Whaling in the United States

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New England whaling ca. 1860:Whale Fishery -- Attacking a Right Whale, by Currier & Ives

The origins of whaling in the United States of America date to the 17th century in New England and peaked in 1846-52. New Bedford, Massachusetts, sent out its last whaler, the John R. Mantra, in 1927.

The US continues whaling using the International Whaling Commission (IWC) exception for Aboriginal whaling.[1] Catches have increased from 18 whales in 1985 to over 70 whales in 2010.[2]

The latest IWC whaling quota allows for a total of up to 336 bowhead whales to be killed in the period 2013 - 2018.[1]


The towns of Long Island are believed to have been the first to establish a whale fishery on the shores of New England sometime around 1650. Nantucket joined in on the trade in 1690 when they sent for one Ichabod Padduck to instruct them in the methods of whaling.[3] The south side of the island was divided into three and a half mile sections, each one with a mast erected to look for the spouts of right whales. Each section had a temporary hut for the five men assigned to that area, with a sixth man standing watch at the mast. Once a whale was sighted, whale boats were rowed from the shore, and if the whale was successfully harpooned and lanced to death, it was towed ashore, flensed (that is, its blubber was cut off), and the blubber boiled in cauldrons known as "trypots." Well into the 18th century, even when Nantucket sent out sailing vessels to fish for whales offshore, the whalers would still come to the shore to boil the blubber.

In 1715 Nantucket had six sloops engaged in whale fishery,[4] and by 1730 it had twenty-five vessels of 38 to 50 tons involved in the trade.[5] Each vessel employed twelve to thirteen men, half of them being Native Americans. At times the entire crew, with the exception of the captain, might be natives.[6] They had two whaleboats, one held in reserve should the other be damaged by a whale.

By 1732 the first Yankee whalers had reached the Davis Strait fishery, between Greenland and Baffin Island.[7] The fishery slowly began to expand, with whalers visiting the west coast of Africa in 1763, the Azores in 1765, the coast of Brazil in 1773, and the Falklands in 1774. It wasn't until the 19th-century that whaling really became an industry.


In 1768, the fishery began a huge expansion that was to culminate just prior to the American Revolutionary War.[8] Between 1771 and 1775 the Massachusetts ports alone employed an average of 183 vessels in the northern fishery, and 121 in the southern.[9] There was during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars a complete shutdown of the industry, its peak growth came after the American Revolution.

The first Yankee whalers rounded Cape Horn in 1791, entering the Pacific Ocean to hunt the cachalot or sperm whale. At first they only fished off the coast of Chile, but by 1792 the sperm whalers had reached the coast of Peru, and George W. Gardner extended the fishery even further in 1818 when he discovered the "offshore grounds," or the seas between 105-125° W and 5-10° S.[10] In 1820 the first Yankee whaleship, the Maro, under Capt. Joseph Allen, hunted sperm whales on the Japan ground, midway between Japan and Hawaii.[11] The previous year the first Yankee whalers visited the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, and subsequently these islands' were used to obtain fresh fruits, vegetables, and more crew, as well as to repair any damages sustained to the ship.

Jonah Sperm Oil, an old label

In 1829 the Yankee fleet numbered 203 sail; in five years time it more than doubled to 421 vessels,[12] and by 1840 it stood at 552 ships, barks, brigs, and schooners.[13] The peak was reached in 1846, when 736 vessels were registered under the American flag. From 1846 to 1851, the trade averaged some 638 vessels,[14] with the majority coming from such ports as New Bedford, Nantucket, New London, and Sag Harbor, New York. By far the largest number sailed from New Bedford, but Nantucket continued to host a fleet, even when they needed to use "camels," or floating drydocks, to get over the sandbar that formed at the mouth of the harbor.

Thomas Welcome Roys, in the Sag Harbor bark Superior, sailed through the Bering Strait on 23 July 1848 and discovered an abundance of "new fangled monsters," or later to be known as bowhead whales.[15] The following season fifty whalers (forty-six Yankee, two German, and two French vessels) sailed to the Bering Strait region on the report from this single ship.[16] In terms of number of vessels and whales killed, the peak was reached in 1852, when 220 ships[17] killed 2,682 bowheads. Catches declined, and the fleet shifted to the Sea of Okhotsk in 1853-54. Whaling there peaked in 1855-57, and once that area began to decline in 1858-60, they returned to the Bering Strait region.


The American whaling fleet, after steadily growing for 50 years, reached its all-time peak of 199 ships in 1858. Just two years later, in 1860, just before the Civil War, the fleet had dropped to 167 ships. The war cut into whaling temporarily, but only 105 whaling ships returned to sea in 1866, the first full year of peace, and that number dwindled until only 39 American ships set out to hunt whales in 1876.[18]

During the winter, some of these same vessels would make their way to the lagoons of Baja California. The peak began in 1855, commencing the period of lagoon whaling known as the "bonanza period", when whaleboats were crisscrossing through the lagoons, being pulled by enraged whales, passing by calves that had lost their mothers and other ships' crews hunting whales. Less than twenty years later, in 1874, the lagoon fishery was abandoned entirely, due to several years of poor catches.

