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Descendants of Whaling Pioneer Pay a Visit to Sag Harbor

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Members of the Huntting family, descendants of Benjamin Huntting I, visited the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum on Thursday. Photo by Stephen J. Kotz.

By Stephen J. Kotz

It was not as spectacular an entrance as the Kardashians made to Sen restaurant on Tuesday night, but when members of the Huntting family arrived at the Sag Harbor Whaling and Historical Museum earlier in the day, people took notice.

Fifteen members of the family, descendants either by blood or marriage, of Benjamin Huntting I, the father of the Sag Harbor whaling industry, paid a visit to learn more about the family business from which Mr. Huntting made his fortune.

Unlike the Khardashians, who arrived with a film crew and a phalanx of well-muscled bodyguards in tow, and were immediately surrounded by a horde of photographers, the Hunttings, many of whom arrived by bicycle, received a more subdued greeting from Gregg Therriault, the museum’s site manager, and Richard Doctorow, its collections manager.

It was Benjamin Hunting I, who with his partner, Stephen Howell, came up with the novel idea of sending out whaling ships that were equipped with try-pots on board, so that whale blubber could be rendered into valuable oil at sea. Prior to that, Mr. Doctorow said, the blubber was stored in barrels on board and brought back to port for processing.

“You could only catch so many whales before you had to return to port or your boat would start to smell pretty bad,” he said.

In 1785, Mr. Huntting and Mr. Howell underwrote the voyage of the Lucy and the America. The ships returned to Sag Harbor later that year with between 300 and 500 barrels of oil on board each of them. In later years that would have been considered a measly cargo, but the two businessmen were able to make enough of a profit that they were encouraged to expand their operations and in doing so, they established whaling as an industry in the small port village, Mr. Doctorow said.

Mr. Huntting’s son, Benjamin Huntting II, continued the family business and hired Minard LaFever, the same architect who designed the Old Whalers’ Church, to build him a grand, home on Main Street, which was completed in 1845 at a cost of $7,000.

Huntting family members, who came from as far away as San Francisco, “oohed and ahhed,” as they took in the intricate woodwork, the plaster moldings, and the circular staircase in the house that later passed into the hands of Mrs. Margaret Olivia Slocum Sage, Sag Harbor’s benefactress, before eventually being turned over to the whaling museum.

“This is what you would do if you had the money and the labor was cheap,” Mr. Doctorow said, pointing out the various whaling motifs in the building’s decoration.

The Huntting clan was led by James Huntting, who now lives in retirement in Naples, Florida. For many years, he lived in Austin, Minnesota, where he ran a grain business that was established by his great grandfather, William Huntting, who also sailed the world before settling down on terra firma in the American heartland.

“I don’t know if it was as profitable,” said Mr. Huntting of his great grandfather’s line of work,  “but it was safer.”

For years, family members have taken group vacations, said Lisa Huntting, Mr. Huntting’s daughter, who now lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, but who lived in New York City during the 1980s and occasionally visited the East End.

“At first, when the kids were little, we went to a resort in Minnesota,” she said, “but for my parents’ 50th anniversary, we took a cruise to Alaska.”

“Mom died unexpectedly in January,” she continued. “And she was the one who usually planned the trips.”

Ms. Huntting said she thought it would appropriate to visit the family’s roots, so she organized this year’s trip, with family members renting an East Hampton house for a week-long stay.

The excitement over seeing the family’s place in local history turned more somber when Mr. Doctorow showed them the sharp harpoons used to slay the whales, with some family members cringing as they viewed paintings of mortally wounded  whales, spouting blood.

“They were called right whales for a reason,” Mr. Doctorow said. “They were slow, they were good for oil, and they rarely sank, so they were the ‘right’ whale to hunt.”

Outside, family members gathered around the museum’s 35-foot whaling boat, which Mr. Doctorow said had been restored but is the oldest surviving such boat that he knows of.

“It was a pleasure and a honor to meet you,” he told the family as they completed their tour and headed into the village for lunch with a single reporter in tow.

Black Whalers

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Eastville men crewed Sag Harbor whaleship

By Jim Marquardt

On  the wall of the Eastville Community Historical Society on Hampton Street is a modestly framed roster of “19th Century Eastville Whalers,” the ships they sailed on and their crew assignments. A little research revealed that the 13 men listed were only a fraction of the thousands of African-Americans who manned ships that sailed from Sag Harbor, New Bedford, Nantucket and Greenport, pursuing their giant quarry throughout the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans. White and Black sailors joined rainbow crews of Shinnecock Indians, Pacific Islanders, Creoles, Peruvians, West Indians, Colombians and a few Europeans. At sea, skin color was far less important than courage and skill, and the only measure of a shipmate was seamanship and success at catching whales. One Black seaman in those days said, “A colored man is looked upon as a man, and is promoted in rank according to ability to perform the same duties as the white man.”

