The Height(s) of Yankee Whaling

“A new general chart of the West Indies,” by J.W. Norie (London,1836) showing sperm whaling grounds in the Gulf of Mexico. ODHS #2005.48.2

In the 1770s before the American Revolution the Nantucket whaling fleet numbered 150 vessels. The American fleet overall including other ports in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New York numbered 354 vessels. Dartmouth alone sent 80 vessels to the northern and southern fisheries for bowhead, black, humpback and sperm whales. At this time, American whalers had yet to pass Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope in their hunting but frequented the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the Straits of Belleisle, the Davis Straits, the Brazil Banks, the Hatteras Grounds, the Gulf of Mexico and the Coast of Guinea.

The bulk of their returns were in sperm oil, almost 40,000 barrels, worth over one million dollars. These were mostly all topsail schooners and sloops with a few brigs and the average size was about 80 tons.

Advertisement for a crew to sign on to a whaling voyage appearing in the Columbian Courier, 1796.

At its height in 1856 the New Bedford fleet numbered 329 vessels. These were ships and barks and their average was 340 tons. At the overall height of the industry in 1846, the American fleet of ships, barks, schooners and brigs numbered 742 vessels. This was a global fishery harvesting whales from all the oceans of the world including the Sea of Okhotsk, the Tasman Sea, the Gulf of Mexico and the East Indies, with vessels registered in ports of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, New Jersey and Delaware.

It employed tens of thousands of people and was worth hundreds of millions of dollars in ships, outfits and cargos. To serve the fleet American consuls were installed at the Azores, Pernambuco, Brazil, the Cape Verde Islands, Sydney, Australia, Tahiti, Honolulu, Paita, Peru, Talcahuano, Chile, Barbados and elsewhere. By the mid-1850s, a railroad crossing the Isthmus of Darien enabled oil and bone to be off-loaded in the Pacific and shipped across Panama to the Gulf of Mexico further streamlining the supply of whale products to the market places of the East Coast and New England.

“The port of New Bedford from Crow Island,” oil on canvas by William Bradford, 1854. ODHS #1975.18.