Shallop Elizabeth Tilley

"To provide outreach and education on John Howland, maritime history, and the Pilgrim story throughout New England. To allow people to experience "living history" when they sail on the Elizabeth Tilley. To be an ambassador to other Mayflower families and the general public for increased knowledge of the 1620's."

By Peter Arenstam


In 1626 an “ingenious man that was a house carpenter” as described by William Bradford in his history of Plymouth Colony, sawed in half one of the larger shallops. He lengthened the vessel five or six feet, raised the side planking some, and laid a deck on her. In this way the colonists were able to keep goods, and themselves, safe as they transported corn to trade with Native People up the Kennebec River in Maine. Presumably, as an assistant to the governor, John Howland was one of the number involved in these ventures.

In the spring of 2000, the president of the Pilgrim John Howland Society (Bradford Gorham) approached me about building a replica of the decked vessel John Howland sailed in to the trading post in Maine. The society’s plan was to have a shallop built, launch it in Plymouth harbor, and after a suitable period of sea trials head off to Maine, re-creating one of the trips their Pilgrim ancestor made. We came to an agreement on the price and a time frame in which the boat would be built. After the excitement of landing such a unique and challenging project died away, the Maritime Artisans staff was left with two daunting questions. What did a lengthened and decked over shallop look like? And how would we build it?

William Baker, designer of the shallop exhibited next to Mayflower II in Plymouth harbor, compiled a great deal of research regarding the characteristics of the 17th-century boat type. His work lead him to the conclusion that in most cases a shallop was an open rowing and sailing vessel built to carry cargo, used for fishing, or just traveling on the water. This variety of employment meant a shallop could be either constructed with large frames and thick planking able to withstand rugged use or lightly planked and sparsely framed for increased speed under oars.

Images of shallops can be found in many period illustrations of port scenes, fishing communities and views of river traffic. The type was common to many European countries. From the Dutch sloep, the French chaloupe, the Portuguese chalupa, to the German schlup Baker notes the English shallop shared an ancestry with all these vessels.

The individual characteristics of a shallop could vary as widely from country to country as the spelling of its name. For example, a chalupa from 1565 recovered from a Basque whaling station in Red Bay Labrador was built with carvel or smooth planking on the bottom, and lapstrake, or overlapping planks, on the topsides. It had two masts likely rigged with square sails and was double ended (pointed at both ends). Another shallop, a Dutch sloep, is described in 1671 as being built entirely of lapstrake construction with no sailing rig and a transom stern, (pointed in the front and flat in the back.)

Decked-over shallops are mentioned in colonial records. In Baker’s Sloops & Shallops, he notes in 1632 a fur trader’s shallop from Maryland, the Firefly, was decked for half her length to protect trade goods. Fishermen in Marblehead, MA added a partial deck to a shallop in 1670 and made use of the protection the deck provided by installing a chimney in one of the resulting “rooms.”

Besides being used independently, a shallop was often employed as a tender to another vessel; sometimes it retrieved anchors or other heavy objects or as a means of transportation among a fleet sailing in company. A shallop would be taken aboard the larger vessels when they sailed on voyages to the New World. It could be broken down into pieces and stowed below decks until needed for traveling along the coast. Captain John Smith’s chaloupe en fagot, used to explore the Chesapeake in 1607, was one such boat. The shallop that the Pilgrims brought with them on the Mayflower in 1620 was another. Governor Bradford describes the stowing of the shallop:

"They having brought a large shallop with them out of England, stowed in quarters in the ship, they now got her out and set their carpenters to work to trim her up; but being much bruised and shattered in the ship with foul weather, they saw she would be long in mending."

The 16 to 17 days the carpenter spent rebuilding and refurbishing the shallop was the beginning of the colony’s boat building efforts. Also during that time men were employed in sawing out planks for a new shallop. In the very first days the colonists recognized the importance of acquiring vessels for transportation.