Several Yankee ships were lost during the 1860s and 1870s. During the Civil War (1861-1865) Confederate raiders such as the Shenandoah, Alabama, and Florida captured or burned forty-six ships, while the United States purchased forty of the fleet's oldest hulls. Known as the Stone Fleet, these ships were purchased to sink in Charleston and Savannah harbors in a failed attempt to blockade those ports. Thirty-three of the forty whalers that comprised the Arctic fleet were lost near Point Belcher and Wainwright Inlet[19] in the Whaling Disaster of 1871, while another twelve ships were lost in 1876.[19]

The use of steam, the high prices for whalebone, and the proximity of the whaling grounds brought the rise of San Francisco as a dominant whaling port in the 1880s. By 1893 it had thirty-three whaleships, of which twenty-two were steamers.[20]

An Old Whaler Hove Down for Repairs, near New Bedford, 1882

At first, the steamers only cruised during the summer months, but with the discovery of bowheads near the Mackenzie River Delta in 1888-89 by Joe Tuckfield,[21] ships begin to overwinter at Herschel Island. The first to do so was in 1890-91,[22] and by 1894-95 there were fifteen such ships overwintering in the snug little harbor of Pauline Cove.[23] During the peak of the settlement (1894–96) about 1,000 persons went to the island, comprising a polyglot community of Nunatarmiuts (Inuit caribou hunters, originating from the Brooks Range), Kogmullicks (Inuit who inhabited the coastal regions of the Mackenzie River delta), Itkillicks (Rat Indians, from the forested regions 200 miles south), Alaskan and Siberian ships' natives, whaling crews and their families, and beachcombers (the few whalemen whose tour of duty had ended, but chose to stay at the island).[24] Ships continued to overwinter at Herschel into the 20th century, but by that time they focused more on trading with the natives than on whaling. By 1909 there were only three whaleships left in the Arctic fleet,[25] with the last bowhead being killed commercially in 1921.[25]


By 1895 the Yankee whaling fleet had dwindled to fifty-one vessels, with only four ports regularly sending out ships.[20] They were New Bedford, Provincetown, San Francisco, and Boston. Boston left the trade in 1903, with San Francisco leaving in 1921. Only New Bedford continued on into the trade, sending out its last whaler, the John R. Mantra, in 1927.[26]

Native whaling[edit]

Various Native American tribes engaged in whaling throughout their history. In particular, a major cultural base of the Makah revolves around the whale and the associated hunt. The Makah signed a treaty in 1855 known as the Treaty of Neah Bay with the United States government that ceded over half of their ancestral lands to ensure their right to continue hunting whales. However, by the 1920s the dangerously low populations of whales caused the Makah to cease hunting whales to ensure the whale's survival. Once whale populations showed stability again in the 1980s, the Makah decided to pursue whaling again, against widespread protests from environmental groups. The United States government's Defense of Marine Mammals Act barred the Makah from whaling, resulting in outrage from the Makah due to their right to whaling being guaranteed by their treaty. In 1999, the United States government allowed the Makah to take 5 whales per year for their "ancestral hunt". That year, the Makah were allowed to partake in their first whaling hunt since the 1920s, however in 2001, the United States government once again overturned their previous ruling and declared it illegal for the Makah to hunt whales. This is an ongoing issue, the Makah, the United States government, and the environmental groups are still fighting legal battles.

The romance of whaling[edit]

According to Frances Diane Robotti,[27] there were three types of whalers: those who hoped to own their own whaleship someday, those who were seeking adventure, and those who were running from something on shore. Generally only those who hoped to make a career of whaling went out more than once.

Since a whaler's pay was based on his lay, or share of the catch, he sometimes returned from a long voyage to find himself paid next to nothing, or even owing money to his employers. Even a bonanza voyage paid the ordinary crewman less than if he had served in the merchant fleet. The lay system was a gamble and sailors were never ensured decent wages. Richard Boyenton of the "Bengal" only earned six and a quarter cents after 5 months at sea, but occasionally sailors got lucky and brought home a significant amount of money after just a couple of voyages. More commonly sailors would earn very little after years at sea. Ships that returned to port less than full of oil were called "broken voyages" while ships that came home overflowing were praised. The "Loper" returned to Nantucket with its deck and hold chock full of casks of oil while ships like the "Brewster" prioritized oil so significantly that they threw food and water overboard to make more room for oil.

