When I was researching Maine connections with the American whaling industry, I came across a Republican Journal article from 1831 about a David Pierce from Montville. The article referred to him as the Oar King. That year, Pierce had been awarded an exclusive contract to provide all the oars for the whaleboats of New Bedford and New London.

How cool is that?! A Mainer made and shipped all the oars used by two large whaling fleets operating out of two major whaling centers! Every oar was to have come from Pierce’s shop in Montville. Every single one! An exclusive contract. So, I got to figuring just how important and extensive that contract had been.

The usual whaleboat’s set of oars included a steering oar, a pair of 22-foot oars, a pair of 20-foot oars and a pair of 18-foot oars. These were sturdy, rugged pieces of ship hardware integral to the task of catching whales. Whaling ships tended to carry at least three whaleboats, usually more, so Pierce produced over 20 oars per whaling ship at the very least. In 1831, there were several dozen whaling ships using New London and New Bedford as home ports. No wonder this was considered quite a financial coup and a local news story!

Pierce received in payment $60 for every thousand feet he produced. He reportedly shipped over 100,000 feet per year, which roughly translates to over 4,500 oars. However, it is not clear how many years he kept the contract. Still, in just one year alone, Pierce stood to make $6,000, an excellent annual income in 1831.

The article stated he fashioned the oars by hand from local ash and that they were very handsome and serviceable. Ash tends to be a heavier wood, but very durable. The later baseball industry would also focus on ash for its bats.

While it is possible Pierce made all his oars by hand, the amount he reportedly shipped suggests that perhaps he used some sort of lathe. The lathe was long known, a traditional tool stretching back to ancient Egypt. The Greeks, Etruscans, and ancient Chinese were all known to have used them. Referred to as the “mother of machine tools,” the first documented all-metal lathe was invented by Jacques de Vaucanson in 1751.
In 19th century America as part of the Industrial Revolution, lathes were often powered by water wheels. Pierce likely used a nearby stream for his power source, allowing faster and easier work.

It is possible Pierce made use of the Blanchard lathe, invented by Thomas Blanchard in 1818. It was a specialized lathe used for duplicating or copying from a set pattern. This type of lathe would have enabled Pierce to crank out standard oars in large quantities.

Pictured is Thomas Blanchard, American inventor of the duplicating lathe. Image in Public Domain

A typical whaleboat oar, or really any type of rowing oar, is composed of different parts including the handle, loom, neck, shoulder, blade and tip. The shape of the blade obviously is the key to its usefulness. The loom is a long shaft with a flat blade on the end.

An oar is a second-class lever with the water acting as the fulcrum, the oarlock as the load, and the rower as the force. The rower exerts pressure with the oar blade against the water, so force is applied at the oarlock. As the rower pulls on the short end of the oar, the long end in the water propels the whaleboat.

Oars in a whaleboat. Stan Shebs, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

If Pierce had indeed done them by hand, he needed to cut out the pieces that would become the oar, today that is usually done with a band saw. But Pierce did not have that tool; the first American bandsaw patent was not granted to Benjamin Barker of Ellsworth, until January 1836.

Hand crafting the oar without a lathe was possible and would have required only a few tools like a pencil, ruler, drawknife, plane, spoke-shave and a patternmaker rasp. According to one source, making one by hand alone should not have taken more than a day’s work.

The leathering of the oar, however, could take longer. This is where leather patches or a collar of leather is attached where the oar connects to the boat. It helps stop the oar from slipping past the oarlock. Some oar makers used stitches while others made use of copper tacks. Regardless, it is thought that if the oar maker was handy, it was not hard or time-consuming to do.

But who was this David Pierce the Oar King? Was he a young man just starting out, or older and more established? This is not easily answered. According to the 1830 U.S. Federal Census, there were two David Pierces living in Waldo County, one in Liberty, near present-day Montville.

There was a David Pierce residing in Belfast in both the 1810 and 1820 U.S. Census and then two David Pierces in Belfast in the 1840 Census, but only one in the 1850 Census. That David Pierce was 63 years old in 1850, thus born 1787, which would have made him 44 years old in 1831. Maybe David Pierce came to Belfast sometime before the 1810 Census, moved to Liberty and became the Oar King by 1831 (as per the 1830 Census) then moved back to Belfast where he resided for the 1840 and 1850 Censuses.

Another train of thought focuses on a Nathaniel Pierce, but there seem to have been multiple Nathaniels as well as Davids. A Nathaniel Pierce of Montville was born Nov. 29, 1786, in Paris, Maine. He died at age 60 on Oct. 13, 1847 and is buried in Pierce Hill Cemetery in Montville. This Nathaniel had two sons named David, but both were too young to have been David Pierce the Oar King. Both of those Davids are buried in Pierce Hill Cemetery as well. Perhaps this Nathaniel was a relation, maybe brother, to David the Oar King and the two young Davids his nephews?

Pictured is the gravestone for Nathaniel Pierce, of Montville, with his two sons named David. Charles H. Lagerbom

Other Maine records indicate there was a Captain David E. Pierce of Orrington who was born Sept. 7, 1788. He died in Brewer April 30, 1865, at the age of 76. However, I could not align him with any Federal Census until 1830. This David Pierce is buried at Dean Hill Cemetery in Orrington. He mustered as a private for the War of 1812 and fought at the Battle of Hampden alongside his brother (another!) Nathaniel Pierce. This Nathaniel Pierce died Dec. 27, 1870, at the age of 87 and is also buried at Dean Hill Cemetery.

According to the roll of Captain Warren Ware’s company of militia in Lieutenant-Colonel Andrew Grant’s regiment, raised in Orrington, the men saw service at Hampden and vicinity from the 2nd to the 4th of September 1814. Both David and Nathaniel Pierce were listed as privates at that battle when Hampden defense forces fell quickly to the British, leaving Bangor open for occupation.

We know that David Pierce the Oar King reigned in 1831, but we do not know for how long his rule lasted. The later economic downturn known as the Panic of 1837 was widespread and perhaps knocked Pierce out of business, where he then moved back to Belfast in time for the 1840 Federal Census? And is the Nathaniel Pierce of Montville his relation? It appears so, but further research is needed. But that is half the fun of all this!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of “Whaling in Maine,” available through Historypress.com.