Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
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History of Whaling on Stellwagen Bank

Although 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 (Little 1981:15).

The development 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 techniques:

"One 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 1986:59).

Although 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.

Along-shore 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.

The whale 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 1986:61).

Upon 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).

Although 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 1964:31).
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).

"The 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.

Coastal 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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Page last modified by the Stellwagen Web team on
July 23, 2004

Revised July 23, 2004 by
National Ocean Service | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration | U.S. Department of Commerce