In 1623 a small vessel, the Little James, arrived in Plymouth. The 44-tun vessel had been built in England especially to support the colony’s maritime activities. However, the vessel suffered from a series of unfortunate occurrences and remained with the colony for only two years. On returning from a lack-luster trading voyage to the Narragansetts the vessel ran afoul of Brown’s Bank during a storm and lost its main mast. The next season, on a fishing voyage while at Damariscove Island in Maine, a storm “drove her against great rocks, which beat such a hole in her bilge as a horse and cart might have gone in.” The Little James was raised and repaired. In 1625 she was loaded with trade goods and sent back to England. Just as she was reaching the English Channel pirates took her and sold off the goods.

The same year the Little James arrived, a boat builder was sent to Plymouth to bolster the small collection of boats the colony owned. Although he was only in the colony for less than a year, he was able, with the help of some of the colonists, to build two strong shallops, a lighter, (a kind of barge), and hewed out timbers for two ketches. After all that labor, Bradford relates the boat builder "fell into a fever in the hot season of the year, and though he had the best means the place could afford, yet he died."

After the ill fated Little James was sent back to England in 1625 with its hold full of trade goods, the colonists were left with the two shallops that the boat builder had built the previous year. One of the shallops was used in an attempt to generate revenue for the colony. They laid a little deck over the midships section to protect a cargo of corn, and Edward Winslow, among others, used it for a successful trading voyage to the Kennebec.

Even with the little deck on the shallop, the colonists felt they ran a great hazard in traveling such a long way in basically an open boat. They realized the need for a larger vessel to safely continue trading in Maine. But as the boat builder had died the previous year, it was left to a house carpenter, who had worked with the boat builder, to attempt to modify one of their shallops. The house carpenter "took one of the biggest of their shallops and sawed her in the middle, and so built her up and laid a deck on her." This vessel, Bradford reports, provided good service to the colony for seven years.

It is this vessel that we recently replicated for the Howland Society. Fortunately, no one fell down dead after completing the project and we hope that the shallop will last more than seven years!

Since the shallop Plimoth Plantation Inc. owns is not available to be sawn in half, and it did not make sense to saw in half a newly-built boat, we settled on building a larger version of the 33' shallop William Baker designed in 1957. However it is not enough just to add five or six feet to the middle of the Baker shallop design as the resulting vessel would be too narrow for its length to be safe. Also, Bradford relates the house carpenter, along with adding length and a deck, raised the sides making it a larger vessel all around. These modifications led us to believe the best way to proceed was to use the 17th-century system of naval architecture and draft a larger vessel that would reflect the additions the house carpenter incorporated in 1626.

It is commonly assumed the 17th-century boat builder relied on inherited information and that he designed and built boats “by eye.” While experience passed from one generation to the next was important, the builder had access to a system of naval architecture known as whole moulding. Howard Chapelle relates in his book, American Small Sailing Craft, that this system was used well before 1600 and continued until the end of the 18th century and is related to the system for ship design written about by Mathew Baker in 1586.

Mathew Baker was a master shipwright during Queen Elizabeth I’s reign. His work, Fragments of Ancient ShipWrightery, spells out the geometrical and mathematical principles of using arcs of circles either individually or in combination with other arcs and straight lines to describe the lines of ships. Along with other lines used to control the emerging shape the shipwright could, once the principle dimensions of keel length, breadth and depth of the ship were given by the owner, produce a set of drawings from which the ship was built.

In A Treatise on Shipbuilding written between 1620 and 1625 the unknown author explained in a step-by-step fashion the process of designing a ship. There were rules to determine the size and locations of all the timbers and the proportions applied to the design. This work is believed to be related to if not copied from Baker’s Fragments.

The process of designing in this period started with drawing out the shape of the backbone, that is, the stem, keel and sternpost. Next, two sets of lines known as rising and narrowing lines were drawn. They were all based on arcs of circles with varying radii and were used to determine the shape of the vessel at each frame location or station. One set of these lines dictated how wide and how high the floor of the frame is from the keel. Another set of lines determined how wide and how high the beam of the vessel is at each station. In a ship there could be as many as four or five different arcs of circles connected to make a frame shape. The frames for a boat could be designed with as few as one or two arcs.