Sag Harbor whalers came upon great adventures. Pyrrus Concer, a steerman and harpooner was aboard the Manhattan, commanded by Mercator Cooper, when it rescued 11 shipwrecked fishermen near Japan in 1846. Captain Cooper decided to return the sailors to their homeland, though foreign vessels were forbidden to enter Japanese waters. Reaching port in the Bay of Jeddo, armed boats surrounded the Manhattan and Japanese officials demanded an explanation for the intrusion. The Japanese were intrigued with Concer, never having seen a Black man before. When they understood the Americans’ peaceful purpose, the Japanese rewarded Cooper with spars, water, rice and fresh provisions, then ordered the Manhattan to leave and never to return. (A few years later, Concer joined the gold rush to California, but soon came back and in retirement sailed excursions around Lake Agawam in Southampton.)

In the golden age of whaling from 1800 to 1860, according to “Black Hands, White Sails” by Pat McKissack, African-Americans made up at least 25 percent of whaleship crews, and after the Civil War, as white sailors found jobs ashore, the numbers grew to 50 percent.

Work on a whaleship was tough, smelly and dangerous, and voyages to the far reaches of the oceans might go on for two or three years. McKissak says whaling’s death rate was second only to mining. A young sailor wrote, “There is no class of men in the world who are so unfairly dealt with, so oppressed, so degraded, as the seamen who man the vessels engaged in the American whale fishery.”

We’d like to think ships out of Sag Harbor took a more enlightened approach to their crews, but that’s probably unrealistic. The heyday of whaling coincided with the years of slavery in the United States and many Black crewmen were escaped slaves who took any job under any conditions. On a whaleship they were safe from slave hunters.

According to the Long Island Historical Journal, when Fair Helen departed Sag Harbor in 1817, her crew included Black sailors Cato Rogers and Nananias Cuffee. The Abigail shipped out a year later with six Black whalers, and in 1819 there were seven African-Americans in a crew of 15. They served as steermen-harpooners, stewards, cooks, seamen and greenhands. A few became mates and masters.

In 2000, the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum and Eastville Community Historical Society mounted a celebration of Black whalers. One of the exhibits was a heavy canvas “ditty bag” that belonged to Black boat-steerer Clayton King who shipped out from Sag Harbor in 1865 on the Odd Fellow, and in 1868 on the Myra. The ditty bag held a marlinspike and fid for splicing rope, a jack knife, a ball of beeswax to coat needles, a “palm” of leather fitted with a metal socket and thumb hole for mending sails.

Isaiah Peake was a cook aboard the Sag Harbor bark Oscar under the command of Isaac Ludlow of Bridgehampton. While the ship was anchored off Rio de Janeiro, a drunken crewman named Curtis instigated a mutiny. When Curtis came at Ludlow with an axe, the captain shot him, ending the mutiny. A New York court tried the mutineers   and sentenced Peake to only eight months in prison, probably realizing he was more a bystander than a mutineer.

Whaling was a major U.S. industry in the first half of the 19th century, producing basic ingredients for oil lamps, soap, smokeless candles, machine lubricants, bristles for brushes and brooms, bones for hoop skirts, corsets and umbrella frames. Crew compensation was calculated in the form of “lays,” a percentage share of the returning whaleship’s valuable cargo. Owners took 50 percent, captains 12 percent. A greenhand might get less than a half-percent before “expenses” were deducted to cover cash advances, clothing from the ship’s slop chest, tobacco and equipment. After months and years at sea some sailors owed money to the ship owners.

When the whaling industry began to decline, many ships sailed for the California coast where gold was discovered. One of them, the Sabina, with Black seaman John Crook aboard, took six months to reach the West Coast. In those times, square-rigged ships had to sail thousands of miles south down along two continents, west around turbulent Cape Horn, and thousands of miles north to California. Like many others, Sabina’s crew deserted the ship for the gold fields. She never returned to Sag Harbor and lies under the City of San Francisco. Some entrepreneurial Blacks made more money as cooks, barbers and shopkeepers in the mining camps that they could ever make chasing dreams of gold.

African-Americans made a unique contribution to whaling. Based on the “call and response” of slave spirituals, they created sea chanteys sung by sailors to the rhythm of their work. It was said that a good song was worth ten men on a rope. Many Black sailors now rest in the century-old cemetery near St. David’s AME Zion Church on Route 114. Locked away with them in the holy ground are memories of long voyages where they faced great hardship, but found pride and equality by meeting the challenges of a daunting profession.

Whaling Museum Presents Lincoln Documents

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Sag Harbor Whalers: Entombed at Sea

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by Jim Marquardt

An imposing, white marble shaft representing the broken mast of a ship stands tall in the Oakland Cemetery off Jermain Avenue. The inscription on the base says simply “Entombed in the ocean, they live in our memory.” The names of six Sag Harbor whale ship captains who lost their lives hunting their huge quarry in the far reaches of the oceans are engraved into the sides of the base – John E. Howell, master of the France, killed July 1840 “In an encounter with a sperm whale in the 28th year of his age.” Captain William H. Pierson of the American, age 30, killed in the Pacific, June 1846. Captain Richard S. Topping of Thorn, age 29, killed in the Atlantic, February 1838. Captain Alfred C. Glover, 29, of the Acosta, killed in the South Atlantic, January 1836. Captain Stratton H. Harlow, 27, of the Daniel Webster, killed in the Pacific, October 1838. Captain Charles W. Payne, 30, of the Fanny, killed in the South Atlantic, January 1838.

Sadly, the monument is missing the names of other captains in those years who never returned – a typhoon in the Pacific swept overboard Captain Ludlow of the Governor Clinton. Captain Howett of the Telegraph was lost near the Marquesas Islands. Captain Brown of the Ontario was killed during “cutting in,” perhaps struck by one of the sharp, iron spades used in stripping blubber from a dead whale. (You can see these heavy tools in the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum.) 

Some whales fought for their lives against their aggressors and actually attacked the whale ship and its boats. Alexander Starbuck writes in his History of the American Whale Fishery that the chief weapon of the right whale was its powerful tail, which could smash and sink boats; the sperm whale used its toothed jaw or simply its great bulk. On a number of occasions a sperm whale deliberately charged into a whale ship, most famously in the woeful tale of the Essex out of Nantucket. An 85-foot whale twice attacked the 240-ton ship and sank her, forcing the crew into small boats. Adrift for months, the last survivors sustained themselves on the bodies of their dead shipmates. Herman Melville used the Essex as a source for his classic novel Moby Dick.   

Male sperm whales normally grow over 60 feet long and weigh up to fifty tons. According to Eric Jay Dolin’s book Leviathan, they have the largest skull of any whale, the largest head of any animal, and the largest brain of any species. They can dive thousands of feet and stay underwater for an hour.

When there weren’t deaths, there were dozens of serious injuries. Captain Jacob Havens, born on Shelter Island, commander of the brig America and later the Myra, barely escaped the jaws of a sperm whale that crushed his whaleboat off the coast of Brazil. A glancing blow from the whale’s teeth fractured his skull but he recovered with the help of a trephining operation at a Rio de Janeiro hospital, a risky procedure over 150 years ago in the early days of surgery..

George Page made three voyages with Captain Havens on the Myra, had several battles with whales and always managed to survive. Once after a right whale broke his leg with a whip of its tail, he and the boat’s crew tossed for hours in icy cold waves, clinging to their overturned whaleboat. Years later off the West African coast a big cow whale towed Page’s whale boat far out to sea until the exhausted beast finally succumbed. He and his boat crew lived on whale meat for four days, declaring it “nourishing if not exactly Delmonico fare.” An English frigate picked up the lost sailors and returned them to the Myra off the mouth of the Congo River.

Before becoming a ship’s master, James R. Huntting was a boat steerer. When a sperm whale smashed and capsized his boat, he came up under it, tangled in line. He succeeded in freeing himself and rose to the surface, but a loop of the line attached to the sounding whale caught his ankle and dragged him under. He thought his life was over but when the whale slackened its plunge, he was able to pull himself forward and with his sheath knife cut the line below his foot. Huntting popped above water, nearly drowned and with a broken ankle. Patched up crudely on the ship, he limped for the rest of his life. One of the names on the Oakland Cemetery monument is Richard Topping, master of the Thorn. When a whale stove in his boat, he jumped into the mate’s boat and continued the pursuit. Topping, the mate and five crewmen never returned, no one left alive to describe their final struggle.

Robert R. Newell in The Grisly Side of Whaling compiled a grim accounting of the hazards that killed sailors during the long heyday of the whaling industry. Eleven crewmen fell to their deaths while working aloft in the tall rigging. Native savages on remote tropical islands slew 66 officers and crew members. Thirty-six men died from scurvy and 75 from other ailments. Thirty-three captains – at least nine from Sag Harbor — were killed by whales along with 71 mates and 242 crewmen. Thirty-six were dragged under by fouled lines and four men were killed while cutting in. In all, 386 sailors died fighting whales and 602 lives were taken by drowning and accident.

Starbuck writes that between 1800 and 1876, 368 whaling vessels were lost, foundering in gales and hurricanes, wrecked on often uncharted shores, destroyed by fire or crushed by Arctic ice. In the 21st century there may be a temptation to look back on whaling as a picturesque, even glorious part of Sag Harbor history. But the deaths and maiming of countless sailors, and the heartbreak it brought to families waiting years for their return, prove it was an arduous and dangerous business.


Sag Harbor’s Captains Courageous

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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.