Whalers Were Smugglers

Footnotes to Long Island History

Whalers Were Smugglers


Thomas R. Bayles


By Thomas R. Bayles

Part III


            The greedy demands of the colonial governors upon the whale fishing industry led to the smuggling of oil by the way of the New England ports instead of sending it to market through the regular channels of trade by way of New York City.

            By sending the oil to the New England ports without detection, or, as was done in some instances, shipping it direct from the east end of the Island to England, the tax might be evaded.  The risk was that the shipment might be discovered and the whole seized by the officers of the government.

            The greatest prosperity of the whale fishing business from the Long Island shore seems to have been during the latter years of the seventeenth century and the early years of the eighteenth century.  About the year 1718 whales were said to have left the Long Island coast.  The reason given by some at the time was that the wounding of so many by the fishermen had frightened them away.

            Efforts were afterward made to encourage the industry, and legislative acts to this end were passed by the colonial assembly in 1720, in 1726, and in 1740.

            The capture of these monsters of the deep was always attended with risk of life and limb.

            While the hazard of working from the shore was perhaps less that that of working from ships on the high seas, still the prosecution of this enterprise was not without its fatal episodes and hair breadth escapes.

            One of the most notable incidents took place February 9, 1709.  A single whale boat was manned at East Hampton and put off in pursuit of a whale that had been seen in the distance.  As the men came near it the whale shot under the boat, partly staving it.  The men were thrown into the water and, not being hurt, were able to cling to the boat for awhile.  Before help could reach them from the shore four of the men were so chilled and exhausted that they fell off and were drowned.

            In regard to the extent of the business, Governor Cornbury wrote on July 1, 1708, as follows:

            “The quantity of Train Oil made in Long Island is uncertain, some years they have much more fish than others, for example last year they made four thousand barrels of oil, and this last season they have not made above six hundred; About the middle of October they begin to look out for the fish, the season lasts all November, December, January, February and part of March; a yearling will make about forty barrels of oil, a Stunt or whale two years old will make sometimes fifty, sometimes sixty barrels of oil and the largest whale I have ever heard of in these parts, yielded one hundred and ten barrels of oil, and twelve hundred weight of bone.”

            In 1668 the settlers of Brookhaven town bought from Tobaccus, the chief of the Unkechaug tribe of Indians, who inhabited the south side, the right to all whales that should come on the beach within the bounds of their patent.  For this the Indians were to receive a royalty of five pounds of wampum or some other commodity, and three fathoms of wampum were to be paid for information of a whale coming ashore on the beach.

            Some time before 1693 a company of men under Stephen Bayley were engaged in whale fishin from the shore, and were stationed on the beach opposite Moriches, where they had a lookout from which they could see a whale at some distance at sea.

            The following items were copied by Osborn Shaw, Brookhaven town historian, from an old note book of the Tangier Smith family.  They were entered in the book by the widow of Colonel William Smith.

            “January 24th, 1706; I thank god my company killed a yearling whale, made 27 barrels (oil).”

            “Tuesday Feb. 4th, 1707; Indian Harry with his boat struck a stunt whale and could not kill it, called for my boat to help him, I had bu a third which was four barrels.”        

            “Feb 22, 1707; My two boats and my Sons and Floyds boats killed yearling whale which I had half and maid 26, my share was 18 barrels.”

            Monday March 17, 1707; I thank god my company killed two yearlings in one day on e of which made 27 barrels and the other 14 barrels.”

            The following item, 1707, referred to Indian Natutamy.

            “He got nothing this season but went away and left the Beach like a villain, pretended he was sick and never came again.”

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