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Whalers had Tax Problems

Footnotes to Long Island History

Whalers Had Tax Problem

by

Thomas R. Bayles


 

By Thomas R. Bayles

Part II

 

            The frequency with which whales were seen along this coast is hinted at by several instances:

About the year 1702 it is related that Abigail Baker, while riding from East Hampton to Bridgehampton, saw 13 whales along the shore between the two places.  Southampton in 1726 states that 11 whales had been killed in that village during that season.  In 1687 lookout stations were maintained at Ketchabonack, Quogue, “The Pines,” (just west of Shinnecock Point) Southampton, Wickapogue, Mecox and Sagg.  During that season the product of whale oil from these stations amounted to 2,148 barrels.  In 1669 it was said that 12 whales had been taken about the east end of Long Island before the end of March.

            About the year 1700 Colonel William Smith, proprietor of the Manor of St. George in Brookhaven town, told Governor Bellomont that he cleared in one year 500 pounds sterling from the whales taken on his beach.  In 1694 Richard Smith had a company of men fishing for whales from a station probably opposite Moriches.  He was the owner of the Moriches patent, which covered the present site of East Moriches.  Richard Floyd also had a company stationed on the beach, probably near Mastic.

            During the earliest years no restrictions were placed upon this industry by government.  No one questioned the right of the occupants of the land to go in pursuit of whales and to enjoy the benefits arising from so hazardous an undertaking.  Indeed, the first efforts in this direction were attended with so many difficulties that no opportunity was at first seen for the business to afford any revenue to government.

            After the whaling business assumed some importance and became profitable, the government at New York began to look with covetous eyes upon it.  In 1664 Governor Nichols had demanded one sixteenth of the oil obtained from all whales that drifted ashore dead, but made no claim on any that should be killed at sea by anyone and towed ashore.

            When the province fell into the hands of the Dutch in 1673, one of the stipulations under which the five eastern town of the Island, Huntington, Brookhaven, Southold, Southampton and East Hampton, consented to the Dutch authority, was that free liberty should be allowed those towns to obtain from the people of the United Colonies of New England “warps, irons, or any other necessaries for ye comfortable carrying on the whale design.”

            But this stipulation did not prevent the Dutch from attempting to lay a tax upon the now prosperous enterprise.  Although the authority of the Dutch over these towns was not at all firmly settled, yet they were able to annoy the people engaged in the enterprise to such an extent that they were in some instances able to obtain recognition of their demands.

            When the whale fishers refused to pay the exorbitant taxes that were laid upon their industry, the Dutch threatened to cut down their timber, which was especially valuable, as it was used to make “pipe staves,” for making casks in which to transport their oil.  But the attempted authority of the Dutch was of short duration, and the whale fishery suffered no serious check from that source.

            Later, however, the English governors demanded a share in the profits of the business.  Governor Dongan claimed the whole of any dead whale that should drift ashore, but made no claim on those killed at sea.

            About the year 1696 Governor Cornbury declared that the whale was a “royal fish” and belonged to the Crown.  He demanded that no person should engage in whale fishing without first obtaining from him a license for that purpose.  For such a license he required, besides a liberal initial fee, that the person holding it should bring to him at New York a wet fourteenth party of all the oil and bone yielded by all the whales taken.  This requirement was a heavy burden upon the industry and many abandoned the business, while others refused to comply with the requirements, and the order was at length allowed to become a dead letter.

            It was revived in 1711 by Governor Hunter, and upon failure to comply, the governor ordered the sheriff to seize all whales wherever found.  This order soon forced to terms those who had before refused to pay the Crown's share.  It, however, was extortion, and its influence was depressing.  

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