Whaling in Warren, Rhode Island: 1821-1860

Between 1835 and 1872 (37 years), almost 300,000 whales were taken from the sea by American whalemen, and Warren played her part in that industry. As early as 1766, in fact, according to the Boston Newsletter, Warren was active in the whaling trade. “Several vessels employed in the whale fishery from the industrious town of Warren in Rhode Island colony have lately returned having met with considerable success. One vessel . . . brought home 300 barrels of oil” (October 23, 1766). Most of these early ships hunted the North and South Atlantic. Early Warren whaling captains included names like Grinnell, Whiting, Daniel Snow, Edward Wing, and Philip Esterbrooks, all of whom sailed between 1774 and 1785. In 1770 nineteen whaling vessels sailed from the ports of Providence, Newport, Bristol and Warren, and by 1775, fifty vessels were sailing from those ports. The Revolution hurt the trade across the colony. Warren lost fourteen whaling vessels during the conflict, and did not engage in whaling again until 1821.

Joseph Smith purchased the Rosalie, a 323-ton ship, and sent her under a Captain Easton on a three-year voyage during which no whales were caught. Captain Easton was not, apparently, of Warren, and there was some suspicion of intentional failure. No logbook records exist for that voyage, but logbooks for her next two trips are in the Nicholson Collection. Captain Joseph Gardner, and his First Mate Charles Brown (both of Warren), took the Rosalie to the Pacific from 1825-28 and took 101 whales, which were rendered into 2,211 barrels of oil. On the return trip, when Captain Gardner put into Payta (Peru), he passed a number of whalers which had obviously had poor luck. As his trying works belched black smoke and he stood upon the quarterdeck he called out to the other captains, “Look and Weep! Look and Weep!”

The Rosalie went out again in 1828 under her former first mate, Charles Brown, now the captain. Gardner was put in command of a new ship that Joseph Smith had purchased, named the Magnet, which went out with the Rosalie—but no logbooks for the Magnet have been found. We have a log from that voyage of the Rosalie, which successfully hunted in the North Pacific from 1828 to 1832. Both ships returned with full holds—one source records that the Magnet had 2,900 barrels of oil. These successes convinced other investors in Warren to dip into whaling, prominent among these were members of the Wheaton, Eddy, and Collins families.

The cost of fitting out a whaling ship for such voyages was immense. To build a whaler in 1844 cost an average of $31,000 (roughly $900,000 today). To outfit a ship with food, equipment, replacement parts, clothing, and materials for building barrels, cost about $20,000 (another $600,000). Total cost would come to about $51,000, or about $1.3 million today.

The products of these voyages were basically sperm oil (a clean-burning oil used for lighting and lubrication), spermaceti (or “head-matter”), used for making candles, right oil (from right whales, which was a heavier, inferior oil), and whalebone (used for whips, parasols, umbrellas, dresses, corsets, hats, suspenders, canes, tongue scrapers, divining rods, bows, probangs, pen holders, paper folders and cutters, graining combs for painters, boot-shanks, shoehorns, brushes and mattresses.

A final product was ambergris, a highly prized, ash-colored substance found in the intestines of whales and on the open ocean. Because giant squids’ beaks have been found embedded within lumps of ambergris, scientists have theorized that the whale’s intestine produces the substance as a means of easing the passage of hard, sharp objects that the whale might have inadvertently eaten. Ambergris was used in perfumes, some thought it was effective as an aphrodisiac, and in the Middle Ages it was used as a medication for headaches, colds, epilepsy, and other ailments.

In its forty years of whaling from 1821 to 1861, Warren sent out an average of sixteen vessels per year, crewed by about 400 men. Average yearly yield was 48,000 gallons of sperm oil, 34,000 gallons of whale oil, and 34,000 pounds of bone. The average total annual value of these products was $287,000 (or about $8.5 million today). A number of ships from Warren, Bristol and Providence were insured to carry whale oil and bone to trade in port cities up and down the Atlantic coast. In 1836, the Rosalie went again to the South Atlantic under the command of Captain Andrew Pickens. Before returning she put into Rio De Janeiro and sold 200 barrels of whale oil, bringing back a load of Brazilian coffee.

Several Warren ships were actually built in Warren. At the PPL we have logbooks from two voyages of the Sea Shell, said to be the largest whaler ever built. She was completed in 1852 at the Daniel Foster Yard between Company & Sisson Streets. We have a 2-volume journal (with a crew list) which was kept on a voyage to the Pacific under the command of William Martin, from 1853-56. We also have a log from her next voyage to the Pacific under Paul Ware, from 1856 to 1860.

