Category Archives: Research

Why black whales are called “right whales”

By Michael P. Dyer, Senior Maritime Historian, New Bedford Whaling Museum

By the early 20th century, black whales, Eubalaena spp, had come to be uniformly called “right whales” due to centuries of confusion between the English, American and French languages, the laziness of whalers, the assumptions of historians, and a severe shortage of animals in the North Atlantic useful for comparative anatomical study at the height of the age of taxonomic nomenclature in the mid-nineteenth-century. It came about in this way.

Whaleman Daniel C. Whitfield of Newark, New Jersey drew this picture of a black whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Mass., 1856-1859. KWM #1033

Whaleman Daniel C. Whitfield of Newark, New Jersey drew this picture of a black whale in his journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Mass., 1856-1859. KWM #1033

Long plates of baleen and no dorsal fin are the principal defining anatomical characteristic of the sub-order of Cetaceans, the Mysticeti, those whales commonly described as “right whales.” From the traditional American viewpoint, right whales are not a species but a group. American whalers’ terming animals right whales, were simply referring to “right whaling,” the process of hunting an animal with quality, marketable baleen and often a large quantity of oil in their thick blubber. American whalers differentiated between right whales and bowheads, but called the process of hunting either “right whaling,” and took shortcuts in their logbook and journal entries terming any animal not a bowhead a right whale. American whalers sometimes called right whales “black whales” in these entries. The British completely distinguished between the two as early as the 1790s when they began their whale fishery on the coast of Australia.
To the British and the French the “right whale” was generally the animal that we know today as the bowhead. For much of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries this animal was commonly called the Greenland whale, the Mysticete, the Arctic whale, Balaena mysticetus; and also the term Baleine franche.

"La Baleine Franche," engraving of a bowhead whale printed by Frault, 37 Rue Saint Andre des Arts, after Robert Benard from L'Abbe Bonnaterre, Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique de Trois Regnes de la Nature (Paris, 1795). NBWM #2001.100.6340

“La Baleine Franche,” engraving of a bowhead whale printed by Frault, 37 Rue Saint Andre des Arts, after Robert Benard from L’Abbe Bonnaterre, Tableau Encyclopedique et Methodique de Trois Regnes de la Nature (Paris, 1795). NBWM #2001.100.6340

This latter term, French in its origin, meant the true whale or even “baleine vertitable,” the real whale, and was applied equally to both species in natural history illustrations of the period. This is the whale appearing in book illustrations and natural histories as far back as the 1670s. Eubalaena spp. does not begin to regularly appear in natural history illustrations as a distinct species until 1874 when Charles Melville Scammon included a chapter on the “The Right Whale of the Pacific Northwest Coast,” in The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874).
When 19th century taxonomists began described these animals the array of names and descriptive terminology was bewildering. Documentation was weak, reliable description was almost exclusively confined to whalers, and the various species of right whales were not distinctly separated as species until the 1860s. When whalers wanted to be specific about which right whale they were hunting, then the terminology and naming got even more complex. Some names stuck and some fell away. Greenland whales, Balaena mysticetus, the European preferred whale of commerce for centuries, were a “right whale” and were commonly called Greenland right whales or Arctic right whales, or even just “the whale.” French naturalists including P.J. van Beneden recognized that Americans later came to call them bowheads, a name that stuck probably because it described a distinct characteristic of the animal, much like the hump of a humpback or the contents of the nose of a spermaceti whale.
Eubalaena glacialis, the “black whale of the Americans” was another right whale, but not preferred for European commerce at any time since the 15th century Basques. This was a little-known animal uncommonly encountered by whalers until the era of colonial American settlement put mariners directly into their migratory habitat around Cape Cod and New England. This animal was hunted by Americans for a relatively short time, less than one hundred years, but certainly not to the exclusion of other whales, as the commonly held definition of the name implies. If their behavior today is any guide, these animals rarely stranded or drifted ashore unless sick or injured. These were often called “black whales” by the British and “seven-foot bone” whales by Americans. To refer to these animals as black whales today is to employ a distinct descriptive characteristic with plenty of historical precedent that enables them to be identified and thought of as a species, separate from the group.
A “right whale” is any whale species with long slabs of marketable baleen. Known historically to American commerce as “whalebone” and to the English of the seventeenth and eighteenth- centuries as “fins,” baleen is a keratin-based adaptation consisting of long, overlapping plates growing from the roof of the whales’ mouths, finely fringed along the inside edge, enabling the animals to feed by filtering organisms from sea water. Baleen plates vary in size from species to species growing to between six and thirteen feet long in mature animals. When feeding these whales sometimes cruise steadily along the surface of the sea and along the edges of ice fields grazing on immense blooms of plankton known historically as “brit” or “whale feed.” After filling their mouths with water and plankton they use their immense lips and tongues to dispel the water and then lick the food off the inside edges of the baleen. This behavior made the animals conspicuous to mariners, and their migratory patterns and general habitats were often close to shore where they were both observed and hunted. The family Balaeinidae, these oft-named “right whales,” includes four species, the bowhead, the North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica). Each possesses these long plates of baleen although the longest and most valuable baleen plates to commerce came from the bowhead whale.
Modern authors who describe the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis, in nature guide books, web sites, history books and even scientific papers commonly assert that because right whales floated when dead, lived close to shore, were slow and easily approached and provided large quantities of oil, meat and baleen that whalers called them “right whales” as they were the “right whale to catch.” This definition has persisted, in the U.S.A. particularly, throughout most of the 20th century.
Sir William Henry Flower (1831-1899), director of the Natural History Department of the British Museum, first used the phrase “the right whale to catch” in 1898. The full quotation is:
… long distinguished by practical whalers as right whales, as they are, compared to all others, the right whales to catch being of far greater value.

Significantly, Flower did not at the time of his writing acknowledge E. glacialis as a distinct species. The right whales to which he is referring are Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead and Eubalaena australis, the Southern right whale:
Of the right whales there are two perfectly distinct forms,
though whether each of these represents a single species, or
can be subdivided into several, is still a matter of uncertainty,
and for our present purpose of little importance, as if minute
investigation can prove that they are separable, they are most
closely allied and perfectly similar to all ordinary observation.
The two forms, which I shall speak of as species or kinds, are
the Greenland or rather Arctic right whale (Balaena mysticetus)
and the southern right whale (Balaena australis).

As Flower’s language indicates, the English usage of “right whale” referring to the bowhead is incontrovertible. Although most English sources simply refer to the bowhead as “the whale,” the “Greenland whale” or the “common whale,” Flower’s differentiating the “Arctic right whale” underscores his perception that whalebone whales as a group were considered “right whales.”
Attempting to explain and describe the reasons behind why the whale is called the “right whale” without the systematic parsing of old texts has contributed to assumptions made about the commercial exploitation of one species of animal (Eubalaena glacialis) in particular to the exclusion of others. Unwittingly, E. glacialis (as well as the southern and North Pacific species) become entwined with a separate species (Balaena mysticetus) blurring the ability of historians, scientists, ocean resource managers and the public to understand the full extent of potential issues surrounding their management.
The bowhead whale itself has a long history of exploitation but also of study by English whalers and naturalists. Most famous of these was whaling master and author William Scoresby, Jr. (1789-1857), who wrote a precise description of the bowhead whale in his two volume work An Account of the Arctic Regions with a History and Description of the Northern Whale Fishery (Edinburgh, 1820), after his experiences hunting them in the waters of the Greenland Sea between eastern Greenland and Spitzbergen Island in the early nineteenth century:
“Balaena mysticetus: – The Common Whale, or Greenland Whale. This valuable and interesting animal, generally called The Whale by way of eminence, is the object of our most important commerce to the Polar Seas – is productive of more oil than any other of the Cetacea, and, being less active, slower in its motion, and more timid than any other of the kind… is more easily captured.”

Scoresby’s quote was repeated often – indeed, for decades his observations on the fauna of the Arctic regions were the last word in Arctic reference. Books like the popular and influential On the Ordinary Cetacea or Whales by Robert Hamilton, published as part of Sir William Jardine’s Naturalist’s Library (Edinburgh, 1837), and John Godman’s American Natural History (Philadelphia, 1828), among others relied upon Scoresby often reprinting whole passages of his writing.
His work was truly respected by his peers and remains so today. In addition to commanding several commercial whaling voyages from Hull, U.K. he studied briefly under naturalist Robert Jameson at Edinburgh University, corresponded with the likes of Sir Joseph Banks and John Hunter, and contributed information to other Arctic marine mammal naturalists including Everard Home, based largely on his observations compiled on his whaling voyages. Scoresby uses other names for the bowhead whale including the “Common Black Whale” and the “Great Northern Whale.” Even Scoresby, however, struggles with the separate identities of the bowhead and the North Atlantic right whale:
The Balaena mysticetus and the Balaena nordkaper, for instance, are considered by Linné as varieties only of the same animal. La Cepède makes them two species. No, La Cepède’s figure of Balaeine franche (mysticetus), has not its counterpart in nature; but his Balaeine nordcaper is a fair representation of the mysticetus.

In this particular incidence La Cepède was right and Scoresby was wrong. The Nordcaper and the bowhead are two separate species. The Nordcaper, or North Cape whale was for years synonymous with today’s Eubalaena glacialis. It was so-named as being encountered off the North Cape of Norway although Scoresby claims never to have seen one. By the time of Scoresby’s writing in the 1820s E. glacialis was very seldom seen and the likelihood of his even being familiar with it was small.
Numerous sources, however, including those devoted entirely to the subject such as William Dewhurst’s Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834), use the term “Greenland right whale” to describe the bowhead, although other natural histories like Thomas Bell’s A History of British Quadrupeds (London 1837) refer to Balaena mysticetus as the “true whale,” the “common whale” and the “Greenland whale.” Scoresby’s influential description comes very close to Flower’s common “right whale to catch” scenario, and it seems to provide convenient answers to the evidently perplexing question of “why is it called the right whale?” Between the two of them, Scoresby and Flower, the originations of the idea “the right whale to catch” seem definitive. Understanding then, how and why the phrase came about, is simply the culmination of hundreds of years of confusion over the precise identification of E. glacialis as a species in comparison to a well-known and well-described commercially significant animal.
In the literature of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries scientists and natural historians strove to document whale species taxonomically and were analyzing all of the various derivations of the names of these animals. The American zoologist Joseph Bassett Holder (1824-1888) compiled one particularly excellent synopsis where he makes the distinction between “right whales” generally as a group (“this Right Whale”) and the black whale specifically, as Eubalaena glacialis:
This, the Black Whale so called of the temperate Atlantic, was lately introduced to science as a re-discovery. After a lengthy period of well nigh total extinction, the species is now manifestly increasing in numbers As is now well known after a long continued confusion of specific characters and consequent misunderstanding, this Right Whale is the one which our forefathers found abundant along the Atlantic coast, from Newfoundland to Florida. It is the one first hunted by the Cape Cod and Nantucket whalers and is not the one now and latterly captured in the Arctic seas. At the commencement of the American Revolution the Black Whale had been so persistently pursued that there remained in our waters seemingly no more to capture. Indeed the species was near extinction. It was now that the New England and New Jersey whalers pushed northward and discovered the great Arctic Right Whale As they found a prey affording them more oil and larger baleen, they were content; leaving others to settle the question of identity. The science of cetology was not then greatly advanced; it remained therefore for naturalists of a later period to fairly establish the characteristics and relative position of each species.

