The Rise and Fall of Nantucket Whaling

By Joe Bills

May 28 2019


Inside the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Long before the restaurants and boutiques and rental bikes, the Massachusetts island of Nantucket was forged by an industry as dangerous and brutal as the island is beautiful. Here are some of the milestones in the rise and fall of Nantucket whaling.

To learn more, check out episode 10 in season 3 of Weekends with Yankee, where cohost Richard Wiese catches a ride on the Nantucket tall ship Lynx to get a taste of what sailing was like in the early 1800s.

The forty-six-foot-long sperm whale skeleton on display at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
Photo Credit : Nantucket Historical Association

The Rise and Fall of Nantucket Whaling

1650s: This marks the time when the first European settlers arrived on Nantucket. Although English communities on nearby Cape Cod had already started hunting right whales (so named because they were the “right” whales to kill, since they were both slow and rich in blubber), the English on Nantucket were farmers rather than fishermen. The Wampanoag, who predated the newcomers on Nantucket by at least a millennium, engaged in a fairly passive form of whaling themselves, as they harvested drift whales that washed ashore.

1700: By the turn of the century, the Nantucket soil had started to falter, while European demand for whale oil continued to grow. Blessed with an advantageous location nearly 30 miles off the Massachusetts coast, Nantucketers recruited a Cape Cod whaler named Ichabod Paddock to instruct them.

Early 1700s: Early Nantucket whaleboats were typically about 20 feet long, manned by a crew of five Wampanoag oarsmen and a single white captain. (The majority of Nantucket’s population was Wampanoag until the late 1720s, at least. Many served on whaling boats as part of a system of indentured servitude.) The boats would get close enough to a whale that harpoons attached to lines could be used to spear it. Harpoons would inflict only superficial wounds, but still force the whale to drag the boat until it grew tired. When the whale’s energy was depleted, the whalers would use the harpoon lines to pull themselves close to the whale and stab it to death. The whale would then be towed back to the beach, where its blubber was sliced off and boiled into oil.

1712: Working along Nantucket’s south shore, a whaling boat captained by Christopher Hussey encountered a gale that pushed it many miles out to sea. There, the whalers encountered an unfamiliar species of whale — which of course they proceeded to harpoon. It was soon determined that this was a sperm whale, similar to one that had washed ashore on Nantucket several years earlier. Not only was the oil from sperm whale blubber generally superior in quality to that of the right whale, but also the sperm whale had a reserve of even higher-quality oil, called spermaceti, near its head.

1760: By the end of the 1750s, Nantucket’s right whale population was badly depleted, and more and more whalers turned their attention to sperm whales, which were much faster, more aggressive, and required much longer trips to hunt. Larger boats were needed for the task. Because it was no longer realistic to tow each whale back to shore, ships also had to be large enough to allow blubber to be rendered and processed at sea.

1770s: As war was festering back home, Nantucket whaling vessels worked an ever-expanding territory that reached from the southern Falkland Islands north to the Arctic Circle, and along the North American, South American, and African coasts. Nantucket remained neutral during the American Revolution, in part because it had developed such a lucrative trading partnership with England. The island was routinely exempted from the restrictive trade laws of the period, such as the Massachusetts Bay Restraining Bill of 1774, which prohibited trade out of Boston and banned East Coast fisheries. Because Nantucket was considered by some to be too friendly with the English, some East Coast communities banned trade with the island.

1775: According to a report by future president Thomas Jefferson, half of the whaling vessels in Massachusetts in 1775 were based in Nantucket, and the island had the capacity for a yield of more than 30,000 barrels of oil a year. The booming industry had transformed Nantucket into one of the wealthiest communities in America.

1812: British naval blockades and prohibitions during the War of 1812 brought whaling activity nearly to a halt.

1819: By decade’s end, the whaling industry in Nantucket was primed to rebound. Larger ships opened more of the ocean to them, and the fertile waters of the Pacific were no longer out of range. But the expansion came at a price. Initially, whaling in Nantucket had been a day job, in many cases conducted in such close proximity as to be viewed from the shore. When attention turned to Atlantic sperm whales, voyages of several months became commonplace. Now, as the Pacific beckoned, trips were regularly planned out in terms of years, rather than months. As the business grew more remote, Nantucket’s relationship with its moneymaking industry changed, too. Whaling had long been a dangerous trade — one estimate placed the number of fatherless children on the island at nearly 500 in the early 1800s, while one in four women over the age of 23 had lost their husbands to the sea. Now, longer voyages added a new, only slightly less literal widowhood to the reality of island life.

1819: The whaleship Essex departed from Nantucket for the final time. In 1820, the ship would be attacked by a sperm whale and eventually sink in the southern Pacific Ocean. The incident would provide the inspiration for the climactic scenes of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, published in 1851.

1840s: As voyages lengthened and ships grew, the relatively shallow harbors of Nantucket were no longer viable. Although much of the money of the industry continued to run through Nantucket, the actual shipping was increasingly conducted from the deeper ports of New Bedford, Massachusetts. By the mid-1840s, more than half of the roughly 750 whaling ships in the world were based in New Bedford.

1859: Oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, resulting in a severe decline in demand for whale oil and signaling the end of the New England whaling industry. Within 10 years, the last whaling ship would set sail from Nantucket. Within 20 years, the island’s population would decline nearly 70 percent. Many of the luxurious homes built for titans of the whaling industry would, in later years, become attractive properties for well-to-do Bostonians and New Yorkers looking for an escape from the cities.