As early as 1764, Sylvester Child had a yard that operated at the foot of Baker Street, which built some of the early merchant and whaling vessels. Chace & Davis had a yard between Company & Sisson streets, where the 206-tone Belle and the clipper ship Dolphin was built for Charles Cutler in 10 weeks and 5 days in 1850. Capt. Rufus Trink had a yard at the foot of company street and James J. Cady built ships at the foot of Washington Street. John Throop was a noted Warren shipmaster and builder, and others included Caleb Carr, Caleb Eddy, Samuel Miller, James Easterbrooks Bowen, Daniel and John Luther, and a man called Daddy Lee. One of the most famous yards was not in Warren at all, but up the Palmer River in Swansea (variously known as Bungtown or Barneyville). The Palmer River flows toward the sea from Rehoboth through Swansea and then to Warren where it joins the Warren River. Kelley’s Drawbridge crossed the Palmer River from Tyler Point in Barrington to the Warren shore. Mason Barney built the ships and it often took him a week or more to float them down the Palmer and through Kelley’s drawbridge. Often a ship would get stuck in the reeds lining either side of the river, and it was apparently a common sight. He frequently floated the ship partially on its side, with its superstructure leaning on and lashed to a barge.

It was an international industry. Warren men and boys who went out with these ships sailed with black sailors, of course, as well as Dutchmen, Norwegians, Spaniards, Portuguese, Russians, Germans, Chinese, and Kanakas (Polynesians). Aside from those seeking their fortune were those seeking escape—convicts and those who existed on society’s fringes. Except for the officers, most of the crew were under 30. The pay on a voyage was termed a “lay”. On average, 25 men crewed a ship, and greenhands (the lowest rank) generally had a lay that was 1/200 of the profit. An able seaman took 1/150, a boatsteerer 1/75, and the Captain could receive up to 1/10 of the profit. Pay was calculated at the end of the cruise, and the crew depended on the captain as an agent of the owner for cash advances, clothing and supplies from the ships’ stores. It often happened that a greenhand would return to shore in debt. When the Rosalie returned to Warren in 1828, she unloaded 2150 barrels of sperm oil which was sold for $0.75/gallon with a gross return of $50,793. Captain Gardner, whose lay was 1/18, received $2,821.87 for the three-year cruise.

The last whaler to leave Warren was the Dromo in 1861, but she was condemned in Payta (Peru). The last successful whaler was the Covington, which sailed on November 7, 1860, collected and sent back 960 barrels of sperm oil, 144 barrels of whale oil, and 2,200 pounds of bone—but she was captured an burned in the Bering Straits by the Confederate ship Shenandoah in June 1865. Over 30 years later in 1896, Albert Peck, who had served aboard the Covington, wrote a retrospective journal about the voyage–the manuscript of which is in the Nicholson Collection.

Warren logbooks:

Rosalie 1825

Rosalie, Joseph Gardner, 1825-28 to the North & South Pacific (ends April 22, 1828)

Rosalie 1828

Rosalie, Charles F. Brown, Master. 1828-32 (partial journal, first 14 months)

Miles 1831-32

Ship Miles, Henry Champlin, Master, to North & South Atlantic 1831-32. The Miles had been used in the West Indies trade, was converted to a bark and put into the whaling fleet in 1830. On her return voyage in 1833 Samuel Driscoll, who was celebrating his return and his 21st birthday, was ramming a charge of powder into a saluting cannon when it exploded, blowing both his hands off. He survived to become one of Warren’s leading merchants, and died in 1886.

Benjamin Rush, 1833-35

Ship Benjamin Rush, James Coffin, Master, to the S. Pacific.

Philip Tabb, 1835

Martin Bowen, master, to the S. Atlantic. Keeper was Benjamin Macomber. Love letter and ship sketch.

Rosalie 1839

Rosalie 1839-40, Sylvester Eddy, Master, to the S. Pacific

Hector 1842

William Martin, master, to Pacific 1842-45, James Moore Ritchie, keeper; painting of a whaling scene; flying fish fins pressed in; poetry at end.

Bowditch 1849

Bowditch, which sailed out of Warren on September 19, 1849 on a 3-year voyage under the command of Nelson J. Waldron, to the North Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

Sea Shell 1853

William Martin, Master, to the Pacific 1853-56


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