Before George Washington, Paul Revere, and Alexander Hamilton, the first – and feistiest! - patriots were none other than Long Island whalers.
The first colonists were English Puritans who arrived to the east end in 1640. At the time, the area was considered an extension of Connecticut and New England – seen as remote and separate from the Dutch-ruled western end of Lange Eylant. These pioneers were initially farmers, but they quickly became seasonal entrepreneurs after they noticed their enormous marine neighbors spouting by their shores: blubber-rich Right whales.
Whaling companies were launched during the winter months, hunting whales in rowboats on frigid beaches with the labor of local Native Americans. In large iron trypots on the sand, whaling crews stewed blubber until it melted into liquid gold - whale oil. Whale oil was used chiefly for illumination (and later in time, for a variety of manufacturing purposes). Oil even served as a currency; local schoolteachers were paid in whale oil. For the next twenty years, colonists worked to perfect this trade. Whaling quickly became part of community life, with required whale-spotting shifts from able-bodied men. School even let out from December to April so children could help spot and process whales. Oil was shipped to New England rather than New Amsterdam to avoid Dutch taxes.
This trade route was suddenly halted when new commerce rules were set in place by England. The entire Long Island was now a part of New York. All goods were to be exported through New York City. The whale was a “royal fish,” from which the crown demanded a twenty to fifty percent tax. East-enders were horrified.
The battle between whalers and England began. Whalers were outraged at taxation without representation – foreshadowing the defiant Boston Tea Party a century later. Whalers rebelled by turning Long Island into a smuggler’s haven, avoiding taxes by continuing to ship their oil to Boston or New London.
A string of upset New York governors tried to enforce the tax – generally unsuccessfully. When the Duke of York investigated how many whales were caught in the past 6 years – and what his share was – he found no records had been kept. Lord Cornbury, a later New York Governor, whined that “the illegal trade” was still carrying on between Long Island and New England.
With colonists’ protests falling on deaf ears, the towns of East Hampton, Southampton, and Southold bypassed the Governor of New York and submitted a petition to the court of England to be made a free corporation or continue under Connecticut rule. Their detailed list of complaints is similar to the tune of complaints in the Declaration of Independence. Their plea was denied.
Their solution? Ignore the whale tax anyway.
Colonists continued to smuggle the majority of oil to New England. New York merchants themselves were also flouting the law, which required all international trade to go through England. Instead, they traded directly with the West Indies, exchanging whale oil for rum, sugar, and cocoa.
Taking international trade into their own hands, New Yorkers who felt particularly courageous loaded up their ships and sailed with their goods to Madagascar, where there was an anarchist colony of none other than – pirates! Doing business with pirates was highly profitable, since it was all tax free. An inspector noted that in 1695, Long Island “was a receptacle for pirates and the people generally a lawless and unruly set.”
Whalers continued to protest. One of the pluckiest whalers who objected to the tax was Samuel Mulford of East Hampton, who lived from 1644-1725. He was a bold and somewhat quirky fellow. He championed the cause of the whalers, himself a financially successful owner of a whaling company of 24 men. Elected as a representative to New York Assembly in 1683, he was expelled from the assembly twice for his outspoken demands; colonists simply re-elected him and sent him back. When he sailed to London to protest the whale oil tax, he sewed fishhooks in his pockets to deter pickpockets during his long wait outside Buckingham Palace.
Ultimately, the Crown eased taxation. Mulford didn’t get to see this victory, as this announcement came five years after his death. Encouragingly, various acts were passed by the British Parliament to support the lucrative whaling industry, but colonists’ frustrations towards their relationship with England never really went away. During the Revolutionary war, which brought whaling to a standstill, locals repurposed whaleboats for guerilla warfare against British efforts.
After American won its independence, a new era opened for whaling. In 1785, the Lucy left Sag Harbor to whale offshore Brazil; she returned with an unprecedented 360 barrels of whale oil. Americans took notice. To encourage trade, George Washington then authorized the first lighthouse in New York State to be built, the Montauk Lighthouse. The hundreds of whaleships that followed the Lucy would have sailed home from their global voyages directed by this lighthouse - illuminated by none other than whale oil.
