Trying the Whales in South Wellfleet

The Cape’s whaling heritage is more visible this summer (2014) with visits to various Cape harbors by the refurbished 1841 whaling ship Charles F. Morgan, the last square-rigged wooden whaling ship — a restoration project of the Mystic Seaport Museum. The Cape’s and Nantucket’s whaling heritage is well-documented by historians. Wellfleet was a well-endowed whaling town before the Revolution.

However, before there were whaling ships operating in the North Atlantic, and then round the globe, there was a long period when the English settlers learned how to capture and harvest these animals. South Wellfleet was one of the places where the earliest whaling – called “shore whaling” — took place.

John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver present their extensive research on the Cape’s shore whaling efforts in their book, Cape Cod Shore Whaling. There is a long-time and extensive literature about whaling that emerged as an early key industry in New England, but little had been written about what went before, and how the first European settlers learned to hunt these creatures.

Like early agriculture, shore whaling skills were learned from native inhabitants. Indeed, as the Pilgrims left the Mayflower to explore the Cape, one of the first reported sights was the Indians cutting up a grampus — a blackfish or pilot whale. That image is incorporated

Wellfleet Town Seal

Wellfleet Town Seal

into the Wellfleet Town Seal. For the native people, the whales were a food source. For the English, they became an important commodity, as the oil and baleen were harvested.

Great Island and Lieutenant’s Island became the places in Wellfleet where the whales were brought ashore for “trying” – the process of stripping and boiling the blubber. Durand Echeverria’s book on early Wellfleet, A History of Billingsgate, places these activities on these two islands.

Lieutenant’s Island in South Wellfleet, then a part of the town of Eastham, was set aside in 1662 as common land. Later, in 1673, it was designated to support the town’s minister. In the 1690s, when the town had to raise 86 pounds to support Plymouth Colony’s effort to get their charter re-established and fund travel to London, Lieutenant’s Island and Great Island were mortgaged to raise the funds. Eventually, both islands were released from public ownership and lots were sold to individuals, although some rights were reserved for people who owned whale houses so they could travel across private land. Today, we are left with the designation of “Try Island” by Massachusetts Audubon as the last remaining vestige of shore whaling activity in South Wellfleet.

Shore whaling was not a new human activity: the Basques had been catching whales since the 10th century. Nevertheless, it was new to the English farmers who settled Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies. In 1635, Governor John Winthrop noted “Some of our people went to Cape Cod, and made some oil of a whale that was cast on shore.” (“Cape Cod” at that time was the name given to today’s Provincetown.)

Initially, the harvested whales were “drift whales,” those that had died of natural causes, and floated in on the tides. Later, as their value became established, men began actually pursuing the whales spotted from lookouts.

It took Plymouth Colony a bit longer than Massachusetts Bay Colony to get started in shore whaling, and to build the boats needed to harpoon and bring the whales to shore. Besides overcoming their agricultural backgrounds, the colony was poorer, with not much

19th century whaleboat

19th century whaleboat

capital to invest in boat-building. The boats had to accommodate six men: a harpooner, four oarsmen, and a steersman. The whaling season in winter, from November to March, thus establishing the Cape’s tradition of weaving together maritime work with farming work to make a sufficient living.

Cape Cod Bay had several thousand whales in the mid-seventeenth century. The colonists were on the lookout for right whales – the term “right” indicated the right kind, as these floated after they were killed and had baleen rather than teeth, which could be used for stays, buttons, stiffeners, and other clothing purposes.

Of course the whale oil was the most important product of the whale, as it had become necessary for lighting in ever-more populated places. The Colony shifted its oil requirement (often spelled “oyle”) from “a barrel” (31 gallons) to “a hogshead” (63 gallons) in 1662. Much of the whale oil went to England, with the Cape Codders shipping their barrels to Boston to the merchants who handled the trade.

The shore whaling book mentioned above provides the details of what the settlers had to do to “try” a whale. Their cutting tools and large, 50-gallon try pots were stored in “whale houses” until used. They had to cut large amounts of wood to build a fire, another way the landscape was denuded.

Now a drift whale might land on any beach, so they were cut up right there, and the blubber moved in carts to the “try yard.” Or, one can imagine, a whale harpooned and hauled to shore, would be brought into where the try yard was located. The first part of the operation was to cut off the lips, mostly blubber, remove the bone from the head, and then cut off the head. Next the visible blubber was removed, and a windlass attached so that at the next high tide, the carcass could be rolled over and more blubber exposed and removed. One report says it took two or three days to fully strip the whale. A source notes that four tons of blubber would yield three tons of oil. The smell of cooking blubber was extremely obnoxious, all the more reason to put the try yards on land that was not used for other purposes.