Quite in opposition to Holder’s synopsis (and almost uniquely in this study), U.S. Fish Commission agent Alonzo Howard Clark (1850-1918) completely distinguished right whales from bowhead whales in his 1887 analysis of the American whaling industry:
The right whale (Eubalaena) is found in various parts of the world… This whale, of which there are several species in the different oceans, must not be confounded with the bow-head, inhabiting much colder waters, the bow-head being an ice whale and the right a temperate whale…

Clark’s report is among the most frequently accessed documents relative to American whaling history, having been widely disseminated as a government document and subsequently reprinted. In this instance, Clark mistakenly segregates the species involved in “right whaling” adopting the more generic terminology common to the fishery but less useful for specific identification.
Biologists Randall R. Reeves and Robert D. Kenney finally broke with the commonality of describing the “right whale to catch” in 2003 writing in a major marine mammal encyclopedia: “many early writers considered “right” to connote “true” or “proper.” Reeves and Kenney’s new definition helps to refine not only the question of naming but also elevates the place of the Mysticetes historically as these were long considered the whales of commerce and people paid attention to them. One may well ask what characteristics a “true” or “proper” whale may possess, which in this case may be answered in a word, baleen. True whales or right whales were those animals with long slabs of marketable baleen.
Yet even while this characteristic was accepted as a commercial criterion for classing the animals, their actual naming and identity has long remained a challenge to virtually everyone who has attempted it. As late as 1932, the whaling historian James Travis Jenkins opened “Chapter 2 – The Nordcaper,” of his book Whales & Modern Whaling with a nomenclature-rich synopsis: “The Nordcaper, Sarda, or Atlantic Right Whale (Balaena australis) was the first to be the subject of a regular fishery, that of the Basques.” Jenkins’ chapter, which starts off confusing Eubalaena glacialis with Balaena australis, nonetheless serves as a solid synopsis of the accepted perceptions of the animal and its history at the mid- twentieth century. In it he covers Basque whaling for bowhead whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Norwegian whaling records for E. glacialis around Iceland in the late nineteenth- century, and Scottish whaling records from the early twentieth- century, all good information. His chapter is particularly useful as a yardstick for gauging the degree of understanding that fisheries managers had in the mid-twentieth century.
At the time of Flower’s writing in 1898, however, the populations of E. glacialis had been stultified over tens of thousands of years through habitat degradation brought about by ice-age glacial recurrences, predation by orcas, competition from bowhead whales for preferred habitat and, ultimately, over- hunting of populations already stressed by natural habitat challenges. Flower’s exclusive descriptions of the bowhead whale and the southern right whale reflected the serious nature of how small the North Atlantic right whale populations had actually become at the turn of the twentieth- century. Fifty years earlier the New Bedford, Massachusetts, whaling master Daniel McKenzie confirms this scarcity categorically in a letter to the Director of the United States Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury in 1849, indicating that “throughout my whaling history I never did – nor never expected to find right whales on the outward passage till I reached Latitude 30° South.”
So what really happened to E. glacialis? Is it possible that between circa 1640 and the mid-18th century American colonists killed so many animals that they were erased from the North Atlantic entirely, or were so reduced in their numbers that they were seldom even seen? American biologists William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill certainly believed so, writing in 1982: “Right whales were found in large numbers in the Cape Cod area until about 1730 (Allen 1916), but this stock was systematically reduced by shore whaling that took all that could be caught, including cows and calves.”

The modern wholesale and exclusive adoption of “right whale” as the common name for Eubalaena glacialis underscores the implication that our oft-repeated definition that the name fosters. Because these were the “right whale to catch,” catch them they did and thus the population was radically reduced. As we have seen, however, this assumption shortcuts the facts of many historical sources and takes a giant leap across an entire ocean and the entire species of Balaena mysticetus to which the term was originally applied. Further, it implies an overt concentration by hunters on one species when several were both available and exploited. It likewise demands a simple association for why there seems not to be a robust population of Eubalaena glacialis in the world today – American colonists killed them all. Curiously, and in parallel to the American experience, British colonists in New South Wales, Australia did not call the similar animal that they encountered there and hunted extensively the “right whale.” They called it the “black whale” and also exploited them thoroughly.
One significant difference between the black whale of the North Atlantic and that of the south (Eubalaena australis) is that the southern stock had a much larger population (some estimates place it as high as 90,000 animals) that managed to survive heavy, sustained, sophisticated hunting pressure for well over one hundred years. E. australis was hunted from the coasts of Brazil and Argentina to the coasts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the entire Southern Ocean by Americans, French, Australians, British and others. These were a targeted species by whaling agents intent on keeping quantities of oil and bone on their wharves and ready for the market. Whaling badly damaged this population as well as E. glacialis but the pressure was enormous in comparison.
American colonists did undoubtedly kill a lot of E. glacialis. One commonly cited source indicates that in January of 1700 “the boates round Cape Cod Bay killed twenty-nine whales in one day.” Even such concentrated efforts on a stock of animals locally concentrated in the bay, however, could only have damaged the population permanently if they were limited in their population numbers to start with, but, as Curator of Mammals in the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Glover M. Allen, observed in 1916: “The accounts of this important industry that have come down to us are barely sufficient to reconstruct an outline of it.” The historical documentation upon which Allen’s observation was made has hardly changed since his writing in 1916.

The same sources that Glover Allen, Frederick True and Joel Asaph Allen reference in their works have only been augmented sparsely by primary whalemen’s accounts, and these only serve to underscore the high quality of the research in the first place. Yet despite accounts “barely sufficient” to outline the early history of colonial whaling assumptions have persisted that these were the “right whales to catch.”
The main points of this history to which Glover Allen refers, are that American colonists began processing “drift” whales that washed ashore dead or stranded themselves on the beaches of Long Island and Cape Cod in the mid-seventeenthth century shortly after colonial settlement. Today such “drift whales” occasionally turn up in the traditional regions, like Cape Cod, Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket and Long Island. These consist mostly of fin whales, humpbacks, sperm whales, pilot whales and dolphins. The only right whales that wash ashore dead are those that have succumbed to ship strikes (hit or run over by a large vessel) or those that have become entangled in fishing gear and died. As few right whales drift ashore today, and other whales species do, this begs the question of what type of whales drifted ashore in the colonial era? Does the negligible number of drift right whales today simply reflect the fact that there are not that many of them and that the population is mostly healthy, or, does it suggest that there were once many more right whales and they were often unhealthy or, that few right whales ever washed ashore or stranded in comparison to other species?
The species of drift whale are not always identified in the historical sources being commonly called simply “whales,” or “a whale.” By the end of the seventeenth- century actual shore whaling was common from the coasts of New Jersey to Cape Cod Bay. In this fishery whales were spotted from lookouts posted along the beaches, and boats were launched to hunt the animals. Again, however, the problem plaguing so many definitive conclusions about these animals and their pre-exploited population levels is that the targeted species are not always positively identified, although records of baleen being harvested suggest that these were E. glacialis.
Off-shore voyages commenced by the early eighteenth- century and these voyages included sperm whaling. By the mid-eighteenth- century fleets of off-shore whaling vessels from a host of small ports were hunting in the Atlantic between the Azores and the Davis Straits as well as into the Caribbean. Joel Asaph Allen, Curator of Birds and Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History, summed up this history writing in 1883 that E. glacialis “was lost sight of [by the British] as a commercial animal, except on this side of the Atlantic… it was practically unknown to science , till the researches of Eschricht and Reinhadt, published in 1861, led to its rediscovery.” He noted that until 1861 the species had been generally confounded with B. mysticetus.”

“Copia al Natural del Ballenato...” lithograph by Gordon, circa 1854. “The beautiful lithograph of Dr. Monedero”, described by Daniel Frederick Eschricht in his 1860 treatise Baleines franches du golfe de Biscaye. In this paper, Eschricht is the first to distinguish between E. glacialis and B. mysticetus. He accomplished this by studying the skeleton of this whale. It temporarily became known to science as Balaena biscayensis as it was recovered at San Sebastien in the Basque country in 1854. NBWM #2001.100.6149

“Copia al Natural del Ballenato…” lithograph by Gordon, circa 1854. “The beautiful lithograph of Dr. Monedero”, described by Daniel Frederick Eschricht in his 1860 treatise Baleines franches du golfe de Biscaye. In this paper, Eschricht is the first to distinguish between E. glacialis and B. mysticetus. He accomplished this by studying the skeleton of this whale. It temporarily became known to science as Balaena biscayensis as it was recovered at San Sebastien in the Basque country in 1854. NBWM #2001.100.6149

American adoption of the “right whale” in relationship to Eubalaena glacialis stems from the writing of the Massachusetts jurist Paul Dudley (1675-1751), who penned an essay for the Royal Society in 1724-1725 entitled “An Essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the spermaceti whale.” In it he describes “only such whales as are found on the coasts of New England,” including “the Right, or Whalebone Whale.” That Dudley is referring to E. glacialis and not some other species is confirmed by his description: “their scalps are sometimes found covered with thousands of Sea-lice.” These creatures also known as the whale louse, Cyamus ovalis, are a particular type of parasitic crustacean best known to inhabit the barnacle-like callosities distinctive of the Eubalaena species.

Throughout (and importantly to this discussion), Dudley refers to these whales as “right or whale-bone whales.” Dudley’s identification of E. glacialis as the right whale appears to be the origin of the American identification of E. glacialis as the right whale, yet Dudley himself seems to have derived his knowledge of whales from others. His informants included the Reverend Mr. Greenleaf of Yarmouth on Cape Cod and Mr. J. Coffin from the island of Nantucket. The Reverend Greenleaf could certainly have had solid knowledge of whales as the region of Cape Cod Bay in his immediate vicinity was the location of some of the earliest American whaling and also where, starting around 1662, portions of every whale “as by God’s providence shall be cast upon any of the shores of this Township” were allotted by law for the financial support of the clergy. One would imagine that he had firsthand knowledge as being a clergyman it was in his vested interest to do so.
Curiously, there was no guarantee that the whales encountered in Cape Cod Bay would be E. glacialis however. Humpbacks, minke whales and even fin whales were also hunted if they made an appearance. Dudley’s examination and description of the sperm whale is far more detailed than that of E. glacialis, and significantly he references that these are “more gentle fish” that “seldom fight with their tales.” He then goes on to describe the destruction and danger common to hunting “the whalebone whale.”
The wonderful, and even prodigious Strength of this Creature, which lies principally in their tails, that being both their offensive and defensive weapon. Many Instances of this Kind I have had from credible Persons, who were eye-witnesses; I will mention but a few. A boat has been cut down from top to bottom with the Tail of a Whale, as if cut with a Saw, the Clap-boards scarce splintered, tho’ the Gunnel upon the Top is of tough Wood. Another has had the Stem, or Stern-post of about three Inches through, and of the toughest Wood that can e found… cut off smooth above the Cuddee, without so much as shattering the boat, or drawing the nails of the Clap-boards. An Oar has been cut off with a Stroke upwards, and yet not so much as lifted up out of the Thole-Pin…

The baleen from these animals had been of commercial importance for over six hundred years, even being illustrated by the natural philosopher Ulyssis Aldrovandi (1522-1605) as a discrete product of commerce in his work De Piscibus Libri V, et de Cetis Lib. Unus (Bologna, 1638). Known since the time of Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) who first described it in his Historia Animalium, “mysticeti” was construed by scholars to mean “mustache,” a direct, if apocryphal allusion to the long, hair-like fringes of these baleen plates which are visible as the whales feed. Thus, Western European knowledge of baleen-bearing whales is ancient indeed and naturally that knowledge was carried over to the settlements in the New World. The exploration and ultimate settlement of the coast of New England by Europeans coincided with the advent of European commercial whaling ventures to the Arctic. 1602, the year that Bartholomew Gosnold (1572-1607) visited Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and Buzzards Bay was the same year that the English Muscovy Company began whaling around Spitzbergen Island. Over the next two hundred years English, Dutch and other European nations would greatly expand their whaling adventures around Greenland and by the mid-eighteenth- century Americans would be cruising the waters of the Davis Straits as well.
Extensive documentation and description of American whaling is available for the late eighteenth and early nineteenth- centuries. In this documentation are hundreds of accounts written by whalemen confirming that right whales of the genus Eubalaena do not float after being killed any more or less than other commonly hunted species like bowhead or sperm whales. In point of fact, they were well known by whalemen to be more likely to sink than other species. In Nimrod of the Sea (New York, 1874), whaleman William Morris Davis wrote: “A peculiar feature in right-whaling is the considerable number which sink upon being killed. This rarely occurs with the sperm whale.” In a classic demonstration of how far removed American whalers had become from the origins of the language that they commonly used, Davis goes on to describe how American right-whalers in the Sea of Okhotsk failed to even recognize the bowhead whale as a species worth hunting. They had forgotten where the term “right whale” had come from and used it solely to describe Eubalaena spp.
Further, these “black whales” were frightfully dangerous to hunt, especially females with calves, and provided less oil of a poorer quality and shorter baleen than bowhead whales, the preferred whale of commerce for European nations from the seventeenth- century and earlier. By the 1830s Americans began targeting black whales on the Northwest Coast and these North Pacific whales were accounted particularly dangerous. Author and whaling master Charles Melville Scammon (1825-1911) called the right whale of the Pacific North-western Coast “the most vicious of their kind.” He was, of course, referring to the animals’ behavior when attacked as, like most whales, these are normally quite placid and inoffensive creatures. He does clearly differentiate between the Bowhead, or Great Polar Whale and the Right Whale of the Northwestern Coast.
Some instances from whalemen’s descriptions where events are completely at odds with the accepted “right whale to catch” definition emphasize the danger of the hunt as well as the unpredictable nature of whether the carcasses will float or not.

