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Whaling In America:

A Brief History

The Beginnings

Long before the Mayflower reached the shores of Plymouth Rock in 1620, the Native Americans were using whales for their multiple uses from the carcasses that had washed up on the beach. It wasn't soon after that the natives sent canoes after the whales in order to attain the food, oil, and bone that could be harvested from the massive creatures. The settlers also had these objectives in mind as they spotted the titans rolling through the waves as they reached the shores of their new home. It was due to the fishing and whaling that the settlers established much of their early settlements on the coast.

The first organized whaling in America began on Long Island, New York in 1640. By the end of the century there were already whale-fisheries active in New England and New Jersey. The whaling industry proved to be quite profitable to the settlers and the expended mnay hours and much manpower to the effort of obtaining more whales. The colonial whalers launched small boats from beaches, towed captured whales to shore, cut up blubber and bone, then extracted the oil by boiling the blubber in large cast iron kettles called trypots.

Whaling Increases

As the profit for the whaling industry increased the whales in which to attain the profit from steadily decreased. As the number of whales near shore inevitably declined, the colonists had to change their approach to whaling. Now, the colonial whaler had to chase whales in single-masted sloops, tow whaleboats for the hunt, store whale blubber in casks, which they brought home to be tried out (oil extracted from blubber), carry provisions for several weeks, and hunt whales by day while sleeping on shore at night. By setting the hunt deeper into the sea, the whalers now had to take longer journeys to meet the demands of the colonists.

During the first years of deep sea whaling, it was the custom to cruise eastward in spring as far as the Azores, then south along the Guinea coast of Africa, and then east to the coast of Brazil, return home, take on supplies, then head north to Davis Straits, between Greenland and North America, for the summer. As whales became scarcer on these hunting grounds, American whalemen began to fan out into the major oceans of the world, by building vessels that were large enough to make voyages lasting several years, carry four or five whaleboats, extract oil by boiling blubber in tryworks - big iron pots set in a brick stove - on deck.

A Shaky Peak

In 1774, at least 350 vessels sailed from ports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Shore whaling, carried out on ocean shores, was not possible from New Bedford's deep harbor. Residents engaged in deep sea whaling at least as early as 1746. However, the industry would receive a devastating blow from a rising political tension between America and Great Britain during the Revolutionary War from 1776 to 1815. First, the British blockaded of colonial ports during the Revolutionary War prevented whaling activity. Then whaleships had lay idle because of the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. Ingenious shipowners, like the Rotches of New Bedford, went to France and conducted whaling from foreign shores.

When peace came in 1815, thirty years of expansion of the whaling fleet began. More than 700 whaleships set sail from 23 ports along the coast from Maine to New Jersey. Although many ports gave up whaling after 1847, the New Bedford area fleet continued to grow, reaching a peak in 1857 when 329 New Bedford whaleships, valued at more than $12,000,000, employed 10,000 men and 95 more vessels sailed from nearby towns of Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Marion, Mattapoisett, and Westport.


The American whaling industry might have died after the Civil War, had it not been for an increasing demand for baleen, which is found in the mouths of baleen whales instead of teeth. Made of keratin, a substance that is also part of finger nails, baleen was used for making carriage springs, corset stays, fishing rods, frames for traveling bags, trunks, and women's hats, hoops for women's skirts, horse whips, and umbrella and parasol ribs. The Arctic fleet increased greatly, as whalemen pursued bowhead whales, which supplied the best baleen. For ships from New Bedford, it was a long journey around Cape Horn (at the southern tip of South America) and then north through the Pacific Ocean to the Arctic.

In 1869, completion of the transcontinental railroad made it possible to ship whale products from coast to coast over land. This led some New Bedford whalemen to make San Francisco home port for journeys to the Arctic. Auxiliary-powered steam vessels were introduced in the 1880s and 1890s. They were used only as part of the San Francisco-Arctic whaling fleet.

Down Hill From Here

Slowly, whaling began to decline. One of the many factors was the discovery of petroleum in 1859. Its by-product, Kerosene, proved to be superior to the whaling oil that had once fueled so many colonial homes. The rise of the Civil War also lay waste to many whaling ships by Confederate cruisers from 1861 to 1865. The sinking of the "Stone Fleet", which included 37 New Bedford vessels, outside Confederate harbors to prevent blockade running during the Civil War was also a contributing factor. Not all of these factors were causes of war. The Arctic disasters of 1871 and 1876 in which 45 ships from New Bedford also placed a large morale decline in the whaling population. Declining number of whales in nearby accessible waters made it more and more necessary to place deep sea boats for expedition. However, with the lack of interest and funding these boats slowly dissipated. The invention of the first commercially available electric lamp in 1879 made it unnecessary for the whale oil to be harvested decreasing demand. The development of spring steel in 1906, which eventually ended the market for baleen, also lessened the demand for whale products.

The Death of an Era

Throughout its history, the American whale-fishery depended primarily upon sailing vessels and entirely upon whaleboats until its demise in the 1920s. The last square-rigger, the Bark Wanderer of New Bedford was wrecked in the summer of 1924 and the Schooner John R. Manta completed the last whaling voyage made from New Bedford in 1925. The last American vessel to use whaleboats, the Motor Ship Patterson, made final port in San Francisco on October 28, 1928. As a result, few whaling voyages under the American flag continued from foreign ports until around 1938. Since 1986 commercial whaling has not been permitted by the International Whaling Commission, the international body set up in 1946 to regulate whaling.