Since whale oil had to be put in barrels, having a local cooper, or barrel-maker, was necessary. In early Eastham documents, sometimes a man’s occupation would be noted. For example, Thomas Paine’s father, one of the earliest Eastham settlers, was a cooper.

In November and December 1660, there were laws passed in Eastham about the drift whales. Their first rule ordered anyone who found a whale within the township to notify the governor and his nearest neighbor, and all were to converge at the governor’s house to organize the harvesting. The person first finding the whale was to get a double share of the proceeds, but if he was not a townsman, his share would be only a single one. Within a month, this process was found to be cumbersome, and a new order was put out, that any four men of the town could cut up a whale; if the whale was found between Great Namscakett (today’s Orleans/Brewster border) and Blackfish Creek (in South Wellfleet), the four men were to have two pounds (cash) per whale. Whales found north of Blackfish Creek to Pamet (today’s Truro) would receive three pounds per whale. Groups of four men were developed and assigned to the first, and then the second, etc. whales to arrive onshore.

Later, in December 1662, the town meeting decided that whale distribution should be divided: the first whale to the north part of town, the second whale to the southern half. Each whale, however, had to supply a barrel of oil for powder and a hogshead for the public ministry, delivered to the deacon. These rules changed from time to time. As the industry of hunting and harpooning whales developed, new rules were established as to how a whale would be marked for ownership, and how the men in the whaleboats were to be compensated.

The Eastham town records record an incident in South Wellfleet in November 1684 when John Snow, Josiah Cooke and Stephen Hopkins had cut up a whale “beyond the head of Blackfish Creek” without notifying the town. They had to surrender the blubber to the town, although they were compensated for their labor. Another group of men, in the same meeting, received the same arrangement for a whale they had cut up at Rock Harbor. Captain Jabez Snow was one of the men appointed to settle the Blackfish Creek case. Both he and John Snow left wills that showed, in their inventories, that they were part-owners of whaleboats.

Wellfleet is known today for Smith’s tavern, located on the northeastern side of Great Island. After the archaeological dig there in summer of 1970, it was dated from its ceramics and other material as operating from the 1690s to the 1740s. Amongst 24,000 objects removed from the site, archaeologists found a large whale vertebra that was used as a chopping block. They also determined that the second floor was used as sleeping space, making the tavern a gathering place for the work of catching and harvesting whales. In his Wellfleet book, Durand Echeverria does not agree with the tavern’s dating, as he could not find property records that showed Samuel Smith’s ownership. However, James Deetz, one of the archaeologists who worked on this for the National Park Service, explains the dating of ceramics and pipe-stems in a way that certainly does not appear open to dispute.

As whale stocks declined, shore whaling began to diminish as early as 1720 which various newspaper reports reported. Cape Codders began to harvest the blackfish that came on shore regularly, a subject I’ll cover in a future post. However, in the years before the Revolution, Wellfleet developed its Atlantic-based whale fleet to a size of nearly thirty ships, and one of its citizens, Elisha Doane, became the richest man in Massachusetts. Nevertheless this maritime industry was lost in the long seven years of the Revolution when the Cape was blockaded — and never recovered.

An Added Note

I noticed recently that, as I was reviewing old newsletters of the Wellfleet Conservation Trust, that there is some Trust property around “Whale Bone Point” on the north side of Blackfish Creek. There is a walking trail near the Point.

Whale Bone Point received its name from its prominence as a spot for landing blackfish and small whales when the inshore fishing industry was in its heyday. According to the WCT newsletter, “reputedly, the bones of these marine mammals could be found stacked on the site after blubber and oil was rendered from the carcasses.”


Durand Echevierra, A History of Billingsgate, Wellfleet Historical Society, 1991.

Jeremy Dupertus Bangs, editor, The Town Records of Eastham During the Time of Plymouth Colony 1620-     1692, (Publication of the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum, 2012)

James Deetz, Patricia Scott Deetz, The Times of Their Live: Love, Life and Death in Plymouth Colony, New York: Anchor Books 2000.

H. Roger King, Cape Cod and Plymouth Colony in the 17th Century, Landham, MD: University Press of America, 1994.

Braginton-Smith, John and Duncan Oliver, Cape Cod Shore Whaling, Charleston, S.C.: The History Press, 2008

Bolster, W. Jeffrey, “Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History: Marine Communities and Marine Ecology in the Northwest Atlantic, 1500-1800,” The American Historical Review, Volume 113, Number 1 (February 2008) pp 19-47.







Family history researcher living in New York City.
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