More: Learn about Long Island whaleboats used in the Revolution ►
By Nomi Dayan, Executive Director
As you reach for a sweet treat this June in honor of National Candy Month, consider how the abundance of candy today is a rather exceptional thing.
For much of human history, sugar was an expensive indulgence reserved for celebratory desserts. Sugary treats were a luxury for the rich. People also used sugar for therapeutic functions, with early candy serving as a form of medicine, including lozenges for coughs or digestive troubles. Sugar was also used as a preservative; similar to salt, sugar dried fruits and vegetables, preventing spoilage. But all in all, sugar was carefully conserved. In George Washington’s time, the average American consumed only 6 pounds of sugar a year (far less than the 130 or so pounds consumed annually per person today).
The use of sugar swelled dramatically in 1800’s. Suddenly, sugar was everywhere, and with it came new technological advances in candy production. Sugar shipped from slave-powered plantations in the West Indies became more affordable and available with new, steam-powered industrial processes. These changes were part of the Industrial Revolution, made possible by prized whale oil and its valuable lubricating properties. In 1830, Louisiana had the largest sugar refinery in the world. The invention of the Mason jar in 1858 drove demand for sugar for canning, and in 1876, the Hawaiian Reciprocity Treaty made sugar even more available. People couldn’t get enough of sweetness.
The availability of sugar brought a slew of new inventions to the culinary scene: candy! Confectioneries sprang up everywhere. The shops’ best customers were children, who spent their earnings on penny candy. Hard candies became very popular. As Yankee whaling reached its peak, Victorian-era sweets boomed with a succession of creations: the first chocolate bar was made in 1847; chewing gum followed in 1848; marshmallows were invented in 1850, and in 1880, fudge. People’s breaths were taken away when sweets with soft cream centers were tasted at the Great Exhibition in London in 1851.
Some candies, especially hard ones, were sold as being ‘wholesome’ and even healthy. Unfortunately, candy was anything but nourishing. Sugar was sometimes adulterated with cheaper Plaster of Paris or chalk. Other candies were far more toxic. In 1831, Dr, William O’Shaughnessy toured different confectionery shops in London and had a range of dyed candy chemically analyzed; he found a startling number of sweets colored with lead, mercury, arsenic and copper.
But as ubiquitous as candy was on land, a sweet treat was quite rare at sea, especially on a whaleship. Sugar on board was a still a luxury reserved for the captain and officers. The crew had to settle for molasses, which was often infested; one whaler wrote it tasted like “tar.” Candy only makes brief glimpses in whaling logbooks, or daily records. On May 22, 1859, William Abbe journaled on the ship Atkins Adams: “Cook & Thompson Steward making molasses candy in galley.” (Earlier on the voyage, he described molasses kegs as “the haunts of the cockroach.”)
Laura Jernegan, a young daughter who sailed with her father and family on a three-year whaling voyage, wrote in her diary on board the Roman, “Feb 16, 1871. It is quote pleasant today. The hens have laid 50 eggs…” Then, an exciting thing happened – she passed another whaleship at sea, the Emily Morgan. There was a whaling wife aboard, too! Laura wrote: “Mrs. Dexter [the wife of Captain Benjamin Dexter] sent Prescott [her brother] and I some candy.”
In other cultures, whales still facilitated the treat scene – no sugar needed. Frozen whale blubber was (and is) a traditional treat for the Inuit and Chukchi people. Called muktuk, cubes are cut from whale skin and blubber and conventionally are served raw.
While whaling in our country is a thing of the past, the years of unrestricted whaling reflect how, in essence, people treated the ocean “like a kid in a candy store,” as noted by author Robert Sullivan. In the 20th century, so many whales were caught so quickly and efficiently that soon even whalers themselves were worried about saving the whales. Today, as we continue to gather resources from the sea, we must ensure the ocean can replenish itself faster than we can sweep its candy off the shelves.
