historical literature
posted May 2006

The American Whale-Fishery 1877-1886

A. Howard Clark
Vol. 9 (217):  321-324.
(Apr. 1, 1887)

American Association for the Advancement of Science.

FRIDAY, APRIL 1, 1887.



The American whale-fishery reached its flood-tide of prosperity about the middle of the present century. In 1846 the fleet numbered 722 vessels, valued, with outfits, at nearly $20,000,000. The most valuable catchings were in 1854, when the oil and bone secured were worth $10,766,521. The largest annual yield of sperm-oil was in 1837, 5,329,138 gallons, averaging $1.24 per gallon ; of whale-oil, in 1851, 10,347,214 gallons, averaging 45 5/16 cents per gallon ; and of whalebone, in 1853, 5,652,300 pounds, at 34 cents (gold) per pound.

In 1877 the whaling-fleet numbered 163 vessels, hailing from the following ports : New Bedford, Mass., 118 vessels ; Provincetown, Mass., 21 ; Boston, 6; Edgartown, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Marion, and Westport, Mass., 12 ; New London, Conn., 3 ; San Francisco, 2.

In 1886 the fleet cruising in the North Pacific and Arctic had very largely transferred its headquarters and ownership from New Bedford to San Francisco. The hailing-ports of the fleet during this year, numbering 124 vessels in all, were as follows : New Bedford, 77 vessels ; Provincetown,
12 ; Boston, 3 ; Edgartown and Marion, 4 ; New London and Stonington, 6 ; San Francisco, 22.

The distribution of the fleet in 1886 was as follows : 48 vessels, mostly schooners, cruising in the North and South Atlantic ; 39 vessels, the largest and best in the fleet, cruising in the North Pacific, Bering Sea, the Arctic north of Bering Strait, and in the Japan and Okhotsk seas, pursuing the bowhead and the Pacific right whale ; 2 vessels in Hudson Bay in search of the bowhead ; 20 vessels cruising, chiefly for sperm whales, in the South Pacific and Indian oceans. Thirteen vessels were detained at home ports throughout the year, leaving the active fleet only 111 sail.

The business is carried on by forty-nine firms and general agents, with headquarters chiefly at New Bedford and San Francisco.

The following tables show the condition of the industry during the last decade. There has been a steady decrease in the number and tonnage of the vessels. The annual yield of sperm-oil has greatly decreased. The yield of whale-oil, which includes oil of walrus and of all cetaceans other than sperm whales, varied greatly from year to year. The value of sperm-oil from 1877 to 1886 averaged 92 cents per gallon ; whale-oil, 47 cents per gallon ; and whalebone, $2.44 per pound.

Number and tonnage of vessels, and value of oil and bone.

Year. Number
of vessels.
of vessels.
Value of
1877 163 40,593 $2,309,569
1878 179 39,700 2,232,029
1879 178 40,028 2,056,069
1880 173 38,408 2,659,725
1881 177 38,551 1,926,620
1882 161 36,802 1,861,779
1883 147 34,000 1,891,716
1884 144 33,119 2,542,614
1885 133 31,207 2,456,064
1886 124 29,118 1,792,657

Number of barrels of oil, and pounds of whalebone taken.

Year. Whale-oil. Sperm-oil. Whalebone.
1877 27,191 41,119 160,220
1878 33,778 43,508 207,259
1879 23,334 41,308 286,280
1880 34,776 37,614 464,028
1881 31,650 30,600 368,000
1882 23,371 29,884 271,999
1883 24,170 24,595 254,037
1884 24,670 22,670 426,968
1885 41,586 24,203 463,990
1886 27,249 23,312 352,490

The two principal branches of the industry are the sperm-whale and the right-whale fisheries. Vessels engaged in sperm-whaling are sometimes employed 'between seasons' in the capture of humpback whales. The right-whalers take the bowhead or polar whale and the ordinary right whale of temperate waters. They also capture walrus for the oil and ivory.


About one half the tonnage of the fleet, including most of the smaller vessels, is employed in sperm-whaling, and the other half in right-whaling. More than fifty per cent of the sperm-oil is taken in the Atlantic Ocean, and about three-fourths of the whale-oil comes from the Arctic.

