Learn the early beginnings of North American whaling through to the Great Age of Yankee Whaling. Get a sense of the challenges and changes that spelled the decline of the whaling fleet.
Chronology of Yankee Whaling
Native American Whaling
Unlike some native peoples of the Pacific Northwest, there is little recorded evidence that eastern woodland native peoples either developed whaling cultures or systematically hunted great whales before Europeans arrived in the Americas.
They did hunt small cetaceans and utilized the carcasses of “drift” and stranded whales that washed up on shore. Native use of these as food resources is documented.
As European colonists began to regularly hunt great whales sighted from shore, Native Americans joined them and became actively engaged in the hunt. They became integral members of the first colonial shore-whaling operations, as well as the ocean (pelagic) whaling ventures of later decades.
Explorers and Settlers from Europe
Many early European explorers wrote descriptions of the quantities and types of whales found in the coastal waters of North America. As early as 1535, Jacques Cartier described belugas and other great whales in the St. Lawrence River. Samuel de Champlain wrote a description of Basque whaling for right whales there in 1610.
In 1620, the Pilgrim fathers William Bradford and Edward Winslow wrote: “Cape Cod was like to be a place of good fishing, for we saw daily great whales, of the best kind for oil and bone.” These were probably right whales (Eubalæna glacialis), the animal that served as the foundation of North American commercial whaling. The bone to which they referred is the baleen that the mysticete and rorqual whales have growing in the tops of their mouths instead of teeth. Mysticetes (such as the right whale) and rorquals (such as the humpback whale) filter their food through baleen, which is made of keratin, the same material as human fingernails. Baleen was used to make a wide variety of products, such as tools, buggy whips, and corset stays.
Colonial Whaling Begins
The first record of the colonists’ attempts to organize community efforts to hunt drift whales was in Southampton, Long Island, in March of 1644. Over the next 30 years this organization developed into actual shore-whaling operations, where small boats were launched into the surf when whales were sighted offshore. By 1672 the colonists and their Native American neighbors were working together to hunt whales along the coast from small sailing vessels.
While the New Yorkers were developing their seasonal whale fishery generally between October and March, whalers on Cape Cod Bay had also established a thriving shore fishery in Wellfleet, working during the same months. Whales were captured using harpoons with wooden floats attached to long ropes. After the animals were exhausted from dragging the floats, they would be killed with long lances and towed to shore. Their blubber would be removed and boiled down into oil in large iron vats called try-pots. The baleen was also removed, and the carcasses were left to rot.
The whalers of nearby Eastham described this phase of their whaling operation in 1706: “ye Rest of ye Boddy of ye Lean of whales Lye on shoare in lowe water to be washt away by ye sea” (Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery, 1878, p. 30).
The Start of Deep-Sea Voyages
As the seasons of the 1720’s saw a noticeable decline in whales off the coasts of Cape Cod and Nantucket, the whalers began to outfit single-masted sailing vessels called sloops to pursue the animals into deeper water. These voyages led the whalers farther out to sea and northward into the well-known whaling grounds off Newfoundland, into the St. Lawrence River and still farther north. Voyages proceeded through the Straits of Belle Isle along the coast of Labrador into the Davis Straits west of Greenland. When whales were captured, the blubber would be removed and stored raw in barrels until it could be boiled out on shore. While the cool temperatures of these northern voyages kept the blubber from spoiling, the oil was of a poorer quality than that obtained while the blubber was fresh.
A Colonial Whaling Industry Takes Shape
With the advent of the systematic hunting of sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) that began from Nantucket after 1712, American commercial whaling grew dramatically in its economic importance. Sperm whales differ from other types of whales in several ways, but they were hunted for two main reasons. The first is that sperm whale oil burned cleanly and brightly and was a superior lubricant. Secondly, the spermaceti found in the head of the sperm whale was used to manufacture the finest grade of candles. Colonial exports of candles to England became a profitable business. Occasionally ambergris was found in the bowels of the whales. This material was extremely valuable as a perfume fixative; it was literally worth its weight in gold.
