“alien” feel to the
Outer Banks, drawing a distinct line between
farmer and seaman, is the recent presence on our coast of an industry that
no longer exists today. Creatures of the sea were hunted to
extinction and the industry died with them. The oil and ambergris
they produced were no longer found off North Carolina. These were
“right whales” (shown above) and the enormously profitable whaling
business has been conducted until the 19th century right here, off the
coast of the Old North State.
Still, New England led in this industry and provided the whaling crews and
captains that became a part of New England legend… and some that
contributed to Carolina legend and folklore. What were these men
chasing whales for, you may ask? I asked.
Whale oil was then used for making
soap and burning in lanterns and candles, purely personal items. In
1736, London, England went from the reputation of being the darkest city
in Europe, with the darkest and most dangerous street corners to a lighted
city, thanks to the discovery that “right-whale” and spermaceti whale
oil burned cleaner and with a distinctly sweeter smell than vegetable oil,
in use before 1736. The lanterns went
on poles and the street light was born. The increased
use of oil lamps on streets made whales very important in the English
maritime world and contributed to great fortunes in the Americas.
Without an agricultural staple of value in New England, whale oil became a
leading export, rising over three times in price from 10 pounds to 30
pounds by 1770.
England's desire for the oil shows in the bounty provided from the British
government on whale oil, increasing from 20 shillings per ton in 1733 to
40 shillings in 1749. By 1757, the Lords of Trade and Plantations
declared, "whale-bone and whale oil are materials indispensably
necessary for the manufactures of this Kingdom." The price
of whale oil had risen so fast, in fact, that merchant Aaron Lopez,
in 1761, joined eight other merchants to form a trust to control the price
and distribution of whale oil.
In his History of Massachusetts,
II (Boston, 1767), 445, Hutchinson writes, with reference to this period: "The
increase of the consumption of oyl by lamps as well as by divers
manufactures in Europe has been no small encouragement to our whale
fishery. The flourishing state of the island of Nantucket must be
attributed to it. The cod and whale fishery, being the principal source of
our returns to Great Britain, are therefore worthy not only of provincial
but national attention."
Still, whaling was a dangerous
occupation, with the dangers of an open flame on board an already
storm-threatened ship in the dangerous North Atlantic. Still
that’s where the whales were to be found… from Newfoundland to Cape
Hatteras. And that’s where many a whaler met his death.
Whalers always died young and rarely left wills. Many of them died
passing the deadly shoals of Cape Hatteras. Numerous
eighteenth-century newspaper articles reflect a sailor’s preoccupation
with the Cape. This example is only one of many:
Hatteras, meeting place of the Gulf Stream and Labrador sea currents,
churning dangerous shoals, topped off with Nor’easters immediately
following hurricane season, became known as an obstacle to mariners and a
place of danger. Thrill-seeking whalers from Nantucket must have
liked it. They found it a great place to camp during the fall
One unusual demographic factor
amongst these whaling crews was the presence of the Native American.
Algonquians, mostly, comprised a large portion of whaling crews and often
shared in the dangers of the whaling trade. Another danger to
whaling crews, as if fire and storms weren’t enough, were the French:
was one of the old time whaling Nantucket families. Zephaniah
Pinkham, recently married to Sarah Maxey in 1744, was commanding a vessel
that had fourteen crew, including these three Indian men. Pinkham
and several men escaped from Canada in short time:
This intrepid mariner’s son, Zephaniah Pinkham Jr. found North Carolina
to his liking (probably because of family money problems) and came there
in 1762, purchasing land in Carteret County on the “Straits” from two
fellow Nantucket Chadwick brothers. Presumably, Indian crews
followed or Algonquians of North Carolina found work on whalers just as
Mordicai Job and his friends. Certainly, there was interchange
because the whaling industry thrived on following the herds, as Sioux with
Soon, North Carolina entrepreneurs desired a piece of the whaling action
and fitted out a vessel expressly for that purpose… with Zephaniah
Pinkham as the master of this sloop, named Sally, owned by Richard Ellis
and refitted in 1768. No massive whaling industry developed.
It may be that North Carolinians were content with hunting porpoises.
Still, Pinkham continued his base in Carteret until his death.
North Carolina held even more attraction for Zephaniah Pinkham in the
lovely feminine form of Susanna Hampton, probably of the Currituck County
Hamptons. Zephaniah had at least two children by her, for in a deed,
dated 1771, he leaves “Susanna Hampton” his land in the Straits for
the love and affection he bore to her two sons, “Nathaniel and Job
The trouble that Zephaniah had, after 1770 was the woman that he married
in Nantucket, Mary Coffin. It has been surmised, not by myself…
rather by my colleague, Roberta Estes, that Zephaniah gave Susanna the
land because he feared her wrath. That’s quite possible! A
male just doesn’t see these clues as well… or so my wife tells me.
As Roberta guesses, he had at least two children (3-5 years of personal
history), with Susanna’s expectations shattered by the news of his
marriage to Ms. Coffin.
That Pinkham still operated his Carolina trade we know from a 1774
Greenwich Hospital record on the Thames in London. “EXTRACT from
accounts of the collector of the Greenwich Hospital sixpenny duty: MARY
and HENRY, of North Carolina, Zepha. Pinckam, master, of North Carolina
trade. 6 Oct.”
What’s the phrase? A girl in every port? We can only wonder
what Mary Coffin knew. Perhaps her surname helped to form a picture
not unlike the dangerous storms and shoals of North Carolina. Davy
Jones together with James Coffin and his shotgun… not pleasant.
Zephaniah Pinkham later settles in
North Carolina permanently, records showing that Mary Coffin Pinkham
married a cousin of Zephaniah’s, Charles Pinkham, by 1775. Mary
probably got wind… Susanna then adopts the name “Pinkham” as do the
two boys, Nathaniel and Job. We’re giving them the benefit of the
doubt and declaring them to be married.
Zephaniah serves North Carolina in
the Revolution as 1st lieutenant of Fort Hancock on Cape Lookout, a
patriot like his sons, Nathaniel and Job in the War of 1812.
Zephaniah eventually passes on c1787. Susanna married again to John
Larrance (Lawrence) in 1796.
Nathaniel, now "Pinkham," becomes quite a North Carolina
personality, serving John Gray Blount as crewman of the Beaver before
joining in Blount’s venture of Shell Castle Island at the inlet at
Ocracoke. Nathaniel ran the tavern on that man-made island for
“Governor” John Wallace, an uncle of David Wallace, a probable
son-in-law of Zephaniah Pinkham. Shell Castle Island was terraformed
into a 25-acre facility that held storehouses and retail supplies for
mariners, attracted to Carolina fishing. As Pinkham would testify,
it also held some entertainment at his establishment… the island’s
Shell Castle Island Tavern offered lodging, rum, wine, beer Porter, and
many kinds of liquid refreshment as well as food. Windsor chairs
were even ordered by Wallace to spice up the atmosphere, which included
imported wines and beer, all the way from Liverpool, New York, and
Philadelphia. Not to worry, fellow mariners and whalers, the state
controlled the prices of the liquor: