By Jim Marquardt
Long before Sag Harbor built big, square-rigged ships to pursue whales all over the world, the Shinnecock and Montaukett Indians were launching small boats from south shore beaches and hunting the Right whales that cruised along the shore in annual migrations.
In a lecture in 1998, Noel J. Gish, author and a director of the Suffolk County Historical Society, said that an English explorer saw Indians taking whales along the coast as early as 1620, while Alexander Starbuck in History of the American Whale Fishery puts it a little later, in 1644. According to Gish, initially the natives didn’t actively hunt as much as they simply awaited whales driven ashore by storm, disease or accident. They learned to boil the blubber, mix the oil with their corn and beans, or use it as a preservative on animal hides. Once the colonists arrived in Southampton in 1642, they realized the value of the whale and made deals to support the natives’ efforts and share in the take. An East Hampton deed in 1648 promised the Indians “to have fynnes and tayles of such whales as shall be cast upp…”
Eventually, a couple of eager braves probably decided that waiting on the beach was non-productive and boring, and launched dugout canoes into the surf to attack the whales offshore. At first they used wooden spears and developed methods for attaching drogues to tire out wounded whales until they succumbed and could be towed to shore. Local blacksmiths forged improved whaling tools, and sturdier boats were stationed along the beaches ready for the cry of “whale off.”
Once dragged to the beach, the whale was cut into, its blubber rendered in huge try pots, its baleen and up to 700 pounds of bone extracted. The whale men ignored complaints from Southampton residents about the stink of boiling blubber. Recipes at the time included mince pies made with whale meat. Whale oil lamps and candles were highly prized, and the oil could be used to protect farm tools from rust. Bones became buttons and corset stays, baleen became chair springs, hair brushes and even buggy whips.
By 1680, Amagansett was the most profitable village for shore whaling and by 1687 seven companies were in business along the south shore. Frederick Schmitt in Mark Well the Whale wrote that in 1700 a woman walking from East Hampton to Bridgehampton counted 13 stranded animals and countless others spouting near shore.
Where there are profits, taxes surely follow, and Robert Hunter, Royal Governor of New York, passed a tax on whale oil and bone. The move angered 70-year old Samuel Mulford and he sailed to London to protest, eventually gaining an audience with King George I who repealed the tax a year later. Mulford earned some notoriety, reports Gish, when he foiled London’s pickpockets by lining his pockets with fishhooks, catching thieves in the act.
According to Whale Off by Edwards and Rattray, Hamptons beaches produced 2,148 barrels of oil in 1687. By 1707, as larger sloops began venturing out for two or three weeks, the yield grew to 4,000 barrels.
Whale Off describes a six-man crew made up of a multi-tasking boatsteerer-harpooner who pulled an oar, threw the harpoon, then tended the towline, a bow-oarsman who secured the sail and mast when a whale was struck, a midship-oarsman, a tub-oarsman who carefully coiled 100-fathoms of rope into a tub to avoid snags, a stroke who helped haul in the towline and called the beat to the oarsmen, and the boat-header/captain who steered and went forward at the critical time to kill the whale with a lance. The boat carried two harpoons, two lances and a cutting-in spade. Thole pins that held the oars were quieted with padding to avoid alarming the quarry.
Inevitably, the number of whales lolling close to shore dwindled and it was necessary to pursue the leviathans farther at sea. Sag Harbor on the inside of the South Fork with its large, well-protected port could accommodate and supply big, ocean-able ships, and its fame as a major whaling center began to grow. Many of the same natives who had hunted whales along the shore were sought as experienced crew for the long, dangerous voyages that took them to the far reaches of the oceans. But occasional shore whaling continued and as late as December of 1893, the New York Tribune reported that two Southampton boats commanded by Captains Rogers and White killed a large Right whale. Estimated value: $2000. $50,000 in today’s dollars.