The bark Vermont of Mystic, Connecticut, for instance, while right whaling on the Northwest Coast lowered boats for whales forty-eight times between May 13 and July 10, 1844. They only managed to kill seven whales, two of which sank, the remainder of which fought back destroying whale boats and gear, smashing up crew members and ultimately escaping. Another whaleman’s account of right whaling on the Northwest Coast is even more specific: “This day raised a whale ¼ of a mile from the ship. Lowered down and struck him. After a 4 hour tow succeeded in killing him, but he sunk like a stone, lost 50 fathoms of tow line and 5 irons.” The Reverend Henry T. Cheever (1814-1897), writing for the newspaper The Friend in 1849, observed: “These huge Northwest whales are more vicious and less easily approached after they are struck than the whales of other latitudes. It is considered no disgrace to be run away with by one of these jet black fellows.”
By the 1870s, the term “right whaling” was terminology ubiquitous in the fishery for voyages targeting whalebone whales. It was applied equally to bowhead whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk and the Western Arctic as it was to right whaling on the Northwest Coast of North America or to the Brazil Banks. From a commercial or voyage management point of view large slabs of baleen were the target regardless of the species that supplied it. Additionally, while American whalers and whaling agents recognized a difference between the bowhead and the black whale, one having very high quality baleen and one shorter, poorer quality baleen, the species were not completely identified as separate in natural history texts until the middle of the nineteenth-century.

As late as 1880, taxonomists were struggling with what to call these animals. Gabriel E. Manigault, curator of the Charleston Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, described a whale that entered the harbor at Charleston in his paper “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880,” concluding that “the Black Whale of this coast is now considered to be the same animal as the Biscay Whale.” He goes on to determine that “there can be no doubt that the four specimens of the Black Whale already specified are entirely distinct from B mysticetus and B. australis…” and that these were the animals described by Dudley that were pursued by new England whalers for oil and baleen.
Whaling agents did, however, distinguish carefully between the quality of the oil (commonly termed “train oil,” or “common whale oil”) and baleen of bowhead and right whales in the marketplace further adding weight to the argument that “right” connotes whalebone gained from true and proper whales and nothing more. In an 1855 business letter relating to the sale of two lots of whalebone New Bedford whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr. noted that “Polar” baleen taken from bowhead whales was worth more in the market than “South Seas” baleen taken from black whales: “Sperm Oil is now selling here for 180 cents pr Gall, North West Whale Oil 72 cents, Polar bone 45 cents, So. Sea do. [ditto] about 40 cents.”
In 1908, Joel Asaph Allen (1838-1921) wrote an article for the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History entitled “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies.” It is a thorough summary of the history of right whale systematics, an immensely convoluted subject, but one in which he clearly describes the process of identifying and describing Eubalaena glacialis scientifically. His work established a strong platform from which to think about these problematic animals and his fine synopsis, “Recognized as different from the Greenland whale by whalers of the 17th and 18th centuries,” outlines many of the most important sources in English that serve as the basis of the scientific understanding of Eubalaena spp.
He quotes the earliest printed references including those of Thomas Edge (English Muscovy Company factor, fl. 1611-1622) whose “Description of seuerall [sic] sorts of Whales and the manner of killing them” includes the Sarda which is characterized as being smaller than the Greenland whale having shorter baleen and producing much less oil. This is explained much later by Pierre-Joseph van Beneden (1809-1894), a Belgian zoologist and paleontologist who, along with the French paleontiologist Paul Gervais (1816-1879), wrote the major work of whale anatomy, Ostéographie des cétacés vivants et fossiles (Paris, 1880). Van Beneden noted: “There exist two species of true whales (Right Whales) in the North Atlantic and on the coasts of Greenland, – one the common whale, called also the Greenland whale, and the other the Sarde or Nordcaper.” He noted also that the latter “is the same species which visits the coasts of Europe in winter and the coasts of America in summer.” Hans Egede (1686-1758), the eighteenth-century Danish missionary to Greenland, is also quoted but he underscores that European whalers did not purposefully pursue E. glacialis: “His fat is tougher and harder than that of the Great-bay Whale (bowhead); neither are his barders or bones (baleen) so long and valuable, for which reason he is neglected.” Egede makes another significant observation, being “informed on good authority” that the Greenland whale is “de store Havle af den rette sort, som har store barder,” (the large whales of the right sort, having large whalebone). Perhaps most significant of all is a passage “traced back to the celebrated Kongespeil (Mirror of Royalty) of the 12th century where we learn that this “sletbag” of the old Icelanders was really a whalebone whale (and therefore as a whalebone whale with a finless back, a right-whale).”
The scientific nomenclature and systematics, while useful, are of lesser importance to the analysis of why the animal today known as the “right whale” came to be known thus. More important is an analysis of the language of the literature written about the animal, and the language of whalemen and Allen gives a good background. For instance, he quotes the eighteenth-century chroniclers of the American colonies, William Douglass (ca. 1700-1752), and Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (1735-1813). Douglas in particular gave an early account of the New England whale fishery that seems completely at odds with most modern descriptive attributes of E. glacialis:
The New England true whale is the same with the European North-cape whales, are not easily killed being agile and very wild: the Dutch do not fish them… the whale-bone whales killed upon the coast of New England, Labrador, and the entrance to Davis-straits, are smaller; do not yield exceeding 120 to 130 barrels of oil, and of nine feet bone 140 lb. wt. they are wilder more agile and do fight.

Douglass clearly differentiates the right whales by geographical locale and emphasizes the commercial value of the bowhead whale significantly calling it the “true whale”:
The most beneficial is the black whale, whale-bone whale or true whale, as they call it, in Davis’s-straits, in N. lat. 70º and upwards. They are very large, some yield 150 puncheons, being 400 or 500 barrels of oil, and bone of eighteen feet and upwards; they are a heavy loggy fish, and so do not fight.

By interpreting this definition or description of right whales generally as best represented by authors of the period as bowhead whales, the idea is upheld that the whales are slow and easily captured as well as being a preferred commercial prey species.
To in turn apply that definition to Eubalaena glacialis and ascribe the current plight of the imperiled population of animals to overhunting for the reasons described seems misleading. As the above passages suggest, to many commercial whaling nations, Eubalaena glacialis was, in fact, the wrong whale to hunt. If American colonists hunted these animals, which they undoubtedly did, their endangered status and lack of recovery after two hundred years of not being hunted at all can only be explained and understood by means other than researching historical records to determine the number of whales taken. The historical records while unequivocal on several points of geography and species targeted, ultimately seem insufficient to explain the suppressed and slow recovery of the species. Hence the significance of current research into the DNA of E. glacialis. The plight of Eubalaena glacialis is perhaps best understood by looking much further back in time, specifically ten thousand years ago when a major mega-fauna collapse in North America saw the elimination of many terrestrial species of large mammals. Perhaps there is an analog in this whale species that lives so close to the coast.
The language of American whalemen is revealing and lends itself to adoption by convenience as opposed to any specific intent as far as hunting is concerned. On May 21, 1769, Captain Peter Pease set sail onboard the schooner Squirrel from Bedford Village in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, on a whaling cruise to the Davis Straits. On the 24 of June around latitude 63º north he recorded that he “saw three right whales.” On June 27 he recorded “at four past meridian spoke with [Captain] Nathaniel Coleman, “a cutting a seven foot bone whail.” Throughout this cruise Pease specifically records seeing finbacks, humpbacks, spermaceti and right whales. That he made a distinction between “right whales” and “seven-foot bone whales” suggests that he was describing two different kinds of animals yet in later entries he refers to right whales and “seven foot four inch bone whails” in the same entries (ODHS #458B) Significantly, Pease mentions seeing several other vessels and he cruised in company with one or another colonial American vessel throughout his voyage. It must have been a good whaling ground.
Likewise, Peleg Folger of Nantucket in 1754 described three separate species of whales commonly hunted on the coast of Labrador. These included the right whale, the spermaceti whale and the humpback whale. It is unclear whether he is describing the bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus) or the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis), or whether he even distinguishes the two.

1. A Right whale is a very Large fish (for the most part); they are somewhat hollowing on their back, being all Slick and Smooth and having no hump at all as other whales; their bone (of which is made Stays and hoop’d petticoats) doth grow in their mouth, the upper end or Butt growing in the Gum of the upper jaw. Their tongue is monstrous Large and will commonly make a Tun of Oyl; their bone is from 3 to 12 feet long according to the bigness of the whale and is all the teeth they have. They have two Spoutholes and make a forked Spout whereby they are distinguished from other whales at a Distance.

In Moby-Dick, Herman Melville’s Ishmael calls right whales “inferior creatures,” and “commonly disdained” by sperm whalers. Indeed, his character Stubb describes the right whale as a “foul lump of lard,” hardly attributes consistent with “the right whale to catch.” That right whales were a major target species of 18th and 19th century American whalers is obvious. That they were the preferred species for anything other than cheap oil and generally marketable baleen remains doubtful. When Thomas Welcome Roys finally penetrated the Behring Straits in 1848 he ushered in the great era of American whaling in the Western Arctic. This fishery was universally described as “right whaling” despite that fact that it was a bowhead fishery almost exclusively.
In the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript (June 13, 1854) an article appeared that “the Nantucket Inquirer announces that a large right whale was seen near that island Friday spouting lustily. Preparations were made to attack him on Saturday morning, but at that time he was nowhere to be seen. Our Nantucket friends were never very successful at capturing right whales. If the animal wanted to be caught and cut up, he should have come to New Bedford.” The great fortunes of New Bedford whaling agents were made hunting Eubalaena species. These, however, were not the North Atlantic right whales that 19th century whalemen were hunting, they were southern right whales and North Pacific right whales, two entirely different species. By cruising in the South Atlantic along the coasts of South America and Africa masters could fill up their vessels and return to New Bedford within two years, often sooner. This exploitation of a large population resource allowed New Bedford to market a great deal of cheap oil and keep the markets trading while their longer sperm whaling voyages were at sea.
By the time most of the important New England whaling ports came to their height North Atlantic right whales were hardly to be seen. Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1792 that Americans were led into whaling by “the whales which presented themselves on their coasts…” and that these whales, “being infested, retired from the coast.” By “infested” Jefferson is referring to being harassed by hunters. Paradoxically he goes on to describe sperm whales “of a different species from that of Greenland, which alone had hitherto been known in commerce.” Greenland whales have always been synonymous with Balaena mysticetus and it would be extraordinary indeed if bowhead whales were encountered on the coasts of New England. Importantly, however, Jefferson then makes the distinction that Yankee whalers “found a third species of whale” on the Coast of Brazil which they called the “black or Brazil whale.” This is Eubalaena australis, the southern right whale. Whether Thomas Jefferson was truly well informed about the details of the Yankee whale fishery is doubtful as other 18th century sources indicate that local Cape Cod whalers did call these animals right whales, but they also called them true whales, bone whales, black whales and North-capers.
Frederick W. True (1858-1914), Head Curator of the Department of Biology at the Smithsonian Museum, for instance, wrote in 1904, “The Atlantic right whale known to American whalers was called by them the black whale in allusion to its color.” He includes in his “Chapter III-A Review of Cope’s and Scammon’s Species” the following synopsis of nomenclature: “Genus BALÆNA Linnæus. 1. Balæna cisarctica Cope. 1865. “The Black Whale of the Whalers of our Coast.” which Cope believed “was an animal distinguishable from the species frequenting the coasts of Europe, and not because it was a rare American form unknown to whalers and others whose business was with the sea.” Cope believed that this species (late identified as E. glacialis) “may readily occur on the European coast ; and is no doubt allied to or the same as the species pursued by the Biscayan whalers.” Cope’s observations helped to solidify the idea that one distinct species of black whale was endemic to the North Atlantic.
Cope’s theory of the range and distinction of species as far as E. glacialis is concerned remains debatable today. As the population of E glacialis is small (currently about 450 animals) estimates of its possible pre-hunted range are currently being researched one American whaleman was unequivocal in his ideas about the animal:
“The Black, or Right Whale is generally found in high latitudes from 30 degrees to 55 degrees both north and south. They are scarcely ever found any great distance from the land; and in the calving season the females seek out some sandy bay where the water is shoal, smooth and clear. Here they keep their young until able to face the rough weather outside. They generally go in pairs & are very vicious, especially when protecting their young, they will fight while life remains in them, & a great many lives are lost in capturing them… they disappear in the winter seasons.”

