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Worth its Weight in Salt - History of Salt and its Importance in Early America



Today, in 2023, we here in the United States, take salt for granted. If we need it, we just run down to the corner market and pick up a container at little cost. Generally, we only use salt to season our foods. Salt, however, has always been much more important to the survival of humanity than just seasoning for food and, for much of history, was not always as available as it is today. In today’s post, we are going to look at salt, its past uses, and its importance and supply in colonial America and the early United States.


Salt Throughout European History

As far back as 6050 BC, salt has been an important and integral part of the world's history, as it has been interwoven into countless civilizations. Salt was the backbone of a valuable trade between the Phoenicians and their Mediterranean empire, and Greek slave traders often bartered salt for slaves, giving rise to the expression that someone was “not worth his salt.” The history of salt touches our daily lives through the language we use. The word "salary," from the Latin “salarium,” was derived from Roman legionnaires being paid in salt. The word "salad" also originated from "salt," and began with the early Romans salting their leafy greens and vegetables.

Roman Fish Salting Factory
Roman Fish Salting Factory

Salt has played a vital part in religious rituals in many cultures, symbolizing purity. There are more than thirty references to salt in the Bible, including the well-known expression "salt of the earth." Additionally, there are many other literary and religious references to salt including using salt to purify places of worship and in some folk traditions, it is said to be able to ward off unwanted visitors and bad “omens” from one’s home. In Leonardo DaVinci's famous painting, "The Last Supper," Judas has just spilled a bowl of salt, which is known as a portent of evil and bad luck. To this day, the tradition remains, that when people spill salt, they should throw a pinch over their left shoulders to ward off any devils that may be lurking behind.

Spilled Salt next to Judas' Arm in The Last Supper
Spilled Salt next to Judas' Arm in The Last Supper

During the Renaissance, Venice managed to make a business out of control of the Adriatic salt trade. Venice owed some of its early wealth to the salt trade from salt works in its lagoon and had several contracts with inland Italian cities in the 13th century to supply them with salt. As time went on, Venetian merchants bought salt and acquired salt production from Egypt, Algeria, the Crimean Peninsula, Sardinia, Ibiza, Crete, and Cyprus. The more Venice came to control the salt trade in the Adriatic, the more the resulting profits were used by the city to subside other trading activities and for hundreds of years became the richest power center of Europe.


Salt in Mesoamerica

In Mesoamerica Native Americans primarily got their salt from one of three sources: saline inland lakes, highland springs, or coastal estuaries. From these sources, Mesoamericans would either boil brine, leach brine through salt-laden earths, or evaporate the brine using the sun. Collecting brine from inland lakes or the coast is a straightforward operation. They would then take a ceramic vessel, scoop up some salt water, and either boil it or pour it out into large solar ponds made of sand and lime to evaporate. They would keep adding salt water to concentrate the brine as it boils or evaporates and eventually, they got salt.


The more interesting technique is that used for extracting salt from soil. What they did was take salt-laden soil and "wash" them using fresh water. They then separated the soil from the now salty water and boiled or evaporated that brine to produce salt. In Central and South America, all the great centers of civilization, such as the Incan and Mayan civilizations, were founded in places with access to salt.


The early Spanish explorers frequently observed the production and trade of salt in the East. While in the province of Cofitachequi, Hernando DeSoto was given "an abundance of very good salt". Similarly, when he was among the Capaha in the Lower Mississippi Valley, he met some Indian merchants who were traveling throughout the various provinces selling salt and other merchandise. The salt springs of western Arkansas and northwestern Louisiana were well-known to the eighteenth-century Indians, and many groups frequented these areas to produce and trade salt. This mineral was extremely important in the trade between the French and the various Caddoan groups.

Salt Licks, Marshes, and Springs in Eastern North America
Salt Licks, Marshes, and Springs in Eastern North America

One extensive salt deposit, called the Salina Basin, underlies the states bordering the Great Lakes. The saline deposits which emerge in Illinois, Missouri, Kentucky, Ohio, New York, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Virginia are located along the margins of this major rock salt deposit. Some of the most important ones used prehistorically by Indians, and historically by Anglo-Americans, were the famous saline deposits of Ste. Genevieve and Jefferson counties, Missouri, and those at Equality and Shawneetown in Illinois. The Blue Licks and Big Bone Lick in Kentucky, the Big Buffalo Lick in West Virginia, the French Lick in Tennessee, and the Area around modern-day Saltville, VA were other saline deposits of significant importance.


