Whalers out of Mystic

Mystic first became a whaling port in 1832 when George Churchill sailed the ship BINGHAM into the South Atlantic Ocean, apparently under the management of Jedediah Randall. This first voyage lasted only nine months and the ship returned with 550 barrels of whale oil worth approximately $4500.00. During the next thirty years, a total of twenty eight vessels made 102 voyages out of this small village in southeastern Connecticut. Mystic’s last whaler was the ship CORNELIA which returned in 1862 with a catch of 986 barrels of whale oil worth nearly $18,000.00. Following this voyage, the CORNELIA made whaling voyages out of New London and Groton.

Between 1832 and 1862, Mystic’s twenty eight whaling vessels took 11,660 barrels of sperm oil valued at nearly $385,000.00; 138,158 barrels of whale oil worth approximately $1,935,000.00; and 887,132 pounds of whalebone worth slightly over $357,000.00. This amounts to a gross total value of just over $2,675,000.00 or roughly $90,000.00 for each year of activity. The total above is probably a conservative one, as it seems to the present writer that the returns for Mystic whalers, as given in Alexander Starbuck’s A History of the American Whale Fishery, are somewhat incomplete. Several of the Mystic vessels are reported as having returned to port with large quantities of whale oil, but little or no whalebone. It seems highly probable that the amount of bone reportedly returned in Mystic vessels is far too low. In addition to this, there are three vessels which made a total of four voyages for which Starbuck has no returns.

Both the buildup and the decline of the Mystic fleet were gradual, as the following statistics will show. As has already been mentioned, the ship BINGHAM was the first member of the fleet in 1832. One vessel was added in 1833, two in 1834, four in 1838, one in 1841, three in 1842, one in 1843, three in 1844, six in 1845, two in 1848 and one each in 1852, 1853, 1857 and 1858. The last vessel added was the schooner FRANK, and she was lost on her maiden voyage. The peak year for additions, therefore, was 1845, the twelfth year of operations.

The first vessel to depart from the fleet list was the schooner PLUTARCH in 1839 after only one voyage as tender to the ship GOVERNOR ENDICOTT. According to her documentation, the PLUTARCH served in the coastal trade out of New London and Stonington. The first definite casualty was the ship GOVERNOR ENDICOTT which was lost on New Holland (Australia) on July 8, 1840. Thereafter, vessels were lost, condemned, withdrawn or sold to other ports as follows: two each in 1841, 1846, 1847 and 1848, four in 1849, one in 1853, four in 1854, one each in 1855 and 1859, three in 1860, two in 1861 and one in 1862. Of the twenty eight vessels, eight were wrecked, five were withdrawn for other uses, seven were condemned in foreign ports and sold and eight were sold in this country. Of the last group, two became part of the “Stone Fleet” sunk in Charleston, South Carolina harbor in 1861, two sailed to California in 1849, two continued as whalers out of other ports and the other two apparently entered into merchant service out of Boston and New York.

Considering the previous length of service of some of the vessels prior to joining the Mystic fleet, their fairly long whaling careers are a tribute to both their builders and to the men in Mystic who acted as managing owners. None of the Mystic vessels approached the longevity of the CHARLES W. MORGAN, but nevertheless their records are worth mentioning. The ship BINGHAM was twenty eight years old when she became Mystic’s first whaler in 1832. She made six whaling voyages in sixteen years. Mystic’s next oldest whaler was the ship HUDSON at twenty-six; however, she made only two voyages in six years before being sold to Fairhaven, then to New Bedford and finally to Honolulu in 1863. At the last place her name was changed to HAE HAWAII. In addition, she had made eight whaling voyages out of Sag Harbor before coming to Mystic. Prior to that she was London packet.

Other notable records of Mystic whalers are those of the ship ROBIN HOOD, SHEPHERDESS, and CORIOLANUS. The ROBIN HOOD came to Mystic in 1845 at twenty one and served for sixteen years during which she made six voyages. The SHEPHERDESS, added in 1842 at seventeen, made six voyages in eighteen years. The CORIOLANUS, which joined the Mystic fleet in 1844 at seventeen, made seven voyages in seventeen years.

