Whaling in Early Days

Footnotes to Long Island History

Whaling in Early Days


Thomas R. Bayles

       Next to farming the oldest business on Long Island is whaling and the towns along the South Shore once enjoyed a considerable revenue from this enterprise. At  the time of the settlement of Long Island whales were frequently found drifted on the beach and were considered the special gift of providence.

     In 1645 it was ordered by the General court "that by the providence of God and whale or whales, or any part of a whale should by cast up within the limits of this town, noe man shall presume to carry away any part thereof, upon the forfeiture of Twentie shillings." "And whosever shall find or espie eyther whale or whales, upon notice given to the magistrates shall have for his paynes five shillings." It was characteristic of the Puritans that it was ordered that if any one found a whale on the Lord's day the five shillings would not be paid. They did not think it proper for people to be looking for whales on Sunday.

      In 1653 the men of Southampton town were divided into "squadrons" for cutting out the whales that drifted on shore. Each squadron was to take its turn and draw the blubber above high water mark. It was then hauled to the town pond and tried into oil.

      Shortly after this it seems that boats were built and whaling companies organized for killing whales along the coast. The lack of white men to man the boats was made up by hiring Indians. In November, 1670 two Indians Towascon and Phillip, Made a contract to go to sea for Josias Laughton "for the term of three seasons for ye killing and striking whales and other great fish.' Their pay was three Indian coats, One pair of shoes, one pair of stockings, three pounds of shot, half a pound  of powder, and half a pound of Indian corn for each season of work.

      These whaling companies each had their own station along the beach and a great many contracts like the above were made. This resulted in many whales being killed and quantities of barrels of oil were obtained and shipped by sloops to New England and New York city, and from here to England.   

      It  seems before the coming of the white man the Indians had made some use of drifted whales, as in 1658, Wyandanch, the grand sachem of all the Island tribes, granted to Lion Gardner the south beach west of Southampton. In this grant the following reservation was made "But the whales that shall be cast upon the beach shall belong to me and the rest of the Indians, as they have been anciently granted to them by my fore fathers."

      In 1677 James Herrick and another hired 12 Indians to whale for them for the season for one half share, and Sequannah, an Indian agreed with Jonathan Hildreth "To try all the blubber they can procure."

      In 1687 there were 14 whaling companies of 12 men each operating in Southampton town and in that year they made 2,148 barrels of oil.

       In the town of Brookhaven the business was not carried on as extensively as in the eastern towns but we find that on June 17, 1667, the town fathers instructed Daniel Lane to "speke to his honor the Governor, concerning the whale at the south that comes within our bounds, to be at our disposing." On the following March 23 the residents of the town bought of Tobacus the Sachem of Unkechaug, the right to all the whales that should come upon the beach within the limits of the town. For this the Indians were to be paid five pounds in wampum or some other commodity for each whale. In 1687 the town assessors were directed to raise a tax, a part of which was to be paid in whale oil at 20 shillings a barrel.

      After the Revolution the whaling business rapidly increased and in 1846 Sag Harbor was one of the greatest whaling ports in the United States.

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