Salt and the English Colonies

Before the discovery of the national salt reserves from Cheshire, England, Queen Elizabeth I was concerned about England’s dependence on French salt because salt was strategic, like gunpowder. Why was salt a strategic material for England? Other than its use for supplying the British navy with salt and salt foods, England needed, in addition to a bigger number of ships and fishermen, a huge supply of salt for preservation to exploit the potential of the new North American cod fisheries. This quest for salt led Britain to undertake exploration of the New World and the establishment of most of its colonies in the 17th and the 18th centuries, particularly in the Carribean.


Initially, the British Empire was relying so much on salt from the colonies in the Caribbean for the preservation of fish and the manufacturing of fur that the leading cargo carried to North America—more tonnage than sugar, molasses, and rum—was salt.

Fishing Operations in 1720.  Fish Being Processed and Salted in the Foreground
Fishing Operations in 1720. Fish being processed and salted in the foreground

In the earliest years of the New England colonies, salt was imported either from Liverpool, where naturally occurring brine was pumped out of mines and evaporated by heating it over wood fires, or from the Mediterranean where salt water was evaporated by the sun in shallow ponds walled off from the sea or carved out of the rocky shore. Mediterranean salt was superior but was not commonly used in the British colonies due to British wars with France and Spain. Also at this time, Britain had signed treaties with Portugal giving British ships rights to harvest salt from the coastal ponds of the Cape Verde Islands.


Lack of plentiful high-quality salt limited the growth of New England fisheries until the end of the 1600s when the development of Mediterranean style salt works in the British Caribbean islands made high quality salt available to all the British colonies. The process for salting the Cod for export was as follows:

  • The fish were gutted, beheaded, and put into wooden barrels, layered with salt - almost as much salt as fish.

  • The fish sat in the barrels for a week to ten days while the salt pulled moisture out of the fish.

  • The barrels were then opened, the brine dumped out, and then the fish put back into the barrels, layered with fresh salt.

  • After several more days, the brine was dumped out and the fish were spread on racks to dry in the sun.

  • When thoroughly dry, the fish were put into clean dry barrels, ready for export.

This arrangement worked well until the American colonies began to chafe under British restrictions. The British government imposed not only the infamous tax on tea, but also a salt tax. Since salt was critical to the livelihood of the Massachusetts colony both for food and for one of the most important exports, salt fish, the tax hit the colonists hard.


At the start of the American Revolution, the British Navy blockaded American ports and shut off the supply of imported salt. In Philadelphia, salt prices shot upward. With salt, the essential ingredient in curing meats and preserving foods through the winter, starting in July 1775, the Continental Congress passed resolutions designed to hold down salt prices and spur domestic salt-making. By early 1776, several states passed measures to fund salt works on their coasts. In May 1776, Thomas Savadge, a Philadelphia merchant, proposed to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety a plan for a large-scale salt works on the Jersey shore. Even before the council agreed to underwrite the plan, Savadge went to New Jersey and bought five hundred acres of salt marsh near Toms River. Within a few weeks, he hired more than twenty laborers and started constructing the Pennsylvania Salt Works. The men constructed gated canals for trapping sea water, brought in pumps for moving the water into drying vats, and built “houses” lined with large kettles for boiling salt brine into usable salt. In October, Savadge reported back to Philadelphia on his considerable progress, and hinted that the salt works were nearly ready to begin large-scale salt production.

List of Revolutionary War Jersey Shore Saltworks
List of Revolutionary War Jersey Shore Saltworks

In December 1776, Savadge had to abandon the salt works but managed to convince John Morris, a Loyalist Colonel in charge of the area not to burn down the works. He returned to the salt works in January 1777 when the Continental Army retook the area. In April 1778, a Loyalist raiding party burned the competing salt works at Manasquan and Shark River. There is no evidence that the Pennsylvania Salt Works ever produced any salt under Savadage’s management and in November 1779 it was sold to some New Jersey investors who were able to produce modest amounts of salt.