Bring Candy History into Your Kitchen
By Nomi Dayan
Whaling was a risky business, physically and financially. Life at sea was hazardous. Fortunes were made or lost. Whalehunts were perilous, as was the processing of the whale. Injuries were rampant and death was common, sometimes on nearly every voyage. In some instances, the deceased was none other than the captain.
Captain Sluman Lothrop Gray met his untimely end on a whaleship. Born in 1813, very little is known of his past, his family, or his early experiences at sea. In 1838, he married Sarah A. Frisbie of Pennsylvania in the rural town of Columbia, Connecticut. His whaling and navigational skills must have been precocious, because in 1842, in his late twenties, Gray became a whaling captain – and a highly successful one.
His wife, Sarah, joined him in his achievements, living with him at sea for twenty years. Three of their eight children were born during global whaling voyages. Gray commanded a string of vessels: the Jefferson and Hannibal of New London, CT to the Indian and North Pacific Oceans, the Mercury and Newburyport of Stonington, CT to the South Atlantic, Chile, and Northwest Pacific Oceans, and Montreal of New Bedford, MA to the North Pacific Ocean.
While financially successful, Gray’s crew felt his harsh personality left much to be desired. Some of his blasphemies were recorded by a cabin boy on the Hannibal in 1843. He did not hesitate to flog crew members for minor mistakes. Unsurprisingly, when Sarah reported her husband had taken ill, the crew rejoiced. (To their chagrin, he recovered.)
As Gray aged, he attempted to retire from maritime living and shift into the life of a country gentleman. He bought 10 acres of land in Lebanon, Connecticut and lived there for 7 years, where his house still stands.
This bucolic life did not last, and Gray returned to whaling. With his wife and three children – Katie, Sluman Jr., and Nellie aged 16, 10, and 2, he sailed out of New Bedford on June 1, 1864 on the James Maury. Built in Boston in 1825 and sold to New Bedford owners in 1845, the James Maury was a hefty ship at 394 tons. Gray steered the course towards hunting grounds in the South Pacific.
Unexpectedly, after nine months at sea in March 1865, he suddenly became ill. The closest land was Guam - 400 miles away. Sarah described his sickness as an “inflammation of the bowels.” After two days, Captain Gray was dead. The first mate reported in the ship’s logbook: “Light winds and pleasant weather. At 2pm our Captain expired after an illness of two days.” He was 51 years old.
Sarah had endured death five times before this, having to bury five of her children who sadly died in infancy. She could not bear to bury her husband at sea. Considering how typical grand-scale mourning was in Victorian times, a burial at sea was anything but romantic. It was not unheard of for a whaling wife to attempt to preserve her husband’s body for a home burial. But how would Sarah embalm the body?
Two things aboard the whaleship helped: a barrel and alcohol. Sarah asked the ship’s cooper, or barrelmaker, to fashion a cask for the captain. He did so, and Gray was placed inside. The cask was filled with “spirits,” likely rum. The log for that day records: “Light winds from the Eastward and pleasant weather; made a cask and put the Capt. in with spirits.”
The voyage continued on to the Bering Sea in the Arctic; death and a marinating body did not stop the intentions of the crew from missing out on the summer hunting season. However, there was another unexpected surprise that June: the ship was attacked by the feared and ruthless confederate raider Shenandoah, which prowled the ocean burning Union vessels, especially whalers (with crews taken as prisoners). The captain, James Waddell, had not heard – or refused to believe - that the South had already surrendered.
When the first mate of the Shenandoah Lieutenant Chew came aboard the James Maury, he found Sarah panic-stricken. The James Maury was spared because of the presence of her and her children – and presumably the presence of her barreled husband. Waddell assured her that the “men of the South did not make war on women and children.” Instead, he considered them prisoners and ransomed the ship. 222 other Union prisoners were dumped onboard the ship and sent to Honolulu. One can imagine how cramped this voyage was since whaleships were known for anything but free space.