Two-masted schooners and small square-rigged brigs gradually replaced the single-masted sloops. With the larger vessels whalemen pursued sperm whales throughout the North and South Atlantic as far as the coast of Guinea in Africa and the coast of Brazil in South America.
The adaptation of shore-based try-works to use on shipboard enabled these vessels to stay at sea for longer periods. Oil was boiled out in the try-works on deck and stored in casks [barrels] below deck. This try-works installation of two iron pots in a brick furnace onboard ship was the major technological innovation that enabled the success of the Yankee whaling industry.
Also at this time, the light, cedar-planked, double-ended whaleboat came into general use. While double-ended boats had been used in European whale fisheries for many years, the unique design of the Yankee whaleboat allowed the whalers great versatility, speed and maneuverability. This design remained in use throughout the history of American whaling.
In 1774, two years before the start of American Revolution, the colonial fleet numbered 360 vessels hailing from 15 New England and New York ports. It was around this time that the port of Dartmouth, later to be called New Bedford, was beginning its rise to greatness as a whaling port.
The Impact of War
American whaling came to a disastrous halt during the American Revolution as British naval vessels blockaded American ports and harassed American shipping on the high seas, capturing or destroying many vessels and impressing many American sailors into His Majesty’s Naval service. American whaling ports suffered, but Nantucket in particular was strangled during the war, as whaling was the primary industry there.
After the war, with heavy duties placed on the import of whale products into England, some Nantucket whaling families emigrated to France and England or north to Nova Scotia to continue their occupation and to avoid the heavy taxes. The post-war 1790’s were a short period of regrowth between the American Revolution and the War of 1812 as spermaceti candles and sperm oil for lighthouses was in demand in both the United States and Europe.
During the Napoleonic wars, neutral American shipping was cut off from ports in England and France. In response, President Thomas Jefferson enacted the Embargo Act that forbade American vessels from embarking on foreign voyages. This loss of foreign markets once again impeded the American whaling industry. The act was repealed in 1809, but three years later the War of 1812 with England again shut down American ports, bringing maritime commerce to a halt.
The Golden Age of Yankee Whaling
After the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended the War of 1812, American shipping was free to carry on and the whaling ports began to grow. New Bedford, in particular, built its whaling fleet from 10 vessels in 1815 to 36 vessels five years later. Like Nantucket ships, the bulk of these were employed in sperm whaling voyages and New Bedford vessels were hunting throughout the oceans of the world.
At this time the classic American whaleship came into general use. These sturdy vessels were generally square-rigged ships of about 300 tons with the brick tryworks built onboard. They had wooden planks suspended from the starboard side where the officers could stand to cut into the whales tied up alongside. There were usually 30 to 35 men onboard and the ships carried three to five whaleboats. The ships were outfitted with whaling gear and enough provisions to last for a cruise of up to four years. Many ships were built specifically for whaling, but many others were converted merchant ships.
In 1841 alone, 75 whaling ships sailed out of New Bedford and the city was fast becoming one of the wealthiest in the nation. New Bedford was not alone. In 1834, 38 East Coast ports between Wiscasset, Maine and Wilmington, Delaware were endeavoring to make money in the whaling industry. Most failed. Through intense competition, industrial infrastructure and whaling expertise separated those ports that could maintain successful whaling fisheries from those that could not.
The New Bedford fleet reached its peak in 1857, when 329 vessels valued at more than $12 million employed more than 10,000 men. The Whaleman’s Shipping List newspaper listed 20 ports in 1855, most of those being the same New York and New England regions that also made up the list of whaling ports before the American Revolution. There was one important addition to that list, however: San Francisco, California.
Arctic whaling and the Civil War
In 1849, whaling master Thomas Welcome Roys of Sag Harbor, New York, sailed the ship Superior through the Bering Straits and into the Western Arctic. His quarry was the bowhead whale (Eubalæna mysticetus). With the hunting of this species, a new chapter in the history of American whaling had begun.
