American Whaling 1600-1760

Men hunted whales primarily to acquire two things. The first was the six- to twelve-inch-thick layer of blubber that encased their bodies. The blubber was stripped from the animals and boiled to extract oil that was burned as a source of light, as well as to lubricate machinery, to make soap and paint, and, when combined with tar and oakum, to caulk ships. The second was baleen, a fiber that hangs from the roof of a non-toothed whale’s mouth in long strips and functions like a sieve; as the whale swims, it opens its mouth and takes in water, then uses its tongue to push the water back out while the baleen keeps the food and nutrients in. Of the five species of whale commonly hunted by men, four were baleen whales; just one was a toothed whale. Commonly known as whalebone though it is not bone, baleen was essentially the plastic of the nineteenth century, used to make everything from buggy whips, parasol ribs, and umbrella handles to skirt hoops and corset stays. It was used for ornamentation, to make bristles for brushes, and even to make high-end eyeglasses. Much of the rest of the animal was put to use, too: The meat was part of the European diet, the tongue a delicacy often reserved for royalty and clergy; vertebrae were used to make chairs and fences; and the whale’s excrement was used to make red fabric dyes.

Whaling became one of the engines of the American economy. The oil it yielded lit lamps all over the world and lubricated the machinery of the Industrial Revolution. By the nineteenth century it was the fifth largest industry in America and the third largest in Massachusetts. For the common sailor it was a brutal, dangerous, and often poorly remunerative occupation, yet to the general public it took on an aura of romance and heroism. The industry was a source of great national pride. Tales of whaling exploits livened the pages of the nation’s newspapers and whaling adventures were depicted in countless works of art and literature, most memorably in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851).

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Men had hunted whales for centuries, maybe even a millennium or two, but the Basques were the first to make it a commercial enterprise. Beginning as early as the seventh or eighth centuries, they scanned the Bay of Biscay — the region of the Atlantic that touches the northern coast of Spain and the southwestern coast of France — from atop stone towers built along the shore. When they spotted cresting or spouting whales, the lookouts used smoke, fire, or the beating of drums to alert the whalemen, who grabbed harpoons and piled into small boats in pursuit of the animals. They pursued the right whale, a massive, docile, and graceful, if slow-moving, species that could weigh as much as one hundred tons and grow to sixty feet in length, a quarter of which was accounted for by an enormous mouth from whose upper jaw hung hundreds of strips of baleen, each measuring as long as ten feet.

Not only did the right whale produce vast amounts of oil, baleen, and meat, it rarely dived for long periods, making it relatively easy to hunt. And unlike many other species, its corpse floated, allowing pursuers to tie the carcass to their boats and tow it ashore for harvesting. But killing a right whale was hardly easy; once harpooned it became a formidable and often deadly foe, thrashing about with a tail that could dash a whaleboat to splinters with one strike. It was a dangerous business but the market outweighed the danger. The Basques sold whale oil, meat, and baleen throughout Europe, where the market was spurred on in part by the Catholic Church, which forbade its followers from eating “red-blooded” meat — meaning meat that was “hot,” and thus associated with sex — on holy days (of which there were 166 in the year). Meat from water-dwelling animals, however, was  considered “cold,” unlikely to arouse the libido and thus sanctioned for consumption.

The Basques hunted right whales in the Bay of Biscay for five hundred years, but as they gradually depleted the stock of whales in coastal waters they were forced to sail farther out into the Atlantic and the Arctic in an effort to establish new shore whaling stations. They were joined and ultimately surpassed in that effort by the English and the Dutch, who vied for whaling dominance all the way across the Atlantic and into the New World. By the mid-1600s the Dutch had clearly won. The English struggled as whalemen, and would in fact struggle for centuries to come, while the Dutch transformed whaling into an economic powerhouse for Holland, dominating the Atlantic and Arctic whale fisheries for several decades — until, that is, the upstart colonists of New England began pursuing the leviathans with particular zeal.

Colonial whaling began on Long Island, and it stemmed from necessity: every now and then a whale would wash ashore and the colonists had to dispose of it. They made use of the carcass, stripping the blubber and carving up the meat. The whale was considered communal property and the spoils were divided among the populace. Eventually, around 1650, the colonists began supplementing this rather passive enterprise, known as drift whaling, with an active approach. Rather than wait for hapless whales to beach themselves or for the tides to wash their carcasses ashore, the colonists, like the Basques, Dutch, and English before them, tried their luck with shore whaling: they scanned the seas from lookout points and sounded an alarm at the sight of a whale, at which point men rowed quickly out to dispatch the creature and tow it ashore where the whale was processed, or rendered. They used blades attached to long poles to cut into the blubber, then stripped it from the whale in thick strips before hacking it into pieces that they boiled in large cauldrons called try pots. The trying-out process distilled the blubber into oil, which was stored in barrels and then sold domestically and abroad. The baleen was cut from the whale’s mouth, stored in warehouses, and sold to factories where it was fashioned into consumer goods.

