Local frontiers: the romance of whaling ports

New Bedford Harbor, 1903, from LOC.gov

I’m starting to write about perspectives on the nineteenth whaling port of Sag Harbor, NY, as a frontier outpost, vs. as a small town connected to larger colonial and Native American hinterlands. I’m having a wonderful time beginning with quotes romanticizing the global connections of the whaling industry, and I can’t resist sharing some in their full glory.

On Sag Harbor:

“Picture, if you will, a whaleboat sailing right up to the foot of Main Street – and this could be any day of the week or month of the year – loaded with several fortunes and God knows how many great stories, while at the next dock another hopeful is being outfitted with ten tons of bully beef for the captain alone, and all the hardtack they can eat for whatever rogues and dreamers, slaves and novelists (Melville was here), Queequegs and Ishmaels, the company has managed to con or dragoon into serving under him.

“It’s a small town, twenty-five hundred tops, but the number is forever being augmented by passing Fijians, Sandwich Islanders, and whatever else the wind has blown in.” (Zaykowski 1991: vi)

Queequeg’s brief impression was not positive:

“But, alas! The practices of whalemen soon convinced him that even Christians could be both miserable and wicked; infinitely more so, than all his father’s heathens. Arrived at last in old Sag-Harbor; and seeing what the sailors did there, and then going up to Nantucket, and seeing how they spent their wages in that place also, poor Queequeg gave it up for lost. Thought he, it’s a wicked world in all meridians; I’ll die a pagan.” (Melville 2009 [1851]: 54).

On Nantucket:

“As a nation beside a nation, Nantucket was (and is) both a microcosm of America and an exception to the rule: a tightly knit community that took its special brand of provincialism all across the world, becoming, in the process, one of the most cosmopolitan places in America. On an island of paradoxes, the Quaker whalemen were perhaps the most paradoxical….” (Philbrick 2011: xv)

On New Bedford:

“The whale-ships recruiting at the Sandwich or Society Islands brought back, besides oil and bone, not a few tattooed natives, with the sound of whose astonishing language I was familiar, though I did not understand a word of it. These Kanakas, as they were called, were harmless, simple, fond of rum, and, I suspect, often swindled out of the little money which their voyages brought them. Ships, indeed, came to us from all parts of the world. We had often walking about swarthy Portuguese sailors, and mariners of the true broad-bottomed Dutch type, puffing their long pipes mildly. I knew by sight, almost as soon as I knew anything, the flag of every important sea-going nation….All these nations wanted oil and candles, and came to New Bedford in pursuit of these commodities. Sometimes, when the wharves were full of ships, our streets – there were only two or three of much consequence – were really brilliant and bustling.” (Congdon 1880, in Grover 2001: 9)

Whaling history is such a hit around here that I know I’m not alone in enjoying these descriptions. They also resonate with me as mirrors of how we experience physical and technological connection today, though. Even in small towns in the northeast, or cities where we make our homes in smaller spaces and networks, we face outward, accessing views of a larger world with its industries, injustices, and diversity in our everyday interactions. When is home for you a cozy village, and when a frontier?



Grover, Kathryn. 2001. The Fugitive’s Gibraltar: Escaping Slaves and Abolitionism in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Melville, Herman. 2009 [1851]. Moby Dick, or The Whale. Plain Label Books (available on Google Books).

Philbrick, Nathaniel. 2011. Away Off Shore: Nantucket Island and its People, 1602 -1890. New York: Penguin.

Zaykowski, Dorothy Ingersoll. 1991. Sag Harbor: The Story of an American Beauty. Sag Harbor: Sag Harbor Historical Society.