The story

When did the Nuu-Chah-Nulth stop whaling?

I am wondering when the Nuu-Chah-Nulth stopped whaling.

I've been looking around and can't seem to find anything.

Gray whales were plentiful before “Yankee whalers” decimated the stocks, says Coté. In 1937, the US banned gray whale hunting and in 1972, the gray whale was placed on the endangered species list.

The Makah and the Nuu-chah-nulth honoured the ban on whaling. Dominion Paper

Whaling halted in 1972; however as the article makes clear, whaling started again in the 21st century when the population recovered, then halted again. There is no simple answer.

American Experience

An English sailor, having just served on George Weymouth's exploratory voyage to the territory that would become Maine, publishes an account of a Native American whale hunt.

Fastening harpoon points, Courtesy: Library of Congress

The Pilgrims, arriving in Plymouth Harbor, come across right whales "playing hard" off the bow of the Mayflower.

Shore whaling is taken up at Southampton, Long Island. The fledgling industry is manned by Native Americans, who are paid a percentage based on the quantity of oil returned -- a precursor to the "lay" system of wages used in later whaling voyages.

Early map of Nantucket, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

Nantucket is sold to and settled by nine original purchasers: Tristram Coffin, Thomas Macy, Christopher Hussey, Richard Swayne, Thomas Barnard, Peter Coffin, John Swayne, and William Pike. The sale is made for 30 pounds of sterling and two beaver hats.

Siasconset, MA, 1797, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

Whaling on Nantucket takes root as settlers construct small fishing hamlets at Quidnet and Siasconset.

Ichabod Paddock, a Long Islander, is recruited by Nantucketers to help increase the efficiency of their shore whaling operations.

Flensing Ashore, Courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

Approximately 60 English settlers and 160 Native American Wampanoags are engaged in shore whaling on Nantucket.

John Richardson, a Quaker, visits Nantucket and proselytizes Mary Coffin Starbuck as a prominent civic figure, Starbuck's conversion is crucial to Quaker ascendance there.

Whaling off the coast of Nantucket, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

Nantucketer Christopher Hussey kills the island's first sperm whale, and deep-ocean whaling commences. For the next century and a half, Nantucketers will specialize in hunting sperm whales.

Tryworks -- brick oven furnaces used to render oil from whale blubber -- are first installed on ships, increasing profitability and extending length of whaling voyages.

Prominent Nantucket whaling merchant Joseph Rotch resettles to New Bedford, anticipating the city's future importance to the whaling industry.

A family on a roofwalk overlooking Nantucket Sound, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

During the Revolutionary War, whaleships are targeted by the British Navy with nearly fatal consequences to the industry. Nantucket's fleet is reduced from 150 vessels to fewer than 30, and ports elsewhere in Massachusetts and on Long Island are likewise impacted. Many Nantucket merchants, who, prior to the war had strong commercial links to Britain, relocate their whaling operations abroad -- to London, Canada, and France.

Several whaling businesses, shaken by the destruction of the war, relocate their operations from Newport, Providence, and Nantucket to Hudson, NY, which is more than 100 miles from the open ocean.

Great Britain, anxious to subsidize its own whaling industry (and perhaps to rebuke its rebellious former subjects), imposes a duty on imports of whale oil. U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain John Adams famously argues to Prime Minister William Pitt that the duty "sacrifices the general interest of the nation [Great Britain] to the private interests of a few individuals." Adams' argument is rejected, and the duty upheld.

A British whaling vessel, the Amelia, becomes the first to sail around Cape Horn in pursuit of whales.

With the discovery of the whale-rich "onshore grounds" off the coast of South America, the Pacific Ocean is an increasingly popular destination for American whaling vessels.

Nantucket's fleet has recovered from the losses of the Revolutionary War, and at 116 vessels it is the largest in the young American republic.

War of 1812: As during the Revolution, American whaling vessels are preyed upon by the British Navy several dozen are either seized or destroyed, and among American whaling ports only Nantucket continues to send out voyages.

Spring 1818
Just when the onshore grounds have become depleted of whales, the thickly-populated "offshore grounds" are found by the Nantucket whaleship Globe more than 1,000 miles from the South American coast.

October 1818
A court case in New York, Maurice v. Judd, is tried over whether the oil from whales qualifies as "fish oil" (which is taxed). At issue are evolving comprehensions of natural science and taxonomy.

A whale hunt, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

After the War of 1812, the whaling industry enters its "Golden Age." Among the investors attracted to the industry is novelist James Fenimore Cooper, who, while visiting a relative in Sag Harbor, Long Island, invests in a whaling firm. (The investment ultimately returns a loss.)

The Nantucket whaleship Essex is stove by a sperm whale in the middle of the Pacific. Fearing cannibals in the nearby Marquesas Islands, the majority of the crew members crowd into three small whaling boats and head east on a 3,000 mile journey towards the coast of Peru. When two of the boats are recovered nearly three months later (the third boat is lost), the surviving crew members admit to sustaining themselves with the bodies of their shipmates.

A Nantucket schooner, Industry, departs for the Pacific with an all-black crew.

Filling sperm oil casks, Courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum

For the first time, New Bedford's whaling fleet exceeds that of Nantucket.

A 21-year-old Herman Melville signs aboard the whaler Acushnet out of Fairhaven. He will remain at sea for more than three years.

During a "gam" with the whaling vessel Lima in the South Pacific, Melville meets William Henry Chase, son of Owen Chase, who presents him with a copy of his father's narrative.

Life in Marquesas Islands, Courtesy: Corbis

In July, Melville deserts the Acushnet and spends several weeks ashore in the Marquesas Islands.

Already disadvantaged by a sandbar at the mouth of its harbor (which was prohibitive to the larger whaling vessels typical of the industry's Golden Age), Nantucket is ravaged by The Great Fire. The whaling industry there will never recover.

