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Sag Harbor’s Captains Courageous

Posted on 12 September 2008

by Jim Marquardt

Visitors to Sag Harbor might think that the indications of our whaling heritage are little more than a promotion to attract tourists.  But what they and no doubt some of our own residents don’t realize is that during the first half of the nineteenth century, whaling was one of the largest industries in the United States and our small village was an important part of it.  Today we would be ashamed to kill these mighty creatures, but 200 years ago few people even thought of conservation.

In 1847, thirty-two Sag Harbor whaling ships brought back 4,000 barrels of sperm oil, 64,000 barrels of whale oil, and 600,000 pounds of baleen – providing the raw materials for candles, soap, lubricants, paint, oil lamps, hoop skirts, corsets and brushes.  (The latter three items used baleen, a tough, fibrous, web-like material in the mouth of the whale that enabled it to filter plankton and other minute edibles from the sea.)  In pursuing the whales that supplied this abundance, Sag Harbor captains navigated their vessels thousands of miles into remote reaches of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, often on voyages that lasted three or four years.

Thomas Welcome Roys (or Royce), a thirty-two year old in command of the whale ship Superior, was the first captain to sail north from the Pacific through the Bering Strait into the Arctic Ocean where he found great pods of bowhead whales.  He hadn’t divulged his daring plan to the ship owners and crew for fear of being stopped, but a few years before, while recuperating in Siberia from an altercation with a right whale, he had learned from a Russian naval officer that whales were plentiful in that frigid region.  He made his decision to sail far north after hunting fruitlessly in the South Atlantic for nearly a year.  Despite the Arctic’s strong currents, fog and rough seas, Superior chased whales around the clock, the sun never setting in summer that far north.  Captain Roys and his crew took eleven bowheads, rendered their blubber in try-pots aboard the ship and loaded 1600 barrels of oil into the hold.

Our Sag Harbor Whaling Museum displays much more about Roys’ amazing life, including a detailed account of his Bering Sea voyage.  Sadly, Roy’s wife Marie Salliord, tired of his long absences at sea, took their three children and ran away with a former shipmate.  

Captain Mercator Cooper of the whale ship Manhattan out of Sag Harbor, while voyaging in the Pacific in 1847, went ashore on a deserted island off the coast of Japan to capture turtles to freshen the crew’s food supply. He came across eleven frightened Japanese sailors who had been shipwrecked.  Though Japan barred foreign vessels from entering its waters, he decided to bring the sailors to their home.  When he dropped anchor in the Bay of Jeddo within a couple of miles of the Imperial City, hundreds of armed boats surrounded Manhattan.  High ranking Japanese officers came aboard and demanded to know why Cooper had trespassed.  When they realized he was on a peaceful rescue mission, they rewarded him with new spars, water, rice and fresh vegetables.  After a week the Japanese ordered him to leave and never to visit Japan again, under penalty of death.  The Manhattan was the first foreign ship to enter safely into Japanese waters.  Many years and many adventures later, Mercator Cooper died at Barranquilla, Columbia, on April, 1872.

Isaac Ludlow, born in Bridgehampton, went to sea at age fifteen and in the following thirty-five years made twenty voyages on whaling ships, eight of them as master.  In 1835, he rescued over 100 passengers and crew from the British ship Meridian wrecked in the Indian Ocean.  The British Admiralty presented him with a gold medal.

His most challenging adventure occurred while he was captain of the Sag Harbor bark Oscar.  He gave the crew shore liberty during August 1845 in the port of Ilha Grande in South America.  They came back to the ship drunk and in a vengeful mood for grievances they claimed to suffer during the voyage south.  A mutinous gang came aft and one Curtis, the leader, ascended the ladder to the poop deck hefting an axe in his hand.  When he refused an order to halt, Captain Ludlow hurried to his cabin, grabbed a rifle and went back on deck where he shot and killed Curtis, ending the mutiny.  The American consul ordered the whale ship’s return to Sag Harbor where Ludlow was taken to New York City for trial.  He was acquitted of the charge of murder.  Dorothy Zaykowski wrote a somewhat different account of the incident in her book Sag Harbor: An American Beauty.  Captain Ludlow and his wife Phebe and their three children rest in Bridgehampton’s Old Burial Ground.

Captain James Huntting stood six-foot six-inches, weighed 250 pounds and was described as having “almost colossal proportions.”  Once while he was riding in a carriage, the reins parted and the horse broke away.  Huntting reportedly grabbed the rear wheels by the spokes and brought the carriage to a halt.

According to Leviathan, The History of Whaling in America by Eric Jay Dolin, a major challenge aboard any ship was massive injury to a crewman.  While Huntting was in command of a Sag Harbor whale ship, one of his boatmen became tangled in a line and was violently pulled from a whale boat, losing four fingers from one hand and a foot nearly severed at the ankle.  While others in the crew turned away in horror, Huntting strapped the injured crewman to a plank, amputated the foot and dressed the mangled hand. The treatment stabilized the sailor long enough for the ship to reach Hawaii where he was hospitalized.  Huntting left the sea in 1869 and went into the mercantile business with Nathan Tiffany in Bridgehampton.

These are only a few of the iron men who sailed in wooden ships out of Sag Harbor.  We’ll tell about more of them in future reports.

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