History of Whaling on Stellwagen Bank
direct reference to whaling at Stellwagen Bank (or Middle Bank) is scarce
in the literature of whaling history, which focuses almost exclusively
on New England's "Golden Age" of whaling, it is reasonable
to assume that the whaling of Massachusetts Bay incorporated at least
some portions of the present sanctuary. The whaling of this area appears
to represent a relatively narrow period of New England's whaling history
and seems to parallel the development of along-shore whaling techniques.
Playing its most significant role during the period of approximately
1690-1710, this method of whaling seems to have peaked shortly thereafter
and, with the onset of pelagic whaling, all but disappeared by 1730
of along-shore whaling, and in fact, American whaling in general, was
contemporary with the settlement of colonial New England. However, many
historians regard the Indians as the first whalers of the Americas (Starbuck
1964:4-5). While the earliest form of Indian whaling on the Massachusetts
coast was probably little more than the simple exploitation of drift-whales
(dead whales washed upon the beach, stranded whales or those driven
ashore), some literature suggests that Indians were actively pursuing
whales on the water as early as the beginning of the 17th century (Starbuck
1964:5). The English navigator, Captain George Waymouth, reporting his
voyage to America in 1605, offers the following account of Indian whaling
special thing is their manner of killing the whale . . . they go in
company of their kings with a multitude of their boats, and strike him
with a bone made in fashion of a harping iron fastened to a rope . .
. then all their boats come about him, and as he risith above the water,
with their arrows they shoot him to death" (as cited in Proulx
the question as to what extent the Indians taught the colonists of Massachusetts
the art of whaling is still a topic of some debate, it is certain that
Indians played a direct role in colonial whaling in that they were often
organized by settlers into small whaling companies. Elmo Hohman, in
The American Whalemen , describes these companies as "partnerships
which involved the joint use of native labor and of white capital"
(Hohman 1928:24). It is the founding of these small companies, starting
in the late 1660's, that is viewed as the beginning of the colonial
whale industry (Little 1981:4) and it is their practice that perhaps
best define along-shore whaling.
whaling generally involved the establishment of whaling stations at
strategic locations along the shore. At or near the station would be
posted a lookout whose job was to scan the horizon for signs of whales.
In many areas, especially in the absence of shoreline hills, observation
towers were constructed to facilitate this task and usually took the
form of tall posts topped with wooden platforms below which lived the
whale hunters themselves. When the lookout spotted a whale or group
of whales, he alarmed the hunters who would then scramble with their
boats to the water and commence the chase.
boats of this period were commonly constructed of cedar clapboards and
were pointed at the stern as well as the bow. This design, similar to
that of a modern canoe, enabled the vessels to be paddled both forward
and back, while a flat bottom allowed them to pivot with speed (Proulx
encounter, the whale was attacked with harpoons until it either gave
up the fight or escaped. If the whale submitted, it was then towed back
to shore where a winch was used to drag the carcass onto the beach,
at which time its blubber was extracted and processed (Proulx 1986:61).
The actual capture of the whale typically employed a team of six men
and, surprisingly, the entire task from "shoving off to return
with the prize consumed but a few hours" (Robotti 1950:10).
the black fish or pilot whale was considered worthy prey, the right
whale was the most frequently hunted whale during this period of along-shore
whaling. While usually preferring more northern waters, the right whale
migrated south during the winter months and appears to have been a relatively
abundant species, gathering in bays along the northeast coast from approximately
39-45 degrees north latitude. Consequently, the weeks between mid November
and mid March seem likely to have composed the bulk of the along-shore
whaling season for coastal Massachusetts (Little 1981:6,8). In support
of this finding, Alexander Starbuck, in his History of the American
Whale Fishery, offers the fact that during the colonists' wars with
the Indians in the years 1724 and 1725, a group of Cape Cod Indians
agreed to fight on the side of the colonists, provided they be allowed
leave in time for the "fall and winter whale fishery" (Starbuck
By 1730, the annual yield of along-shore whaling stations throughout
New England experienced a dramatic decline. Mitchell and Reeves point
out that whaling during this time focused almost exclusively on the
right whale, which became scarce by 1725 as a result of overexploitation
(Mitchell and Reeves 1983). The Boston News-Letter, March 20, 1720,
reads--"We hear from the Towns on the Cape that the Whale Fishery
among them has failed much this Winter, as it has done for several Winters
past" (as cited in Starbuck 1964:31). Figures available from whaling
stations at Delaware Bay, Long Island, and Cape Cod, which show tremendous
declines between approximately 1705 and 1710, also give evidence of
this trend (Little 1981:15), for which there appear to be two causes.
The first was the overhunting of whales in New England coastal waters,
which did not allow their population opportunity to rebound and forced
the remaining population to the safety of deeper waters. "After
being harpooned for so many years", states Frances Diane Robotti
in Whaling and Old Salem , "the whales grew tired of playing a
losing game in the waters around Cape Cod, and finally passed farther
off upon the banks at some distance from the shore" (Robotti 1950:10).
Secondly, the ever-growing demand for sperm whale products, especially
the lucrative spermaceti, used in the manufacture of deluxe candles,
beckoned hunters to deeper waters (Proulx 1986: 62).
sperm whale," writes Elmo Hohman, "was a haughty, elusive
aristocrat of the high seas, and he would not deign to soil his flukes
in the shallow coastal waters which were frequented by his more phlegmatic
cousin, the right whale" (Hohman 1928:27). By the late 18th century,
the pursuit of sperm whales necessitated the design and construction
of larger, more substantial vessels and lured whalers as far away as
the Bahamas, the West Indies, and eventually the west coast of Africa.
The Golden Age of whaling had begun, and the hunt in the coastal waters
of Massachusetts and New England was subsequently limited.
whaling in Massachusetts Bay never ceased entirely, even as late as
the late 19th and possibly even early 20th centuries. During the War
of Independence, for example, fleet safety required whalers to stay
closer to protected ports. During this time, Wellfleet had four ships
that plied the waters of the Gulf of Maine, and other coastal towns
had their ships as well (Mitchell and Reeves 1983: 171). During the
War of 1812, once again, whaling picked up closer to shore in Massachusetts
Bay. During this time, nearshore hunting of such "drift whales"
was referred to often as "shore and shoals whaling" (Mitchell
and Reeves 1983: 172), and it focused mostly on humpbacks. After the
War of 1812, and up until the civil war, ships in Provincetown sometimes
delayed their departure for distant whaling grounds in order to hunt
whales present in Cape Cod Bay. Once in 1881, twenty whales were harvested
in this fashion in a single day (Mitchell and Reeves 1983: 172). Whales
were even killed in Provincetown harbor. Salem ships, as well as those
from Cape Cod, worked Massachusetts and Cape Cod Bays. By the 1870's
and 1880's, when explosive projectiles made killing easier, whalers
turned their attention to all other local species as well, including
fin whales (Mitchell and Reeves 1983: 172).
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