The toggle harpoon -- a weapon substantially more effective than its fluted predecessor -- is invented by Lewis Temple, an African-American blacksmith.

July 1848
Sag Harbor whaling captain Thomas Welcome Roys opens the arctic to American whalers via the Bering Straight. Arctic whaling will gain increasing importance after mid-century, as the industry shifts its focus from oil to baleen.

December 1848
New Bedford artists Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell debut their 1,295-foot moving panorama of "A Whaling Voyage Around the World," just as popular interest in the industry is peaking. Among the events depicted in the panorama is the ramming of the Essex and the mutiny aboard the whaleship Sharon of Fairhaven.

January 1849
The Nantucket whaleship Aurora sets sail for San Francisco. By December it will be abandoned in the harbor when the crew heads inland looking for gold.

October 15, 1850
An open letter submitted to the Honolulu Friend by a "Polar Whale" laments the "murdering in cold blood" of that whale's peers, and asks, "Must our race become extinct?"

Because of profits from whale oil and baleen, New Bedford is the wealthiest city per capita in the country.

A whale destroys a boat, Courtesy: Mariner's Museum

August 1851
The whale ship Ann Alexander, cruising in the Pacific under Captain Deblois, becomes the second such vessel to be stove by a whale, 30 years after the Essex.

November 1851
Moby Dick is published in the United States and Britain. It is panned by literary critics.

Melville's notes about Captain Pollard, Courtesy: Houghton Library, Harvard

The "Golden Age" of American whaling reaches a soaring peak. In the industry's most profitable year, sales of whale products total $11 million.

It is reported in the Honolulu Friend that at least 42 wives have accompanied their husband-captains on whaling voyages to the Pacific. Since 1850, this practice has been becoming more common, with many wives establishing seasonal households on Hawaii -- by then an important stopping-over port for American whaling vessels between cruises in the Arctic.

Oil on a farm, Courtesy: New York Public Library

After more than a year of drilling, Edwin Drake finally discovers petroleum in Titusville, PA. Petroleum -- cheaper, more abundant, and more easily obtained than whale oil -- will soon displace whale oil in the illuminant market.

The Stone Fleet, assembled of 24 New Bedford whaling vessels purchased by the Union Navy, sails for Charleston, South Carolina, where it is sunk en masse to blockade the harbor from runners supporting Confederate interests.

The confederate raider CSS Shenandoah terrorizes New Bedford whaling vessels in the Pacific.

An early winter traps 32 whaling vessels -- a substantial proportion of the American fleet -- in the arctic ice. The crews, half of whom are native Hawaiians, are rescued, but all of the vessels are lost.

Another Arctic disaster claims a further 12 whaling vessels.

The Mary and Helen is launched as the first steam-powered whaling vessel in the United States.

As railroads increase the efficiency of coast-to-coast transportation, San Francisco passes New Bedford as the nation's foremost whaling port.

Herman Melville dies.

Men holding baleen bundles, Courtesy: Nantucket Historical Association

Paul Poiret, a Parisian designer, introduces a "slim, up-and-down" line of women's clothing, undercutting demand for corsets, and thereby baleen.

The New Bedford whaling vessel Wanderer is blown aground by a hurricane at Cuttyhunk in Buzzard's Bay, bringing the American whaling industry to a symbolic end. The Wanderer had been embarking on the last whaling voyage aboard a sail-powered vessel.

The International Whaling Commission bans commercial whaling after a global anti-whaling movement in the 1970s. The ban, however, permits whaling for scientific research. This provision has allowed countries such as Japan to whale under scientific research permits.

When did the Nuu-Chah-Nulth stop whaling? - History

A slide-like passage installed at the back of a mother ship. It is used to pull up the captured whales. Since slipways enabled slaughter on the deck, operations were greatly streamlined. The invention of slipways was a very important technical innovation in the modern whaling history.

Claw (tail fin pinchers)

A tool for hooking the tail fin of a whale to pull up a large-sized whale on a mother ship. In the era when blue whales and fin whales were the main target, it played an important role to pass the captured whales to a mother ship reinforcing the function of the slipway. It is no longer used for the current research minke whaling.

Olympic system

A "first-come, first take" method of managing whaling, used before the country catch quota system was adopted. In this method each country's fleets competed with other countries to catch as many whales as possible within the world's entire catch quota. Each fleet was required to report the number of captured whales to the International Bureau for Whaling Statistics at Sandefjord in Norway every week. The bureau used this information to forecast the day to reach the catch quota, and notified each fleet the day to stop whaling with a notice of one week. All the fleets had to stop whaling on this day. This method was called "Olympic system." This managing method has led to exhausting the whale resource.

Blue Whale Unit system

A In the heyday of whaling where whale oil was the main object of whaling, whales were counted based on the whale oil potential one blue whale was equal to two fin, two-and-a half humpbacks, or six sei whales. As a result, most profitable whales were over-exploited, and the population of large sized whales such as blue whales dramatically decreased.

New Management Procedure (NMP)

A whale resource managing system proposed by K. Allen at the IWC meeting in 1974, and applied to Antarctic whaling since 1975-76 season. Also known as MSY (Maximum Sustainable Yield) system. In this procedure, whale resources were divided into three categories initial management stocks, sustained management stocks, and protected stocks. It banned catching protected stocks, and permitted catching certain amount of sustained management stocks and initial management stocks calculated based on their maximum sustainable yield. MSY is the yearly population increase at the optimal level (the level in which breading rate peaks). This managing system was a strict procedure focused on resource protection, and required so much biological information. Since there was not enough information available, this system did not work well.

