A Westport Farmer Goes Whaling by Maurice E. May
Westport Point, Massachusetts was a relatively small but active whaling port in the 1830s and 1840s, one of about 40 whaling ports in the Northeast. As a result, many young Westporters went “a-whaling”. One such young man was Frederick Allen (1809-1874), whose family owned a substantial farm on Horseneck Road, where the Buzzards Bay brewery is located today. We know about his single whaling trip in 1837-38 because he wrote about it in a journal that he kept almost daily, from June 1833 to April 1838. The first four years covered his life as a young, unmarried Westporter who worked on his family farm and socialized around Town. The fifth year was when he went a-whaling. He discontinued his journal on the same day – April 29, 1838 – as he returned from his whaling trip. Why did he end it then and there?
On January 15, 2022, the Westport Historical Society held a Zoom meeting on the whaling portion of Frederick’s journal. It was virtually attended by over a hundred people. The meeting was hosted by our Executive Director Jenny O’Neill, and the panel included Richard Donnelly (antiquarian), Michael Dyer (maritime historian) and Judy Lund (whaling historian), as well as myself.
In the 1836-1837 period, the journal chronicles Frederick’s rising interest in whaling. He mentions going to Westport Point for shopping and no doubt saw whaling vessels in port. He also notes friends who had gone whaling and his curiosity leads him to acquire a copy of Bowditch’s Practical Navigator. He finally decided to do it and chose the Brig Mexico. His preparations included packing a sea chest, buying five pounds of tobacco, and visiting the home of F. Brownell, father of a young lady named Hannah C. Brownell just days before he left.
As a brig, the Mexico was a relatively small, two-masted whaling vessel. It was built in Newport RI in 1826 and was listed at 137 tons. It specialized in one-year Atlantic voyages rather than longer voyages to the Indian and Pacific oceans. It was owned by a syndicate of investors, which included Gideon Davis Jr. (1803-1847) of Westport Point, who was also the captain on Frederick’s voyage.
The Mexico embarked from Westport Point on April 20, 1837 and promptly hit a sandbar. Those who have sailed the difficult route in and out of this harbor can relate to that. The Mexico had to wait until evening to presumedly allow the incoming tide to set it free to make its way to its first destination, the Bahamas. For the next couple of weeks Frederick rarely made entries, perhaps because of seasickness. Then came the whales. On May 8th the boat “raised whales” and caught one. On May 11th they found “whales in all directions”. They crew caught another, then cut it up and boiled it down, producing 58 bbls. of oil.
On this first leg of the Mexico’s voyage, they began a practice of meeting up with other Yankee whaling ships. The first was the Bark Dr. Franklin also out of Westport on May 7th, and the captains and crew socialized. The second was the Brig Delights out of New Bedford on May 17th and the third was the Brig Juno also out of New Bedford on May 19th. On the 19th, Frederick notes that the starboard boat of the Dr. Franklin “came onboard and gammed ‘till 10 at night, spent the time in singing songs, dancing etc. in real sailor stile I s’pose it would be called.” The Mexico continued to meet up with other friendly whaling ships throughout its entire voyage and the gamming did not stop.
After five weeks in the Bahamas the Mexico went “sailing across the Gulf stream northerly”. Finding no whales in the Southern Grounds they continued to the Western Grounds. In addition to his assigned positions, Frederick busied himself with other chores such as fixing rigging and spinning yarn, but he also found time to write letters home and undertake scrimshawing. In the Western Ground they found many whales but despite enormous efforts were unable to catch any. For example, on July 4th they “lowered & chaced them 2 hours” but could not catch any; nevertheless, in the evening they were able to celebrate Independence Day with “2 drinks of grog” each.
On August 18th the Mexico arrived in the Azores off the coast of Flores. There they spoke with the Brig Rising States out of New Bedford, with “officers & all the crew darkies”. The captain was William Cuffee, son of Westport’s Paul Cuffee. A few days later on the 22nd, Frederick wrote that “the Capt. & all the starboard watch of us went ashore at the Town of Fayal & cruised round ‘till night, spying wonders & drinking grog & as for myself got pretty hot.” Back on board they cruised past Pico, St. Georges, Gracias & Terceira. Off the latter on August 27th, they “spoke” the Brig Delight Lanford of New Bedford; as it was headed home, some of the crew sent letters. But not Frederick—he was miffed at “not hearing a word from home [so] I shan’t trouble myself to write until I do.”
He may have reacted too harshly because shortly thereafter on September 13th still in the area around Terceira they “fell in with & went on board the Bark President Hathaway of Westport” and Frederick got two letters—one from “Miss HCB” and another from a close friend—but still griped that he received “not a word from my parents or sister”.
Having had no success whaling around the Azores, the Mexico headed south to the Canary Islands, arriving on September 26th. Having only caught the less desirable pilot whales there, the Mexico sailed further south through the “torrid Zone” for the Cape Verde islands. They arrived October 10th, immediately met up with the Dr. Franklin, and “went aboard & gammed ‘till 10 at night”. In subsequent days the Mexico added to its provisions, buying goats and pigs on Salt Island and wood and water at St. Vincent.