The bowhead is a very fat whale with thick blubber and baleen plates up to 13 feet long. The stocks of this whale in the Western Arctic waters had never been commercially exploited but hunting it was dangerous work in icy seas.
Markets for whale oil and baleen had been steady for many years, then the baleen market spiked around the time of the Civil War. The dictates of women’s clothing fashion in the form of hoop skirts and corsets brought long, flexible baleen into a pricey marketplace.
At this time the need for sperm whale oil for lighting was superceded by the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the market for sperm whale products slackened. This marked the end for ports like Nantucket that had never wholly embraced Arctic whaling. Interestingly enough, Provincetown, Massachusetts, a port that specialized in short voyages and small vessels, continued successful whaling for many more years, but the peak of Yankee whaling had been passed. Access to the Western Arctic was easier from San Francisco, and the New Bedford whaling merchants moved offices and agents there so they could continue their business on both coasts. The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 further consolidated the dual coast whaling business.
Voyages to the Eastern Arctic also increased at this time, but bowhead whale populations there had been commercially exploited for 200 years. Filling the ships often required crews to winter over, a proposition equally as dangerous as whaling in the Western Arctic.
The Civil War, like the wars before, was very bad for the whaling fleet. Confederate cruisers like the Shenandoah, the Alabama and the Florida destroyed more than 50 Yankee whalers. In addition, New Bedford contributed 37 old whaling ships to the war effort in the form of the “Stone Fleet.” These vessels were filled with rocks and sunk at the mouths of Southern harbors in an attempt to block shipping.
After the war, two Arctic disasters, one in 1871 and the other in 1876 claimed 30 New Bedford ships and 15 from other ports. Whaling ports lost millions of dollars in these disasters and as ships were lost owners could seldom afford to replace them, as the markets for whale products continued to decline.
Decline of Yankee Whaling
Beginning in the 1860s the American whaling industry suffered a gradual decline. Decade by decade, the value of whale oil dwindled, fewer ships were sent to sea, fewer men signed on, fewer fortunes were made, and fewer livelihoods depended on American whaling prowess.
Simultaneously, beginning in the 1860s Norwegian entrepreneurs Svend Foyn was developing a new, mechanized whaling technology that would ultimately result in an enormous increase in whales taken worldwide. The reasons usually given for the decline of Yankee whaling fail to account for the simultaneous rise of the new “modern” Norwegian whaling technology:
The discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 supplanted some of the many applications for sperm and whale oils, but the burgeoning industrial economy was rapidly creating new uses for whale oils. The American whaling industry might have continued to flourish had it adapted and modernized –as the runaway efficiency and economic viability of the “modern” Norwegian technology abundantly demonstrates. Whale oil could not compete with petroleum as a fuel or illuminant; but as a lubricant for clockworks and delicate machinery, as a foodstuff and source of fat for human consumption, as animal feed, fertilizer, and (later) as a lubricant for military use and the aerospace industry, whale oils were ideally suited and remained viable and much in demand until the mid 20th century.
The American Civil War (1861-65) diverted attention from whaling, raised insurance premiums to unprecedented heights, and subjected the Yankee fleet to the depredations of Confederate commerce raiders. The Confederate Navy, largely lacking the numbers and firepower to break the Union blockade, to defend Southern ports, or to engage Union warships in actual combat, concentrated their energies on capturing and burning merchantmen and whalers wherever they could be intercepted at sea. (Characteristically, the crews and passengers were not harmed. In courtly Southern fashion, they were generally put safely ashore, and only the vessels and cargoes destroyed–the motive being to disrupt the Northern economy.) Confederate corsairs depleted the whaling fleet and cost the Yankees money but the ships and cargoes were insured and the crews survived. The owners could have recuperated and the fishery been revitalized had postwar economic circumstances warranted.
