobacco.
For any person seeking to travel to the New World, whether to immigrate or to conduct trade, ships were the sole means of transportation. If passengers were wealthy, they may have been able to afford a private bed space on a ship. Otherwise, those of both high and low status had to cross the same 3,000 miles of ocean on wooden ships, eat salted and dried foods, pass long and boring hours, suffer storms and seasickness, and pray that no disaster or pirates would claim their lives before they reached their destination.
In England, most people did very little traveling for everyday business and marketing-everything they needed was usually available within their immediate community. However, in Maryland things were very different. Most of the early colonists built their houses along waterways in areas where the few towns could be several days journey away and the nearest neighbor could be several miles.
The arrival of a ship meant the arrival of letters and news from England or from other colonies. Since so few of the Maryland colonists could read or write, the ship’s crew and passengers were often their only source for the latest financial reports, political events, fashions from the continent, new discoveries, and more.