' Skip To Content
Into the Deep: America, Whaling & the World | Timeline

The History of Whaling in America

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.

1 Into-Deep-Timeline.jpg
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.

1659 Into Deep.jpg
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.

1700 Into Deep.jpg
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.

1851 Into Deep.jpg
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.

Support Provided by: Learn More