In conclusion, the preponderance of evidence indicates that “right whale” is a generic term for the Mysticeti collectively. Further, the description of these as being “the right whales to catch” appears to have been derived from English sources and applies solely to Balaena mysticetus, the bowhead whale. The genera Eubalaena and its three species have long been known as the “black whale” having very different commercial properties from the bowhead. By applying the definition of “the right whale to catch” to Eubalaena glacialis historians, scientists and the public have been led to believe that the wholesale targeting of this species is the reason for its currently small, almost stagnant population. Not only does the historical record not definitively support this, but current research into the DNA of this species points in a very different direction as well. These animals were not particularly targeted by early Basque whalers, Dutch commercial whalers, or by the English, who each sustained very large and successful commercial fisheries in the North Atlantic for well over one hundred years. The American whalers, who targeted humpbacks, sperm whales and bowhead whales as well as black whales, are thus credited with the near extirpation of an entire species in less than 100 years, a scenario that seems unlikely for the short period that organized, sophisticated whaling was taking place in the coastal waters of the colonies. For all of these reasons, it remains vital to preserve whatever populations of Eubalaena glacialis exist. Renaming them “black whales” may help to pare down the connotations of language further enabling our understanding of the creatures and freeing us to seek new answers to their complex population predicament.

P.J. van Beneden, Histoire Naturelle de la baleine des Basques (Balaena biscayensis),
(Mémoire présenté à la Classe des sciences dans la séance du 11 May 1886, p. 27.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, eleventh edition (1911), distinguishes between bowhead whales and right whales calling the former “right whales,” and the latter “black whales.”

See: Richard Ellis, The Book of Whales (New York, 1980); Mark Carwardine, Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (New York and London, 1995); “Right Whales: Worldwide Status,” The Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (Cambridge, 2001), etc.

William E. Schevill and Karen E. Moore specify the right whale as peculiarly American, “the nordkaper, or right whale of American usage.” Schevill and Moore, “Townsend’s unmapped North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis). In: Breviora: Museum of Comparative Zoology, Number 476 (29 April 1983), p. 4.

Flower, Sir William Henry, Essays on Museums and other Subjects Connected with Natural History (New York, 1898), p. 194.

Ibid. p. 194.

See: Elizabeth Ingalls, Whaling Prints in the Francis B. Lothrop Collections (Salem, MA: 1987), pp. 21-66 for a large selection of pictorial works of English whales and whaling. Many of these historical prints have captions many of which differentiate the spermaceti whale from other whales but do not separate right whales into species. Eubalaena glacialis does not appear in Englaish pictorial sources as a hunted species.

William Scoresby, Jr. An Account of the Arctic Regions, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh, 1820), pp. 449-450.
See also: William Scoresby “Account of the Balaena Mysticetus, or Great Northern or Greenland Whale.” In: Memoirs of the Wernerian Society, Vol. 1 (1813), p. 578. Scoresby’s description of baleen is exceptionally detailed: “To the upper jaw is attached the substance called whalebone, which is straight in some individuals, and in others convex. The laminae or blades are not all of equal length : neither are the largest exactly in the middle of the series, but somewhat nearer the throat ; from this point they become gradually shorter each way. In each side of the mouth are about 200 lamina? of whalebone. They are not perfectly flat; for besides the longi tudinal curvature already mentioned, they are curved trans versely. The largest laminae are from 10 to 14 feet in length, very rarely 15 feet in length. The breadth of the largest at the thick ends, or where they are attached to the jaw, is about a foot. The Greenland fishers estimate the size of the whale by the length of the whalebone : where the whalebone is six feet long, then the whale is said to be a size fish. In suckers, or young whales still under the protection of the mother, the whalebone is only a few inches long. The whalebone is immediately covered by the two under lips, the edges of which, when the mouth is shut, overlap the upper part in a squamous manner.”

Henry William Dewhurst, The Natural History of the Order Cetacea (London, 1834).

Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales.” In: Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. 1, No. 4 (May 1, 1883).

A. Howard Clark, “The Whale Fishery. 1. – History and Present Condition of the Fishery.” In: The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States. Prepared by George Brown Goode, Section V, History and Methods of the Fisheries, (Washington, 1887), p. 15.

Reeves, Randall R., and Robert D. Kenney, “Baleen Whales: Right Whales and Allies.” In: Wild Mammals of North America: Biology, Management and Conservation, edited by George A. Feldhamer., Bruce C. Thompson and Joseph A. Chapman. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003, p. 425.

William Henry Flower, surgeon and zoologist with a special interest in comparative anatomy, created a hierarchy of commercial value as far as “whalebone” or baleen was concerned putting rorqual baleen at the lowest value and bowhead baleen at the highest: “there is a gradual transition, through the rorquals or finners, the humpbacks, the southern right whales, up to the Greenland whale, which exhibits this structure in its greatest perfection, both for the purposes it serves in the animal economy, and for the uses to which it has been applied by man.” Essays on museums and other subjects connected with natural history (New York and London, 1898).

James Travis Jenkins (1876- ) was Superintendent of the Lancashire and Western Sea Fisheries Committee, regulating the fisheries on the Welsh and English coasts until 1943.

Toolika Rastogi, et al. “Genetic analysis of 16th-century whale bones prompts a revision of the impact of Basque whaling on right and bowhead whales in the western North Atlantic.” In: Canadian Journal of Zoology, Vol. 82, No. 10 (October 2004), pp. 1647–1654.

“An 1849 statement on the habits of right whales by Captain Daniel McKenzie of New Bedford.” In The American Neptune, Vol. 14, No. 2 (April, 1954), p. 139-141. The letter was in preparation for Maury’s important “Whale Chart of the World,” published in 1852.

, William A. Watkins and William E. Schevill, “Observations of right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, in Cape Cod waters.” In: Fishery Bulletin, Vol. 80, No. 4 (1982), p. 875.

Robert Montgomery Martin, History of the British Colonies: Possessions in Africa and Austral-Asia Vol. 4 (London, 1835), p. 363, “the black whale is found in abundance along the coast of New South Wales.”

Rhys Richards, “Southern Right Whales: Original Global Stocks.” IWC Workshop on Right Whale Stocks. Capetown, March 1998.

Glover M. Allen, Monographs of the Natural History of New England: The Whalebone Whales of New England, Memoirs of the Boston Society of Natural History, Vol. 8, No. 2 (September, 1916), p. 145.

Joel Asaph Allen, “The Right Whale of the North Atlantic,” in Science , Vol. 1, No. 21 (June 29, 1883), p. 598.

Paul Dudley, “An essay upon the natural history of whales, with a particular account of the ambergris found in the sperma ceti whale,” in: Philosophical Transactions (1683-1775), Vol. 33 (1724-1725, pp. 256-257.

John Braginton-Smith and Duncan Oliver, Cape Cod Shore Whaling: America’s First Whalemen (Yarmouthport, MA 2004), pp. 77-78.

Ibid, p. 136

Dudley, pp. 263-264.

The dearth of descriptive accounts of Eubalaena glacialis from the American whaler’s viewpoint is because little descriptive writing survives from the greatest period of their exploitation, the late 17th and 18th centuries. The best accounts of the behavior of hunted right whales come from whalemen who were hunting the southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) and the North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena japonica) although some 17th century European sources give important insights into right whale behavior.

Charles Melville Scammon, The Marine Mammals of the North-western Coast of North America (San Francisco, 1874), p. 69.

For a complete analysis of the evolution of the nomenclature identifying Eubalaena glacialis as distinct from Balaena mysticetus see: Joseph Bassett Holder, “Article VI. – The Atlantic Right Whales…” in American Museum of Natural History Bulletin No. 4 (May 1, 1883). For a more up to date synopsis of cetacean nomenclature see: Philip Hershkovitz, Catalog of Living Whales (Washington, 1966).

G.E. Manicault, “The black whale captured in Charleston Harbor January, 1880.” In: Proceedings of the Elliot Society (September 1885), p. 100-101.

Old Dartmouth Historical Society Mss 18, Bourne Letter book, 1854-1856

William Henry Flower, ed. Recent Memoirs on the Cetacea by Professors Eschricht, Reinhardt and Lilljeborg (London, 1866), p. 13.

Joel Asaph Allen, “The North Atlantic Right Whale and its Near Allies,” from Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XXIV, Art. XVIII (April 8, 1908), pp. 281-284.

William Douglass in his book A summary, historical and political, of the first planting, progressive improvements, and present state of the British settlements in North-America (Boston, 1755)

“Our genetic data from the single historic right whale bone that we have identified (from about 1565) suggests that even before commercial whaling began on this species in the WN Atlantic they had very low genetic variation. Our current theory has been that they must have suffered (like you suggest) during previous ice ages, which might have eliminated critical feeding or calving areas.” Private correspondence from Brenna McLeod, Ph.D of Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia. See also: Brenna Mcleod, et al. “DNA profile of a sixteenth century western North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis).” In: Conservation Genetics, Vol. 11 (2010), p. 339.

Remarkable Observations: The Whaling Journal of Peleg Folger, 1751-54. Edited by Thomas Philbrick. Nantucket, MA: Mill Hill Press, 2006, p. 44.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, the Whale (New York, 1851), chapter 73.

American whalers in the Western Arctic also targeted gray whales.

A comparative survey in Alexander Starbuck, History of the American Whale Fishery (Waltham, 1876) of the returns of Nantucket and New Bedford between 1823 and 1855 clearly indicates that New Bedford vessels returned vastly more whale oil and whale bone than Nantucket vessels, even at the height of the Nantucket sperm whale fishery. Whaling agent Jonathan Bourne, Jr., among the most successful American whaling agents ever suggested that Nantucketers were nto as interested in right whaling as they were in sperm whaling. “We don’t think much of Sperm whalemen from Nantucket for the North whaling…” (Jonathan Bourne, Old Dartmouth Historical Society MSS 18, Letter book, 1858-1859, July 1, 1858).

Thomas Jefferson,

Frederick W. True, The Whalebone Whales of the Western North Atlantic…(Washington, 1904), p. 249.

Ibid., p. 78-79

Daniel C. Whitfield, journal kept onboard the bark Dr. Franklin of Westport, Massachusetts, 1856-1859. KWM #1033. Held at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Learning About Whales: From Challenging Research Comes Great Discoveries

The recent discovery of a new beaked whale species, one that was believed to be a variant of a previously described species, is a reminder that our understanding of cetaceans is still limited. Humans have revered whales, and hunted whales, for centuries. They’ve been woven into folklore and turned into a variety of products. But, they are difficult to study. They spend most of their lives below the ocean’s surface and don’t speak human. Conversely, we can’t hold our breath for very long and we don’t speak whale.  So, getting to know them well is a challenge.

Researchers have gotten creative and collaborative, developing satellite tags that attach via suction cup, using drones fitted with bridal veil to catch whale’s spray when they exhale, collecting and analyzing fecal matter and using DNA technology to confirm, or reclassify, the existence of a new species.  That is the case with the as yet unnamed new species of beaked whale. It has been interesting to periodically check in on the web site of the Society for Marine Mammalogy to see what they list as the number of whale, dolphin and porpoise species (about to become 90 again), and to read the logic regarding their decisions.

Here’s a quick peek into some other recent discoveries:

Cuvier's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Cuvier’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

The Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris) has the deepest dives (9816 feet (2992m) and 137.5 minutes) of any marine mammal. A team of researchers, led by Gregory Schorr of Cascadia Research Collectives, made this discovery in 2014 after sifting through 3,700 hours of data collected with satellite tags. (Gregory Schorr, PLOS One, March 2014).

Another species of beaked whale, now known as Deraniyagala’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon hotaula), was confirmed in 2014. This species was originally given this name in 1963, but was reclassified in 1965 as a gingko-toothed whale (Mesoplodon gingkodens). A review of DNA and physical characteristics, led by Dr. Merel Dalebout of Univ of New South Wales, Australia, led to the proper taxonomic recognition and placement of this species. (Merel Dalebout, Marine Mammal Science, February 2014).

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpback family. Illustration by Richard Ellis.

Humpbacks whales, arguably the most recognizable type of whale, are a global species. We now know that their cultural habits and migration patterns have led to genetic diversity. A team led by Dr. Scott Baker from Oregon State examined 2200 biopsy samples of North Pacific humpbacks. Their research has determined that there are five distinct humpback whale populations in the North Pacific. This new information may prove critical when decisions are made regarding the level of protection these animals receive.  (Scott Baker, Marine Ecology – Progress Series, 2013).

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville's beaked whales.

Author with skulls of male and female Blainville’s beaked whales.

Whales are adaptable, intelligent animals.  One impressive example of this ability to adjust behavior to maximize survival is exhibited by the Blainville’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris).  In an effort to avoid predators like the orca, Blainville’s remain silent until they reach a depth of 560 ft (170m), at which point they will begin to communicate and echolocate to hunt. Orcas tend not to dive to these depths to find food. (Natacha Aguilar, Marine Mammal Science, July 2011)

Blainville's beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Blainville’s beaked whale. Illustration by Phil Coles.

