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Legends of the Black Ball Line

Updated on December 21, 2014

Immortalized Fleet

In the early decades of America's history of innovation, was a fleet of small stout unassuming deep-water ships and a band of fearless men which came to be known for departing port on a regular schedule, regardless of weather, or how little cargo might be consigned. Immortalized in song and maritime tale, these ships, their crews and their masters led a life filled with all the highs and lows of years spent in the challenges of the north Atlantic, and societal notoriety. History describes them marked as the best in the maritime trade yet burdened with a stigma for brutal treatment of low ranking seamen. These were the first packet ships, known as the Black Ball Line.

The Old Line Founds an Industry

The original Black Ball Line was also known as Old Line. It was an early 1800s company operating a trans-Atlantic fleet employed to carry mail, government dispatches, passengers, and freight between Liverpool England and New York USA, instead of trading on her owner's account as was the prior custom. The Black Ball Line was founded in 1817 with an original four ships. The ships named Amity, Courier, Pacific, and the James Monroe began their routes in January of 1818 with the sailing of the Courier from Liverpool on January 4th, and the James Monroe setting out from New York on January 5. They were distinguished by a large black ball painted on the fore topsail and famous for their routine first-of-the-month departures, a feat never before attempted in maritime history. The line's flag was a red swallowtail with the same black ball in the center. Crew members trimmed the ship in their sharp red shirts, short pants, and red cuffed boots. Crowds cheered their popular Atlantic sea prowess, boisterous chanties of their colorful character grew up in their wake, and they contributed to the transfer of waves of immigrants to the United States.

Also known as Packet Ships, after the mail packets and other small freight loads they transported, the Black Ball Line founded a specialized industry of Atlantic maritime commerce, supplying the only means of communication between the United States and Europe at that time. An extensive history has been assembled from extant letters still bearing their postage stamps which have been matched to other records of the company, passengers, and the loads. These illustrate in sharp contrast the changes our nation has experienced since that time. In 1825 mid-period postage prices "current" datelined at London out of British port of the Black Ball Line on the ship North America sat at a letter rate under the Act of March 3 1825 for travel inland 150-400 miles, New York to Portland, at 18-3/4 cents plus 2 cents Captain's gratuity equalling 20-3/4 cents total. In 1835 October 1 the packet ship North America, which continued to sail from Liverpool a decade later, depicted the speed of transit across the Atlantic by a letter received at its destination on the 30th of October, rated 6 cents due to the port of entry.

Isaac Wright & Son and Francis Thompson, the first Proprietors, added the fourth ship on October 24 shortly after Benjamin Marshall and Jeremiah Thompson joined as additional proprietors. These owners set the scene for the new industry and continued to lead it until the company was sold. In 1834 the firm of Goodhue & Co., associated with C.H. Marshal and N. Cobb, purchased the Black Ball Line. The new owners are described, "which the same parties, with some few changes, have managed successfully to the present time. No line has ever had the good fortune to be served by more popular commanders. In no line have the wants and comforts of passengers been more carefully-considered," from the obituary of Jonathan Goodhue, Esq., in the newspaper Observer.

Deep-Water Speed Demons

The early ships of the line were sail ships and although not as elaborate nor built specifically for speed as the better known deep-water clippers, they still succeeded in carrying out the job with a sturdy predictability and were pushed by their captains to their structural limits in methods and under conditions the clippers rarely faced. The ships of the line tore at break-neck speeds back and forth across the Atlantic amid wild surging seas and gale force winds building a reputation as intrepid dauntless souls who could be depended upon to get a traveler to his destination. The Black Ball Line became the first of several companies to run packet ships on this hair raising route. The collective feats of the many packet lines were immortalized in rolling chantey's that drew upon a spirit matched by few others:

It is of a flash packet,
A packet of fame.
She is bound to New York
And the Dreadnought’s her name.
She is bound to the west’ard
Where the stormy winds blow.
Bound away to the west’ard,
Good Lord, let her go.