Initial Management Stock: a stock whose population is more than 120% of the optimal levelSustainable Management Stock: a stock whose population falls within 120 - 90% of the optimal levelProtected Stock: a stock whose population is less than 90% of the optimal level

Revised Management Procedure (RMP)

After the failure of New Management System, IWC Scientific Committee strove to develop a resource management system that could work under the circumstance where not enough information was available. Five management procedures were proposed, and after the extensive testing, the one proposed by J. Cook was adopted, and finalized as the Revised Management Procedure in 1992. This procedure does not require any biological information, and can calculate catch quota based only on the estimated amount of resources and the past catch record. This procedure is a highly safe method since it is applied to each stock (living group unit) of whales individually. By completing the development of Revised Management Procedure, the scientific work of the Revised Management System, the required condition for the resumption of whaling, was accomplished.

St. Kitts and Nevis Declaration 58th Annual Meeting of the International Whaling Commission June, 2006

IWC/58/16 Rev
Agenda Item 19

St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua & Barbuda, Benin, Cambodia, Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Dominica, Gabon, Gambia, Grenada, Republic of Guinea, Iceland, Japan, Kiribati, Mali, Republic of the Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Mongolia, Morocco, Nauru, Nicaragua, Norway, Republic of Palau, Russian Federation, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands, Suriname, Togo, Tuvalu.

EMPHASIZING that the use of cetaceans in many parts of the world including the Caribbean, contributes to sustainable coastal communities, sustainable livelihoods, food security and poverty reduction and that placing the use of whales outside the context of the globally accepted norm of science-based management and rule-making for emotional reasons would set a bad precedent that risks our use of fisheries and other renewable resources

FURTHER EMPHAZING that the use of marine resources as an integral part of development options is critically important at this time for a number of countries experiencing the need to diversify their agriculture

UNDERSTANDING that the purpose of the 1946 International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling (ICRW) is to “provide for the proper conservation of whale stocks and thus make possible the orderly development of the whaling industryE(quoted from the Preamble to the Convention) and that the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is therefore about managing whaling to ensure whale stocks are not over-harvested rather than protecting all whales irrespective of their abundance

NOTING that in 1982 the IWC adopted a moratorium on commercial whaling (paragraph 10 e of the Schedule to the ICRW) without advice from the Commission’s Scientific Committee that such measure was required for conservation purposes

FURTHER NOTING that the moratorium which was clearly intended as a temporary measure is no longer necessary, that the Commission adopted a robust and risk-averse procedure (RMP) for calculating quotas for abundant stocks of baleen whales in 1994 and that the IWC’s own Scientific Committee has agreed that many species and stocks of whales are abundant and sustainable whaling is possible

CONCERNED that after 14 years of discussion and negotiation, the IWC has failed to complete and implement a management regime to regulate commercial whaling.

ACCEPTING that scientific research has shown that whales consume huge quantities of fish making the issue a matter of food security for coastal nations and requiring that the issue of management of whale stocks must be considered in a broader context of ecosystem management since eco-system management has now become an international standard.

REJECTING as unacceptable that a number of international NGOs with self-interest campaigns should use threats in an attempt to direct government policy on matters of sovereign rights related to the use of resources for food security and national development

NOTING that the position of some members that are opposed to the resumption of commercial whaling on a sustainable basis irrespective of the status of whale stocks is contrary to the object and purpose of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling

UNDERSTANDING that the IWC can be saved from collapse only by implementing conservation and management measures which will allow controlled and sustainable whaling which would not mean a return to historic over-harvesting and that continuing failure to do so serves neither the interests of whale conservation nor management


COMMISSIONERS express their concern that the IWC has failed to meet its obligations under the terms of the ICRW and,

DECLARE our commitment to normalizing the functions of the IWC based on the terms of the ICRW and other relevant international law, respect for cultural diversity and traditions of coastal peoples and the fundamental principles of sustainable use of resources, and the need for science-based policy and rulemaking that are accepted as the world standard for the management of marine resources.

New Bedford's Whaling Heritage

Harpooning a whale. Image courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum Though the land that New Bedford currently sits on was purchased from the Wampanoag people in 1652, the area was not developed as a whaling port until the mid-1700s. In the 18 th century, whales were caught in near-shore waters. The nearby island of Nantucket had an advantage over New Bedford because it was located closer to whale migratory routes.

As voyages moved farther offshore in the 19 th century, Nantucket’s shallower harbor, obstructing sandbars, and dangerous shoals led to its decline as a whaling port. As voyages increasingly went beyond Cape Horn (Chile) and the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in search of prey, ships increased in size, and New Beford’s whaling industry swelled because of its amenities.

In 1800, 17 ships left from Nantucket compared to the seven from New Bedford. In 1815, Nantucket boasted 50 ships to New Bedford's 10 and in 1820, Nantucket outnumbered New Bedford, 45 to 36. The gap closed quickly thereafter. In 1823, New Bedford passed Nantucket in the number of whaleships departing annually on voyages, and never gave up its lead. With the arrival of the railroad in 1840 and easier access to New York and Boston markets, New Bedford became the wealthiest city in the world.

In its heyday, New Bedford's whaling industry influenced its shoreside industry, fashion, architecture, and culture. Today, the city's whaling roots are depicted in its art, industry, and demographics.

Charles W. Morgan. Photo courtesy: Mystic Seaport Charles W. Morgan
The Charles W. Morgan is the last American whaleship still afloat. In its 80-year career, the Morgan made 37 whaling voyages. More information.

U.S. Custom House. Photo courtesy: NPS Custom House
The U.S. Custom House in New Bedford is the oldest continually operating custom house in the country. Whaling masters of the past registered their ships and cargo in this building, while today's commercial ships continue to log duties and tariffs here. More information.

Statue commemorating Lewis Temple. Photo courtesy: NPS Lewis Temple
Working as a blacksmith, African-American Lewis Temple created a tool that revolutionized the whaling industry. The Temple toggle iron secured into whale flesh better than earlier harpoon designs. More information.

