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Of Whales, Colonists and Native Americans

December 27, 2017

We are privileged to be seeing a resurgence of whales along coastal New England and the Mid-Atlantic states. Right, Finback and Humpback Whales are seen in greater quantities in these waters since there decimation by coastal whaling and long range harvesting from 1640 to 1900. The heyday of long venture whaling, as described in Melville’s Classic “Moby Dick’’ is well documented. What is not as well known is “Coastal Whaling” and its influence on whaling techniques in general.
Europeans had access to whale products long before Columbus set his meddling toe onto the “New World”.
(
Begs the question - New to whom?). Basque fisherman coastal whaled the European side of the “Big Pond’’ since the 11th Century. Products harvested were whale oil for lighting the castles of despots such as “King John” (when home resting after chasing Robin Hood all over Sherwood Forest to no avail.) You get the jest. The whale’s valued meat was called “Lenten Bacon”. The all powerful Catholic Church allowed whale meat to be eaten during Lent. They thought whales were fish. They got it wrong. We all know today they are warm blooded mammals.
Nothing of these harvested whales was wasted. Bones were used for tools, ambergris, from occasional sperm whales, was a highly prized perfume ingredient especially since washing was unimportant in those days of yore. Ivory of toothed whales were carved into art and baleen from filter feeding whales was fashioned into clothing stays, whips, collars and more. These multiple uses of the dead whale made it an extremely valuable commodity all through history until the rise of fossil fuel in the 1860s and then it began its decline.
We have established that Europeans were aware of the value of whale products when they set foot on Cape Cod. Upon permanently settling the next year in Plymouth, their focus was on survival. Whales were at the bottom of the Pilgrims “Bucket” list. The Colony grew quickly with help from local tribes without whom they would never have survived the first winters. Soon they were spreading into the interior and along the coast of New England.  By 1640, English military engineer, Lion Gardner crossed the Sound to become the first Anglo settler on Long Island. Encouraged by him others soon followed his example. Gardener was quick to befriend Whyndank of the Montauks. Whyndank was a most well respected Sachem amongst all the Long Island Native family groups. They remained friends till their deaths.
As the English settled South and East Hampton, they looked seaward to the easily accessible ocean bounty at their fingertips. Native tribes harvested oysters, clams, scallops, and fish.  Colonists watched local tribesmen venture into the bays and fearlessly tackle ocean waves in extremely sea worthy dugout canoes. These vessels held up to 12 men who rowed in unison with shorter paddles than we use rowing today. The large canoes were fashioned from trunks of huge oak and elm trees once covered all but the Pine Barrens and Hempstead grasslands on Long Island. The largest specimens were felled in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries for housing, shipbuilding and firewood. The trees we see today, with rare exception, are second and third growth.
The system used to make these large dugouts was to fell a giant tree or find one pushed over in a storm.  The tree section being used was debarked and one side flattened with a stone adz. Then a large wide hole was dug in the ground, filled with medium size stones and a fire built on top and fed until the stones were white hot. The stones were then placed in the center of the large flat area and would slowly burn a deep cavity into the log. The inside was finished off with the adz as were the keel, bow and stern. (ILL.1) The unique shape made it able to be rowed in either direction. As time went on the Indians traded with the settlers for steel saws, axes, adzes, nails, and other tools to make their canoe building less labor intensive.
At first, the Long Island settlers obtained only beached or “close in” whales on Long Island.  They began building their own coastal whaling boats incorporating the concept of the non-directional hull. (ILL.2) They added a simple sail to be able to go out further to hunt.  They placed mast like poles along every three miles and placed a lookout on a perch up top to signal the sighting of a whale. (ILL.3) Each post had a ready whaleboat and a crew of five. They hired many of the Natives to crew these boats and provided them with steel harpoons and lances to be more

assured of success. The whales were most prevalent from January to March so at times it must have been brutally cold. Generally, they gave the Native crew the tail and fins of each whale for ceremonial purposes plus a small portion of the meat and blubber as payment for risking their lives.
The blubber was boiled down in great “Try Pots” (ILL.4) on the beach and turned into fine oil that the colonists used to export and also light their own houses. John Cooper of South Hampton was one of the first to profit from this arrangement as were families such as the Howell, Hand, Carman, Reeves and others. As Long Island shore whaling prospects began to dim, some families such as the Hands took their shore whaling knowledge and settled coastal villages all the way down the Jersey Coast to Cape May. Eventually, even those shores succumbed to over whaling.
 But the greatest years of whaling, from 1790 to 1860 were on the horizon. Great whaling ships were built that would roam far away seas from Sag Harbor, Cold Spring Harbor, Nantucket, and New Bedford. Many crew members were descendants of the indigenous people of Long Island such as the Montauks and Shinnecocks. Each large ship, according to its size, carried its own small fleet of whaleboats adapted from that original unique dugout canoe. The Whaling companies and their owners became rich beyond belief but they never paid their debt for the knowledge and skills the tribes freely gave to them. It is a debt that is now due.
 
Article and Illustrations
C. 2017 Mark C. Nuccio All rights reserved.
 
Mark Nuccio is an artist, author and historian.
He can be reached at - mark@ designedge.net

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