Most of the recent discoveries of new cetacean species involve animals with teeth. The one exception is the Omura’s whale (Balaenoptera omurai), first classified in 2003. This whale was previously thought to be a variant of the Bryde’s whale (Balaenoptera edeni). It is definitely a distinct species. This National Geographic story provides some great photos and information about this whale. Featured in the article is Dr. Salvatore Cerchio who was a panelist here at the NBWM two weeks ago when we aired the film, Sonic Sea.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Photo of Echovenator skull. Photograph by Jonathan Geisler.

Along with this new knowledge of existing species, fossil species are being discovered on a regular basis. Two species of dolphin, Echovenator sandersi, (Morgan Churchill, Current Biology, 2016)  and Isthminia panamensis (Nick Pyenson, PeerJ, September 2015) have been unearthed and described.

An important transitional species, from 27 million years ago, that had both baleen and teeth, Sitsqwayk cornishorum (Carlos Mauricio Peredo, Papers in Paleontology, July 2016) adds to our understanding of the evolution of baleen whales. Lastly, a re-examination of a fossil skeleton found 90 years ago, has led to the introduction of a new genus, Albicetus, (white whale), into the sperm whale family tree. This whale lived between 5.3 and 23 million years ago.


New Bedford Harbor Towboats and the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger into New Bedford harbor.

Purrington & Russell show the island steamer Massachusetts towing the ship Niger past Clark’s Point lighthouse and into New Bedford harbor in 1847.

In the early scenes of the Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, Caleb Purrington and Benjamin Russell, ever the purveyors of the unique in their paintings of maritime scenes, show a whaler passing Clark’s Point lighthouse under tow of a sidewheel steamer. The whaler shown is the ship Niger of New Bedford flying the house-flag of Hathaway & Luce. Given the period in which the Panorama was painted, 1847-1848, this scene can only be meant to represent the successful return of the Niger from her maiden voyage.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

William Hathaway, Jr. and Matthew Luce of New Bedford managed a growing fleet of whalers in the late 1840s including the ship Niger, 434 tons, built to their order at Rochester, Mass. in 1844.

The steamer shown was the Nantucket Steamboat Company sidewheel steamer Massachusetts. The Massachusetts was a ferry built for the company in 1842 to run three days a week between the island and New Bedford. She remained in service until 1858, as was described as the finest vessel of her type in service. This is the only such painting documenting an island steamer towing a whaler into New Bedford harbor. That the steamers were employed as towboats is well documented, especially at Nantucket where the Massachusetts was employed towing whalers lodged in the floating dry-dock “camels” over the sandbar at the mouth of Nantucket Harbor. Other histories indicate that both the Massachusetts and the Telegraph, another ferry in the same service at the same time, earned extra money for company as towboats.[1] Later photographs show whalers being towed out of New Bedford harbor and barges and such being towed by tugs into the harbor. By the 1890s this was common practice. The bark Canton of New Bedford was towed out of the harbor in May of 1891 and back into the harbor when she arrived home in June of 1892 (ODHS #988).  For all of that, however, this image from the Panorama is unique.

One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke. A pioneer in coastwise towing, the "R. B. Forbes" was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss. – Erik Ronnberg

Another steamer appears in the early sequences of the Panorama and while it is prominently featured was not a steamer that saw regular use in New Bedford harbor. “One of the earliest steam tow boats built in the United States for coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was built in Boston by Otis Tufts for the Boston Board of Marine Underwriters, at the behest of Robert Bennet Forbes, for whom the vessel was named. The first iron-hull vessel built in Boston, she measured 320 tons. Her two Ericson screw propellers were driven by a pair of condensing engines, each with a bore of 36 inches and a 32-inch stroke.
A pioneer in coastwise towing, the R. B. Forbes was mainly used to tow newly-built sailing ships from New England shipyards to New York, where their owners would complete the fitting-out process and send them to sea. Unable to use her profitably to this end, the owners sold her, as did her subsequent owners. She was sold to the U.S. Navy in 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War. She was lost when she went aground on the coast of North Carolina, near the Hatteras Inlet on February 25, 1862, a total loss.”
 Erik Ronnberg, Curator of the Cape Ann Museum wrote the above text and it appears courtesy of the Cape Ann Museum

The Panorama towing scene offers a number of interesting points to consider. For instance, under what circumstances would a sailing ship need to be towed into the harbor? When was the steamer available? How much did it cost to employ the steamer? Some of this information is forthcoming, some of it isn’t. For instance, whaling merchant John Avery Parker kept account books that summarized each of his vessels’ voyages.

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846. KWM #A-163

Accounts for the 7th voyage of the ship Phenix of New Bedford managed by whaling agent John Avery Parker, 1846.
KWM #A-163

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

Detail from above summary voyage account noting the cost of employing a steamer to tow the ship Phenix into New Bedford.

In the summaries he breaks down standard outstanding costs like pilotage, wharfage, rolling and filling oil casks, night watching, etc. For a few of these voyages, “steamboat towing” is a cost listed. The cost in the mid-1840s for the use of a steamer for towing a ship “up the harbor” was about between $15.00 and $30.00 depending upon how far the vessel needed to be towed. Other times, although rarely, a vessel in distress would need to be towed. A good example is the story of the bark Courser. On September 8, 1869, the  Courser of New Bedford on her homeward passage sailed directly into a hurricane off Block Island, ran aground, and had put into Newport Harbor leaking so badly that teams of men from Newport needed to be put onboard to continuously man the pumps for three days. A steamboat was sent for and on September 11 the New Bedford, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamboat Company steam ferry Helen Augusta arrived in Newport from New Bedford to tow the Courser to her home port.[2] While the Courser is an extraordinary example, steamers most definitely had their place in lifesaving, wrecking, towing and other duties in addition to carrying passengers.

The majority of logbook entries for the final day or two of a homeward New Bedford voyage, however, end at or around Block Island, Nomans Island or Cuttyhunk when a Branch Pilot was taken up to guide the ship into New Bedford. As far as the log keeper was concerned, his responsibilities ended when the pilot took command of the ship and most logbooks go no further after the pilot come onboard.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen's Shipping List and Merchants' Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

This advertisement for New Bedford Port District Branch Pilots appeared frequently in th Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript newspaper in the 1840s.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing "Pilot takes a lunch - Whaleship BALTIC - May 23rd 1859" for an article "A Summer in New England" published in Harper's New Monthly Magazine in 1859.

Artist and journalist David Hunter Strother made this drawing “Pilot takes a lunch – Whaleship Baltic – May 23rd 1859,” showing the famous New Bedford Branch Pilot Ben Aken, for an article “A Summer in New England” published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1859. 2001.100.4630

Branch Pilots were highly skilled, licensed mariners whose job it was (in the case of the New Bedford Port District) to cruise the waters between Block Island and Nomans Island in order to provide services to inbound vessels. Another set of harbor pilots guided the outbound ships. Some of these pilots lived in New Bedford. Many of them made their homes on Cuttyhunk Island and others lived on Martha’s Vineyard and even on Noman’s Island. In 1847, inbound pilots charged $2.00 per foot of the length of the vessel being piloted. Ship captains were not obliged to take a pilot but such a choice had its own perils. In 1844, for instance, Captain Avery F. Parker of the ship Midas of New Bedford did not like the terms under which the pilot of the schooner Superior, who was not a licensed Branch Pilot, offered to guide the ship through Quicks Hole. He finally agreed to take the pilot as the weather was worsening. With the wind northeast (a head wind), the ship ran aground twice off Dumpling Rock on the outgoing tide and needed to be kedged off the rocks. The prevailing wind on Buzzards Bay is southwest, but the wind often shifts around to the north. A north wind is one of the primary conditions under which a sailing ship would need to be towed into the harbor in order to avoid the very sort of difficulties encountered by the Midas.

On a fair wind a ship could sail in under her own power and many did just that. One such example is that of the ship Milton of New Bedford that returned from a voyage to the Pacific Ocean in June of 1873. On the day of the final log entry, the wind, predictably, was west/southwest. They took a pilot off Cuttyhunk and “at ½ past 6 PM arrived alongside of the wharf, made fast and left.”[3]

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

William Bradford painted this view of a whaler approaching the Fairhaven wharves under sail in 1854. 1975.18

In most cases the final logbook/journal entry will indicate that the vessel has come to anchor off Clarks Point Lighthouse or Palmer’s Island. In some cases, like that of the Milton, the final entry makes mention of the vessel actually sailing to its berth at the wharf. Curiously, the Niger returned from her maiden voyage on November 29, 1847, a three-year sperm and right whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean. The final entry in the logbook indicates that the ship Niger sailed into the harbor with studdingsails set on a strong westerly wind.[4] This was about the same time that Purrington & Russell were painting the Panorama. Whether the scene shown is intended as a documentary illustration of actual events, or as a representative example of potential common activities, the Niger was not towed into the harbor by the Massachusetts in 1847.

"View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven." Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

“View of New Bedford. From the Fort near Fairhaven.”
Lithograph by Fitz Henry Lane, 1845. 1981.6

The Massachusetts itself appears in several other prints and paintings of the period. Fitz Henry Lane included a fine view of the Massachusetts as well as a whaler anchored off Palmer’s Island, in his 1845 lithograph “View of New Bedford from the Fort near Fairhaven.” In many ways, this view seems to capture much of the spirit of the later Panorama view of the harbor and perhaps it was for this very reason that Purrington and Russell chose to document the steamer in use as a towboat instead of simply as a vessel type to be seen in the harbor.

[1] Harry B. Turner, The Story of the Island Steamers (Nantucket, 1910), pp 22-28

[2] ODHS #1187

[3] ODHS #420

[4] NBWM #1279

Panorama Conservation Project Reveals Hidden Content.

One of the great treasures of the New Bedford Whaling Museum collection, Caleb P. Purrington and Benjamin Russell’s 1848 painting, Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World, is currently receiving conservation treatment. Concerns with the 1,285 foot long painting include flaking paint, wrinkling and tears in the fabric. The entire composition consisting of tempera on cotton sheeting, even after being bundled around from city to city 150 years ago, remains in a remarkable state of preservation. It  is nonetheless in need of attention. The painting is stored on rolls, as it was originally, and abrasion has caused some paint loss. For its treatment, the painting has been separated into a series of padded spools. One at a time, the spools are mounted on a custom-fabricated steel table outfitted with cogs, cranks, swivels and other apparatus necessary to maneuver the giant paintings safely and effectively. Its location in the Bourne Building, just adjacent to the model whaling bark Lagoda, gives visitors the opportunity to witness the ongoing treatment firsthand. One goal of the treatment is to minimize the loss of paint as it flakes away from the cotton sheeting. Using a combination of liquid spray consolidates and targeted forensic triage the conservators are systematically stabilizing this important artifact of American maritime history. Another goal is to repair any damage to the fabric.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

Conservator Jordan Berson at work with a dahlia sprayer humidifying the cotton substrate and fixing the pigments in place.

One ten foot section of the Panorama is treated weekly to consolidate the fragile and powdered paint layer, in order to prevent it from falling off the cotton substrate. First, the section is examined for minute particles on the surface that are carefully  removed with tweezers. Particulate commonly found are lint, human hairs, dirt and other debris. Once the surface is free of such materials, the section is sprayed with a superfine mist of weak-gelatin solution from a dahlia-sprayer. The solution (.75% conservation grade gelatin in deionized water) serves a dual purpose: as an fixative for the powdering paint, and to humidify the cotton sheeting substrate and reduce wrinkling. 

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores. Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

The Panorama unrolled to the section showing Horta, Fayal in the Azores.
Photo by Melanie Correia, July 15, 2015

While the conservators examine and treat the painting for its forensic issues, the curators and historians seize the opportunity, while the painting is flat on its bed, to examine the great whaling document for the details of its content; and this painting is replete with fascinating historical details. Everything from flags to geography, to the rigs of ships and boats, is documented in varying degrees of detail and accuracy. Benjamin Russell (1804-1885) was a self-trained artist and himself a whaleman. He is a fascinating figure in New Bedford history. As a young man his prospects were great. His family were successful merchants and he sat on the board of directors of the newly formed Marine Bank. The national banking crisis precipitated by the Andrew Jackson administration, however, caused a constriction of credit and Russell’s assets were insufficient to cover his debts. So, like many in desperate straits, he sought his future at sea and went a’whaling. He sailed on at least one whaling voyage onboard the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford, a sperm and right whaling cruise to the Indian Ocean and the Northwest Coast of North America, 1841-1845. While on the voyage he is said to have kept a sketchbook to record the exciting events and scenes of the hunt intending to use the experience to further his career as a whaling artist. By the 1860s he had firmly established himself in New Bedford and was working as a ship portraitist and print maker, but after he had returned from his whaling voyage he and local sign painter Caleb Purrington (1812-1876) undertook this traveling panorama picture show to take whaling to a broader American audience.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer take a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping shown in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

Senior Maritime Historian, Michael P. Dyer takes a break from writing his notes about the details of Purrington and Russell’s shipping in the harbor at Horta, Fayal to discuss the project with visitors.