Mincing whale blubber. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum Life Onboard a Whaleship
Between whale sightings, crewmen would repair gear, write letters, play games and music, and craft to pass the time. More information.

Paul Cuffe. Image courtesy: Library of Congress Paul Cuffe
Born on Cuttyhunk Island to a freed African man and Native American woman, Paul Cuffe grew to become a successful whaling captain and respected member of his community. More information.

Cutting up a sperm whale's head. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum The Whale Hunt
Capturing and processing whales was dirty and dangerous work. More information.

Sperm whale fluke. Photo courtesy: Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust Whale Populations
The whaling industry devastated whale populations worldwide. The U.S. Congress didn't legally protect whales until 1972. More information.

Casks of oil unloaded from whaleships. Photo courtesy: New Bedford Whaling Museum/ NPS Whale Products
Oil, blubber, and baleen from beached whales was so lucrative that it inspired commercial whaling. A successful voyage meant harvesting these products from at least 50 whales. More information.

Map of the currents and whaling grounds (1845). Image courtesy: Digital Public Library of America World Knowledge
Following America's independence, information and artifacts collected by whalemen expanded America's knowledge of the world and influenced its policies. More information.

Centre Street. Courtesy of New Bedford Whaling Museum

Life on Shore
The whaling industry required many supporting industries which supplied materials, tools, food, and other products necessary to make a whaleship work. These skilled craftsmen or “mechanics” included More information.

Why did Nantucketers stop whaling?

Greasy Luck ran out. A series of events over a period of about thirty years would see the “nation of Nantucket,” as it was dubbed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, brought to its knees. In the 1830s the petroleum fields of Pennsylvania were producing kerosene, cheaper and more easily obtainable than the liquid gold the whalers pursued. A devastating fire—the Great Fire of 1846—roared through the night, leaving the town a smoldering ruin and hundreds homeless and destitute. The years-long whaling voyages were horrendously costly and the whaling grounds had been over-fished. A sandbar at the entrance to Nantucket’s magnificent harbor prevented the much larger and heavily loaded whaleships from approaching the wharves, and they had to be off-loaded outside the bar or carried over it in an ingenious floating drydock called the “camels.” The mainland ports of New Bedford and Salem had access to the burgeoning railroads. Gold was discovered in California and hundreds of Nantucket men went there to seek their fortunes in the earth as they had been sought in the sea. The Civil War would strike the final blow: almost 400 Nantucket men took up the Union cause, seventy-three of them losing their lives. Their families on Nantucket, with no economic infrastructure in place, would have hard times. The once bustling waterfront was filled with rotting hulks there was no industry that could succeed or replace the whale fishery. Between 1840 and 1870 the population of Nantucket decreased from almost ten thousand to a little more than four thousand.

The demise of whaling coincided almost exactly with the dwindling influence of the Society of Friends. Torn apart by decades of factionalism, the Quakers faded out of the picture, leaving as heritage the pristine little town — and, of course, two centuries of dynamic history.

Excerpt from “Nantucket in a Nutshell” by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Winter 2000, Vol. 49. No. 1

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.


From the late 1600s—when Nantucketers first gleaned the prized oil from small whales that washed ashore—into the next two centuries —when Nantucket whaleships would tra­verse the oceans of the world on their legendary three-, four-, and five-year voyages in search of “greasy luck”—the pursuit of whales and their lucrative by-products became the primary business of Nantucket and the basis of its economy. From the mid-1700s to the late 1830s, Nantucket was the whaling capital of the world. As Melville wrote in Moby-Dick: “Thus have these . . . Nantucketers overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders.” This topic explores this wide and varied subject of Nantucket whaling from then until now.

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The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

The Golden Age of Yankee Whaling

After the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 ended the War of 1812, American shipping was free to carry on and the whaling ports began to grow. New Bedford, in particular, built its whaling fleet from 10 vessels in 1815 to 36 vessels five years later. Like Nantucket ships, the bulk of these were employed in sperm whaling voyages and New Bedford vessels were hunting throughout the oceans of the world.

At this time the classic American whaleship came into general use. These sturdy vessels were generally square-rigged ships of about 300 tons with the brick tryworks built onboard. They had wooden planks suspended from the starboard side where the officers could stand to cut into the whales tied up alongside. There were usually 30 to 35 men onboard and the ships carried three to five whaleboats. The ships were outfitted with whaling gear and enough provisions to last for a cruise of up to four years. Many ships were built specifically for whaling, but many others were converted merchant ships.

In 1841 alone, 75 whaling ships sailed out of New Bedford and the city was fast becoming one of the wealthiest in the nation. New Bedford was not alone. In 1834, 38 East Coast ports between Wiscasset, Maine and Wilmington, Delaware were endeavoring to make money in the whaling industry. Most failed. Through intense competition, industrial infrastructure and whaling expertise separated those ports that could maintain successful whaling fisheries from those that could not.

The New Bedford fleet reached its peak in 1857, when 329 vessels valued at more than $12 million employed more than 10,000 men. The Whaleman’s Shipping List newspaper listed 20 ports in 1855, most of those being the same New York and New England regions that also made up the list of whaling ports before the American Revolution. There was one important addition to that list, however: San Francisco, California.

Arctic whaling and the Civil War

In 1849, whaling master Thomas Welcome Roys of Sag Harbor, New York, sailed the ship Superior through the Bering Straits and into the Western Arctic. His quarry was the bowhead whale (Eubalæna mysticetus). With the hunting of this species, a new chapter in the history of American whaling had begun.

The bowhead is a very fat whale with thick blubber and baleen plates up to 13 feet long. The stocks of this whale in the Western Arctic waters had never been commercially exploited but hunting it was dangerous work in icy seas.

