Commercial whaling in the United States was established in the mid- to late 17th century and reached its peak around 1850. Nantucket and New Bedford in Massachusetts, and later San Francisco, were important centers of operation. Among the men who crewed the whaling vessels were many African-Americans and Native Americans. Voyages could last for years, and range far from American coasts. Men sailed to all parts of the world in order to meet a strong consumer demand for whale oil and for products made from baleen. The industry began to decline, however, in the last half of the 19th century, as fewer whales were available to catch (the population would continue to decrease) and, in particular, as petroleum replaced whale oil for lighting and lubrication.
Selected Resources in the Chapin Library
Frederick Debell Bennett. Narrative of a Whaling Voyage Round the Globe, from the Year 1833 to 1836: Comprising Sketches of Polynesia, California, the Indian Archipelago, etc.; with an Account of Southern Whales, the Sperm Whale Fishery, and the Natural History of the Climates Visited. London: Richard Bentley, 1840. 2 vols.
J. Ross Browne (1821–1875). Etchings of a Whaling Cruise, with Notes of a Sojourn on the Island of Zanzibar: To Which Is Appended a Brief History of the Whale Fishery, Its Past and Present Condition. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1846. image
Catching of the Whale and Seal, or, Henry Acton’s Conversation to His Son William on the Whale and Seal Fishery. Salem: Ives and Jewett, 1838. image
Owen Chase (1798–1869). Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket, Which Was Attacked and Finally Destroyed by a Large Spermaceti Whale, in the Pacific Ocean. New-York: W.B. Gilley, 1821. image
Henry T. Cheever (1814–1897). The Whale and His Captors, or, The Whaleman’s Adventures and the Whale’s Biography, as Gathered on the Homeward Cruise of the “Commodore Preble”. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1850. image
Obed Macy (1762–1844). The History of Nantucket . . . Together with the Rise and Progress of the Whale Fishery. . . . Boston: Hilliard, Gray, 1835. image
Herman Melville (1819–1891). Moby-Dick, or, The Whale. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851. First American edition, first binding. The Chapin Library also has later editions, illustrated by Rockwell Kent, Barry Moser, and LeRoy Neiman.
The Whale, and the Perils of the Whale-Fishery. New Haven: S. Babcock, [ca. 1840]. image
Many of these books were given to the Chapin Library by O. Stuart Chase, Williams Class of 1954. Additional resources may be found through the online catalog of the Williams Libraries, and as described in the Chapin Library exhibition handlist, Herman Melville: A Retrospective of His Works on the 150th Anniversary of Moby-Dick (PDF).
These materials may be used in the Archives/Chapin reading room in Sawyer Library, Room 441.
- International Whaling Commission
- New Bedford Whaling Museum
- Nicholson Whaling Collection (Providence Public Library)
- Whaling Museum of the Nantucket Historical Society