(From the maritime chantey, The Dreadnought)

Average passage ranged between 22 and 50 days with 36-37 days being average. The Captain of the Dreadnought, Captain Samuel Samuels in 1859 set the record for packet ships to Liverpool at thirteen days and eight hours. Later ships improved by adding steam propulsion.

(Early 1800s Chantey, "Blow the Man Down")

As I was a-walking down Rotherhite Street,
’Way, ho, blow the man down;
A pretty young creature I chanced for to meet,
Give me some time to blow the man down.
Soon we’ll be in London City,
Blow, boys, blow,
And see the gals all dressed so pretty,
Blow, my bully boys, blow.

Youtube Version by Irish Rovers

Youtube Version by Robert Shaw Chorale

The New York - Black Ball Line Packet Ship

The Black Ball Line Packet Ship 'New York'
The Black Ball Line Packet Ship 'New York' | Source

Halyard Chantey: "Hurrah For the Black Ball Line"

Top Officers & the Incorrigible

The ships were equipped with the best captains money of the time could buy. Some were veterans of the war of 1812. The captain was a share-holder in his ship and received a percentage of the freights and passage money.

"The packet captain scorned a towboat to haul him into the stream if the wind served fair to set all plain sail as his ship lay at her wharf. Driving her stern foremost, he braced his yards and swung her head to sea, clothing the masts with soaring canvas amid the farewell cheers of the crowds which lined the waterfront." ~ Ralph D. Paine.

While the packet ships as an industry were American owned and captained by American Captains the crews were more often filled by English, Irish, and Scandinavians except in ports where the old customs survived such as Nantucket, Portsmouth, and Salem. The masters of the Atlantic packets took what they could get for their crews who worked day and night to keep the remorseless drive for speed through the chaotic northern sea. All the work of rigging, sail-making, scraping, painting, and repair was done in port instead of at sea.

Literature of the period could be found with popular images of sailors in highly romanticized content. The reality was a different story however, wherein a hard and dangerous environment found many seamen malnourished, disillusioned, and while at sea homesick. The brilliant success of the packet ships were in no small part due to the roughness of the crew and the rougher second mate, whose job it was to take both the seasoned and unseasoned packet-rat in hand from the moment of his ornery, often drunken arrival and rouse him into working order with any means necessary.

"It was the doctrine of his officers that he (packet rat) could not be ruled by anything short of violence and the man to tame and hammer him was the "bucko" second mate, the test of whose fitness was that he could whip his weight in wild cats." ~ Ralph D. Paine.

This lent to the legend, a sentiment of the sailor as a dog, a sense of being a different human specie from the landsman, abused by every form of maritime tyranny....where perhaps only a less than wholesome discipline suffered by incorrigible hands, under the harshest of environmental circumstances, actually existed.

"The road from Liverpool to New York, as they who have traveled it well know, is very long, crooked, rough, and eminently disagreeable." ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, aboard the packet ship New York, 1833

Personal effects of a 19th century sailor.
Personal effects of a 19th century sailor. | Source

Plight of the Packet Ship Passengers

In the early and mid 1800s the vast majority of British immigrants to America left Britain via Liverpool England. Most passengers made the trip in the steerage area below deck. It was an area typically crowded, dimly lit, and damp. Poor sanitation and the products produced by stormy seas, guaranteed a rank stench. There were also private and semi-private cabins for more elite passengers. These cabins, for those with the coin to pay, came with a mattress, linens, a washbasin, and some drawers. A passenger was expected to bring his own bedding. The doors were ventilated opening directly into a saloon or common area for eating and socializing. Most of the packets could accommodate 10 to 20 cabin passengers in addition to the steerage passengers. These were usually "gentlemen and gentlewomen of good breeding, accustomed to courtesy and politeness." Source:

While history often praises the quality of service on the packet ships with regards to the care of their passengers there were also reports of the conditions in steerage which appear to have greatly differed, such as this one written by a doctor who reportedly had crossed the Atlantic frequently on the late era American packet ships. He wrote, "reform must be made to better the condition of the poorer classes of emigrants."

