When seventeenth-century settlers brought their knowledge of the ancient European whaling industry to the shores of New England, they were not the first to hunt the great beasts. Native Americans who lived along the coasts of the continent used carcasses of dead whales that washed up on shore for food, oil, and they used the bone for making canoes to pursue whales that swam into shallow coastal waters. As the Mayflower sailed into Plymouth harbor in 1620, many whales swam near the ship, one factor that kept the settlers on the harsh coast.
Experienced fishermen in the ship’s crew recognized the potential of a whaling industry. The first organized whaling in the American colonies began on Long Island (New York) in 1640, and there were whale-fisheries active in New England and New Jersey by the end of the century. Using traditional techniques brought from Europe, the colonial whalers, launched small boats from beaches, captured and towed whales to shore, cut up their blubber and bone, and then extracted the oil by boiling the blubber in large cast iron kettles called trypots.
As the number of whales near shore inevitably declined, the colonists, chased whales in single masted-ships, and towed whaleboats for the hunt. They stored whale blubber in casks, which they brought home to be boiled into oil. Soon, many hunted whales by day; slept on shore at night. As the market for whale products increased, whale men undertook longer journeys. 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, east to the coast of Brazil and then returned to home to take on supplies.
They then headed north to the Davis Straits, between Greenland and North America, for the summer. As whales became more scarce on these hunting grounds American whalers began to fan out into the major oceans of the world, by building vessels that were large enough to, make voyages lasting several years. These ships were able to carry four or five whaleboats and were able to extract oil by boiling blubber on deck. In 1774, at least 350 vessels sailed from ports in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New York. Shore whaling, carried out on ocean shores, but was not possible from New Bedford’s deep harbor.
Residents engaged in deep sea whaling at least as early as 1746. War devastated the industry from our shores between 1776 and 1815. First, the British blockaded colonial ports during the Revolutionary War, preventing whaling activity. Then Whale ships lay idle because of the Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812. Ingenious ship owners, 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 whale ships 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 whale ships, valued at more than $12,000,000, employed 10,000 men while 95 more vessels sailed from nearby towns of Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Marion, Mattapoisett, and Westport. The decline of the industry was caused by several factors, principally. The discovery of petroleum in 1859, led to the making of kerosene (distilled from petroleum), proved to be superior to whale oil for lighting.
Other contributing causes were the loss of 50 whaling vessels destroyed by Confederate cruisers during the Civil War (1861-1865). Sinking of the “Stone Fleet,” which included 37 New Bedford vessels sunk outside Confederate harbors to prevent blockade running during the Civil War. The Arctic disasters of 1871 and 1876 in which many ships from New Bedford were lost in ice, and the declining number of whales in nearby accessible waters. The invention of the first commercially available electric lamp in 1879 and the development in 1906 of spring steel, which eventually ended the market for baleen.
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. In the years after the Civil War, the Arctic fleet increased greatly, as whale men 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 whale men 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.
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. The Schooner John R. Manta completed the last whaling voyage made from New Bedford in 1925. While the last American vessel to use whaleboats, the Motor Ship Patterson, made final port in San Francisco on October 28, 1928, a few whaling voyages under the American flag continued from foreign ports until around 1938, when it died out completely.