For anyone interested in whaling history and especially for those conversant with the  limited quantity of published American artistic production documenting the whale fishery of the 19th century, any picture offering details of the period of the 1840s is naturally of great interest. The panorama, however, was never meant to be studied as a fine work of art. It was meant to be viewed by a mass audience from a certain distance; hence the artists emphasized broad details for maximum impact and painted the rest with just enough definition to be seen and understood by the audience but not to be examined in detail. Several good examples demonstrate their working style in the creation of this painting where scenes are included but are later painted out entirely or changed significantly.

For instance, as the voyage leaves the Azores, actual whaling begins as sperm whales are seen, boats are lowered and the chase is on.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination.

This section of the painting showing ships and boats engaged in sperm whaling was extensively reworked and many of the changes are visible through close examination. These include the house flag at the top of main mast (the tall one in the middle), the set of the sails, and a large-scale sperm whaling scene, barely visible and easily overlooked.

However, the artists, probably Russell himself, were not content with the scene as it was originally drawn. The sails of the ship, which is shown hove-to with its main topsails and topgallant sails aback, indicate that the wind is blowing from one direction. The American ensign and the house flag at the main also show that wind direction. The original house flag flying from the top of the main mast was originally painted flying the wrong direction and was later painted out completely. Not only was it flying the wrong direction, but the entire design of the flag was changed. It appears that originally, the house flag could have been that of T. & A.R. Nye, it being a blue swallowtail with white lettering, but it was changed to a completely non-descript and unidentifiable design.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

This detail photograph of the house flag from the above view clearly shows that both the direction and the design of the house flag were completely changed. The faint outline of a blue swallowtail flag with white lettering is visible to the right, while the newly painted flag to the left is unidentifiable.

Likewise, the artists changed the foresail which, originally shown as being set, is shown clewed up. This presumably reflects Russell’s practical experience as a sailor and a whaleman, where “having determined from the known quality of the ship, what sail would be best to heave-to under,” Russell made the changes that he thought necessary.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

Note the faint outline that shows the foresail had originally been painted as being set. In the final view it is clewed up.

The artists made other changes in this scene as well. Whether the pictures did not effectively mirror the accompanying narrative or vice versa, that the painting was not following the narrative, the artists eliminated and changed two sperm whaling scenes. It may well be that the painting and the narrative were in a state of creative evolution together and that the artists were making it up as they went along in order to produce a better product in the end. In the below scene, as it was originally painted, a whaleboat is shown on the flank of a very large sperm whale which has been lanced and as shown by its bloody spout, is dying. This could have been the point in the narrative where Russell describes the whaleman’s language “his chimney’s a’fire,” to indicate a whale that has received its death wound.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

Whether the artists simply were not ready to talk about the killing and processing of a sperm whale at this stage in their narrative is speculation, but for some reason they chose to paint out this sperm whaling scene.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene and leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the below scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

A few scenes on, they did it again, painting out an entire sperm whaling scene leaving another in its place. Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Note the faint view of the men in a whaleboat in the above scene along with the even more faint outline of the flukes of a sounding whale just above them.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

Above is a detail of the sperm whaling scene that they left in place. It shows a whaleboat going “head and head” onto a sperm whale, meaning that the boat is approaching the whale from the front as opposed to the flank. Such details as this helped the narrator to tell the story well and to demonstrate some of the techniques that American whaleman had mastered over the 100 years of their sperm whaling experience.

As the process of conservation on the Panorama goes forward, doubtless many more new observations will come to the fore regarding the process of its creation. Such observations will fill gaps in the sparse historical record of the Panorama and make for an exciting new narrative about it and its place in American whaling history.


William Brady, The Kedge-Anchor; or, Young Sailors’ Assistant (New York, 1850), p.173, entry #308.

Whale Waste Does Not Go To Waste

An evocative and informative video clip, posted by Sustainable Human, complete with stunning footage of humpback whales, has been released to laud the biological benefits of whale waste. The key point is that as whales release their waste, the iron in their fecal matter spurs the photosynthesis performed by phytoplankton. This phytoplankton is food for zooplankton and other filter feeders. The phytoplankton also traps carbon dioxide. If those phytoplankters die, they sink to the bottom thus removing the CO2 from circulation.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

Humpback whales feeding at the surface. Photo courtesy of Whale and Dolphin Coservation, taken by Karolina Jasinska.

This video introduces the story in an eye-catching manner. Robert Krulwich, co-host of NPR’s RadioLab, then does a great job of elaborating on the concept of whale feces providing the iron necessary to support this phytoplankton that generate much of the energy at the beginning of marine food webs. He also gives credit to Dr. Victor Smetacek from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research for first considering the connection between an iron-poor environment like the Antarctic and the enormous animals that were successful in finding ample food supplies in such a contradictory environment.

The connections between organisms are more complex than simple food chains, even though it is certainly much easier to explain the relationships as linear patterns.  Phytoplankton are eaten by more than 80 species of krill, 15,000+ species of copepod, thousands of species of fish, many of the shellfish we eat, and countless other species.  These food webs are the most robust when all levels, especially those considered to be the top of these trophic relationships are allowed to flourish. Removing something as significant as whales not only changes the dynamics within ocean ecosystems, it creates changes that belie our expectations.

New Bedford Armory History

The Building of the New Bedford Armory, 1898-1904

by Arthur P. Motta, Jr.

In chess, the rook is shaped like a castle and is a potent player on the board.  Moved in conjunction with the king, the rook executes a unique defensive maneuver called castling, the only time in which two pieces may be moved in one turn. Skilled players have used castling to facilitate the balance of offensive and defensive advantages. Indeed, the lengthy dispute about where to build the New Bedford Armory resembled a chess game, the city grid its chessboard, with Mayor Charles S. Ashley and Armory Commissioner George Howland Cox, the well matched players.
From the start, the armory project was contentious and the intense debate it generated illustrates the tidal influences of politics and the press on public policy and urban design. Ashley and Cox’s very public chess match ultimately ended after many compromises but in a clear win for the Mayor. He celebrated that victory just as publicly on May 5, 1904 along with thousands of citizens attending perhaps the grandest dedication of a public building in city history. The armory remains one of New Bedford’s largest and most elaborate public buildings.

City leaders initiate the armory project
In 1898, Lieutenant G. N. Gardiner, a member of the Common Council argued that the city should take its place among the leading urban centers of America and build a proper armory for the local militia, the New Bedford City Guards. His call came as unrest among mill operatives was growing over an impending 10 percent pay cut announced by several textile mill owners. A large strike took place early in that year, which succeeded in shutting down the mills for a time – a prelude to the devastating Strike of 1928. Although the 1898 strike eventually collapsed in the spring, it was not before violence and vandalism required Mayor Ashley to call on the Guards, local and state police to provide protection for the mills. It was clear then that if the situation spiraled out of control city forces could be overwhelmed by the mill operatives, which numbered more than 10,000 in 1898.
Established in 1852, the New Bedford City Guards were then headquartered in Mechanics’ Hall (now site of the Duff Building) at City Hall Square. The Guards became part of E Battery, 1st Massachusetts Heavy Artillery in 1898. Councillor Gardiner, a member of E Battery, continued to advocate for an armory for three years. With the support of Mayor Ashley, Gardiner put forward a motion to provide the money necessary to begin the work. On July 18, 1901, the City Council designated $125,000 in the amount of a loan in order to acquire land and build an armory. The loan was executed under the provision of the Commonwealth’s Acts of 1888, which dealt with the establishment of state armories. The Evening Standard detailed the financing:

“After the city has designated the sum of money it is willing to spend on an armory, the state issues 30 year bonds for this amount. The city must pay not only the interest on these bonds, but also the sinking fund; in other words, the cost of the armory and land falls wholly on the city. The armory is under the control of the state authorities; the state is not required to pay rent for the occupancy of it, but does stand the expense of the care, furnishing and repairs. – Editor of Standard.” (Feb. 15, 1902).

Armory site, design, and price tag generates controversy

Mayor Chas. S. Ashley

Mayor Chas. S. Ashley

Several sites around the city were considered and debate about which location would be the best was an ongoing topic in the press. From the start, Mayor Ashley was unwavering in his choice for the armory site: Sycamore and Pleasant Streets. Ashley wanted to see the center of the city expand north, just as the burgeoning city was expanding northward. He envisioned an opportunity to aggrandize the skyline with the turrets and towers of a great castle high on the hill. Passengers alighting from trains at Pearl Street Station would behold an urban horizon resplendent with a multitude of church spires, lofty mansions and fine public buildings. To this end, Ashley wanted New Bedford’s armory to be the envy of all others in the state, both in size and splendor. Indeed, the massive project required additional infusions of cash by the city. On June 26, 1902, the Council voted on additional $38,000, and again on January 14, 1904 another $15,000, making the total amount $178,000.

 This 1895 map shows the future armory's location in relation to Wamsutta Mills and the Pearl Street Station, with reconnaissance views of the downtown & harbor.

This 1895 map shows the future armory’s location in relation to Wamsutta Mills and the Pearl Street Station, with reconnaissance views of the downtown & harbor.

Pursuant to the Act of 1888, all existing and proposed armories came under the jurisdiction of the State Armory Commission. Nine armories had been built under the Act, and New Bedford was to be the tenth. At the time, the Commission consisted of three members appointed by the governor: Mr. Joseph N. Peterson (of Salem) was Chairman; Adjutant General Samuel Dalton (of Boston), and General Josiah Pickett (of Worcester). Governor W. Murray Crane, a Republican, appointed an additional member, George Howland Cox of Cambridge in 1902.

Geo. Howland Cox

Geo. Howland Cox

Long the chairman of the Cambridge Park Board, Cox came to New Bedford with definite views about where to locate the armory to best effect. His interest in New Bedford went deeper than the other commissioners. Born in Fairhaven in 1854, his mother was Mercy Nye Howland. Cox married Ella P. Wittermore in New Bedford in 1877. Cox attended West Point, and though he did not graduate, his military demeanor never ceased. An engineer for 27 years with the Calumet & Hecla Mining Co., based in Boston, Cox transitioned to finance, becoming president of the Cambridge Trust Company, where he was known to stand in the center of the bank lobby and bellow orders at clerks and customers alike. His disregard for Mayor Ashley’s ideas and authority immediately generated tensions that the press eagerly reported. Under the headline, “Armory Site Becoming a Political Issue,” the Boston Globe reported, “Mr. Cox, the friends of Mayor Ashley say, arrived with some preconceived ideas concerning the Mayor. One was, they say, a belief on the part of Mr. Cox that the mayor represents the people, but not the heaviest taxpayers. Mr. Cox, they say, has taken his suggestions from the mayor’s opponents.” (February 16, 1902). This was a reference to Cox’s first choice for the location of the armory: the foot of William Street, which included the Double

The Double Bank Building, foot of William Street

The Double Bank Building, foot of William Street (photo: Arthur Motta)

Bank Building and the entire block between Rodman and Hamilton Streets, running east to the water’s edge The Double Bank Building still stands today as the former Fishermen’s Pension Trust, now J.J. Best Banc. & Company. The Double Bank’s directors and abutters (Geo. F. Barrett and the Knowles estate) sent a petition urging the selection of this site. Their asking price was the limit allowed for the purchase of land for the project: $20,000. In 1902, the Water Street commercial district was showing its age. Other financial houses were moving up the hill. The New Bedford Institution for Savings had vacated 33 William Street for its gleaming new temple at Union and Purchase a few years earlier. The directors were part of the old establishment and they resented the Mayor’s opposition to their desire for a profitable exit. Critics of the Mayor suggested that his advocacy of Sycamore & Pleasant was personally motivated as it was in his neighborhood; Ashley’s residence at 91 State Street was just a block west of the site he wanted for the armory.

The Mayor’s location satisfied another aim: deterrence. The armory’s main tower would overlook the city’s largest mill, Wamsutta. Thousands of mill operatives coming and going each day from the Wamsutta Street gates would look up at the hillside fortress and be reminded of the power of the state.

Contemporary view from the Armory tower looking northeast to Wamsutta Mills (photo: Arthur Motta 2007)

Looking northeast to Wamsutta Mills from the main tower. (photo: Arthur Motta, 2007)

It did not go unnoticed at City Hall that Cox’s ties to Beacon Hill helped garner him the armory commission appointment and provided him with a stipend to be paid from the city’s armory budget. Cox’s ties were again evident when the commission chose Olin W. Cutter, a Boston architect to design the armory. Cutter had recently designed the Registry of Deeds and Probate Court at East Cambridge (1897), the Middlesex County Courthouse at Lowell (1899), and supervised the building of Boston’s Irvington Street Armory.

