New England settlers found work as fishermen, dock workers, sailors, shipbuilders, merchants and artisans. Most people farmed, but the poor soil made anything but bare subsistence farming impossible.
The first settlers farmed out of necessity, but they quickly found that clearing the poor, rocky, heavily-treed soil was not a feasible means for making a profit. The first two trades they turned their hands to were fishing and lumber. The abundant tall, straight trees in New England were in great demand in Britain, and salt fish was always a strong trade item. Soon, sawmills built along rivers made it practical not just to cut down and process trees to ship out, but to build ships in New England. By the end of the 17th century, there were several shipbuilders working in the region to supply New England fishermen and traders but also to sell cheaply to British customers. Small towns like Boston and Salem rose to serve the sea trade.
Those who had farms too far inland to take advantage of the sea busied themselves with secondary occupations like running taverns and ordinaries near roads, trapping and hunting game, or traveling from farm to farm as peddlers or laborers. It was very common for young people and those without family to take positions as servants and farm workers at more prosperous homes.