The drawing that displays all the frame shapes is called the body plan. In the whole moulding process once the designer has determined the mid-ship, or largest frame, he can use a pattern of it to determine and draw out the shape of all the other frames in the boat. Determining the mid-ship frame is the key to the whole process. That shape can be found either mathematically or as William Sutherland in The Ship Builder’s Assistant, or Marine Architecture, written in 1794, suggests:

"…the sweeps can be formed; if by no other means, by repeated trials till they are made to please the fancy and judgment of the artist…Though several ships may be made of the same breadth, depth in the hold and dead rising they may all differ in the form of their timbers."

We followed the process laid out by these texts in drawing the Howland shallop. The principal dimensions are predetermined. The length is 38’ (33’ shallop sawed in half and five feet added). The beam of 10’4” and the depth amidships, 4’6”, are based on a rule of proportion from the Treatise on Shipbuilding. These figures are also within the range of known dimensions of shallops from the 17th century.

The stem, sternpost and keel were laid out on paper then the rising and narrowing lines, based on the lines from Plimoth Plantation’s shallop, were drawn in. It is at this point the art and science of the 17th-century designer comes together. We experimented with a number of arcs of circles that would sweep through the given points and appeared to give us a shape that looked correct for the mid-ship frame. We made a number of paper templates and compared them to lines of 17th-century shallops. When we were satisfied with the shape it was drawn in and a template made out of thin Plexiglas. This template was used as the 17th-century boat builder would have used his pattern to draw in the remaining frame shapes.

With a drawing in hand we could finally begin building the shallop. But there are more questions that needed, if not answers, then at least some exploration. The primary one is the sequence in which the boat is to be built. As in drawing the vessel the first step is to build the stem, sternpost and keel, connect them all together and set them up on building stocks. At this point there are a number of options on how to proceed.

Dr. Basil Greenhill explores the different methods of building in his book, The Archaeology of Boats and Ships. He claims there are two great categories into which vessels of western history fall. There are boats whose planks are joined edge to edge and usually, but not always, to strengthening frame timbers inside the shell of planking; there are also vessels which are built of planks not joined together, but only to frames.

The edge-fastened plank boat is constructed by building the shell of the vessel then fitting in frames to the completed structure. The other method is to create the skeleton or internal structure first and then fit planking to the outside. Of course, there are exceptions to these methods and long periods when parts of both traditions are used to build a single vessel. Greenhill sites the “Dutch” method of temporarily edge-fastening the bottom planks of a vessel into a shell, then adding frames for the topside to which more planks are added as an example of a hybrid system. The vessel whose remains are in Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA is believed to be constructed in a hybrid fashion.

Another example of a hybrid method can be seen in the Red Bay Labrador wreck. Dr. Greenhill believes this vessel was built by setting up some of the principle frames and running some battens, or thin strips of wood, around the outside of them. The remaining frames are then made to fit the natural run of the battens. Greenhill relates there is a wreck of ca. 1520 at Plymouth, England that has similar structural features.

It is this method of setting up the backbone and then the principle frames that we followed with the Howland shallop. It allowed us to minimize the time it took to make frames and it yet still gave us control over the shape of the emerging vessel.The backbone we used is made of white oak purchased in Connecticut. The white oak tree that became the stem of the boat came from Norwell, MA and was donated to us by Mr. David Lazot along with six beautiful white pine trees that have been sawn up for decking material. All the work was done with the felling axe, broad axe, splitting wedges, adzes and the whip saw. We learned a great deal about 17th-century shipbuilding techniques as the shallop took shape. We learned even more once we launched it!

The 2019 trip to Clark's Island started in the fog -

The weather grew fair as we sailed along Plymouth Beach


A good sized crowd gathered at Pulpit rock to listen to this year's speaker, Victoria Stevens, Historian and Curator of Hull Life Saving Museum.

The Elizabeth Tilley at anchor off of Clark's Island, awaiting our return to Plymouth.