Fastening harpoon points.
Library of Congress

Fastening harpoon points.
1605

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.


Mayflower approaching land
Library of Congress

The Mayflower
1620

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


1640

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.


Map of Nantucket in the late 17th century.
Nantucket Historical Association

Early map of Nantucket
1659

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
Nantucket Historical Association

Siasconset, MA, 1797
1676

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


1690

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


Flensing Ashore
New Bedford Whaling Museum

Flensing Ashore
1700

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


1702

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
Nantucket Historical Association

Whaling off the coast of Nantucket
1712

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.


A tub of blubber
New Bedford Whaling Museum

A tub of blubber
1750s

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


Sailing ships at the New Bedford Wharves
Nantucket Historical Association

Sailing ships at the New Bedford Wharves
1767

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


On a roofwalk overlooking Nantucket Sound
Nantucket Historical Association

A family on a roofwalk overlooking Nantucket Sound
1775-1783

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.


1783

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.


1785

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.


1789

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


Whaling in the Pacific
Nantucket Historical Association

Whaling in the Pacific
1790-1820

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.


Feeding fire with scraps
New Bedford Whaling Museum

Feeding fire with scraps
1807

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.


Map of New England
New York Public Library

Map of New England
1812-1815

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
Nantucket Historical Association

A whale hunt
1818

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.)


Sketches depicting the attack of the Essex
Nantucket Historical Association

Sketches depicting the attack of the Essex
1820

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.


1822

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


Filling sperm oil casks
New Bedford Whaling Museum

Filling sperm oil casks
1823

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


1840

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


1841

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.


Scene of life in Marquesas Islands
Corbis

Life in Marquesas Islands
1842

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


Areas destroyed in fire
Nantucket Historical Association

Areas destroyed in fire
1846

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.


1848

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


Right whaling in the Arctic
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Right whaling in the Arctic
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. 


San Francisco harbor
Nantucket Historical Association

San Francisco harbor
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?"


Spermaceti oil lamp
Nantucket Historical Association

Spermaceti oil lamp
1850

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


A whale destroys a whale boat
Mariner's Museum

A whale destroys a boat
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.


The only known picture of 'Moby Dick' drawn during Melville's lifetime. Wood engraving, late 19th century.
Granger Collection

The only known picture of 'Moby Dick' drawn during Melville's lifetime.
November 1851

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


Melville's notes about Captain Pollard
Houghton Library, Harvard

Melville's notes about Captain Pollard
1852

Herman Melville visits Nantucket for the first time, where he meets Essex captain George Pollard.


1853

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


1858

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.


Farrel Farm
New York Public Library

Oil on a farm
1859

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.


1861

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.


1864-1865

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


Two ships in heavy ice
Nantucket Historical Association

Two ships in heavy ice
1871

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.


1876

Another Arctic disaster claims a further 12 whaling vessels.


A whaler in the Arctic
Nantucket Historical Association

A whaler in the Arctic
1879

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


Commercial district of New Bedford, MA
Spinner Collection

Commercial district of New Bedford, MA
1886

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


1891

Herman Melville dies.


Men holding baleen bundles
Nantucket Historical Association

Men holding baleen bundles
1907

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


The Wanderer near the coastline
New Bedford Whaling Museum

The Wanderer near the coastline
1924

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.


1986

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.


My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

What impact do you think the whaling industry had on America and its economy? How do you think it shaped us as a nation? What do you believe is currently the industry that epitomizes the identity of America?



  • Additional funding for this program was provided by

  • Rosalind P. Walter
  • NEH