BLOCKADE OF SOUTHERN PORTS
Part of the Northern effort to inhibit commerce and shut off the inflow of supplies to the Confederacy was to blockade Southern ports. For this purpose they purchased old and derelict whaleships, filled them with stone ballast and scuttled the hulks in the harbors of Charleston and Savannah –a program subsequently dubbed the “Stone Fleet.” This is erroneously taken to have been a severe blow to the whaling industry; however, it was quite the reverse. Only a small portion of the whaling fleet was involved. Most of the affected vessels were already derelict and all were past their prime–this is precisely what made them eligible. Wartime conditions were already making whaling quite hazardous, insurance premiums were so high that cash flow was strained and profits were difficult even if a ship were to return home safely; and these particular vessels were already so dilapidated that they would hardly have been the best ones to insure and risk on a whaling voyage. More to the point, the whaleships were sold, not given, to the government. At a time when whaling merchants were hard pressed to make any kind of profit with these derelict vessels, they were offered a great deal: sell them outright. The capital realized from the sale, added to profits earned from ascending wartime oil prices, could have been reinvested in whaling at war’s end–and the fishery thus been revitalized–had postwar economic circumstances warranted.
Loss of life, loss of cargoes, and depletion of the whaling fleet in individual shipwrecks in the Arctic ice, and the cataclysmic loss of 45 ships and barks in disasters off Alaska in 1871 and 1876, effectively dampened enthusiasm for bowhead whaling. The implication was that there may have been better ways to earn a living and better investments for capital. This was perhaps especially the case when technological remedies–reinforcement of hulls to withstand Arctic ice, and auxiliary steam engines, to facilitate navigation and increase maneuverability in high latitudes–failed to produce the intended result. Nevertheless, despite insurance payments and other reimbursements (such as restitution for the rescuers) being tied up in decades-long litigation, the economic consequences of these setbacks was not in themselves ruinous. The fishery could have recuperated, had economic circumstances warranted. Moreover, a proven technology was available. By the 1870s Norway’s new, mechanized whaling technology had already shown itself to be viable and profitable. Yankee whaling merchants could have adopted it had they wanted.
DECLINING WHALE STOCKS
Ever since the first Basque pelagic voyages, the history of whaling was a cycle of depletion of stocks, constant searching for new grounds and new stocks, and efforts to better and more effectively to harvest whales by improving the efficiency of the hunting-and-killing apparatus. In the 1860s and ’70s, when American whaling went into decline, there was no shortage of whales, only a perceived shortage. It was actually a decline in numbers among the traditionally hunted species on traditionally hunted grounds. This was coupled with another (erroneous) perception that all or virtually all of the potential grounds had already been discovered and were already being exploited. “Modern” Norwegian whalers readily proved otherwise.
The real reason for the decline of the American whaling industry was the economics of the new Norwegian technology versus other, more advantageous pursuits for American investment.
The “modern” Norwegian whalers were efficiently able to harvest not only all of the species that had been hunted for centuries, but also blue whales and finbacks–species that, by reason of their speed in the water, eluded the Yankee hand-whalers. Mechanized chaser boats equipped with high-powered deck cannons firing heavy-caliber, explosive harpoons increased volume and efficiency. This was a significant opportunity for an emerging Norwegian economy; but for Americans to adopt these “modern” methods and convert to the new technology would have diverted capital and resources from potentially more lucrative opportunities. The Norwegians exploited their own coastal waters. Later, between 1904 and 1940, they established shore-whaling stations on six continents (including on the American Northwest Coast) and pioneered pelagic factory-ship expeditions to hitherto unexploited grounds off Antarctica. It was this efficient technology, and the failure of the whaling nations to adhere to protective quotas regulating the catch, that by the mid 20th century several species were devastated to the point of extinction. American hand-whaling became obsolete except among Native Arctic peoples, whose motives were subsistence and cultural, rather than commercial. The new whaling technology passed America by, as American interests, American expectations, and American capital turned to more promising ventures–in manufacturing, railroads, mining, agriculture, and exploitation of western lands.
Narrated excerpt from 1922 silent movie "Down to the Sea in Ships". Run time approximately 23 minutes. Produced by the Education Development Center with support from National Endowment of the Humanities.