Up and down the Jersey shore, nine of eighteen known salt works were destroyed during the war. But several of the smaller operations, including the Friendship Works owned by Thomas Hopkins of Philadelphia, were successful. By war’s end, imported salt from Europe returned to the American market and pushed the domestic salt-makers into retirement. The Jersey shore was never again a salt-making hotbed. In the late 1700s, Americans discovered inland salt deposits, including some minable sources in northwestern Pennsylvania near the New York border. But competing salt licks near the Cheat River in present-day West Virginia and the Ohio River in eastern Kentucky were closer to major navigable rivers and became more significant suppliers.

A Salt Boiling House
A Salt Boiling House

While salt cod was not an important military staple, salt pork and salt beef (what we would today call corned beef) were. These items were dietary staples of the Army, as well as sailors, in the 18th and 19th centuries. There were strict “standards: for making salt beef, although all contractors did not follow them. One such standard was as follows:

  • The meat must not include either hide or bone. Offal, such as organs, heads, feet, and shins, was also excluded.

  • The remaining meat was cut into four-pound pieces. The four-pound quantity was approximate as the butchers were instructed to cut prime sections of meat into slightly smaller pieces and other pieces into slightly larger pieces.

  • The resulting pieces were rubbed with a salt and saltpeter mixture, laid in a bin, and covered with dry salt.

  • As the salt drew water out of the meat, the brine was poured back over the cuts and more salt added. This was done twice a day for six days.

  • At the end of this time the meat was packed into barrels. A layer of meat was laid down, then a layer of salt, another layer of meat, and so on until the barrel was full.

  • The barrel was allowed to stand for several days, and the resulting brine drawn off by means of a bung in the bottom of the keg.

  • After draining for 24 hours the barrel was refilled with strong brine. The brine was sufficiently salty that the pieces of meat could float. At this point, the barrel was sealed and ready for issue.

Salt pork was made similarly.


Salt in Virginia

Salt making in Virginia began very quickly following the establishment of the Jamestown Colony. Sir Thomas Dale started the first major colonial salt-making operation in Virginia in 1614. Dale, the marshal of the colony responsible for military defense and discipline, sent colonists to Smith's Island on the southern tip of the Eastern Shore to make salt. Establishing a “basecamp” there, he then sent indentured servants to the eastern side of the Eastern Shore ("seaside") to boil Atlantic Ocean water and precipitate salt. Salt makers boiled 250-300 gallons of seawater in large kettles, evaporating the water to produce salt. The salt manufacturing operation required collection of driftwood and perhaps cutting some nearby trees for fuel.

Location of Smith's Island
Location of Smith's Island

In 1660, the General Assembly promised Edmund Scarborough (Scarborough) a monopoly on salt production, with a ban on competition from imports, if he could produce 800 bushels of salt. The bar was set too high, and Scarborough's arrogant behavior cost him political support from other members of the Virginia gentry, so he lost his monopoly after failing to produce enough salt. In 1668, after Edmund Scarborough lost his monopoly, John Custis contracted with Peter Reverdley to construct 312 salt-evaporation ponds ("salters") on Mockhorn Island. That operation relied upon the heat of the sun to evaporate seawater; no driftwood needed to be collected or wood shipped to Mockhorn Island to maintain fires. The process would have been inefficient since any rain or spray would delay evaporation.


At the start of the American Revolution, merchants hoarded salt and prices climbed until the Virginia General Assembly established a state monopoly and imposed price controls in 1776. The Virginia Convention (which governed the colony until the state declared independence) proposed creating 10 state-owned saltworks, with shallow ponds to be constructed for evaporating the brine and precipitating salt. Either out of ignorance regarding salinity differences or fear of British attack, most of the saltworks were located within the Chesapeake Bay rather than on the sea side of the Eastern Shore. Evaporation efforts failed to generate more than a token amount of salt and plans to purchase metal pans and boil brackish water floundered over the difficulty of acquiring the pans. The most effective solution turned out to be importing salt from Bermuda and the Caribbean islands via fast ships that could avoid the British blockade.


Map Showing "Big Lick" (Roanoke, VA)
Map Showing "Big Lick" (Roanoke, VA)

There are a few places in Virginia where salt springs from underground salt beds create "salt licks" on the surface of the ground. Animals seek out the minerals at those locations, and for as much as 15,000 years hunters have been aware of the locations where salt from underground formations is carried by groundwater to the surface. Mastodons and other large mammals used salty marshes that later were the site of today's Saltville, VA. "Big Lick" was an animal concentration point long before it became the modern city of Roanoke.


