Sharecropping the Sea: Shinnecock Whalers
in the Seventeenth Century

by John Strong

The whale was important to the ancient Shinnecock and the Indians braved the challenges of the sea and deadly thrashing of the flukes in order to hunt these great beasts in a community endeavor which had both economic and religious significance. The English settlers were quick to realize the economic benefits of the whale in their own culture. Whale oil and whale bone provided them with a currency which enabled them to purchase both necessities and luxuries in Boston and London. Within four years of their arrival they had established a community enterprise designed to turn the beached whales into their first real "cash crop." Ironically, this first stage in the whale business was a cooperative community venture very similar to the customs of the Indians. The townspeople were divided into teams, each with a geographic area to watch for and to process beached whales. The profits went for the benefit of the whole community.

The profits from whale products were so attractive that the settlers soon cast a closer eye at the Indian shore whaling techniques. In 1650 John Ogden asked for a license to "kill whales upon the south sea...". Here we have the first indication of a major change in the procurring of whales. It was now a capital enterprise rather than a cooperative community endeavor. The town made it clear in the license, however. that beached whales were still community property. The risks involved in going out beyond the surf to hunt whales and the lack of expertise among the settlers led them to turn to the Indians for assistance. Here they found a capitalists ideal: a highly skilled labor force who could be enticed to work for low wages in a venture with very low overhead.

The Indians were provided with cedar boats about 28 feet long by 6 feet wide, iron lances, and harpoons attached to 60 foot lengths of rope (Edwards and Rattray, 1956). Generally there would be at least two boats working as a team. Each boat held four oarsmen, a harpooner and a steersman (Wooley, 1968). Indian crews were organized by enterprising whites into an effective whale harvesting system. Wigwams were constructed at vantage points along the shore for use from December through March when right whales congregated in Long Island waters. When a whale was sighted, a flag (weft) was raised on a pole, and the crews immediately launched their boats.

The whales were dragged ashore where they were butchered and the bones cleaned: this process often required two or three days of hard labor. The blubber was cut into chunks and carted to the nearest tryworks where the oil was boiled out. In the early days this process was probably completed right on the beach, but as the industry grew, centrally located trvworks were constructed. The smell was so offensive that legislation was passed requiring all "trying" of whale oil to be done in specific areas some distance downwind from residential areas.

The "trying" of whale blubber was a nasty, tiring job which took as long as a week for an average sized whale. The adult right whale might produce as many as 60 barrels of oil. All the crew members were expected to be on duty around the clock tending the fires and loading the chunks of blubber into huge kettles. The oil was then drained into a cooler where it sat until it was poured into barrels. Whale oil profits soon drew other enterprising settlers into the growing business. They were soon competing actively, and the inevitable conflicts had to be settled by the Town governments.