Charleston is a city built on stories and yet, despite all those told there is a fascinating story that most people never hear. It is a story of incredible sea men, defying all odds; of American work ethic and perseverance in the face of adversity. It is the story of the Charleston Mosquito Fleet.
The Holy City is known for its rich history, fresh seafood, and charming people. As carriages take tours through the French Quarter and South of Broad, visitors to the fair city hear tales of the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the Huguenots, of wealthy families and the slave trade. Charleston is a city built on stories, and yet despite all those told, there is a fascinating story that most people never hear. It is a story of incredible sea men, defying all odds; of American work ethic and perseverance in the face of adversity. It is the story of the Charleston Mosquito Fleet.
The Mosquito Fleet is the name given to the fleet of small wooden boats that would leave downtown Charleston each morning and return each afternoon with hundreds of pounds of fresh fish to sell to the people of Charleston. Now that may seem unremarkable, but a bit of digging shows that the Mosquito Fleet was anything but. In fact, these modest wooden boats and the men who captained them constitute what may be the greatest untold story in Charleston.
Legend has it that the fleet got its name from the daughter of General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. As she was spending time on the porch of her home on the Battery, she saw the wooden boats with their colorful patchwork sails out on the horizon coming in from a day of fishing. “Look father, a giant swarm of mosquitos is coming up the river!” she exclaimed. And from that point on the men and their boats were known as the Mosquito Fleet.
The Mosquito Fleet was largely comprised of black men and was a tradition that spanned from the early 1800’s to Hurricane Hugo’s arrival in 1989. Prior to the Civil War the men of the Mosquito Fleet were slaves and their daily journey offshore was a welcome escape from the grueling life of indentured servitude. After the Civil War, these men were freedmen in search of careers to provide for their families and fishing was the logical choice.
From their inception, until World War II, the Mosquito Fleet was the primary source of fresh seafood in downtown Charleston. The men would sail small wooden boats 10-15 miles off the coast and use hand lines to bring in hundreds of pounds of fish like Black Sea Bass and Porgy. What made these daily trips all the more extraordinary is the men of the Mosquito Fleet did not have any navigation gear or high-tech fishing equipment. To make it to and from the fishing grounds each day the men of the Mosquito Fleet used dead reckoning, meaning they used only landmarks and their internal sense of direction to navigate. All of their nets and lines were hand crafted, no fancy reels or rods just long lines with 10-12 hooks attached and hand tied nets (a craft that has been lost with the Mosquito Fleet).
The fleet’s return to port each day brought flocks of people. It was something of a daily social event as people gathered to buy dinner for the night or just to see what had been hauled in that day. The Mosquito Fleet was highly regarded in Charleston—their cultural and economic value was irreplaceable. Due to that, General Pinckney deeded land on the banks of the Cooper River to the fleet so they would have a highly visible space to dock and show off their catch. This land was to remain in the possession of the fleet as long as there were living members to use it. Sadly, it now sits in the hands of the Port Authority fenced off and unused, surrounded by high rise condos and port terminals.
These pylons are all that is left of the Mosquito Fleet docks
There is little evidence left of the Mosquito Fleet in modern-day Charleston. The Gibbes Museum has hosted exhibits of Mosquito Fleet photos but beyond that there is little to show for their time in the city. Even more difficult to find are living resources on the Mosquito Fleet. Knowledge of the Mosquito Fleet has largely been lost to time. The fleet was around until the late 80’s, but after World War II the fleet was mostly comprised of older men who have since passed, taking their stories of the Mosquito Fleet with them.
There are those who are committed to keeping the history of the Mosquito Fleet intact. Namely the “ConNECKted Project,” an offshoot of the Charleston Rhizome Collective. These men and women are dedicated to preserving the cultural diversity of Charleston and the stories that give life to that diversity. In this effort, they were able to track down one of the last living members of the fleet—a first hand source on the once celebrated men who gave so much to Charleston.
Samuel Joyner was one of the last men to join the Charleston Mosquito Fleet. When he joined at age 35 he was the youngest member of the aging fleet. Mr. Joyner, now 95, recalls his days with the Mosquito Fleet fondly. His father Thomas “Hazel” Sanders was also a Mosquito Fleet member and introduced him to the men of the fleet. Mr. Joyner would go down to the dock at the end of Laurens St. every day to help clean and repair the boats after they came in from fishing. “I used to be so thankful to help clean their boats, so they let me in.”