Markets for whale oil and baleen had been steady for many years, then the baleen market spiked around the time of the Civil War. The dictates of women’s clothing fashion in the form of hoop skirts and corsets brought long, flexible baleen into a pricey marketplace.

At this time the need for sperm whale oil for lighting was superceded by the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859 and the market for sperm whale products slackened. This marked the end for ports like Nantucket that had never wholly embraced Arctic whaling. Interestingly enough, Provincetown, Massachusetts, a port that specialized in short voyages and small vessels, continued successful whaling for many more years, but the peak of Yankee whaling had been passed. Access to the Western Arctic was easier from San Francisco, and the New Bedford whaling merchants moved offices and agents there so they could continue their business on both coasts. The opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 further consolidated the dual coast whaling business.

Voyages to the Eastern Arctic also increased at this time, but bowhead whale populations there had been commercially exploited for 200 years. Filling the ships often required crews to winter over, a proposition equally as dangerous as whaling in the Western Arctic.

The Civil War, like the wars before, was very bad for the whaling fleet. Confederate cruisers like the Shenandoah, the Alabama and the Florida destroyed more than 50 Yankee whalers. In addition, New Bedford contributed 37 old whaling ships to the war effort in the form of the “Stone Fleet.” These vessels were filled with rocks and sunk at the mouths of Southern harbors in an attempt to block shipping.

After the war, two Arctic disasters, one in 1871 and the other in 1876 claimed 30 New Bedford ships and 15 from other ports. Whaling ports lost millions of dollars in these disasters and as ships were lost owners could seldom afford to replace them, as the markets for whale products continued to decline.

Spirits of Our Whaling Ancestors: Revitalizing Makah and Nuu-chah-nulth Traditions

Following the removal of the gray whale from the Endangered Species list in 1994, the Makah tribe of northwest Washington State announced that they would revive their whale hunts their relatives, the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation of British Columbia, shortly followed suit. Neither tribe had exercised their right to whale - in the case of the Makah, a right affirmed in their 1855 Following the removal of the gray whale from the Endangered Species list in 1994, the Makah tribe of northwest Washington State announced that they would revive their whale hunts their relatives, the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation of British Columbia, shortly followed suit. Neither tribe had exercised their right to whale - in the case of the Makah, a right affirmed in their 1855 treaty with the federal government - since the gray whale had been hunted nearly to extinction by commercial whalers in the 1920s. The Makah whale hunt of 1999 was an event of international significance, connected to the worldwide struggle for aboriginal sovereignty and to the broader discourses of environmental sustainability, treaty rights, human rights, and animal rights. It was met with enthusiastic support and vehement opposition.

As a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nation, Charlotte Cote offers a valuable perspective on the issues surrounding indigenous whaling, past and present. Whaling served important social, economic, and ritual functions that have been at the core of Makah and Nuu-chahnulth societies throughout their histories. Even as Native societies faced disease epidemics and federal policies that undermined their cultures, they remained connected to their traditions. The revival of whaling has implications for the physical, mental, and spiritual health of these Native communities today, Cote asserts. Whaling, she says, "defines who we are as a people."

Her analysis includes major Native studies and contemporary Native rights issues, and addresses environmentalism, animal rights activism, anti-treaty conservatism, and the public's expectations about what it means to be "Indian." These thoughtful critiques are intertwined with the author's personal reflections, family stories, and information from indigenous, anthropological, and historical sources to provide a bridge between cultures.

Whaling The Old Way

Life on a nineteenth-century whaler was thrilling, tedious, and often disgusting.

Using age-old methods, whalemen work to remove the jaw of a sperm whale.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

“What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?”
“Sing out for him!” was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.
“Good!” cried Ahab, with a wild approval in his tones observing the hearty animation into which his unexpected question had so magnetically thrown them.
“And what do ye next, men?”
“Lower away, and after him!”
“And what tune is it ye pull to, men?”
“A dead whale or a stove boat!”

The call-and-response of Ahab’s maniacal pep rally—a string of, as Ishmael puts it, “seemingly purposeless questions” with which the Pequod’s captain stirs his crew into a bloodthirsty furor for whale-killing—culminates in what one scholar of American folklore has called the “universal motto” of nineteenth-century whalemen: “A dead whale or a stove boat!” Like a seagoing version of the Depression-era bumper slogan “California or bust,” the phrase pithily evokes both the mariners’ desperate dedication to the pursuit and destruction of their prey and the extreme risks they incurred in the process. “A dead whale” was, of course, the desired outcome of the chase, but “a stove boat”—a wrecked mess of splintered timber, fouled tackle, and flailing bodies—was just as likely. For the fictional crew of the Pequod, as for the real whalemen of the day, whaling was more mortal combat than straightforward hunt: Six sailors in a flimsy, open whaleboat, armed with only handheld harpoons and lances, pitting themselves at every opportunity against the singular terror of a true sea monster, the sperm whale, an animal that, when fully grown, could measure sixty-two feet in length, weigh eighty tons, and wield, to deadly purpose, a eighteen-foot jaw studded with seven-inch teeth.

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World, a new American Experience documentary by Ric Burns, is alive with the all-or-nothing ethos of the nineteenth-century whaleman. Drawing its central narrative arc from two of the most famous man-versus-whale tales of the era—the true, though at the time unthinkable, story of the Essex, a whaleship sunk in the middle of the Pacific by an enraged sperm whale, and the dark masterpiece it partially inspired, Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick—the film follows the history of the American trade as it evolved from the colonial practice of “drift whaling” through the so-called Golden Age, which lasted from shortly after the War of 1812 until the commercialization of petroleum after it was successfully drilled in 1859. During that time, Nantucket, New Bedford, and other port towns sent hundreds of ships all over the globe in search of leviathans. This was before modern whaling technologies reduced the drama and heroics of the chase to mere assembly-line slaughter, when whaling still represented, in the words of several scholars interviewed in the film, a “primordial . . . epic hunt, . . . tap[ping] into something very basic about human existence and experience,” “a spiritual endeavor,” and a “peculiar combination of romance, . . . danger, and exoticism.” Those brave enough to ship out on a Yankee whaler could expect to hunt the biggest game, explore new corners of the ocean and faraway lands, dally with foreign women, and hack to pieces and boil down behemoth carcasses.