Examples at the opposite end of the spectrum are the schooners FRANK and LION. The FRANK, the last vessel added to Mystic’s fleet in 1858, was four years old but served only one year. She was lost at Desolation Island in February, 1859. Mystic’s newest whaler, the LION, was only three when she joined the fleet in 1849. She was lost on English Bank in the South Shetland Islands on March 22, 1854.

An overview of the age of Mystic’s whalers is furnished by the following statistics: only four were under ten years old when they joined the fleet, seven were between eleven and fifteen, thirteen were between sixteen and twenty, and four were over twenty. Hence, over half of them had fairly long careers before coming to Mystic.

Although the ship AERONAUT made more voyages than any other Mystic whaler, the ship METEOR sailed out of that port for the longest period of time. The AERONAUT made ten voyages in twenty years, whereas the METEOR made nine in twenty-two years. Of Mystic’s twenty eight whalers, fifteen served for five or fewer years, four for six to ten years, one for eleven to fifteen years, seven for sixteen to twenty years and one for over twenty years. To some extent, this demonstrates the hazards involved in using old vessels. It should be pointed out that not all of the fifteen short-term vessels were lost, nor were they all among the older ones.

The figures for number of voyages by Mystic whalers are closely correlated to those for length of service. Fourteen vessels made only one or two voyages, five made three or four, six made between five and eight, and three made nine or ten voyages. Since Mystic’s twenty eight whalers made 103 voyages we can say that four voyages per vessel is average. Judging from the figures above, nineteen vessels made below, and nine made over, the average number of voyages.

The 103 voyages made by Mystic whalers are fairly equally divided among three areas. About one third were made into the South Atlantic, another third to the North Pacific and the final third into the South Pacific and Indian Oceans. Hence about the only areas in which the men from Mystic did not pursue their prey were the two regions of the Arctic. Since several of the voyages were made to islands inhabited by seals, it is highly probable that they brought back seal pelts. Another indication of sealing activities is the employment of tenders by several of the larger vessels. This was characteristic of sealing. Unfortunately, no records have been found which reveal how many pelts were brought back.

Although Starbuck reports that three of Mystic’s whalers returned without any oil or bone, there were some very good voyages out of this port. The largest catch of sperm oil was 950 barrels brought back by the ship BINGHAM on her voyage of 1840-1842. The most valuable catch of sperm oil was that of 800 barrels taken by the ship ROBIN HOOD in 1848-1849. It was worth $27,468.00. The 3450 barrels of whale oil taken by the ship TRESCOTT in 1845-1849 constitute the largest catch of that commodity; however, the METEOR’s 2829 barrels during 1851-1856 were worth $71,291.20, making this catch the most valuable. The ROBIN HOOD had both the largest and the most valuable catches of bone. She took 44,200 pounds on her 1849-1851 voyage, but her smaller catch of 32,000 pounds in 1854-1857 was worth $ 31,040.00, or nearly twice the value of the larger catch. The durable old METEOR had the most valuable total cargo on her voyage of 1851- 1856. It was worth $98,417.56

Probably because of her longevity, the METEOR’s total catch was the most valuable of all the Mystic whalers. Her 1037 barrels of sperm oil, 19,722 barrels of whale oil and 104,333 pounds of bone had a gross value of nearly $350,000.00. The ROBIN HOOD’s 1648 barrels of sperm oil, 12,333 barrels of whale oil and 134,091 pounds of bone, worth almost $325,000.00 was a close second. Between them, these two vessels had the greatest total catches and the most valuable ones. The METEOR led in whale oil whereas the ROBIN HOOD led in sperm oil and bone. Following these two leaders were the ship SHEPHERDESS, whose total catch was worth $266,000.00, the ship AERONAUT at $261,000.00, the ship ROMULUS at $250,000.00 and the ship CORIOLANUS at $211,000.00. Two other vessels returned over $100,000.00 and the other twenty were all under that amount.