Sperm whales are very widely distributed in temperate and tropical waters. They have been taken as far south as the 50th parallel of latitude in the Atlantic and Pacific, and as far north as latitude 56 12' in the North Pacific. They are generally taken in deep water, though sometimes captured in the more shallow waters at the edge of the great ocean-banks. They are smaller within thirty degrees north and south of the equator than in higher latitudes. The fishing-grounds for sperm whales are widely separated. In the North Atlantic good sperm-whaling has been found in the Caribbean Sea, in the Gulf of Mexico, and in various places about the West Indies, the Bahamas, and the Azore Islands. Among the most important regions are the 'Charleston ground,' in latitude 29 to 32 north, and longitude 74 to 77 west; and the 'Hatteras ground,' along the edge of the Gulf Stream, in the latitude of Cape Hatteras. Other resorts are the 'Two forties ' and 'Two thirty-sixes,' situated at the crossings of the 36th and 40th parallels and meridians. There have been important grounds from latitude 48 to 54 north, and longitude 23 to 32 west.

In the South Atlantic, sperm whales are now taken chiefly along the African coast and between the coast and St. Helena. Very profitable whaling was formerly found along the South American coast.

The South Pacific grounds for sperm whales are off the Chilian coast, extending from latitude 35 to 46 south, and from the coast 200 miles offshore. North of here are the 'Archer ground,' the 'Cal-lao ground,' and other resorts. Throughout the South Pacific there were formerly many other extensive and profitable cruising-grounds ; but they are now nearly all abandoned, not entirely because of the scarcity of whales, but because of the low price of sperm-oil and the great expense attendant upon the long voyages to distant seas. A few vessels still cruise in the vicinity of New Zealand and Australia, and in some seasons make good voyages.

In the North Pacific, also, sperm whales were formerly taken on various grounds along the coast of Lower California, and on the once famous 'Japan ground' extending across the ocean along the 30th parallel, and especially between latitude 25 and 40 north, and longitude 140 to 180 east. For several years no vessels have been fitted for sperm-whaling in those waters ; though Arctic vessels on their way north, after their spring cruising, have reported these whales in abundance.

The Indian Ocean was once the scene of an extensive fishery for sperm as well as right whales, but very few vessels have gone there during the last ten years. In 1880 there was no American whaling-vessel in that ocean ; in 1886 two vessels went there, with fair success. Sperm whales were found principally off Port Dauphin, around Madagascar, about Mauritius, Bourbon, and Roderique islands, the Amirante group, off Zanzibar, and elsewhere along the African coast to the Red Sea.

Right whales (Eubalaena) are found as far north as latitude 61 30' at the mouth of Hudson Strait, and south to the Antarctic Ocean, though they are not common in tropical waters. These are also called 'black whales,' to distinguish them from the bow-head or polar whale (Balaena mysticetus), which by English whalers, and often by others, is confounded with the right whale. The bowhead is an ice whale, found only in Arctic regions, while the other species inhabit temperate waters.

The principal resorts of the right whale east of America are in the South Atlantic, while in the Pacific they are about equally abundant both north and south of the tropics. These whales were formerly taken along the New England coast, but they are now only occasionally captured in the North Atlantic. During the winter months whalers find them on the Hatteras ground and in the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea, and a few vessels have met with indifferent success in searching for them along the west coast of Africa between latitude 15 and 23 north.

In the South Atlantic they are sought for around the Tristan Islands and along the South American coast, where they were once very abundant.

The Indian Ocean was once an important right-whaling ground, but is now practically abandoned.

In the South Pacific, right whales are taken from September to January, off the coast of Chili, on the grounds from latitude 42 to 47 south, and longitude 75 to 80 west, and in the spring farther north and nearer the coast.

The North Pacific right-whale grounds were once famous, and were cruised over by upwards of two hundred American vessels. The principal resorts were the ' North-west coast' or * Kadiak ground,' off the Alaska Peninsula, and in the Japan and Okhotsk seas. After the discovery of the whaling-grounds in the Arctic, the lower latitudes were gradually abandoned. A few vessels, however, have within a few years past again resorted to the Kadiak, the Okhotsk, and the Japan grounds.


Humpback whales are found within the parallels of 60 north and 70 south. They are taken chiefly in shallow water within certain bays and along the coast. The island of Trinidad and Gulf of Para, also the Cape Verde Islands, and the African coast from 3 to 7 south latitude, and about the West Indies, are the principal grounds in the Atlantic. Some years these whales are quite abundant along the New England coast and on the off-shore fishing-banks.

In the Pacific these whales are found along the South American coast, particularly in the Bay of Panama and in the Gulf of Guayaquil, and along the Calif ornian coast. They are also found as far north as the Aleutian Islands, where the natives capture them.

The California gray whale, or devil-fish (Rhachianectes glaucus), is found only in the North Pacific, and is an object of pursuit by the shore stations established along that coast.