Wait. Hack and boil carcasses?

Awash in blubber: the deck of a whaleship during processing.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

For all the antiquarian nostalgia that risks tinting our view of the fishery’s past, Into the Deep never loses sight of the simple fact that whaling was an industry—one of the largest, most profitable, and important businesses of its day, involving tens of thousands of workers at sea and on shore, and millions of dollars in annual investments and returns. It is a refreshingly clear perspective for those of us who may have thumbed quickly past the more technical chapters of Moby-Dick, or who imagine whaling through the narrow lens of those impressive painted and scrimshawed scenes of vicious whales smashing boats and tossing sailors in the air. Men went to sea for any number of reasons—to make a living, to escape the law, to find themselves—but once aboard a whaleship, their job was to supply the rapidly industrializing Western world with oil for its lamps, candles, and machinery, and baleen for its parasol ribs, horsewhips, and corsets. And as author Nathaniel Philbrick, one of the experts appearing in the film, said in a phone interview: “It’s not as though the harpoon hit the whale and—poof—magically it was turned into a profitable commodity.” To effect that transformation required some of the most difficult and disgusting labor of any industry of the time.

“We have to work like horses and live like pigs,” wrote Robert Weir, a greenhand (or first-time sailor), in his diary. His experiences aboard the whaleship Clara Bell from 1855 to 1858 correspond to many scenes from Into the Deep. After only forty-eight hours at sea, his “eyes,” he said, were already “beginning to open” to the harsh realities of his “rather dearly bought independence.” He had shipped out to cut ties with those on land—his family and creditors—but to what end? The life of a whaleman was not, it turned out, all battling leviathans, exploring exotic isles, and cavorting with natives. In fact, for the most part, it was downright miserable. The quarters were cramped, the food was awful, and the work, when there was any to be done, positively backbreaking. After one especially long day, Weir jotted in his diary, it “rained pretty hard in the evening—and I got wet and tired tending the rigging and sails. Tumbled into my bunk with exhausted body and blistered hands.” To this account he appended a one-word commentary, as bitterly sarcastic as it was short: “Romantic.”

Although wooden whalers required, as Weir put it, “innumerable jobs” just to keep afloat and moving forward, the really hard work of whaling didn’t begin until after the brief thrills of the chase were brought to a successful conclusion. If a whaleboat crew were skilled and lucky enough to kill a whale—to make it spout blood and roll “fin out,” in the colorful language of the fishery—the men would then have to tow the carcass to the waiting mother ship, which could be anywhere from a few yards to several miles distant. As Mary K. Bercaw Edwards, a professor of maritime literature at Williams College–Mystic Seaport Program, points out in the film, dragging tens of tons of deadweight through the water under oar was anything but easy: Six men working themselves raw could only achieve a top speed of one mile per hour. Even a mariner seasoned by years in the merchant service described towing a dead whale as “one of the most tedious and straining undertakings I have ever assisted at.”

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

And, as some of the archival photographs and footage Burns dredged up for Into the Deep graphically attest, things didn’t get any easier after the whaleboat met the ship. Brought alongside, the corpse was secured to the starboard side of the vessel, whale’s head to ship’s stern, by a large chain about its flukes and sometimes a wooden beam run through a hole cut into its head. Soon, all hands—except, in American whalers, the captain—were given over to the bloody task of “cutting-in,” by which the whale was literally peeled of its blubber—“as an orange is sometimes stripped by spiralizing it” is the simile Melville and other salts and scholars have used to illuminate the process. With a few deft slashes of a fifteen-foot cutting spade, an experienced mate would loosen a portion of flesh and blubber between the animal’s eye and fin, while another man, braving the sharks that were by now swarming the grisly mass, boarded the body, and fixed a huge hook to the cut swath of whale. Drawn up into the rigging, this hook began ripping a long strip of blubber, called a “blanket-piece,” from the carcass. Measuring some five feet wide, fifteen feet long, and ten to twenty inches thick, blanket-pieces were borne aloft and aboard, where they could be cut down to sizes suitable for “trying-out,” the next step.

Gruesome as cutting-in may seem to most of us, unaccustomed as we are to the scenes that unfold daily in slaughterhouses and aboard commercial fishing vessels, it was really nothing more than whale-scale butchery—certainly not the kind of thing any hunter, especially one who had just gone through all the trouble and gore of killing a whale, would cringe at. But trying-out, the process of boiling oil from the stripped blubber, was another story. Working around the clock in six-hour shifts for one to three days (depending on the size of the whale killed), the crew kept the two giant copper cauldrons of the try-works burning, tossing in hunks of blubber and barreling the gallons and gallons of oil they rendered. Almost every whaling memoir contains some stomach-turning account of this process. Melville’s highly poetic version is quoted in the film, but Charles Nordhoff’s 1856 Whaling and Fishing, with which the author aimed, he said, “to give a plain common sense picture of that about which a false romance throws many charms,” offers one of the most visceral litanies of the distasteful conditions trying-out created aboard ship. “Everything,” the seaman wrote, “is drenched with oil. Shirts and trowsers are dripping with the loathsome stuff. The pores of the skin seem to be filled with it. Feet, hands and hair, all are full. The biscuit you eat glistens with oil, and tastes as though just out of the blubber room. The knife with which you cut your meat leaves upon the morsel, which nearly chokes you as you reluctantly swallow it, plain traces of the abominable blubber. Every few minutes it becomes necessary to work at something on the lee side of the vessel, and while there you are compelled to breath in the fetid smoke of the scrap fires, until you feel as though filth had struck into your blood, and suffused every vein in your body. From this smell and taste of blubber, raw, boiling and burning, there is no relief or place of refuge.”