There was a romance to whaling; going to sea was a young man's adventure, particularly when he wound up in the South Sea paradises of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), Tahiti, or the Marquesas, where a young American man might find himself surrounded by young women ready to freely offer him their charms, something he was unlikely to experience at home. Many, including Herman Melville, jumped ship, apparently without repercussions. After his romantic interlude among the Typees on Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands, Melville joined another whaler that took him to Hawaii, from where he sailed for home as a crewman on USS United States, a Navy vessel. Along with Robert Louis Stevenson, Paul Gauguin, and others, Melville cultivated the image of the Pacific islands as romantic paradises. The California Gold Rush offered young men an adventure to California, for free if they signed on as a whaler. Many whalers (including captains and officers) abandoned the crew in San Francisco there, leaving abundant ships deserted in the bay.[28]

Whaling and antique scrimshaw[edit]

Detail on a piece in the Horta Scrimshaw Museum
Main article: Scrimshaw

A large part of American, British, and other countries who participated in whaling in the 19th century created scrimshaw. Scrimshaw is the practice of drawing on whale teeth or other forms of ivory with various tools, typically sailor's knives or other sharp instruments. These images were then coated with ink so that the drawing would appear more noticeable on the whale tooth. It is believed that some instruments used by sailors to perform scrimshaw included surgical tools, as with the work done by whaling surgeon William Lewis Roderick. Other forms of ivory included a whale's panbone, walrus ivory, and elephant ivory. Of course, the most common scrimshaw during the whaling period of the 19th century was made from whale parts. Other forms of scrimshaw included whalebone fids (rope splicer), bodkins (needle), swifts (yarn holding equipment) and sailors' canes. The time when most scrimshaw in the 19th century was produced coincided with the heyday of the whaling industry which occurred between 1840-1860. More than 95% of all antique scrimshaw whale teeth known were done by anonymous artists. Some of the better known antique scrimshaw artists include Frederick Myrick and Edward Burdett, who were two of the first scrimshanders to ever sign and date their work. Several museums now house outstanding collections of antique scrimshaw and one of the best being the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.[29]

Modern whaling[edit]

Whaling stations operated in Alaska and on the Canadian west coast and one company, American Pacific Whaling Company with headquarters in Victoria, British Columbia, operated ships and a plant in 1912 at Gray's Harbor, Washington with catcher ships ranging from the Canada–US border south to Cape Blanco in Oregon.[30][31] The economic success and profits were so high that the company decided to build new ships in 1913.[30] At least one of the company's ships, Aberdeen is shown as active 1930 through 1945 with American Pacific Whaling Company in Lloyd's Register.[32][33] Another company, West Coast Whaling Company, was organized in 1912 to operate out of Trinidad, California.[30]

See also[edit]

Further reading[edit]


  1. ^ a b "Aboriginal Subsistence Whaling". International Whaling Commission. Retrieved 19 March 2014. 
  2. ^ "Catches Taken: ASW". International Whaling Commission. Retrieved 23 January 2014. 
  3. ^ Starbuck (1878), p. 17
  4. ^ Starbuck (1878), p. 20
  5. ^ Starbuck (1878), pp. 21–22
  6. ^ Scammon (1874), p. 204
  7. ^ Starbuck (1878), p. 168
  8. ^ Tower (1907), p. 36
  9. ^ Starbuck (1878), p. 57
  10. ^ Scammon (1874), p. 211
  11. ^ Scammon (1874), p. 212
  12. ^ Tower (1907), p. 50
  13. ^ Tower (1907), p. 51
  14. ^ Bockstoce (1986), p. 94
  15. ^ Bockstoce (1986), p. 21
  16. ^ Bockstoce (1986), p. 93
  17. ^ Bockstoce (1986), p. 97
  18. ^ US Bureau of the Census, 1960, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1957, p.445.
  19. ^ a b Bockstoce (1986), p. 344
  20. ^ a b Tower (1907), p. 64
  21. ^ Bockstoce (1986), pp. 255–266
  22. ^ Bockstoce (1986), pp. 260–262
  23. ^ Bockstoce (1986), p. 269
  24. ^ Bockstoce (1986), pp. 272–275
  25. ^ a b Bockstoce (1986), p. 345
  26. ^ Mawar (1999), pp. 339–340
  27. ^ Robotti (1952)
  28. ^ Mawar (1999), p. 244
  29. ^ "Antique Scrimshaw and Whaling" here [1] Archived October 1, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.
  30. ^ a b c Pacific American Steamship Association; Shipowners Association of the Pacific Coast (1913). "A New Industry For Californis". Pacific Marine Review. San Francisco: J.S. Hines. 10 (July 1913): 36–37. Retrieved 3 April 2015. 
  31. ^ Webb (1988), p. 190
  32. ^ Lloyds. "Lloyd's Register 1930–31". Lloyd's Register (through PlimsollShipData). 
  33. ^ Lloyds. "Lloyd's Register 1945–46". Lloyd's Register (through PlimsollShipData). 


External links[edit]