1St Settlers Hunted Whales

Footnotes to Long Island History

1st Settlers Hunted Whales


Thomas R. Bayles


By Thomas R. Bayles


Part I


            One of the first enterprises in which the early settlers of Long Island engaged was the capture of whales on the ocean, off the South Shore of Long Island.

            They had no sooner established themselves in their new homes than their attention was attracted by the black sea monsters that played in the waters within sight of the shore.  The people were not long in appreciating the possibilities of wealth that lay encased in those shining ebon hulks as they plowed the surf with such majestic ease, and they determined to improve them without delay.  Though no starting date may be definitely given for this enterprise, it seems probable that it was undertaken as soon as the necessary apparatus could be obtained and suitable preparations be made. 

            This work was doubtless hastened by the drifting ashore of whales that had from various causes died upon the sea.  Such whales were tried out and the oil and bone which they yielded formed a source of profitable revenue, and this prompted the pursuit of living whales upon the deep.  As early as 1644 the records of Southampton, the first town settled on the south side, show that the people regarded the drifting ashore of a dead whale as a providence of God, and the town in that year made provision for the orderly disposition of the same.

            The town was divided into four wards of 11 men each, and the beach being divided among the four wards, the men of each ward were to select two of their number to attend to the cutting up of any whales that should be cast upon the beach within their ward.  These two men were chosen by lot for the work, and they were to receive double shares of the proceeds of the whales.  Otherwise the profits were to be equally divided among the men of the ward.  In 1653 these companies of men were called “Squadrons,” and there were four of them.

            In 1645 the town of Southampton further offered a reward of five shillings to any one who should discover any whale or piece of one upon the beach, and report it to the magistrate, provided the whale was worth five shillings, but if not the finder was to have the whale for his trouble.

            The people of that day were not afraid to defend the Christian Sabbath in their public acts, so they discouraged strolling on the beach for profit on the Sabbath day by the following provision: “ and it is further ordered that if any shall find a whale or any piece thereof upon the Lord's day, then the aforesaid shillings shall not be due or payable.”

            Within a few years of the settlement, it became the custom to go out in small boats to attack any whale that might be seen along the coast.  For this purpose a watch was constantly kept to look out for whales from the beach.  As early as 1651 Goodman Mulford was chosen “to call out ye town by succession to look out for whales.”

            During the later years of the century of settlement, and for many years thereafter, lookout station at different points along the south beach were maintained for the purpose of sighting whales, and apparatus was kept in constant readiness with which to go in pursuit whenever one was seen.  In the villages that were located directly upon the sea shore, the lookout was expected to give the warning whenever a whale was seen, and the men would leave their work and run to the beach and put off with all speed.

            In other localities that were not directly on the beach, companies of men were stationed on the beach in readiness to go off whenever a prize was spotted.  These beginnings of the whaling industry were regarded by Starbuck, an authority on the history of whale fishing in America as the commencement of that important enterprise.  


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