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Whaling Once Big Business

Footnotes to Long Island History

Whaling Once Big Business
October 9, 1952

by

Thomas R. Bayles


       Whaling was an important industry on Long Island during the early years along the South Shore, and at intervals whaleboats were kept for launching whenever whales were sighted.

      An early historian in describing a tour around Long Island in olden times says there might be seen, "at long intervals, small thatched huts or wigwams on the highest elevations, with a staff projecting from the top. These huts were occupied at certain seasons by men on the watch for whales, and when they saw them blowing a signal was hoisted on this staff.

       "Immediately the people would be seen coming from all directions with their whaling boats upon wagon wheels, drawn by horses or oxen, launching them from the beach, and be off in pursuit of the whales. You could see all the through this region these whaling boats turned upside down lying upon frame under the shade of some tree along the roadside this being the only way they could keep them having no harbors on the ocean."

        Such an important industry was this that shares in the results of the fisheries were sometimes made part of the salaries of clergymen.

        In July, 1699 it was recorded that "twelve or thirteen whales have been taken on the east end of the Island." In 1711 it was reported that four whales were taken at Montauk, eight at Southampton, two at Moriches, two and a half at Brookhaven, two at Islip and one drift whale hat yielded 20 barrels of oil. in 1721 it was said that 40 whales had been taken on Long Island.

        The whales that formerly frequented this coast have long since disappeared although once in a while one has been seen in recent years.

        The New York Times of February 27, 1858 carried the following from a correspondent at Southampton:

        "At noon today the horn sounded through the streets, which is the signal to look out for a whale. In a few minutes enough tough old whalemen had mustered on the beach to man several boats and push out into the surf in chase of three whales that were leisurely spouting in the offing. After an exciting but brief chase the lance touched the life of one of the three, who spouted claret and turned up dead. He was towed to shore and will make so the judges say, 40 barrels of oil."

        On June 17, 1667, the Brookhaven town fathers instructed Daniel Lane to "speke to his honer the governor concerning the whales at the south that comes within our bounds to be at our disposing." The Indians had been in the habit of taking the whales that drifted upon the beach, and the white settlers, seeing the profit to be made from, them were anxious to buy off the Indians claims on them and secure themselves this profitable business.

       Whatever was the result of Mr. Lane's interview with the governor we find that on the following March 23 the settlers of Brookhaven town bought of Tobacus, the sachem of the Unkechaug tribe of Indians, who inhabited the south side of the town, the right to all whales that should come within the bounds of their patent upon the beach . For this the Indians were to receive a royalty of five pounds of wampum or some other commodity for each whale. The inhabitant also agree to give the Indians three fathoms of wampum for information of the coming of a whale on the beach.

      This fair treatment of the Indians by the early settlers is another reason why the early years of the settlement of Long island were unmarked by any record of uprisings by the Indians against the whites as so often happened on the New England side. 

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