Another witness wrote: "From Liverpool each passenger receives weekly 5 lbs. of oatmeal, 2 1/2 lbs. biscuit, 1 lb. flour, 2 lbs. rice, 1/2 lb. sugar, 1/2 lb. molasses, and 2 ounces of tea. He is obliged to cook it the best way he can in a cook shop 12 feet by 6! This is the cause of so many quarrels and...many a poor woman with her children can get but one meal done, and sometimes they get nothing warm for days and nights when a gale of wind is blowing and the sea is mountains high and breaking over the ship in all directions." ~Anonymous, New-York Daily Times, October 15, 1851.

Steerage consisted of bought bunks and resided between the cabins and the hold. Where the passengers didn't fill steerage the space would then be utilized for cargo. While the food was provided, the passengers had to cook it themselves which explains the comment in the New-York Daily Times. By 1845 a typical crossing could expect to carry 231 passengers of lower income immigrants including farmers, clerks, mechanics, and laborers. In 1851 the Black Ball Line's new sail ship Isaac Webb arrived in New York with 760 steerage passengers and some cabin passengers. This ship continued carrying passengers until 1879, well into the age of steam. In the 1840s and 1850s Congress and nations in Europe enacted new laws based on the complaints about overcrowding, issues with the food, abuse and disease.

Cows on Deck and Pigs Below in Small Small Ships

The cargo of packet ships like that of the Black Ballers consisted of not only mail packets and passengers but also a wide variety of common goods. Some of the goods listed included cotton, corn, livestock of all types (cattle, goats, sheep, pigs, chickens, and geese), hardware, and tools. One of the most famous of the ships, the little Amity ran aground on the beach at Manasquan, where her passengers and crew were rescued. The cargo was mostly salvaged except for what was in the lower holds. Divers from the Northeast Shipwreck Museum and Research Foundation recovered a number of artifacts from the wreck including buttons, a rusted mass of sewing needles originally packed in small envelopes, and a variety of old tools and hardware. Her cargo was originally packed in wooden barrels.

Another of the first four ships, the James Munroe gained its fame for being the first of them to sail "on time" on January 5, 1818 out of New York for Liverpool. She was larger than the Amity, weighing in at 424 ton, a craft which carried some very light freight loads respectively. In September of 1818 she left home carrying "212 bales of cotton, 1265 quintals of corn and a few odds and ends, barely a fourth of her capacity." (Black Ball Line or Old Line Document on the ships postage at

Later ships, enjoying the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, averaged a thousand tons and carried a greater quantity of goods proportionately.

The leading ship-builder for the Black Ball Line was John Currier Jr out of Newburyport. The ships Brenda, Republic, Oberlin, St. Clair, Leonor, Talbot, Fla yin, Navigator, Huntress, Strabo, Virginia and Columbus were constructed between 1831 and 1843 ranging in size from 339 to 365 tons. There is also note of several barques, brigs, and schooners being constructed at this time by the same.

The Route

From  The Black Ball Route ~ Northeast United States ~ New York to Liverpool
From The Black Ball Route ~ Northeast United States ~ New York to Liverpool

The Little Ship That Could Play in 16 Days

One legend of the Black Ball Line is that of the match races. The first ocean match across the Atlantic for which any record stands, was between the black baller, Columbus, 597 tons, Captain De Peyster, and the 895 ton Sheridan, Captain Russell of the Dramatic Line, for a stake of $10,000 a side, to race from New York to Liverpool, "play or pay." The ships left New York on February 2, 1837 with the Columbus winning the race in sixteen days. The Sheridan arrived two days later. The Sheridans crew is recorded as a regular pay of $25 a month and a bonus promised of $50 each if their ship won the race.