A grand fortress for the city is advocated
Undaunted, Mayor Ashley pursued the architect, providing ideas for a grand edifice at Sycamore and Pleasant. Thus, Cutter’s initial design called for an elaborate fortress featuring double turrets and multiple elements of medieval architecture, including bartizans, crenellated battlements and macholated towers. Indeed, the New Bedford armory had all the features similar to castles such as the Chateau de Pierrefonds in France.

The New Bedford Armory's original plan by Olin Cutter

The New Bedford Armory’s original plan by Olin Cutter

On the design, The New Bedford Mercury reported that the armory “will be one of the handsomest in the state; one much more attractive in appearance than the Fall River armory, which has commanded no little praise. …The plan calls for a building of stone with rock-faced finish, the walls being crowned with battlements and surrounded by graceful conical-roofed towers. The general effect is that of a castle in feudal times.” (Feb. 6, 1902). Pleased with his labor, Cutter commented that the Sycamore & Pleasant site would be “capable of better treatment, architecturally.”

But the ornate design gained little appreciation from the Boston-based Armory Commission. Many in New Bedford suspected the Commission’s lack of enthusiasm was borne of a desire that the capitol city’s armories not be bested. While reviewing Cutter’s ornate plan, Adjutant General Dalton quipped to the press, “What would happen the first time a mob got a piece of artillery or fired a piece of railroad iron up on the roof… An armory is intended to be a practical structure, for use in time of trouble, just as the militia companies are.” (Feb. 11, 1902).  In response, the Evening Standard editorialized:

““One can but feel a touch of regret at Adjutant General Dalton’s unappreciative question, “What are those things on top of that building?” referring to the ornate plan of an armory which has had some publicity in New Bedford, and his curt remark that “if military requirements have anything to do with this plan, they will have to go.”  What was wanted was a triumph of architecture; not less, but more. If the architect failed in his drawing anywhere, he failed in luxuriance. Adjutant General Dalton may not know it, but an armory is wanted as an ornament to the city…” (February 13, 1902)

The editorial neglected to consider Dalton’s lengthy military career, which began before the Civil War with the 14th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, and later with the 1st Regiment, Heavy Artillery. Dalton’s mob-scenario stemmed from his knowledge of the murderous draft riots of 1863 in New York and Boston, during which armed mobs attacked the armories in both those cities in revolt over President Lincoln’s Enrollment Act in March of that year. Indeed, the Railroad Strike of 1877 and the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886 fueled national fears of class warfare and advanced efforts to erect armories in all the major cities.

Mayor Ashley's site required an unusual perpendicular plan

Mayor Ashley’s site required an unusual perpendicular plan

Cox supported Dalton’s remarks, pointing out that the Mayor’s site (two lots perpendicular to each other), would require the massive drill shed be built perpendicular to the castle structure, called the Head House. Standard armory plans called for the drill shed to be parallel and directly behind the head house. Mayor Ashley countered that Sycamore and Pleasant (known as the Humphrey-Mason lots) could be had for $5000 less than the Double Bank Building site. Not to be put off, Cox argued, “I believe when it comes to contracting for a building, it will be found that the value of the stone in the two big stone buildings [will be] perfectly adaptable for head house walls, [and] will more than offset the difference in the cost of the lots. If the city will throw out those two sidewalks adjoining the lot, it will be amply large for an armory.” (Eve. Standard, Feb. 12, 1902). The mayor seized upon Cox’s admission that the sidewalks would have to go and immediately contacted the Standard to expose the flaw. In the paper’s editorial column the next day, it blasted Cox’s ideas as “absurd” and chided the out-of-towner for his presumptuous attitude in attempting to redesign New Bedford’s downtown: “Mr. Cox assumes too much when he incorporates in his scheme a library or a High School at ‘the other end of the vista.’ …Finally the city authorities will never, we trust, narrow the streets by discontinuing the sidewalks on either side of the lot.”

An alternative armory design for the bridge site

An alternative armory design for the bridge site

Cox was not deterred. He continued to argue that an armory at the foot of William would be the logical site for an armory that was to be larger than most as not only E Battery, but also Naval Company G would occupy it, and its adjacency to the water would be an important asset. Indeed, a massive building was being planned to accommodate four companies, but the paper’s admonishment and public opinion forced Cox to concede. When the Armory Commission presented its final report on potential sites to Governor Crane on February 26, 1902, it bowed to public opinion and dropped the William Street site. But Cox announced that his second choice was yet another waterfront location, called the Bridge Site, at the western end of the New Bedford/Fairhaven Bridge.

Local detractors dubbed Cox’s new choice the Ark Lane Site, for its proximity to an old lane which ran east from Second Street to the water, so named for the Ark, a derelict whaleship which in the early days of whaling had become a particularly infamous house of ill repute, and was finally burned by the townspeople in 1829. Cox instructed Cutter to draw up an armory plan for this site, which would address all the concerns expressed by Dalton regarding the Mayor’s plan.

The 'Parker's Block' site adjacent the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge

The ‘Parker’s Block’ site adjacent the New Bedford-Fairhaven Bridge

The bridge site, also known as Parkers Block, consisted of serveral private owners, including the city, where the Water Works Department kept a work shed and pipe stockpile. To make the site a more attractive alternative to the mayor’s site, Cox proposed creating a park along the south side of the armory to serve as verdent entrance to the city at the New Bedford Fairhaven Bridge. Using the Mayor’s strategy, Cox provided the new proposal to the press. The new plan showed the head house facing west on Second Street with the drill shed behind it reaching east to Water Street and a park spanning south to Middle Street.

The new armory plan’s more modern treatment discarded much of the medieval ornament of the mayor’s vision. It also took some inspiration from the Worcester Armory, no doubt to attract the vote of Commissioner General Pickett of that city. But Pickett was less concerned with the myriad details, so long as A. J. Bishop Company of Worcester and Providence was in the running to be the contractor. Bishop built Pickett’s armory in 1895.

Other locations were also being discussed. They included the Brownell & Ashley lot (Acushnet Ave., Spring & Fourth Streets), the McCullough lot (Acushnet Ave., Maxfield & Purchase), the First Street site (First & Spring Streets), and the Eliot Estate lot (between Court and Union).

The Bridge Site was discarded but Bridge Park became a reality

The Bridge Site was discarded but Bridge Park became a reality

Throughout the controversial debate, Mayor Ashley remained steadfast in his advocacy for the Sycamore & Pleasant Street site and was ultimately victorious. The Boston Herald wrote “This will make another attractive public building for New Bedford, and will redound to the credit of Mayor Ashley, who stubbornly fought for the present excellent site, against heavy odds.” (Morning Mercury, March 14, 1904). However, Adjutant General Dalton’s call for less ornamentation was addressed in the final plan for the armory, in which the turrets with their conical roofs were discarded. As for Cox’s many creative suggestions in urban design, Mayor Ashley and his city planners took note. Bridge Park at the western approach to the bridge became and reality as did the building in 1913 of a new high school at the head of William Street.

The Commonwealth began its official occupancy of the armory on Thursday, March 10, 1904; just six weeks after President Theodore Roosevelt signed into law the Dick Act, which created a truly National Guard. Named for Senator Charles Dick, the legislation replaced the antiquated Militia Act of 1792 and declared the National Guard as the Army’s primary organized reserve.

A grand dedication
The completed building was an object of great civic pride. Built as a defensible battalion armory, it was constructed of the most durable materials. The rusticated exterior was of native granite, some of which (it was reported) was mined from the ledge upon which the armory stands. The elaborate woodwork and wainscoting were of solid cypress, and the staircases were of maple. All of the custom furniture was of quartered oak. The commanders’ offices featured massive hearths, typical of a medieval castle. With an area of 12,876 square feet, the drill hall to this day remains the largest uninterrupted floor space in the city.

The Drill Hall decorated for the Armory Dedication, May 5, 1904.

The Drill Hall decorated for the Armory Dedication, May 5, 1904. With an area of 12,876 sq. ft. it remains the largest uninterrupted floor space in the city.

The May 5th dedication was the social event of 1904. More than 2000 participated in the celebration, which included Governor John Bates and the top-ranking military officers in New England. The Mercury counted “more than 100 officers of high rank, and the gold lace was so plentiful that eyes were dazzled by the brilliancy of the spectacle.” The evening celebration included opening ceremonies, a concert by Clarke’s Providence Band, elaborate refreshments throughout the upstairs rooms and a huge dance, which went on until two o’clock in the morning. At 8: 00 p.m., Governor Bates, who spent some of his boyhood years in the city, arrived amid great fanfare at the drill hall, which was festooned with hundreds of red, white and blue buntings.

The Governor, Mayor Ashley and their wives, led a grand promenade of 320 couples around the periphery of the hall. The following morning, the Mercury reported that the affair was “perhaps the most picturesque dance that has ever been given in the city. It was certainly the largest social event that has been held here, and the capacity of the huge drill hall was taxed… Not for years has the rattle of cab-horse hoofs so disturbed the early morning hours in New Bedford as at 2 a.m. today, when those who aided in making the dedication of the new state armory a success, began turning homeward.” (May 6, 1904).



The Armory’s main tower overlooks Wamsutta Mills and the full expanse of New Bedford habor (photo: Arthur Motta)

In his 1989 book, America’s Armories, historian Robert Fogelson wrote that these modern-day castles were “supposed to stand as a symbol of authority, of the overwhelming power of the state, of its determination to maintain order and, if need be, its readiness to use force.”

Twenty-four years after its dedication, the armory would play an important role in the state’s display of overwhelming power in the suppression of picketers during the violent textile strikes of 1928, in which the Riot Act was read aloud for the first time in the city by the New Bedford Chief of Police to warrant mass arrests. In his book, “The Strike of 1928” Daniel Georgianna relates how Battery F of the National Guard was not called upon during the July confrontations as many of its members had friends and family among the strikers. (p. 107).

Sally port of the Armory Drill Hall, Purchase Street

Sally port of the Armory Drill Hall, Purchase Street (photo: Arthur Motta)

The close of 2004 marked a poignant anniversary during the Armory’s centenary year.  The Massachusetts National Guard vacated it for more efficient quarters, clearing its rooms of all contents, including artifacts related to New Bedford history. The Commonwealth intended to sell the city landmark to the highest bidder, without restriction and with no public input on its future use or impact on the neighborhood. For many years the National Guard allowed community events to take place in the Drill Hall. Public calls of concern over the loss of the largest indoor public assembly space in the city prompted officials to remove it from auction block. Unfortunately, poor security thereafter invited repeated vandalism, and finally, arson. The head house sustained severe fire and water damage in March 2009. The drill house was unharmed but the site continues to await a restoration and adaptive reuse plan. A city convention hall is one of the proposed uses.


Chronology of Battery “E” Regiment, Heavy Artillery, Massachusetts Volunteer Militia (formerly the New Bedford City Guards)

1852 – Organized as the New Bedford Guards on July 22nd, 1852, George A. Bourne, Chairman.
1861 – Entered U.S. Service as Co. “L” 3d Mass. Infantry., April 17th, 1861.
1862 – Mustered out, May 28th, 1862. Re-entered U.S. as Co. “E” 3d Mass. Inf., Sept. 18th, 1862.
1863 – Mustered out, June 26th, 1863.
1898 – Re-entered U.S. Service as Battery “E.” 1st Mass. H.A., April 26, 1898. Mustered out, November 14th, 1898. Complimented by Col. Carl A. Woodruff, A.C., U.S.A., commanding officer at Fort Warren, for efficiency and soldierly conduct.

Note – New Bedford ranked with the best companies of the Commonwealth in rifle work & marksmanship: Awarded 14 state and regimental trophies, and 7 silver cups (1852-1904).

Roster of the first company of Battery E to occupy the New Bedford Armory
Capt. Joseph L. Gibbs, 1st Lieut. John C. De Wolf, 2d Lieut. Ernest L. Snell, 1st Sergt. Ernest L. Soule, Q. M. Sergt. Edward K. McIntyre, Sergeants: Wm. Nelson, Harry C. Ellis, Frederick Perry, Wm. Stitt. Corporals: John J. Miller, Alfred Fredette, Richard E. Noyer, Burton G. Davoll, Thomas A. Loftus. Cook: Charles E. Duchesney. Bugler: William J. Moore. Privates: David Adams, Alexander J. Aiken, Eugene Barneby, Arthur H. Benoit, Max F. Boehler, James A. Brown, Henry Butts, Henry C. Campbell, Geo. F. Chadwick, Sam Cooper, Napoleon Desjardins, Edward E. Devoll, James Dodds, James Doran, Wm. F. Farrell, Joseph A. Fernandes, Hector S. Floret, Frank Francis, Bartholomew P. Fury, Joseph R. Girard, William Gray, James Harrison, Solomon C. Haskell, Patrick M. Haugey, Ernest Hegele, Harry A. Jameson, Sr., John F. Johnson,  Dennis Kelley, Thomas J. Kelley, Wm. F. McClure, Luc Moquin, E. Lloyd Munroe, Guy L. Murdock, Wm. T. Meagher, Lewis S. Moore, Nelson  Paradise, John B. Perry, Phillip A. Powers, Albert  Reeves, Edward J. Rourk, Herbert L. Rush, Wm. E. Russell, Freeman S. Ryonson , Gilbert G. Southworth, William Southworth, John A. Stitt, James F. Vera.