After becoming part of the fleet, Mr. Joyner began by fishing with established members of the fleet. Every day they left port with the same equipment: “hand lines, nets, oars, life jackets, a jug of water (less than a gallon), and a sandwich.” Then twenty or so boats would go out to sea with the tide. After a full day of fishing the boats would row or sail back into port laden with fish. In the evenings, Mr. Joyner would work on building his own boat—a feat that took him four years to complete. By that time, he was a full-fledged Mosquito Fleet member.
As Mr. Joyner tells it, day of fishing was guided by a ritual of sorts. A century’s worth of accumulated wisdom and experience on the ocean had been passed down and distilled into a daily routine. The men would make their way out to their most productive fishing grounds, the “black fish banks,” using landmarks taught by fleet members before them. When the fleet reached the banks they’d throw in their hand lines, each with ten or twelve hooks attached.
“If you felt your line dragging on shells below, you knew you were in the right place” says Mr. Joyner.
The men would work together keeping each other abreast of any catches by yelling between boats.
“When you had five fish on a line at once you knew you were on the fish and you would holler to the other boats. Once you were on the fish you could fish for four hours non-stop.”
It was these banks that brought in hundreds of pounds of fresh fish to Charleston and gave the men of the fleet a way to provide for their families. But reaping the bounty of the sea does not come without its dangers.
“You’re in a ten foot boat and the waves can be ten feet high, you can’t see the land. You’re out to sea.” recalls Mr. Joyner.
The fishing conditions were treacherous enough alone, but add to the fact that many Mosquito Fleet members did not know how to swim and it is a wonder that these men were brave enough to leave port each day.
“I never learned how to swim, I often think about that. I was lucky enough to never go overboard, but a lot of men did and a lot of men drowned.”
Mr. Joyner got emotional a few times during the interview as he remembered the loss of his fellow fleet members. But it was recalling the death of the fleet’s last Commodore Arthur Wright that illustrated how close these men were. Tears began to roll down Mr. Joyner’s face as he told the story of the last time he saw “Captain Bitters,” Wright’s nickname in the fleet.
“We had finished fishing and he went to check on a crab trap he had set. He went alone and he must have been trying to pull in too full a trap when his boat capsized.”
Like so many of his peers, the Commodore could not swim and his body was found three days later.
Life was hard in the Mosquito Fleet, but it everything to these men and their families.
“It helped me raise my family. I was dependent on those waters.” says Mr. Joyner.
That debt of gratitude could be seen at the Mosquito Fleet dock in its heyday. Men too old to fish would still come to the dock and sit and knit nets for the men who could still fish. You could find them all day making gill nets, seine nets and cast nets for the fleet.
Mr. Joyner recalls one gentleman named Mr. Matthew who was something of a fleet guru. The retired men of the fleet would not only provide the younger men with gear and nets but with knowledge of the water and the art of fishing.
“You could find Mr. Matthew there every day but Sunday knitting nets. He knew everything.”
As the fleet continued into the 20th century its members grew older and older. Commercial fishing outfits were able to bring in bigger catches and the Mosquito Fleet was faced with hardship after hardship.
“Hurricane Gracie tore the dock up, but it was rebuilt. But then Hugo came and utterly destroyed our dock. Fleet boats were found by the Francis Marion Hotel.”
After Hugo the Mosquito Fleet never really recovered, there was no money to rebuild the dock or replace the traps and gear that the storm destroyed. There were still about ten fishermen who were willing to fish but the burden was just too heavy.
The land at the end of Laurens Street is fenced in and surrounded by new developments
The site of the fleet’s dock still sits relatively untouched at the end of Laurens Street downtown. Fenced off and surrounded by new developments, the shore looks little like it did when the Mosquito Fleet was in service. Mr. Joyner still visits from time to time to look through the fence. He still has the keys to the shack that housed the fleet’s gear, but he can’t get in to see if anything still survives.
Mr. Joyner’s smile is never bigger than when he talks about his time with the Mosquito Fleet, but there is also sadness in his stories. Sadness for what’s been lost.
“I wish I could see that dock come back, I have two boys that I know would’ve fished.”