Whales were always part of Hudson River life (they were spotted at Albany in 1647), and whaling was a major industry in New York, especially on the Hudson River, for over 60 years. It helped to shape the region’s economy and culture, and it left a lasting legacy. Today, there are several historical markers and museums in the Hudson Valley that commemorate the region’s whaling past and the Great Seal of the City of Hudson still includes a whale.
Basque people captured whales at sea for centuries and Native Americans caught “drift whales” in shallow waters off the coast. One of the first organized efforts by colonists to hunt drift whales took place in Southampton, Long Island, in March 1644.
Over the next 30 years this developed into shore-whaling operations, where small boats were launched when whales were sighted offshore. By 1672 the colonists and their Native American neighbors were working together to hunt whales along the coast from small sailing vessels.
By the early 1700s however, ships – and ship building, and ocean going sailors to operate them – were needed to pursue whales farther off shore. The colonies’ whaling center shifted to New England, notably after a sperm whale was killed off of Nantucket Island in 1712.
In 1774 however, the Continental Congress voted to suspend trade with England and the British mostly shut down the whaling ports along the coast during the American Revolution.
Some whalers and merchants, notably from New Bedford, Providence, and Nantucket, began looking for safer ports to base their operations. Among them was the father of Robert Jenkins, namesake of the 1811 Robert Jenkins House at 113 Warren Street, in Hudson, Columbia County, NY.
In 1783, Seth and Thomas Jenkins, Quaker brothers from Nantucket, established a whaling company in what was then known as Claverack Landing. The Jenkins brothers chose Hudson as a whaling port because it had two deep bays that were suitable for large ships, and land for a suitable port with nearby farms that could supply ships. In two years, Hudson had 25 whaling vessels, more than any other city in New York State, and was becoming one of the largest cities in the state.
In 1797, the whaling ship American Hero, brought in the largest cargo of sperm whale oil in American history up the Hudson River. Although disrupted by the War of 1812, the whaling industry grew in 1829 with the founding of the Hudson Whaling Company, and the establishment of the whaling companies in Poughkeepsie and Newburgh in 1832 and the Dutchess Whaling Company the following year.
Although a dangerous and difficult industry, whaling was very profitable. Whaling ships could stay at sea for months at a time, and they returned with valuable cargoes of whale oil, whalebone, and ambergris. The industry declined in the mid-19th century however, in part due to competition from other eastern seaboard ports, the depletion of whale populations, and the invention of kerosene, which replaced whale oil as a fuel source. It’s believed the region’s last whaling ship sailed from Hudson in 1860.
On Thursday, September 14, at 6 pm at the Hudson Area Library, the Hendrick Hudson Chapter of the DAR and the library will offer a talk about the region’s whaling history by Carl Whitbeck. This talk is motivated by the three-day visit by the Descendants of Whaling Masters to Hudson and the Robert Jenkins House (which now serves as the now the chapter house of the Hendrick Hudson Chapter). The event is free and open to the public.
Whitbeck, a local resident whose family has deep roots in the area, will be displaying and discussing items from his own extensive local history collection.
The Descendants of Whaling Masters, headquartered in New Bedford, MA, has over 450 members throughout the US. Its mission includes encouraging members to save and preserve their whaling records and artifacts, as well as educating and raising public awareness of the history of whaling and the contemporary issues of whale preservation and ocean conservancy.
The DAR is a nonprofit, nonpartisan women’s volunteer service organization welcoming eligible women without regard to race, creed, or religion, whose mission is to promote historic preservation, education, and patriotism. The Hendrick Hudson Chapter includes over 130 members who trace their lineage back to a patriot in the American Revolution – whether serving as soldier, shopkeeper, or seamstress.
The Hudson Area Library History Room houses a collection that pertains to the history of the City of Hudson, Greenport and Stockport; as well as Columbia County and New York State. The History Room also hosts the Local History Speaker Series at the library, offering free monthly talks on diverse topics related to local history.
The History Room is open Saturdays, 10 am to 1 pm and by appointment and online research requests for information on local history are available at their website. This is a free service to the public. To inquire about
an appointment email email@example.com or call 518-828-1792 x106.
The Hudson Area Library is located at 51 North Fifth Street in Hudson, NY.
Illustrations, from above: “Sperm whale in a flurry” by Louis Ambroise Garneray, c 1840: A building from the whale oil industry in Hudson, NY; and the official seal of Hudson, NY, adopted in 1979.