Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Whaling in Historic New Jersey

The Delaware Bay and the rivers of South Jersey have been a source of  food and economic sustenance to our region ever since it was the home of the Lenni Lenape Indians who traveled to the coast to fish and gather shellfish.

Peter Watson wrote from Perth Amboy in 1684 that, "the Indians in the summer, along with their wives come down the Rivers, in the Cannoas, which they make themselves of a piece of a great tree, like a little Boat, and there they Fish and Take Oysters."

All parts of the oyster and clam were utilized: Wampum, made out of the shells, was a common currency among the Indians.


We can learn much about New Jersey history by following, literally or via writing, the historic New Jersey Coastal Heritage Trail Route.

Image Nantucket Whaling Museum via capemay.com


The earliest recorded maritime-related industry in NJ was undertaken by the first settlers in Cape May Town, or Town Bank. It was started by whalers from New England who initially migrated south during the summer season. By the 1670s they had established a permanent residence there.


Whaling businesses such as Humphrey Hughes' Hughes and Company were established as early as 1666. Hughes, along with Nicholas Stevens of Boston and John Cooper of Southampton, were given the right to claim all beached whales.

Whale hunting was also a community effort. The whales were spotted from watch towers erected in the coastal towns. Upon sighting, six crewmen—a harpooner, boat-steerer, and four oarsmen—ran to the boats.

Although whaling today is seen as a cruel and environmentally unsound practice, in earlier times it was an economic powerhouse. And in a time when fossil fuels were not readily available, economy dictated that nearly all parts of the whale be used to some end.

Oil and bone was shipped to other colonies and Europe. Sperm oil, in particular, produced a clean and bright light, so it was used in domestic, street, and lighthouse fixtures; it was also an ingredient in soap, cosmetics, and lubricants. Bone was used in the manufacture of canes, whips, helmet frames, broom whistles, and as spines for corsets, umbrellas, and parasols. Bones and tissues were ground up and applied as fertilizer

But as early as 1700, the indiscriminate killing of cow whales caused the number of this species to decrease markedly. As a result, whalers turned to larger boats to take them farther off the coast for the hunt. This shift caused some jersey coast settlers to turn to cattle raising, farming, and trapping.

Whaling continued into the late 1700s with the last whaling transaction recorded in 1775 pertained to the leasing of Seven Mile Beach by Aaron Leaming to whalemen for thirty days.

Today, the Cape May County Museum displays whaling gear as a reminder of the once-thriving local industry.

SOURCE: Check out the history e-library on the National Park Service website.

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