NATHANIEL E. ATWOOD. (By James Gifford, Esq. )
—This highly esteemed and distinguished citizen of Provincetown was born September 13, 1807, and died at his residence, November 7, 1886. He was the son of John Atwood [sic], a fisherman, who, like most of his contemporaries, was poor, and deprived of many of what are now esteemed the necessities, as well as of the conveniences of the household. As he could not afford a clock to tell the hour of the night when it was time to go fishing, it was his practice to repair to the shore and mark the position of the ebb or flood tide upon the beach, and thus determine the starting time. Not including provision for his schooling, the bare necessaries of life were all that could be furnished the son. Few more interesting or pathetic struggles for the rudiments of knowledge have been told of New England men than those he used to relate of his own experience. In 1816, to be nearer the fishing grounds, his father and family removed to Long point, taking the son with them—the first resident fisherman. Here, at the age of nine, Nathaniel E. began his calling, the father often taking the boy from his bed, at three or four in the morning, for a place in his fishing boat for the day, returning to do other requisite work at night.
Though possessing a natural bias for learning, no leisure, books or schooling could be afforded him. Occasionally, in short intervals of rest, upon returning to the shore the father, who could not read, but could cipher, drawing sums upon the smooth sand of the beach with a stick, gave the son the only lessons in arithmetic he ever received from a teacher. Despite, however, the absence of opportunity, he, by force of native ability and desire for improvement, acquired, not great scholarship, it is true, but an amount of learning and a knowledge of natural history that assured him a creditable position. As a practical ichthyologist, he not only long enjoyed a national reputation in his own country, but his name, in connection with this branch, has for many years been known by scientific men in Europe. At the age of thirteen, graduating from the fish boat, his father shipped him as cook on a fishing vessel for the coast of Labrador. Continuing those voyages, three years later he was trusted to ship himself in a vessel bound to the Grand Banks. Desirous of a change of occupation, he went several voyages as seaman, and subsequently as master in the coasting and foreign fishing trade. A superior navigator, a kind master, a careful, honest agent, he filled these positions with efficiency and secured the confidence and esteem of his men and employers. Returning to fishing, he continued in this calling till the age of sixty, twice encountering shipwreck during this period. Endowed with rare powers of observation, with a retentive memory and a temper favorable to study and investigation, he began in early manhood to acquire knowledge of the characteristics of the sea fishes.
In 1843, when Dr. D. Humphries Storer was preparing his Fishes of Massachusetts, making inquiry for a fisherman who knew most about fishes on the coast, all concurred in referring him to Mr. Atwood. That this reference was fully justified, appears from the following extracts from the work cited: "During the last six or eight years no individual has rendered me such essential assistance as Captain N. E. Atwood, of Provincetown. * * * For much acceptable information respecting our marketable species I am indebted to him, the best practical ichthyologist in our state." In a subsequent report to the Boston Society of Natural History, he said: "Let his name, who has done so much to enable me to present this final report, be indelibly associated with the science to which he is an honor."
In 1852 Louis Agassiz, impressed with the value of Mr. Atwood's contributions to ichthyology, visited him in his home upon Long point, and there began an acquaintance that shortly ripened into an intimacy and life-long friendship. Their constant correspondence respecting fishes was continued through the professor's life. It was at his suggestion that Mr. Atwood was employed in the winter of 1868-9 to deliver a popular course of twelve lectures upon food fishes before the Lowell Institute of Boston.
In 1847 he was chosen a member of the Boston Society of Natural History. In 1856 he was appointed member of a committee to investigate the feasibility of the artificial propagation of inland fishes, and the same year was elected a member of the Essex Institute of Salem. He was subsequently chosen a member of the Institute of Technology in Boston, and of the American Academy of Arts and Science.
In 1857, 1858, he was a representative to the legislature, and in 1869-1871 a member of the state senate, serving as chairman of the committee on fisheries. His opinions on matters pertaining to sea fisheries and requiring legislation were received as authority. He was therefore summoned before legislative committees in several states to give his views on pending measures. Candid and thoroughly informed, his judgment was generally accorded decisive weight. He was twice sent to Washington by his fellow-townsmen once to urge upon the war department the necessity of fortifying Provincetown harbor, and later to present the interests of the fisheries to the congressional committee on ways and means. For fifteen years prior to 1882 he was a faithful, diligent officer of the revenue in Provincetown. He was also one of the trustees of the Seamen's Savings Bank in Provincetown, and was three years member of the school committee. He was for many years associated with the United States fish commission, and rendered important services that were fully appreciated by that board. Of a serene, cheerful temper, unassuming in manner, charitable to faults, public spirited and benevolent, his whole career was characterized by unselfishness, gentleness and integrity that was unswerving. The death of no man in Provincetown, in this generation at least, produced more general or sincere regret. His character and memory are a legacy to the people of this town.
His first marriage was with Maria Smith of Sag Harbor, L. I. He settled in Provincetown, where Mrs. Atwood died in 1849.