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2015-12-30 / Columnists

Golden Age of Whaling

Part 3

It was estimated that the New England and Long Island whaling fleet in 1830 consisted of around 203 ships, barks, brigs, and schooners; however by 1840 it reached near 552 vessels.  As the vessels increased, so did the number of men that died, deserted, or mutinied, as well as the vessels wrecked or lost at sea.  

It is important to try to understand something about the difference in the types of whaling vessels.  According to the New Bedford Whaling Museum, a ship had three masts, and carried 4 or 5 small boats and had the largest crew.  There were six men per small boat, and ship-keepers (steward, cook, cooper, blacksmith or carpenter), who stayed aboard the vessel when the small boats were chasing whales.  The ship was built to travel the longest distance and could stay at sea for 3 to 4 years.

The Museum describes the bark with three masts, and fewer crew members to manage “the sails when the boats were down for whales”.  The brig was a two-mast vessel used for short voyages, and the schooner, the smallest was with two masts carrying two or three small boats.  

The 30-feet long and 6-feet wide small boats were pointed at each end.  They were used for the “kill,” and would swing from cranes called “davits”.  Each boat had a crew of six men with the captain or a mate standing in the rear.  Sometimes the harpooner called the boatsteerer “pulled the bow up front”, while four crewmen rowed. 

No matter what size the vessel, the Island’s whaling crews were usually racially mixed including the descendants of the earlier European settlers, Native Americans, and people of color.    

Four (4) logbook of whaling vessels owned by the Cold Spring Whaling Company can be found on the Long Island Memories web site. They are Tuscarora (1839-1841), Monmouth (1843-1846), Richmond (1843-1846), and Huntsville (1847-1849).  And the Mystic Museum (CT) has compiled numerous whaling crew lists.  Researching these we find; Payne, Cuffee, Miller, Conklin, Arch, Bennett, Jones, Killis, Bunn, Smith, Dennison, Enos, Fowler, and Halsey surnames of local men that went to sea in search of whales. 

A story about one local whaler DeWitt Barrett appeared in the Long Islander (Huntington) newspaper on April 4, 1919.  DeWitt (b. 1834), and his older brother George (b. 1828) would go to sea in search of whales. 

According to the 1850 U. S. Federal Census, the Barrett family was living in the Cold Spring area.  By the 1880 US Census, George Barrett gave his occupation as a sailor.  He died on September 4, 1908 in Lloyd Harbor, and is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery.

DeWitt made his 1st voyage with Captain Richard Smith, who sailed for the Cold Spring Whaling Company, and twelve years later as a Captain, DeWitt made his last voyage.  

The South Side Signal newspaper on January 26, 1878 reported Captain Barrett was considered one of the best whale man in the United States.  The article mentioned, Captain Enos once sailed with both Barrett brothers, and a Montaukett Native, “formed the heaviest boat crew ever lowered in pursuit of a whale”. 

Whaling vessels were isolated hot and filthy communities that roamed the seas and oceans!  Most were a disaster waiting to happen!  

On July 21, 1846, Captain Philander Winters sailed the Richmond (ship) out of Cold Spring Harbor for whaling in South America, Indian Ocean, Alaska, Bering Straits, Seas of Okhotsk, and South Pacific waters.  Three years later on August 2, 1849, the Richmond (ship) was wrecked in the Bering Straits, and another Cold Spring Whaling Company ship was lost at sea!  On June 5, 1855 their Edgar (ship) commanded by Captain Pierson was wrecked in the Seas of Okhotsk.  It departed the Cold Spring port on November 25, 1852, and had been at sea for almost 3-years. 

Other seaman met their death trying to land on small islands in the Pacific Ocean.  

Carl Starace’s article in the Islip Bulletin, “Historic Long Island” on December 19, 1974 mentioned the fate of Robert Weeks of Babylon, a friend of Henry Oakley, who followed the same path to the sea, but is said to have met his death at the hands of cannibals in the region of the King Mill Group (sixteen Gilbert Islands).  Weeks, a mate aboard the President (bark) in 1853, after rowing a whale boat to shore along with several others in search of fresh water and fruit was clubbed to death by the Island’s natives, and another mate was taken prisoner.  A second boat witnessed the attack. Later, Captain James Hamilton took a third boat ashore to rescue the imprisoned mate.  It seems the indigenous people were upset because an earlier trader cheated the Islanders by taking merchandise without paying for it.

Some whaling vessels just vanished!  The Cold Spring Whaling Company, Captain Manuel Enos along with his crew disappeared at sea sometime after 1860.

In 1845, Captain Isaac Ludlow, who had commanded the Monmouth (bark) owned by the Cold Spring Whaling Company had a mutiny aboard the Oscar vessel.  The Oscar was at anchor, when several members of the crew led by a foreign sailor, a new crew member attempted to take over the ship.  It was reported Ludlow shot the ringleader, who died almost instantly.  Later, the Captain was tried for murder in New York City, and completely exonerated.  Several of the mutineers were found guilty and given prison sentences.  

The South Side Signal, July 17, 1914 article “One More Old Whaler” mentioned Oscar Balchen (b. 1852) of North Deer Park Avenue was also a whaler,    “At the age of seventeen he left Babylon in December, 1869 for his first whaling trip” aboard the Florida (ship) commanded by Captain Fraser.  He went around the world three times working on ships in a number of capacities.  When on a voyage, along with his ship mates, he had to walk 300-miles on ice, before being rescued by the Helen Marr (ship) commanded by Captain Marvin, the Signal article stated.

By 1895, the U. S. whaling fleet increased slightly to 51 ships.  In 1903, Boston left the trade, San Francisco in 1921, and New Bedford sent its last whaler the John R. Mantra (ship) in 1927.  

The Cold Spring Whaling Company’s last ship had returned to port on June 8, 1861.  Being at sea, perhaps they had not got word that the New York Supreme Court before Justice Morse upon application of the Directors of the Cold Spring Whaling Company ordered the business dissolved around March 1, 1861.  

DeWitt Barrett retired to the Sailor’s Snug Harbor facility in Staten Island along with other whale men.  The facility was founded (1833) through the Will of Captain Robert Richard Randall, as an institution to care for “aged, decrepit and worn-out” seamen.  Here DeWitt Barrett died, but is buried in the Huntington Rural Cemetery with his brother.

During the Golden Age of Whaling, an average of 638 whaling ships were sailing the Pacific under the U. S. flag.  There were 736 ships registered, when whaling reached its peak in 1846.  In pre-Civil War 1860, the U. S. whaling fleet had decreased to 167 ships.  After the Civil War, only 105 whaling ships returned to the business.  

The number dwindled until only 39 American ships set out to hunt whales in 1876; however the last Long Island whaling vessel left Sag Harbor in 1871, and never returned.  

During this period in history, local descendants of European settlers, people of color and Native Americans also sought adventure as gold miners, and cowboys.

The writer is an independent historian, genealogist, freelance writer and business owner. She is the chair of the Board of Trustees and acting executive director of the Indigenous People Museum & Research Institute and served in President Bill Clinton’s Administration as deputy director of the Office of Communications at the United States Department of Agriculture. Readers can reach her at or direct letters to her at CJ Publishers Inc., 85 Broadway, Amityville NY 11701.

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