And there was more. To quote Melville: “It should not have been omitted that previous to completely stripping the body of the leviathan, he was beheaded.” As the blanket-pieces were rent from the dead whale, its body turned in the water, straining against the fixed head, until, with some more plying of a spade, the two portions were wrenched apart. If the head was of a manageable size, it was brought on deck if not, it was rigged to the side of the ship, nose down. Right, bowhead, and fin whales were relieved of their baleen, while sperm whales had the spermaceti, a substance contained in a head organ known as the case, bailed out in bucketfuls. “This is the good stuff,” says Philbrick in the film. “It’s as clear as vodka when you first open” the spermaceti organ, “but as soon as it touches air, it begins to oxidize,” taking on the white, waxy properties that caused early whalemen to mistake it for the animal’s semen. Scientists still don’t know what function spermaceti serves in whale physiology, but for the men and women of the nineteenth century, it was simply the best illuminant and lubricant money could buy. In fact, the light given off by candles manufactured with spermaceti was considered so superior to that of other types of candles that it served as the benchmark for all artificial light: One candlepower, as defined by the English Metropolitan Gas Act of 1860, was equivalent to the light of a pure spermaceti candle of one-sixth pound burning at a rate of one hundred and twenty grains per hour. The spermaceti-based unit survived until an international committee of standards agencies redefined the measure in 1909 to conform with the luminous properties of the then recently invented electric carbon filament bulb.

Crewmen pose beneath baleen, a filtration system found in the mouths of some whale species.

Courtesy of the New Bedford Whaling Museum

Finally, with all the blubber processed, all the spermaceti bailed, and the decapitated corpse left for the sharks and scavenging birds, the crew set about giving the ship a thorough scouring. This was accomplished with a combination of strong alkali and sand, or sometimes an effective concoction of human urine and whale blubber ash. Only when the ship was returned to its pre-processing shine—“with a sort of smug holiday look about her,” wrote one sailor—did the men even attempt to clean themselves. “Happy day it was for me,” remarked Nordhoff, “when I was once more permitted to put on clean clothes, and could eat biscuit without oil, and meat unaccompanied by the taste of blubber.” A well-earned respite to be sure, but, of course, only temporary: The entire laborious, nauseating operation, from chasing down to trying-out to cleaning up, would be repeated perhaps as many as one hundred and fifty times until, if the cruise was a “greasy” one—the whalemen’s esoteric but wholly appropriate word for “good,” “fortunate,” or “lucky”—the hold practically overflowed with whale oil, spermaceti, and baleen. A prospect that, one imagines, might have caused more than a few greenhands to hesitate for a moment before yelling, “There she blows!” at their next glimpse of a whale.

And yet, for all the hardships involved, men shipped with Yankee whalers in droves throughout the Golden Age. The experience of whaling was, it seems, something irreducible to the sum of its working parts. “At the end of the day,” Burns says, whaling in the nineteenth century was still “an extraordinarily primal, existential confrontation between human beings and what was really the last frontier of untamed nature, the oceans of the world.”

Indeed, Melville, Weir, Nordhoff, and countless other whalemen of the time didn’t just “work like horses and live like pigs” they had adventures, too. They took on and dispatched the largest animals on the planet, lived as captives among cannibals, saw islands no one had ever seen before, plumbed the depths of their souls and psyches while scanning the ocean from the masthead.

“At some point,” Burns says, “one wants to see whaling for what it was and understand the crucial admixture of cruelty, and greed, and nobility, and courage, and generosity, and selfishness, and withal the magnificence of the enterprise, even as one says, ‘Thank God it’s gone. Thank God we’re not out there on three-hundred-ton ships prowling the world, looking for mammals to turn into umbrella stays, lamp oil, and lubricant.’”

James Williford is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding information

Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World will air May 10 on PBS stations. The documentary received $725,000 in NEH funding. The New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts has received $499,217 in NEH funding for a teaching institute on Herman Melville, preservation assessment for its Pacific ethnography collection, and a permanent exhibition on the history of whaling.

Community, Public History, and the Failure of the Whaling Ship Progress

The importance of community undergirds nearly every corner and crevice of public history. From spatial communities bound by common geography to cultural communities of shared identity and lifeways, we almost instinctively understand that museums, archives, oral history projects, and other public history products require community engagement and engagement with communities. The reverse is also true: practitioners who work without the input of key community stakeholders often stumble in their efforts, cut off from the nourishment of meaningful collaboration. Even the fact that the word &ldquocommunity&rdquo has definitional elasticity adds strength to our craft, offering us a nimbleness to engage diverse constellations of communities (LGBTQ, BIPOC, people with disabilities, youth, and more) through our outreach, research, scholarship, and public-facing enterprises. But truthfully, none of these observations were on my mind when I began researching my book The Last Voyage of the Whaling Bark Progress: New Bedford, Chicago, and the Twilight of an Industry (McFarland Press, 2020), a project that ultimately asked me to consider the role of a community in the failure of one whaling museum and the eventual success of another.