A year after the captain’s death, the remaining Gray family made it home in March 1866. The preserved captain himself was shipped home from New Bedford for $11.
Captain Gray was finally buried in Liberty Hill Cemetery in Connecticut. His resting place has a tall marker with an anchor and two inscriptions: “My Husband” and “Captain S. L. Gray died on board ship James Maury near the island of Guam, March 24, 1865.” Sarah died twenty years later, and was buried next to her husband.
It is unknown if Gray was buried “as is” or in a casket. There are no records of Sarah purchasing a coffin. Legend has it that he was buried barrel and all.
Nomi Dayan is the Executive Director at The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor, NY.
By Nomi Dayan
Have you ever been asked to please stand by? Ever told someone not to barge in? Have you hung on to the bitter end, or been given a clean bill of health?
If so, you have spoken like a sailor.
Each type of human activity, noted essayist L. Pearsall Smith, has its own vocabulary. Perhaps this is most evident in the speech of mariners.
The English language is a strong testament to how humans have been seafarers for millennia, with a multitude of words and phrases having filtered from life at sea to life on land. Today, a surprising number of phrases, words, and expressions still have nautical origins, notably from sailing terminology in the 18th and 19th centuries. While some adopted phrases have fallen by the wayside, many expressions in our everyday language are derived from seafaring.
Barge in: Referring to flat-bottomed workboats which were awkward to control
Bitter End: The last part of a rope attached to a vessel
Clean Bill of Health: A document certifying a vessel has been inspected and was free from infection
Dead in the Water: A sailing ship that has stopped moving
Down the Hatch: A transport term for lowering cargo into the hatch and below deck
Figurehead: A carved ornamental figure affixed to the front of a ship
Foul up: To entangle the line
Fudge the Books: While the origins of this term is unclear, one theory connects it a deceitful Captain Fudge (17th century)
Give Leeway: To allow extra room for sideways drift of a ship to leeward of the desired course
High and Dry: A beached ship
Jury Rig: Makeshift or temporary repairs using available material
Keel over: To capsize, exposing the ship’s keel
Show the ropes: Train a newcomer in the use of ropes on sailing vessel
Letting the Cat out of the bag: One explanation links this phrase to one form of naval punishment where the offender was whipped with a "cat o' nine tails," normally kept in a bag
Passed with flying colors / Show One’s True Colors: Refers to identifying flags and pennants of sailing ships
Pipe Down: Using the boatswain’s pipe signaling the crew to retire below deck
A New Slant: A sailor will put a new slant on things by reducing sails to achieve an optimum angle of heel to avoid the boat from being pulled over
Slush fund: The ship's cook created a private money reserve by hoarding bits of grease into a slush fund sold to candle makers
Steer Clear: Avoid obstacles at sea
Taken Aback: Sails pressed back into the mast from a sudden change of wind, stopping forward motion
The author is the Executive Director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center of Cold Spring Harbor.
By Nomi Dayan
As I prepare to become a mother for the third time around, I am brought to reflect on one of the most dirty, reeking, and unlikely places to possible to birth a baby: a whaleship.
Today’s challenges with pregnancy and childbirth pale in comparison with the experience of the 19th century woman – and even more so, the challenge whaling wives faced at sea.
Because whaling wives saw so very little of their husbands, some resorted to going out to sea – a privilege reserved for the wife of the captain.
Aside from dealing with cramped and filthy conditions, poor diets, isolation, and sickness, many wives eventually found themselves – or even started out - “in circumstance.”
In the 19th century, pregnancy was never mentioned outright. Even in their private diaries, whaling wives rarely hinted to their pregnancies. Some miserably record an increase in seasickness. Only the very bold dared to delicately remark on the creation of pregnancy clothes. Adra Ashely of the Reindeer wrote to a friend in 1860, “I am spending most of my time mending – I want to say what it was, but how can I! How dare I!” Martha Brown of Orient was more forward by mentioning in her diary in 1848 that she is “fixing an old dress into a loose dress,” with “loose” meaning “maternity.”