The transition to shore whaling reflected a shift in motive and purpose for the colonists. Drift whaling had been a necessary community-wide effort to dispose of communal property, but shore whaling was a commercial enterprise undertaken by businessmen for the sake of profit. Ship owners enticed sailors to sign on as whalemen by the lay system, a unique arrangement in which the crew was paid a percentage of the proceeds. This allowed the owners to keep costs low and ostensibly motivated the men to kill as many whales as they could. Although whaling companies often employed white colonists as sailors, the industry relied heavily on Native Americans to man the ships, in part because they could be made to work harder for less pay than their English counterparts.

Whales were plentiful, profit margins were high, and for the time being, there were more than enough men to supply the labor. By the dawn of the eighteenth century, a burgeoning industry had taken shape, with Long Island at its center — until a band of enterprising settlers on a tiny island off the coast of Massachusetts began to display a remarkable proclivity for whale hunting.

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Nantucket, long home to the Wampanoag Indians, was colonized by mainland European descendants starting in 1659. These settlers, nine families in all, had many motivations for moving to the island: some felt that commercial opportunities on the mainland had become too competitive as New England’s population increased; some were drawn by the prospect of creating a community of their own; and some sought escape from the Puritanism of the mainland. One of this latter group was Thomas Macy, a Baptist who, in 1658, had given food and shelter during a storm to a family of Quakers that happened to pass by his home. This act of kindness drew the wrath of local Puritans, for providing aid or comfort to Quakers was against the law.

Over time, the settlers found life on Nantucket difficult. Population growth tested the production capacity of the land, and though the islanders could use their fishing skills to supplement the food supply, it was not enough. Since they had arrived, the settlers were pleased to find that whales, alive and dead, frequently washed up on the island’s shores, and they made good use of these providential gifts. But by 1690, with island life proving a constant struggle, they were eager to set out in search of whales rather than wait for them to arrive. They needed the food supply and they needed the commercial resource. According to Nantucket lore, one day a group of islanders were standing on a hill when one pointed to the sea. “There,” he said, “is a green pasture where our children’s grandchildren will go for bread.”

The Nantucketers launched their industry with great determination and over the next four decades their shore whaling operation grew rapidly, surpassing Long Island’s and becoming the major employer for Nantucket men, English and Indian alike. Whaling came to define the island’s identity; it was Nantucket’s greatest pride and the source of its growing prosperity. Every accommodation was made to ensure the industry’s success. When the threat of the island’s deforestation became a paramount concern, the felling of trees was banned — unless the cedars were to be used in constructing whaleboats.

Early in the eighteenth century, with Nantucket ascendant as the locus of the New World’s nascent whaling industry, the colonists soon moved beyond shore whaling and took up pelagic whaling, venturing out into the open sea to hunt whales where they mated and fed, and in the vast currents along which they migrated. The very success of the industry made the expansion necessary — decades of efficient hunting had exhausted the supply of whales near shore — but it was made possible by the industry’s first significant innovation: portable try works that could be loaded onto ships, enabling crews to tow carcasses not to their home port but to whichever port or shoreline was nearest. Soon the ships were outfitted for longer voyages, their holds expanded so that rather than tow the whale, it could be stripped of its blubber at sea; the blubber then was stored in barrels until it could be taken ashore for the trying-out process. The need to return to shore had been the primary constraint on the growth of the business, but now whaling ships were able to sail deeper into the Atlantic in search of more remote fisheries. Once a ship reached land, the try works were unloaded onto the shore where the blubber was boiled, then stored in casks in the hold along with stacks of baleen. The try works were then packed up and loaded back onto the ship as the crew set out in search of the next whale.

Still later, in the 1760s, came the innovation that revolutionized the industry and, in the process, turned it into an economic powerhouse. Onboard try works transformed whaling ships into floating factories that could hunt, kill, and render whales on the open sea. Now whaling ships were free to roam until barrels of oil and piles of baleen packed the hold to the beams. Whaling voyages were no longer measured in weeks or months but in years. This was not necessarily a welcome development for the common sailor, but it was good for business. By the end of the 1700s the American whaling industry, led by the Nantucketers, was spreading across the globe, launching what would become the golden age of whaling.



  • Leviathan: Our History of Whaling in America, Eric Jay Dolin,W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY, 2007.
  • In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex, Nathaniel Philbrick, Penguin, New York, NY, 2000.
  • And Yet They  Come: Portuguese Immigrations from the Azores to the United States, Jerry R. WilliamsCenter for Migration Studies, New York, 1982.
  • Azoreans to California: A History of Migration and Settlement, Robert L. Santos, Alley-Cass Publications, Denair, Calif., 1995.