Armory head house entrance, Sycamore Street (photo: Arthur Motta, 2004)

Armory head house entrance, Sycamore Street (photo: Arthur Motta, 2004)

Boston Globe, “Armory Site Becoming a Political Issue”, February 16, 1902.
Boston Globe, “State to eye armories for a care crisis,” December 30, 2005.
Boston Herald, “Controversy over site for New Bedford’s new armory”, March 6, 1902.
Massachusetts Division of Capital Assets Management
Fogelson, Robert M., “America’s Armories; Architecture, Society and Public Order”, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Georgianna, Daniel. “The Strike of 1928”,New Bedford, Mass.: Spinner Publications, 1993.
Massachusetts Army National Guard Facilities Integrated Cultural Resource Management Plan (ICRMP) Statewide, Massachusetts, 2001-2002.
MassDevelopment Annual Report FY2008
Mayor Chas. S. Ashley scrapbooks collection, New Bedford Free Public Library
New Bedford Economic Development Council Annual Report 2013
New Bedford Evening Standard – microfiche
New Bedford Mercury – microfiche
New Bedford Standard-Times – microfiche

Matthew and Rachel Howland

UMASS Amherst Emily Esten has just completed another project in the Research Library. This time Emily worked on Manuscript Collection #135 (Mss 135) and produced a full finding aid in addition to her reflections below:

Matthew and Rachel Howland were the power couple of 19th century New Bedford: Matthew, co-owner of George Howland & Sons, worked diligently to make the family whaling business a success. While his brother, George, was the face of the business, Matthew monitored the fitting and repair of all the vessels, the sale of oil in foreign ports, the running of the candle-making factory and the hiring of captains and crews. His wife, Rachel, stood as “queen of New Bedford society,” serving as a minister in the Society of Friends for over 50 years and donating to the city of New Bedford through multiple acts of philanthropy. As an activist, Rachel founded multiple institutions for the betterment of society – the Ladies City Mission Society (1868), Association for the Relief of Aged Women (1866), Children’s Aid Society (1891) were just some of the contributions. She was an important individual in the abolitionist movement on a local, regional, and national scale.

Though the collection gives no information on how they met, it does contain the beginning of their relationship. From 1840 to 1842, Matthew sent multiple letters to Rachel, who lived in Burlington, New Jersey. The first letter, written November 20, 1840, appears to be in response to one of Rachel’s. Though not explicitly stated, one can infer that Matthew had proposed a courtship correspondence with her, which she turns down in favor of “at least another year must pass away without further communication.” Matthew, obviously hurt by this, professes his love and his promise to wait for her.

His regular correspondence, however, begins in 1841, waiting the appropriate amount of time before apologizing for the previous letter and asking Rachel to burn it. His letters then go onto detail his life as he takes on responsibility within George Howland and Sons, and the Society of Friends’ meetings he attends.

Several visits are made by Matthew to Rachel’s home of West Hill. It appears they refer to the manor house as “the asylum,” though no explanation is given as to why. Though the collection lacks Rachel’s side of the correspondence, we can infer that her feelings do change for Matthew, as he changes his salutation from “Esteemed Friend” to “My Dearest Chelly” in a letter dated October 1841. We also learn some of Rachel’s fears in marrying Matthew – primarily, the fear of leaving her entire life behind in New Jersey for the “strange land” of New Bedford. Matthew reassures her that he will do as much as possible to make her feel at home here once they are to be married.

Their engagement begins in January of 1842, though it is not official until Matthew’s uncle Isaac sends his approval for the marriage a month later. Very little is stated about the marriage itself, but primarily focuses on events near the chosen date – specifically, Matthew’s excitement of a trip to Niagara with friends Samuel and Sarah.

For an unknown reason, Rachel requested to delay their marriage until September. (One can assume that Michael’s responsibilities in New Bedford, which had significantly increased, were taking a significant amount of time.) Matthew agrees to this request somewhat reluctantly, as it means they cannot attend an event in Niagara. The date September 8th is mentioned as the future date for marriage. Though the letters end in August, records elsewhere indicate that the couple did indeed get married on that date. The final letter of correspondence from October 1847 refers to Rachel as his wife, mentions their daughter Susy [Susanna], and is signed “thy sincerely attached + loving husband.”

The Howlands were major players in New Bedford’s economic and social scene, and their story starts right here – in Mss 135. Matthew’s letters to his future wife preserve a story of friendship, of love, and most importantly, of ambition.

If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this manuscript collection, please call Mark Procknik at the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.

Walter Magnus Teller Collection

Emily Esten from UMASS Amherst is currently interning in the Museum’s Research Library. Her first project centered around Manuscript Collection #131 (Mss 131) with a complete finding aid serving as the finished product. Below are Emily’s reflections on her first completed project:

Essentially, Mss 131 is a collection called the Teller Papers, a gift from Dr. Walter Magnes Teller that consists of correspondence and research materials from his work on studying Joshua Slocum. The collection was assessed in 1989, but a proper finding aid didn’t exist. That was my assignment: create the finding aid.

Joshua Slocum is an interesting character – born Canadian in a small town of Nova Scotia, later became an American citizen, and managed to make many impressive sea voyages, the most notable being his solo voyage around the world. The sloop he used for that particular voyage, the Spray, was given to him during his stay in Fairhaven, Mass. Slocum mysteriously disappeared while on his way to the West Indies. Teller wrote two books on Slocum: The Search for Joshua Slocum in 1959, and The Voyages of Joshua Slocum in 1971.

The collection includes a wide array of documents – over one-third of the collection is correspondence, but it also includes photos, a draft of a script for a movie of Slocum’s life, and photostats of original Slocum letters. It’s divided up into three separate sections: Correspondence, Research Materials, and Additional Teller Publications and Materials.

I found lots of interesting items in this collection – here were some of my favorites:

  • A handwriting analysis report of one of Slocum’s letters, 1954 (I don’t remember the results of this report, but it reminded me of the fact that a biographer needs to go through literally EVERYTHING in order to get a good idea of who the individual was.)
  • A draft of the speech Teller gave at the Fairhaven plaque dedication ceremony, April 1959
  • Joshua Slocum stamps from Christmas Island, 1977 (You know you’ve made it when you’re on a stamp.)
  • Slocum’s marriage license to Virginia. (I’ve never seen a marriage license before, but the language used in it was a little frightening, to say the least.)
  • A copy of Canadian Geographic, 1980. (I didn’t realize the entire magazine would be in the folder – it had to be at least an inch thick!)
  • A letter from Teddy Roosevelt to Joshua Slocum (the two met on at least one occasion.)

The really interesting finds were in the newspapers. I spent several hours standing by the photocopier in order to make copies of newspaper clippings, since clippings are printed on paper that will quickly fade and fall apart. Clippings are difficult to decipher – sometimes, the particular article or picture was difficult to find, and so I had to scan the page and figure out its relevance to the topic at hand.

I also loved reading all the letters reading through the correspondence – some of it wasn’t so interesting (mostly the receipts), but a lot of them explained little details of Teller’s and Slocum’s life that couldn’t be expressed through basic records. Also, letters are rare gems in today’s technological environment (at least for me,) so being able to see the beautiful (and ugly) handwriting was very neat. By the end, I could recognize the author of some letters by their handwriting!

One of the last steps of the process was using the Library of Congress’s authority listing. Authority listings are similar to tagging things on Tumblr – it’s a way of organizing relevant topics of the finding aid. For example, in this finding aid, listings like “sailing,” “Spray (Sloop),” and “Smithsonian Archives,” are included.

Once I finished adding that into the XML coding, my supervisor posted it directly into the site so we could see if there were any issues. I’m not perfect – there were a few mistakes, as well as one really noticeable one, which had random commas in front a list of entries. Fortunately, this was a quick fix, and all that was left to do was add a link to the finding aid on the main page.

After all the computer stuff was all set, I put official labels on the boxes and placed the nine boxes back on the shelf, ready to move onto the next project.

Working with this collection was definitely a challenge – I had the inventory list to give me an idea of what should be found in these folders, but little guidance as to what to do with it. But as I’m starting to learn, that’s an archivist’s job – what to do with all this information.

Journal Kept Onboard the Whaleship Manhattan

Donated to the Research Library in 1983 by Mercator Cooper Kendrick, the journal kept on board the ship Manhattan’s 1843-1846 whaling voyage offers valuable first-hand documentation into an important and little-known chapter on American-Japanese relations. Captained by Mercator Cooper, the ship Manhattan shipped on only one whaling voyage out of Sag Harbor, New York, before joining the merchant service. At first glance, this journal contains the standard entries one expects from a typical whaling account, including weather descriptions, vessels spoken, and descriptions of whales seen and taken. However, the events of this voyage bear significance for not only scholars of American whaling and maritime history, but for a host of other researchers engaged in a wide variety of disciplines.

Beginning in 1633 under the Tokugawa Shogunate, a series of edicts and policies resulted in Japan adopting a firm isolationist stance in foreign affairs and strictly prohibited any foreigner entrance into the country. This Sakoku, or “chained-country” period, lasted until 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry forcibly opened Japan to western trade. The events of the Manhattan’s travels occurred within this historical context, beginning with a seemingly uneventful encounter in the Pacific Ocean sixteen months into her voyage.

On March 15, 1845, the Manhattan encountered eleven Japanese men marooned on a small island surviving only on rice and small amounts of water pilfered from the crevasses of several rocks along the shoreline. Captain Cooper decided to rescue these men before resuming his whaling voyage, an action that served as a harbinger to one of Sakoku Japan’s most significant American interactions.

One month after rescuing the stranded men, the Manhattan sailed into Edo, the modern-day city of Tokyo and Japan’s political center in 1845. The entry for April 18, 1845, describes 300 Japanese boats towing the Manhattan to a small bay south of Edo before encircling the whaleship. With the American vessel closely guarded, several Japanese boarded the ship and removed all firearms before members of the nobility performed personal inspections of the interior. The Manhattan left Japan four days later, but prior to her departure, the Japanese presented Captain Cooper and his crew with an array of gifts in the form of rice, wheat, flour, wood, sweet potatoes, radishes, chickens, and tea. The Emperor, via his Imperial delegates, conveyed his compliments to the captain for rescuing the stranded Japanese. However, after extending their sincere gratitude, Japanese isolationism prevailed, and the Emperor’s representatives instructed Captain Cooper to leave and never return.

One cannot overstate the importance of the Japanese-American interaction documented within the pages of this journal, but similar to other whaling accounts, observations of natural phenomena also litter the pages and offer valuable contributions to several different scholarly fields. While cruising through the Pacific, the Manhattan passed many instances of volcanic activity. Not only does this journal properly document each observation with the correct date and appropriate geographic coordinates, but the keeper even includes hand-drawn sketches of the eruptions, providing a valuable resource to the study of volcanology. This journal, complete with its rich multidisciplinary content, best exemplifies how each piece in the Library can appeal to a wide range of audiences.

The Research Library proudly boasts the largest collection of whaling logbooks and journals in the world, and the Manhattan journal represents only one example of the thousands of unique and interesting stories stored in the Library’s vaults. If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this whaling journal, Mercator Cooper’s manuscripts, or any other piece of the Library’s collection, please contact Mark Procknik in the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.

Cetaceans’ Salty Taste Buds

According to recent articles published by ScienceNOW and Smithsonian, researchers have discovered that the taste buds of cetaceans (whales, dolphins, porpoises) only sense salty flavors. The other receptors have been shut off or have mutated. Thus, they are likely not able to taste unnatural flavors in the water, such as toxins, which are often bitter.  As the ScienceNOW article points out, and we emphasize here when discussing how cetaceans eat, these animals swallow their food whole, thus eliminating much of the need to taste the food.

The two articles referenced above are based on research published in Genome Biology and Evolution. Zoologist Huabin Zhao of Wuhan University in China led the study.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.

Illustration of Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), including detail of tongue and baleen. Ca. 1830, from NBWM Kendall collection.