Once the time of birth approached, women at sea faced two options: to be left on land – often while the crew continued on - or to give birth on board.
Giving birth on land was far preferable, as the mother would be theoretically closer to medical care and whatever social support was available. Martha Brown was left in Honolulu – much to her personal dismay to see her husband depart for 7 months – but fell into a supportive society of women, most left themselves in similar situations. During Martha’s “confinement” after birth when she was restricted to bedrest, a fellow whaling wife nursed her. When Captain Brown returned, he wrote to his brother: “Oahu. I arrived here and to my joy found my wife enjoying excellent health with as pretty a little son as eyes need to look upon. A perfect image of his father of course – blue eyes and light hair, prominent forehead and filled with expression.”
Giving birth on land did not always ensure a hygienic setting as one would hope. Abbie Dexter Hicks of Westport accompanied her husband Edward on the Mermaid, sailing out in 1873. Her diary entry on the Seychelle Islands was: “Baby born about 12 – caught two rats.”
Some whaleships found reaching a port before birth tricky. In 1874, Thomas Wilson’s wife Rhoda of the James Arnold of New Bedford was about to give birth, but when the ship arrived at the Bay of Islands of New Zealand, there was no doctor in town. A separate boat was sent to search up the Kawakawa River for 14 miles; when a doctor was finally found and retrieved, the captain informed the doctor that it was a girl.
Some babies were born aboard whaleships – either by design or by accident, despite hardly ideal conditions. Births, if were recorded in the ship’s logbook, were mentioned matter-of-factly. Charles Robbins of the Thomas Pope was recorded in April 1862: “Looking for whales… reduced sail to double reef topsails at 9pm. Mrs. Robbins gave birth of a Daughter and doing nicely. Latter part fresh breezes and squally. At 11am took in the mainsail.”
Captain Charles Nicholls was in for a surprise when he headed to New Zealand on the Sea Gull in 1853 with his wife. Before the birth, fellow Captain Peter Smith had told him during a gam (social visit at sea), “Tis easy,” and advised the first mate be ready to take over holding the baby once it was born. When the time came, Captain Nicholls dutifully handed the baby to the first mate, only to return several minutes later shouting, “My God! Get the second mate, fast!” – upon when he promptly handed out a second infant.
Captain Parker Hempstead Smith’s wife went into labor unexpectedly: “Last night we had an addition to our ship’s company,” seaman John States recorded on February 18, 1846 on board the Nantasket of New London, “for at 9pm, Mrs. Smith was safely delivered of a fine boy whose weight is eight lbs. This is quite a rare thing at sea, but fortunately no accident happened. Had anything occurred, there would have been no remedy and we should have had to deplore the loss of a fine good hearted woman.”
He also added his good wishes for the baby: “Success to him – may he live to be a good whaleman – though that would make him a great rascal.”
The author is the Executive Director of The Whaling Museum & Education Center.
Druett, Joan. Petticoat Whalers. Auckland: Collins, 1991
MacKay, Anne ed. She Went a Whaling: The Nournal of Martha Smith Brewer Brown. Oysterponds Historical Society, 1993
After 81 years in the dark, The Whaling Museum & Education Center will be shining some light on its hidden collection through a generous grant from the National Park Service’s Maritime Heritage Grant Program.
Part of a 1:1 match of $49,557, this funding will allow the museum to digitize, preserve, and create publicly available online access to an estimated 2500 items selected from its permanent collection.
The considerable project, scheduled to be completed by 2019, will dramatically increase access to the museum’s significant and historical collections by producing publicly accessible digital archives, and will enhance public awareness and appreciation for the key role whaling played in our country’s maritime heritage. As part of the project, the museum will also produce object-based curricula and teaching materials for schools which highlight using the online collection in classrooms.