"England, frankly confessing herself beaten and unable to compete with such ships as these, changed her attitude from hostility to open admiration. She surrendered the Atlantic packet trade to American enterprise, and British merchantmen sought their gains in other waters. The Navigation Laws still protected their commerce in the Far East and they were content to jog at a more sedate gait than these weltering packets whose skippers were striving for passages of a fortnight, with the forecastle doors nailed fast and the crew compelled to stay on deck from Sandy Hook to Fastnet Rock." ~ Old Merchant Marine, Ch VIII. "The Packet Ships of the Roaring Forties"

Maritime Chanty: The Dreadnought

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Saloon of an 1800s Packet Ship

From Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay . . . by Richard C. McKay, copyright 1928. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries. “
From Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay . . . by Richard C. McKay, copyright 1928. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries. “ | Source

An Age Fades

The fate of the little packet ships varied. Some were sold and went on to careers for other packet lines, others joined the heyday of the whaling industry. Surprisingly, few were lost at sea or ran aground in fog. One ship, the 605 ton South America served in the Black Ball Line until 1843 when she was sold to become a whaler, until 1860. In 1861 she was sunk as one of the "stone fleet" to blockade Charleston Harbor during the Civil War. Even in their ultimate demise some of them upheld the esteem bestowed upon them.

The Black Ball Line operated for about 60 years, until the 1880s when all of the packet ships were no longer used for regular passenger service and the era of the hardy wooden ships faded into the shadows of song and tavern bards. Today they comprise a small portion of the spirit of America, their crews sturdy incorrigibility a mainstay of American cultural characteristics. The next time you gaze upon a painting of an old sailing ship, remember the red-clad men of the north Atlantic trail between New York and Liverpool. Lift an ale in salute to those little ships of the Black Ball Line who neither elaborate like the clippers nor built-specifically-for-speed, placed their own brick in the wall of our American story -- a story where doing the seemingly impossible with an uncanny regularity, is a part of who we are.



Submit a Comment
  • isitaplane profile image

    The Loftsman 

    4 years ago from Why in the Loft of course

    Very interesting as I say, although does not really answer my question of the origins of the Black Ball Shipping Line? They may well have been using American built "packets" but they were based in Liverpool, England.

    Would that designer/Shipwright have been the same Donald McKay who came to New England from Nova Scotia by any chance.

    Impressive research and work all the same and many thanks for such a speedy reply.

  • Cyrellys profile imageAUTHOR


    4 years ago from Montana

    Hi isitaplane, as I understand it, the packets up until new designs in the 1800s (McKay) were run from prior to the American Revolution through the time period of the Black Ball Line by both the British and the Americans. The Falmouth Packet was commandeered by the patriots in the Machias Maine incident at the outset of the war. The Black Ball Line and John Currier Jr of Newburyport New England who was counted as the leading builder of these ships in the mid 1800s were American-made.

    "A young Donald McKay (1810-1880), who apprenticed under Isaac Webb of New York, known as the "father of the shipbuilders," came to Newburyport in 1839 and went to work for John Currier, Jr. Although he was a respected shipwright, many in the maritime industry were quite skeptical of the young McKay’s innovative designs, including John Currier. Mr. McKay was put in charge of the construction of the Delia Walker, and even as under sail this vessel proved to be the fastest in his fleet, John Currier continued to be resistant to Mr. McKay’s designs. Mr. McKay went into business for himself at the old Merrill yard at Moggridge Point and built the Hannah Sprague for Isaac H. Boardman, who was involved in the fishing industry and later became a Newburyport mayor. He went into partnership with William C. Townsend and built several ships including the Courier. With its new radical design by Mr. McKay, the Courier sped by every other vessel it met at sea. Maritime observers were incredulous that the ship had been built in Newburyport and not at one of the more prominent shipyards of New York or Baltimore." Clipper Heritage Trail It was in the 1800s when boasts and competition alongside the new designs of Mr. McKay caused these ships to be pushed into feats of speed and daring that more sensible British captains seem to have bowed out of in favor of dealings elsewhere, leaving the rough waters, unpredictable conditions, and lunacy to the American packets who seemed to thrive in it. That probably would not have been the history if it were not for the new ship designs that fueled the fire to those competitors.

  • isitaplane profile image

    The Loftsman 

    4 years ago from Why in the Loft of course

    Nice story although I was always led to believe that the Black Ball Line began in Liverpool, England, and where more a part of British Maritime history than that of the wonderful maritime history of the new world?


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