Mystic’s twenty eight whaling vessels were commanded by sixty different men. Of that number, forty-six served on only one vessel. While most of these men served three years or less, Woodbridge Watrous commanded the ship SHEPHERDESS for nine years and John Manwarring the ship HELLESPONT for ten years. An additional ten men served in two vessels each. Here again, most men served only a short time in each vessel, usually only one voyage. The one exception was John McGinley who commanded the ships CORIOLANUS and ROBIN HOOD for fourteen years. A select group of four men each commanded three Mystic whalers. One of these, Thomas Eldredge, served only five years, while another, William Pendleton, served only six years. Lorenzo D. Baker served thirteen years in the ships BLACKSTONE, ROBIN HOOD and ROMULUS. Hiram Clift commanded the brig TAMPICO and the ships SHEPHERDESS and HUDSON for fourteen years. Thus one can say that Clift and McGinley were the deans of the Mystic whaling captains. Of the sixty men who commanded Mystic’s whalers, twenty five also owned shares in the vessels in which they sailed. It was a common practice for managing owners to require masters to purchase shares in the vessels they commanded for it was thought they would do a better job of running the ship if they had a financial interest in it.

Seven individuals or firms acted as agents or managing owners for Mystic’s whalers. Charles Mallory, with a total of sixteen vessels, was by far the largest operator. He was followed by Jedediah and William P. Randall who managed six vessels. Other agents were Geo. W. Ashby & Co. and Randall, Smith & Ashby with four each, Jedediah Randall with two and Joseph Avery and Silas Beebe with one each. Since this amounts to more than twenty eight vessels, it should be pointed out that several of the vessels were managed by more than one man or firm during different years. For example, the ship METEOR was managed by Jedediah Randall, 1834-1836, by Jedediah and William P. Randall, 1836-1851 and by Randall, Smith & Ashby, 1851-1856.

Ownership of the twenty eight Mystic whalers was spread among 319 people, most of whom were from the immediate area surrounding Mystic. A few were from as far away as Boston and Philadelphia and some were even farther afield. It is interesting and somewhat puzzling that very few shares were held by the whaling merchants of New London. Perhaps they kept their capital fully invested in the ships of their own city. The two individuals who owned shares in the most vessels were Charles Mallory and Joseph Cottrell. They each owned portions of sixteen vessels. Elisha Faxon, with shares in twelve vessels, was the second largest owner. William P. Randall and Benjamin F. Stoddard each owned portions of ten vessels. From there, ownership spread rather widely with five people holding shares in nine vessels, three in eight, five in seven, nine in six, nine in five, fifteen in four, nineteen in three, fifty-five in two and 194 in only one vessel. No attempt has been made to determine how long people held their shares or what portions they actually owned.

Unfortunately, very few crew lists for Mystic whalers can be located. Hence, it is impossible to determine the areas from which the crews came or how many men were employed by the twenty eight vessels sailing from Mystic. Since some of Mystic’s whalers were quite small, it is probably fair to assume an overall average of thirty men for the initial company for each of the 103 voyages. This would mean that approximately 3100 men sailed from this port on whaling voyages during a period of thirty years.

As mentioned above, Mystic’s whaling vessels returned oil and bone valued at a little over $2,675,000.00 during thirty years. Of that amount, probably one third or roughly $890,000.00, should have been given to the crews as their share. The remaining $1,785,000.00 went to the 319 owners in portions equal to the size of their holdings. Because many of the voyages out of Mystic were only two years or less in duration and several were made in rather small vessels, it is probably safe to assume an average cost of $9000.00 for outfitting each voyage. Thus, the owners spent roughly $925,000.00 in preparing their vessels for 403 voyages. This left them with $860,000.00. From this, one would have to deduct the initial cost of the vessels before establishing an amount of profit. Because of the diversity of sizes of the vessels, the span of years during which they were acquired, and the differences of their ages, it is quite difficult to estimate with accuracy the total initial cost of the twenty eight vessels in question. A figure between $250,000.00 and $300,000.00 is probably not too far from the actual amount. This would leave a net profit of between $560,000.00 and $610,000.00 to be divided among 319 people over a period of thirty years.

Edited by Library Volunteer Thomas L. Zane, January, 2000.