An essential component of this project will be digitizing the museum’s archives, a largely untapped and unknown resource which offer perspectives, insights, and research opportunities not found in any other museum. This includes 95% of the existing manuscript material from the Cold Spring Harbor whaling fleet, records of the Long Island coastwise trade under sail, crew lists, shipping papers, prints, photographs, and correspondence. Together, these archives form a rich visual record of Long Island’s development as a historically prominent whaling center.
Executive Director Nomi Dayan explains, “We are honored and excited to be one of three New York organizations successfully awarded this year by the National Maritime Heritage Program. When visitors view our exhibits, most don’t realize that what they’re seeing is the tip of an iceberg, as approximately 5% of our collection is on view at one time. This project helps us extend past restricted physical space and enhances our institutional capacity to both preserve the collection through digitization, as well as better serve the public by making largely unknown resources publicly available online. Ultimately, we hope this project will engage the public in ongoing conversations about the social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental forces of our whaling heritage that have shaped our country.”
Dayan added, “This project will also open the museum’s doors to a global audience. In the past few months, we have received research inquiries from individuals from Australia to Chile. This project will radically enhance access without having to rely on staff time or necessitate travel to the museum.”
Currently, the only way browse the collection is to physically cruise the tightly packed drawers, folders, and boxes in storage, which is inefficient and compromises the items’ fragility. Online access with a searchable database is a vital tool for promoting public appreciation and understanding of history – and in the case of whaling history, connecting the processes, events, and interactions among people and whales to scientific and cultural understanding today.
“This is a very exciting time for the museum's collections, says Collections and Exhibitions Manager Kyrsten Polanish, “This project will help to prolong the life the objects by reducing the amount of times objects are physically handled while making them more accessible to anyone wanting to find out more about maritime history.”
Improved cataloging, digitization, preservation, and documentation for the artifacts would elevate the museum’s archives to the current best practices of collections management.
The museum’s archives are currently available for research by appointment only.
By Kyrsten Polanish, Collections & Exhibits Coordinator
When you work in a collections position, conducting inventories comes with the job. But by no means are these inventories boring! Through these routine inventories, you often have the opportunity to find interesting artifacts buried in storage, possibly ones previously thought to have been lost, or notice some new detail of a piece that brings further enlightenment to its historical value and nature.
The most recent inventory I have been conducting is of our Logbook collection. Logbooks are the official records kept on board a ship often by the first mate or another high ranking officer. These keepers write down the major events that occur on ship, weather patterns, coordinates of the ship’s location and, in the case of whale ships, records of where whales were spotted and how many barrels of oil were brought in. Our Logbook collection is not that large as compared to some bigger institutions so when seven logbooks were not able to be located in the process of the inventory this was puzzling.
After having attacked this dilemma from multiple angles and looking in every drawer and box possible, I was ready to put this aside to come back to later with fresh eyes, when a research request came in. This researcher just so happened to be looking for information out of two of the “missing” logbooks. Thus, this request forced me to keep pushing forward posthaste. Where did this eventually lead me? To 45 years of paperwork and a seemingly less than ordinary looking book.
I came up with the idea of trying to find the original donation documents which meant sorting through those 45 years worth of collections paperwork. The time was well spent, however, when I found the original documents which completely solved the mystery, all thanks to the description contained within. That description indicated that a burlap covered book, that had always remained a bit of a mystery, was indeed a logbook. On top of that, it did not just have one logbook within its binding, but seven!
Considering all other logbooks in our collection had one voyage in one book, this detail was extremely odd to us. We couldn’t quite figure out why this would be. Honestly, we still don’t. The running theory is that the unknown record keeper was the same person for all seven voyages within the book and that this man simply kept carrying around the same book out of convenience or financial necessity (paper was not cheap back then).
Was I able to finally finish the logbook inventory and account for everything? Yes! Will we ever know why this book has seven voyages? I don’t know, but I hope so. For now, it will continue to be a mystery waiting to be solved.
Follow the Whaling Museum's ambition to stay current, and meaningful, and connected to contemporary interests.
Written by staff, volunteers, and trustees of the Museum!