Finback and sulphur-bottom whales are quite universally distributed ; but, their blubber yielding comparatively little oil, they are not often captured except by shore parties along the Californian coast, at Cape Cod in New England, on the northern coast of Norway, and at Iceland.

Bowhead whales, as stated above, are confined to icy waters. The Atlantic-Arctic fishing-grounds are in Davis Strait, Cumberland Inlet, and Hudson Bay. American vessels formerly cruised as far north as Pond's Bay, in about latitude 73, but they now seldom go beyond latitude 65. Scotch whaling-steamers, however, cruise as far north as 75, their northern range being limited only by dangers from ice.

The Pacific-Arctic resorts of the bowhead are in Bering Sea and north of Bering Strait. About three-fourths of the whale-oil and nearly all the whalebone landed by American whaling-vessels is taken by the North Pacific fleet, so called, cruising north of Bering Strait and in the Okhotsk Sea. The vessels in this fishery are the largest and best equipped in the whaling-service. In 1879 or 1880, steamers were first used in this fishery, and now about one-fourth of the fleet are of this class. They can push their way with less danger than sailing-vessels amid the ice-floes, and, as a rule, thereby secure a greater catch. The Arctic vessels have their headquarters at San Francisco. They leave for the north about March 1, in season to meet the ice in Bering Sea, and to push gradually northward with it. Usually about May 1 to 10 a few whales are overtaken on their northward migrations, and as fast as the ice permits, the vessels crowd their way in pursuit. Until about June 1 the fleet cruises along the Siberian coast, capturing as many whales as possible. Those which are secured form only the 'fag-end' of the 'herd,' most of the whales having moved northward before the vessels could overtake them. As soon as the ice allows, the vessels push their way through the Strait, ever alert to catch the whales which are hurrying to the far north. From the middle of June till the latter part of July few whales are taken. During this time, while waiting for the return of the bow-heads, the whalers devote their time to capturing walrus, which are valuable for both ivory and oil. About the beginning of August the fleet moves eastward and northward to Point Barrow and beyond, capturing whales wherever they can be found, though but very few are seen until the southward migration begins, in the latter part of the month. From this time till the latter part of September or early in October, when the season closes, there is great excitement and eagerness to secure as many whales as possible.

The early departure of the animals to inaccessible regions among the ice, and the anxious weeks spent in awaiting their return, make this ground one of the most exciting regions that whalemen can find, and the surroundings are of more than usual interest. Nothing can exceed the daring and pluck of the whalemen in their endeavors to search out and capture their prey. Forgetful of surrounding dangers, they pursue the spouting animal far up among the ice-floes ; and many a vessel has been crushed to pieces by the ice as she was tracking out a whale. Anxious to secure full fares, they remain amid the freezing waters until early winter stares them in the face, when they plough their way homeward. Several disasters have overtaken the fleet in their zeal to catch the whale, as in 1871, when thirty-five noble craft were left at anchor in sight of certain destruction; the crews, after arduous labor, saving themselves with their boats.

Not always are the whalemen thus fortunate in escaping with their lives. In 1879 two vessels became separated from the fleet, and were never after heard from. Nearly every year one or more vessels are caught in the ice and ground to splinters. In Hudson Bay and Cumberland Inlet, also, the vessels are exposed to dangers from ice. From 1846 to 1880, eighteen vessels were wrecked in those waters. The fleet is not as large as that cruising north of Bering Strait, nor are the vessels generally so large and so well equipped. Several vessels have passed the winter 'locked in the ice,' in Hudson Bay or in Cumberland Inlet, and have thereby taken advantage of the early and late weeks of the whaling-season, besides securing bear, musk-ox, and seal-skins during the winter months.


Year. Number of
of oil.
Pounds of
Pounds of
walrus ivory.
1877 19 17,530 153,800 74,000
1878 17 13,080 114,200 30,000
1879 21 18,800 200,500 32,900
1880 19 26,700 409,000 15,300
1881 23 24,740 387,000 15,400
1882 32 22,975 360,500 17,800
1883 38 10,155 159,400 23,100
1884 39 20,450 318,700 5,421
1885 40 24,844 451,068 6,564
1886 44 20,307 332,931 5,273

The foregoing table shows the extent of the Pacific-Arctic fishery from 1877 to 1886. The number of whales secured each year varies greatly. In 1880, 265 were caught; in 1885, 222 ; and in 1886, only 153. The 'whale' oil includes also oil of walrus.

A. Howard Clark.