Instead, my initial focus was on the fascinating fact that a New Bedford whaleship&mdasha whaling bark named Progress&mdashtraversed freshwater canals, rivers, and the Great Lakes to Chicago in order to be displayed at the World&rsquos Columbian Exposition of 1893. It was a story I stumbled into while doing genealogical research on my own community of ancestors. My introduction to the Progress came from my great, great-grandfather&rsquos New Bedford obituary, which in turn led me to discover that city&rsquos community of whaling captains, agents, and merchants during the industry&rsquos twilight years in the late nineteenth century. More specifically, I encountered a once-revered community living through dark days by the 1890s, when both whaling&rsquos labor and traditions were becoming increasingly anachronistic in Gilded Age America.

The more I explored this dwindling fraternity of whalemen, the more I realized there was another important facet to this story. The Progress wasn&rsquot just displayed at the Columbian Exposition. It was conceived and presented as a whaling museum. And that meant all those questions I ask students in my museum studies courses could be applied to this largely forgotten case study from over a century ago. What is the role of a community (then or now) in the success or failure of a museum? What happens when a museum becomes separated from the community it interprets, commemorates, and memorializes?

In 1890s&rsquo New Bedford those still leading an increasingly abandoned way of life wanted to offer a faithful representation of their trade on the world stage. Early plans for a museum at the fair made it clear that the Progress was meant to be this community&rsquos paean to American whaling. Thousands turned out for the Progress&rsquos departure as it began its journey across North America to Chicago. On that blustery day in June 1892, few would have questioned the assumption that the whaling industry would be gloriously presented and lauded at the most important world&rsquos fair in the nation&rsquos history.

But it is worth pausing on that day to recognize a few key details. It actually wasn&rsquot New Bedford that was sending the Progress to the fair. Instead, a syndicate of Chicago investors, led by a Windy City coal baron named Henry Weaver, bought the whaling bark and financed the enterprise. Ultimately the museum that the Progress became lay in the hands of Chicago men, not whalers. And with the whaling industry a ghost of what it had once been, those time-honored museum loadstones of local memories, traditions, and community knowledge were also disappearing. What would this mean for the Progress and a didactic museum dedicated to whaling that was originally envisioned by those so intimately involved in the trade?

Things started off well. This last voyage included a series of intermediate stops as a ticketed attraction. Curious sightseers in Montreal, Buffalo, Racine, and Milwaukee all got a chance to visit the whaling museum before its big debut in Chicago in July 1892. That first stop in Montreal seemed to portend the kind of museum the New Bedford Board of Trade (the city&rsquos whaling elites who sold the Progress to Henry Weaver) expected for such a worthy industry. The press emphasized an almost encyclopedic compendium of whaling instruments and tools, and thoroughly embraced the notion that whaling was inherently interesting because of its romantic past and rugged je ne sais quoi. If New Bedford was guilty of industrial hagiography when it came to their local whaling industry, the early days of the Progress&rsquos final voyage did little to challenge that notion. I found myself quietly rooting for this version of the museum&mdashsomething that attempted to capture accurately the dangerous labor performed by the remnants of a whaling community.

But as my research continued I could see this was not to be. After the first showing in Montreal, each additional westward stop away from New Bedford and toward Chicago seemed to push the Progress further from the concept of a faithful representation of whaling and the whaling industry. By the time the whaleship arrived in the waters of Lake Michigan the transformation into a museum of exotica, oddities, and maritime hodgepodge was nearly complete. A banner announced &ldquo10,000 marine curiosities between decks&rdquo and press accounts now emphasized beautiful seashells, a mummified Australian boy, a giant sea turtle, and myriad other objects that were decidedly not tools of the disappearing trade. The Progress was moored on the Chicago River for several months prior to heading to the fairgrounds. By then even its New Bedford whaling crew had been replaced with freshwater sailors from Chicago&rsquos schooners. One exception was a non-white crewman who&mdashin an appeal to public appetites for racist exoticism&mdashthe museum promoters chose to present to public audiences as a &ldquoFiji King&rdquo because of his head-to-toe tattoos. According to the museum brochure, the man was the first such royal to grace Chicago.

Even though this museum of marine fantasias and displays of Otherness was a far cry from the original vision, could New Bedford at least feel validated that their former whaleship had made for a popular attraction? They could not. The Progress was a failure on all fronts&mdasha relic from a dying industry few cared to remember, and an unmitigated financial disaster that lost its investors a fortune. The vessel became a running joke in the final years of the nineteenth century. At one point the once-proud whaling bark was listed for sale in the classified ads of the Chicago Tribune, just above the notice, &ldquoWanted&mdashA well trained driving goat.&rdquo Fire and dynamite eventually sent it to the bottom of Lake Michigan at the mouth of the Calumet River.

Some may wonder why I have devoted a book to documenting such a fiasco. I believe that while we rightly highlight good public history, failures can instruct us, too. The Progress serves as a cautionary tale about becoming detached from our core communities, however we define them. Within a few months of the charred remnants of the Progress settling into a muddy Lake Michigan grave, the people of New Bedford gathered and began to plan a whaling museum in their own city. I do not view this as a coincidence of timing, and today the New Bedford Whaling Museum is a vibrant center of whaling history, science, and education. The physical and psychological distance between the Columbian Exposition and the wharves of New Bedford absolutely mattered.

Ultimately, I hope that my book sparks conversations about how to honor groups of laborers that may not be ready for their final eulogy or want a museum to become their mausoleum. I trust that contemporary curators can extract value from a microhistory speaking to us more than one hundred years later about how to present&mdashand not present&mdashan industry and people in transition. Modern museums like the Youngstown Historical Center of Industry & Labor and The Anthracite Heritage Museum in Scranton, Pennsylvania, expertly interpret the more recently declining industries of steel and coal, respectively. Like the New Bedford Whaling Museum, they are extremely successful because their exhibits and interpretive frameworks are deeply rooted in the communities that surround them, built through partnership and collaboration with workers and their descendants. These museums shine where the Progress failed, light and dark revelations of the same lesson told across the span of more than a century: our connections to community can never be forgotten or lost.

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