Why go back?

Interesting Research Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Nov 12, 2020
Source: The marine mammals of the north-western coast of North America, described and illustrated; together with an account of the American whale-fishery (1874) Pictured is whaling equipment that the ship’s cooper would be in charge of such as line tub (19), bailing piggin (10), boat bucket (20) and Lantern Keg (12).

By most accounts, whaling was a dirty, dangerous, and nasty job filled with daily hardships. What I found interesting searching the Mainer database I put together while writing Whaling in Maine, was that many men upon their return signed again and went right back out on more voyages. Some even signed on for multiple, back-to-back-to-back voyages.

However, I also discovered some Mainers who went whaling, usually at a young age, and then for whatever reason, stayed away from it, only to return to the job years later, often in their middle age. What would account for that? How could that be explained? Perhaps it was the magic pull or allure of whaling that remained, long after the daily memories of hardships had been forgotten?

Perhaps it was even more basic than that…the need for financial security, to prove something to oneself, to escape something? There has to be lots more to these kinds of whaling stories of whalers who went back…

On June 4, 1866, John Adams, of Belfast, shipped aboard the bark Hamilton out of New Bedford, bound for the South Pacific. The whaleship was under master Edwin R. Osgood, and Adams signed aboard for a three-year voyage, which netted 440 barrels of sperm oil. According to whaling records, Adams was 32 years old, 5 feet, 8 inches tall, with light skin and sandy hair. But the 137-ton Hamilton proved unreliable while abroad and was condemned and sold in 1869.

It is not clear how Adams returned to Maine, but nearly 20 years later in 1884, he shipped once more on a whaler, this time aboard the 1857 Searsport-built bark John Carver. Adams signed on as ship’s cooper, an important role on a whaler, where barrels held the all-important whale oil. Adams made and repaired wooden casks that store the precious oil.

He used wooden staves and iron hoops to make these leak-proof casks. These barrels of many different sizes had many different uses, some could hold as much as 14 barrels, while the smallest held just one. A skilled position, his lay (or share of profits) could be as high 1/60.

And it was not just barrels. Adams fashioned other items such as water casks and buckets of all sorts, like mess, draw and deck buckets. He also built and repaired wash tubs, slush tubs, and mincing tubs. A slush tub received all the fat and grease created in the galley. It was saved and stored, the cook and ship equally divided profits from it being sold at the end of a voyage.

The mincing tub supported the mincing horse, which was a plank with a grooved or forked end and guiding pegs, which held the horse-pieces of whale blubber while they were being minced. Whalers would mince, or slice the blubber into ‘books’ with a 30-inch long, two-handled knife called a mincing knife. The books would then be tossed into the mincing tub.

For the whaleboats, Adams maintained line tubs which held coils of line connected to the harpoon, as well as bailing piggins and lantern kegs. A bailing piggin, a small bucket for bailing water, came in handy for wetting the line attached to the harpoon in the whale, if it began to smoke when the line rapidly ran out of the tub as the wounded whale ran off or sounded. A lantern keg held flint and steel, a small box of tinder, the lantern, as well as candles and some bread, tobacco, and clay pipes.

Belmont’s 28-year-old Dixie C. Trombley joined Adams for that voyage. They departed New Bedford May 4 for the North Pacific, first under master Albert C. Sherman. However, he left at some point and was replaced by 44-year-old Horace B. Montross. Adams was in his early 50s, by far the oldest of the crew!

William Alexander of Portland was 22 when he shipped aboard the bark Roscoe II for a 4-year voyage in 1849 under master Joseph R. Gorham. He signed as clerk and light hand. No measurements of the man were recorded but he was described as light skin and dark hair. Calais native 22-year-old Lawrence Donovan was also aboard. They returned with 725 barrels of sperm oil. Ten years later, William Alexander shipped out again, this time aboard the whaleship Hudson under master Moses R. Fish. This was for a 4-year voyage, although it was noted they returned early at some point. Mainers Francis M. Ellis, of Haynesville, Charles H. Gilbreth of Augusta, and Thomas W. Thompson, of Eastport, were also aboard.

In 1831, 21-year-old George S. Anderson of Ellsworth, shipped aboard the whaleship Robert Edwards to the Pacific under master Edward Howland. It was both Anderson and the ship’s maiden whaling voyage. He was 5 feet 7.75 inches tall, with dark skin and dark hair. They returned 4 years later with 2200 barrels of sperm oil. Thirteen years later, while in his mid-30s, George Anderson shipped out again, this time on the brig Juno in 1844, along with 43-year old Mainer, Moses A. Howland. Juno’s master, Pardon Howland, died at sea April 4, 1845, and the vessel returned to port with no records of a catch.

Edward K. Briggs, of Freedom, was 24 when he shipped aboard the bark Franklin out of New Bedford in 1857-1861 to the North and South Pacific. He was 5 feet 10 inches, with light skin and brown hair. He joined green-hand, 15-year old Belfast native Thomas Jefferson Burgess and 24-year old Monroe Cook, of Biddeford. They netted 996 barrels of sperm oil. Five years after returning, Briggs shipped aboard the Portland-built bark Janet in 1866 for a 3-year Atlantic voyage under first time master Alonzo J. Marvin. Briggs was accompanied by Mainers Charles H. Goodrich and A.H. Johnson, both of Portland. They returned with 735 barrels of oil, 595 of which were sperm whale, and also 700 pounds of baleen.

Brothers Charles and Francis Brock were from Lebanon, Maine. They sailed together aboard the bark Mount Wollaston on its 1845-1849 voyage to the Pacific under master Martin Bowen. Francis was 29, his younger brother 22. They joined John Campbell, of Calais, Henry Moody, of Minot, and Isaac Winterburn, of Portland. Seventeen years later, Francis Brock returned to sea aboard the bark Pioneer for the 1862-1864 voyage to Hudson Bay under master Henry Riddell Plaskett’s final voyage. Brock was 46 years old and the oldest crew member. They netted 191 barrels of sperm oil.

William W. Collins, of Farmington, shipped out aboard the bark Abraham Barker in 1866 for a 4-year voyage to South Atlantic and South Pacific under master Alden Tillinghast White Potter. Collins was 17 years old and 5-feet 9-inches tall, with light skin and brown hair. It must have been a tremendous learning opportunity for Collins; over half the crew was international, and his voyage proved phenomenally successful. It netted 2923 barrels of oil, all but 53 from sperm whales. Eleven years later in 1878, Collins returned to sea, shipping aboard the bark John P. West for a 3-year voyage out of New Bedford to the Pacific, first under master Jacob P. Davis, who left at some point, and then a master named Manchester, who replaced him. They returned in 1881 with 1,300 barrels of sperm oil.

Blocks of years separated these voyages for these Mainers, some for longer than a decade. What brought them back into the industry after so many years off or away from it? Many returned higher on the pecking order such as Belfast’s John Adams, who signed as cooper. Did they need the money? Were they bored or desperate to get out of town? Or was it just the allure of the open sea and the chance to, once again, test one’s mettle? I would sure like to know.

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US 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.

Pictured are barrels on a wharf at New Bedford about 1860. (Source: Library of Congress)
Pictured is a model at the Penobscot Marine Museum, of whaling bark John Carver, built in Searsport. (Photo by: Charles H. Lagerbom)
If you appreciated reading this news story and want to support local journalism, consider subscribing today.
Call (207) 594-4401 or join online at waldo.villagesoup.com/join.
Donate directly to keeping quality journalism alive at waldo.villagesoup.com/donate.
Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.