Thomas Batts and Robert Fallam explored across the Blue Ridge in 1671, discovering the New River before turning back. Native Americans told them that if they had traveled further beyond the mountains, they would have reached where others "lived on a plain level, from whence came abundance of salt." The salt springs on the North Fork of Holston at modern Saltville were still being utilized by natives and settlers in the mid-late 1700s.


In 1750, Dr. Thomas Walker traveled past "the great Lick on A Branch of the Staunton" River. That site, later called Big Lick, is now in downtown Roanoke. Dr. Walker noted how the mineralized soil attracted game, and how the early settlers had wasted that asset. Thomas Jefferson acquired mastodon bones dug up at Big Bone Lick in Kentucky. He was not aware of the salt springs further west on the Kanawha River, but in Notes on Virginia he recorded the existence of three salt springs in Kentucky as well as the one at Saltville on the Holston River:


“The country westward of the Alleghaney abounds with springs of common salt. The most remarkable we have heard of are at Bullet's lick, the Big bones, the Blue licks, and on the North fork of Holston.”


Virginia’s first major commercial salt production west of the Alleghenies was on the Kanawha River near modern-day Charleston, West Virginia (then a part of Virginia). The same springs where Mary Draper Ingles, a Shawnee captive, was forced to make salt in 1755 were converted into an industrial production site starting in 1797. Development of the salt deposits on a 15-mile stretch of the Kanawha River created an industrial complex in western Virginia. The manufactured product (salt) was shipped west to customers all the way to New Orleans, not eastward to the traditional Tidewater port cities of Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Richmond, or Petersburg.

Salt Boiling in the Early-to-Mid 19th Century
Salt Boiling in the Early-to-Mid 19th Century

Within 14 years, wells were drilled over 400 feet deep to tap into the saline aquifers. Salt makers soon switched from wood to coal to fuel the fires that kept the kettles boiling and organized the Kanawha Salt Company to monopolize production and control prices. The Kanawha salt industry boomed until a major flood in 1861, followed by the Civil War, disrupted production, and altered state boundaries so the site was no longer in Virginia.


We hope you enjoyed today’s post on Salt, its history, and its importance in 18th and early-19th century America. Hopefully, this article will spark interest in learning more about the uses of this mineral, and perhaps visiting some of the locations mentioned. Please join us again in two weeks when we will look at Noah Webster and how he affected American language and education.


Until then, while you are here on our website, we would also encourage you to join our blog community (Look for the button in the upper right-hand corner of this post). This will allow us to inform you when we post new articles. We also suggest that you return to our blog home page and sample our other articles on a wide variety of late-18th and early-19th century subjects; both military and civilian.


Finally, if you live in Virginia, Maryland, or North Carolina, we invite you to visit The Norfolk Towne Assembly’s home page to learn more about us, what we do, and how you can get involved in our historic dance, public education, and living history efforts.


References

Clark, T. D. (1937). Salt, A Factor in the Settlement of Kentucky. Lexington, KY: The Filson Club.


Gaines, J. S., & York, J. (2007). Saltworks. Spritsail: A Journal of the History of Falmouth and Vicinity, 21(1), 11-17.


Grymes, C. A. (1998-2020). Salt in Virginia. Retrieved from Virginia Places.Org: http://www.virginiaplaces.org/geology/salt.html


Hopkins, T. (1918). Journal of Thomas Hopkins of the Friendship Salt Company, New Jersey, 1780. The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 42, pp. 46-61.


Jefferson, T. (1788). Notes on the State of Virginia. Philadelphia: Pritchard and Hall.


Kelly, J. M. (1960). The Colonial Salt Problem of New York and New England. New York: Fordham University Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.


The Morton Salt Company. (1959). The History of Salt. Chicago: Morton Salt Company.


Warren, J. (2015, May 13). Salty Matters: Salt's uses across human history. Retrieved from Saltwork Consultants: https://www.saltworkconsultants.com/downloads/6%20history%20of%20salt%20usage.pdf


Yagi, G. (2015, November 19). Savoring Victory - 18th Century Armies & Navies Couldn't Fight Without Salted Provisions. Retrieved from Military History Now: https://militaryhistorynow.com/2015/11/19/savoring-victory-18th-century-armies-navies-couldnt-fight-without-salted-provisions/

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