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Home North Carolina Carteret County City of Beaufort Historical Markers Whale Fishery

Whale Fishery

Turner Street, Beaufort, NC, USA

Latitude & Longitude: 34° 43' 15.0744", -76° 39' 46.5048"
  North Carolina State Historical Marker
    North Carolina State
Historical Marker
    Marker Text:
"At Shackleford Banks, six miles southeast by boat, was located a whale fishery of the 18th and 19th centuries."
     The term whaling most often brings to mind images of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, scenes of New England whalers bravely battling large sperm whales far out to sea. Whale hunting, however, took place along the entire eastern seaboard of the United States from the early seventeenth century to the early twentieth century. North Carolinians played an active role in this industry although their participation was most often shore-based whaling as opposed to the oceanic, or pelagic, whaling efforts.

     The first evidence for whaling in North Carolina comes from a 1666 commercial whaling license issued by Peter Carteret, the assistant governor of the North Carolina colony, then called Albemarle. The permit was recorded in New York, and gave three New Englanders rights to “make use of all the whales that shall be cast up that they can use anyways to kill or destroy between the inlet of Roanoak and Caretuck.”

     Although such permits brought large numbers of New England whalers to North Carolina’s waters, by the mid-eighteenth century the industry was homegrown. New Englanders who had settled the Outer Banks, as well as English and Scottish settlers along the coast, made a living by rowing close to shore in search of whales. They established whale fisheries, complete with large cauldrons for skinning, boiling, and collecting the oil that were needed for the industry. The Shackleford Banks fishery, which was in operation by the mid-eighteenth century, and continued until the late nineteenth, accounted for some of the 1,126 gallons of whale oil and 150 pounds of whalebone exported from Port Beaufort in 1768.

     From 1810 to 1860, a dolphin fishery operated in Beaufort alongside the whaling industry. Using seines, the fishermen amassed large numbers of the animals on the beach. Although the Civil War briefly interrupted the fisheries, by the 1870s and 1880s, Shackleford Banks was the most prolific whale fishery in North Carolina. In some years, during the peak season of April and May, local fishermen in their rowboats, armed with harpoons and whale guns, killed as many as six whales. Whales typically would be spotted from shore, and the men would immediately take to their boats. If successful in killing the whale close to shore, the boatmen then would all pull together to drag the animal onto the beach, where it would be processed for meat, oil, and bone.

     The industry at Shackleford Banks captured the attention of North Carolina’s scientific community, particularly state geologist W. C. Kerr. In 1874, a Shackelford Banks crew led by Josephus Willis, and consisting of his five sons, killed perhaps the most famous North Carolina whale, “Mayflower,” after a six-hour battle. The whale, perhaps the largest whale ever killed on North Carolina’s coast, produced 40 barrels of oil and 700 pounds of whalebone. The bones were purchased by John D. Whitfield, president of the Atlantic and North Carolina Railroad, an amateur scientist, who presented them to the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences. In 1894, the North Carolina Department of Agriculture hired taxidermist H. H. Brimley to reassemble the whale skeleton for exhibition. “Mayflower” has been on exhibit at the museum since that time.

     By the early twentieth-century, as Americans turned to gasoline and kerosene for their heating and lighting needs, and to synthetic substances for greasing, whale oil fell into disuse and the shore-based whaling industry collapsed. The last whale killed by shore-based North Carolina fisherman was caught near Cape Lookout on March 16, 1916. The following year, the last known North Carolina whale fishing crew abandoned the Shackleford fishery after a fire destroyed most of their gear. New England whalers continued harvesting the deepwater extremes of North Carolina’s coast for several more years. However, the industry effectively ended by 1925.

Marcus B. Simpson and Sallie W. Simpson, “The Pursuit of Leviathan: A History of Whaling on the North Carolina Coast,” North Carolina Historical Review (January 1988): 1-51
William S. Powell, ed., North Carolina Encyclopedia (2006)
Marcus B. Simpson and Sallie W. Simpson, Whaling on the North Carolina Coast (1990)
Eric J. Dolin, Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (2007)
Related Themes: C.S.A., Confederate States of America, Confederacy
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Whale Fishery Historical Marker Location Map, Beaufort, North Carolina