The Earliest American Whaling

The earliest American whaling on the east coast. Let’s be sure to clarify the location!

This month Gazette665’s Wednesday blog posts will continue to explore whaling in 19th Century maritime, and we’ll be tracing some of the developments and communities surrounding the industry. To start understanding the complex picture, today we’ll journey back to the foundations of American whaling – back to the 1600 and 1700’s and delve into the early attempts which laid the ground work for the late 18th and early 19th Century’s activities.

East Coast Native Americans & Whaling?

Most reliable historical sources agree Native American tribes along the eastern shores of America did not practice large whale hunting, either from shore or in boats prior to the arrival of the colonists. However, if a whale beached (got stuck ashore) or a smaller “whale” (think dolphin-sizes) came into shallow waters, the animal might have been killed and butchered to add to the local village’s food supply.

When the colonists developed their methods for whale hunting, Native Americans joined the starting industry, looking for work. (See below for cultural implications.) They became skilled hunters; the Wampanoag especially gained a reputation for their precision and courage, holding jobs in the industry through the 19th Century. In fact, the American novel Moby Dick by Herman Melville one of the harpooners is Tashtego, a Wampanoag.

“The Whale on Shore” by J.M.W. Turner, c. 1837

Colonists With Whaling Background?

One of the observations of the journal keepers arriving on the Mayflower in 1620: Cape Cod would be a great place for whaling. Earlier explorers along the coast had also noted the numbers of large whale pods and later described the whaling boats operating off the Canadian coasts. Clearly, whaling was already practiced in European countries.

Likely, most of the earliest settlers in New England had little experience in whale hunting or butchery, but they knew there was a growing market for whale oil and “bone” in the Old World. Naturally, it made sense to explore new ways to make money…and new ways to obtain lighting and other supplies for their own homes.

Hunting From The Shore?

Similar to the Native American methods, the early colonists likely poked and marveled at beached whales…and/or decided to see if it was good to eat. They would’ve known about whale oil and may have boiled some blubber to see what would happen.

As the colonies became more firmly established, the settlers sought ways to hunt the whales, process the oil, and make some money. Close along the shores cruised the Right Whales. The first recorded attempt at organized whaling in America happened in 1644 in the Long Island Sound; a community banded together, went off-shore in little boats, and hunting solitary (possible sick or injured whales).

A whale butchered ashore

With passing decades, whaling hunting close to shore gained a method. Look-outs watched for small pods or lonely whales and notified the village. The men raced to launch their boats, hunt the whale by harpooning it and letting it drag weights until exhausted, and, if the spear kill was successful, tow the carcass to shore for butchery and blubber boiling. The New England communities developed whale hunting seasons between October and March, when the whales came closer to short, and, conveniently, when most of the field work, was completed. The practice of off-shore whaling continued through 1720’s when the whales became scarce that close to shore.

It wasn’t all terrible. This photograph shows Amos Hoskins, a Aquinnah Wampanoag Whaler who became a ship master or captain.

Laborers & Culture In Early Whaling Days 

Even though it was a seasonal hunting season, the foundations of the whaling culture developed in the earliest days. Let’s be honest – whaling (off-shore or voyage) was hard, back-breaking, disgusting, and exhausting work. Not something the governor’s son would likely sign-up for. If a man had economic status or “personal liberty,” whaling wasn’t going to be his first choice of work.

So…from the earliest days, the laborers in the whaling industry tended to be men who needed work. Not always fitting into the agrarian and town societies, Native American men frequently took jobs in the whaling community. But there was a darker side. Whether they were cheated or lacked monetary knowledge, many Native Americans during the Colonial era got into debt. It wasn’t uncommon for a white whaler (or shipowner) to agree to “hire” a native, but then basically use all that man’s earnings to pay his debts. (Similar to indentured servitude.)

As time went on, the whaling culture morphed through new ideas and developed a unique thought-process of respect and stigma toward the minority groups within its seafaring ranks. Throughout the history of American whaling, the laborers manning the oars were usually minority groups or disadvantaged, property-less men searching for work and opportunity. Work was available. Pay was available. Opportunity? That would depend on circumstances. (See photograph in the article!)

And – by the way – Nantucket and other Quaker whaling communities had their own ideas and hierarchy. We’ll talk about that next week.

1782 Map of Nantucket

The Quakers Change The Industry

When the Right Whales didn’t come close to shore, villages started outfitting boats for longer journeys to go out and look for the whales. Originally, these vessels carried barrels to pack the chunks of whale blubber and bring it back to shore for boiling. That worked for a little while, but then by legendary accident, a captain from the Quaker island community of Nantucket made a discovery. A discovery that would change American whaling and the maritime world.

As the story goes, the captain and crew were caught in a storm and blown far out to sea. There they saw a great whale and managed to kill the beast. It was a Sperm Whale – a whale with the best quality oil they’d every seen. Sperm Whales didn’t come near shore; they lived in the deep, deep oceans.

If man wanted to hunt these creatures (and make the greater profits), he had to find a way to stock a ship and boil the blubber at sea. And so the idea of American whaling voyages was born during the Colonial Era and perfected by the 19th Century.

More about Nantucket and the Quakers next Wednesday!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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4 Responses to The Earliest American Whaling

  1. Marshall Ayers says:

    I am so enjoying this series.

    • Glad to hear it! Have you read “In The Heart of the Sea” by Nathaniel Philbrick? Not a comprehensive history of whaling, but a great look at one of the legendary and terrifying voyages.

  2. Pingback: Whales, Nantucket Island, & The Quakers | Gazette665

  3. Pingback: New Bedford – The 19th Century American Whaling Capital | Gazette665

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