On November 3rd, with a fresh southeasterly wind the Mexico began following a southwesterly course toward Brazil. On November 12th it reached the coast and sailed toward the Abrohlos Banks to cruise for sperm whale when it “fell in with” the Ship Erie Dennis, which was headed home to Newport RI. Frederick “put aboard of her a letter … to Miss H.C.B.” On November 13th they gammed again with the Dr. Franklin and Frederick “learnt a tune of one of the crew”. On November 17th Fredrick notes that “We have kept company with the D. Frank. most all the time since we fell in with her at Salt Isle ‘till today.”
The seas off the Abrohlos Banks were rough but the whaling was good. After one strenuous catch, Frederick wrote “At 12 o’clock noon [we] raise our dead Whale & got him alongside again at 4 in the afternoon. Having had a very tedious day of it making & taking in sail, pulling and hauling all day long & and as wet as water too. Just so much for the Abrohlos Banks.”
Despite the rough seas, the Mexico continued successful whaling off the Banks and its crew was able to celebrate New Years Day on January 1, 1838. It did so with the crew of the Dr. Franklin as well as with those of the Brig Laurel of New Bedford and Brig. Sarah Mayhew. They had dinner and gammed ‘till night. Frederick wrote that we “Had quite an agreeable time, singing, fluting, fiddling & dancing.
Whaling continued into February off the Abrohlos Banks, “the most squally place I ever saw by all odds”. Then on February 8th Frederick was able to write: “Hurrah says our Capt. This morning off we’ll goe for the West Indies” having taken 336 bbls of sperm oil in two months and 22 days. On February 15th they passed Cape St. Augustine and on February 21st Frederick wrote “So off we goe now to the north of the equator again.” They made good time – 384 miles in one 48-hour period (i.e., about 8 MPH).
They reached the Windward Islands and on March 3rd passed Martinique, on March 4th Dominica, and on March 5th anchored off Guadeloupe, where they added to their fruit and vegetable provisions. Onward the Mexico sailed, past Monserrat and Nevis & Kitts, bound for St. Thomas in Caribbean, catching a whale in the process.
On March 14th Frederick’s starboard watch went ashore to St. Thomas on liberty. He wrote: “I had cruising enough about the Town & climbing the high hills, from where I counted 68 sails in the harbour. There appears to be a great deal of business carried on here.” While there, the Mexico added to its supply of water, bread and meat. Then on to Crab Island where the crew added wood.
On March 18th they set sail for the coast of Puerto Rico but after five days and no whales they left the Caribbean. On April 5th following some very heavy seas they arrived at their final cruising grounds, the Bahama Banks. There they had success catching two whales.
By the morning of April 15th, the crew of the Mexico had cut and boiled their Bahamian catch and stowed away an additional 106 bbls of sperm oil for a total of 589 bbls. That seemed to be enough because at “5 o’clock afternoon [we] made sail for home” on a north-northeasterly course.
It was a relatively quick trip back to home waters. On April 25th the Mexico sailed past Montauk Point and on April 26th past Block Island into Newport harbor, where they docked for three days. While Frederick went ashore on all three days, on the second day wrote “Ashore most all day & evening, rambling from the S. to the N. end of Town spying wonders.” On the morning of April 29, 1838, the Mexico left Newport. It arrived at Westport Point at 2:00 pm and by 3:30 pm Frederick was back home “after an absence of one year and eleven days”.
Was the whaling voyage a success? Financially it appears very much so. The small Brig Mexico brought home the 589 bbls. of sperm oil noted by Frederick, which netted out officially to 555 bbls. after leakage. With each barrel holding 31.5 gallons, and a gallon of sperm oil worth about 86¢, the oil was worth $15,035. Add in another $207 for the pilot whale oil and the total comes to $15,242. Frederick’s 1/65th lay would have amounted to $234 gross. After an approximate 20% reduction for various voyage expenses that he was responsible for, his net lay would have been in the neighborhood of $187, or about $5,600 in today’s money. [By way of comparison, Tony Connors in his book Went to the Devil notes that Edward Davoll’s 1842-43 voyage on the Mexico produced just 236 barrels, and he with just a 1/90th lay.]
Another question that needs to asked is, why did Frederick start writing his journal and why did he end it when he did, which was April 29, 1838—the day he returned to his Westport home?
While I am not a trained psycho-historian by any means, I believe he kept his journal as a way of channeling his anxieties about where he was going with his life in writing. When he started his journal he was 23 and unmarried – would he marry? He was a farmer on his father’s farm – did he want to farm for the rest of his life? Also, some Westporters found prosperity in whaling – should he choose that as a career? In the five years he kept his journal, I believe his personal (and literary) journey produced results. When he stepped off the Mexico at the Point on April 29, 1838, I believe he had answers to all those questions: he would marry Hannah and raise a family, he would work to inherit the family farm, and he was done whaling! With questions answered there was no longer any need to move forward with the journal and he promptly ended it upon his return.
Maurice E. May
Westport Point MA
January 24, 2022