From the May 10, 1946 edition of the Gazette:

The year in which the Vineyard Gazette made its first appearance was one of the most prosperous on the Vineyard. Whaling historians have called the year 1846 the height of the Golden Age of Whaling. This may have been true for Nantucket, New Bedford and other ports, but the Vineyard had just entered her Golden Age of Whaling. Her most prosperous period was to come during the next fifteen years.

From Starbuck’s History of the American Whale Fishery and the Whalemen’s Shipping List, we know that there were more ships registered at Edgartown and Holmes’ Hole in the 1840’s and 1850’s than at any other time in the Island’s history. In these two decades, 111 voyages were made by ships with Vineyard ancestry. These were by far the most prosperous years in her whaling history.

The general picture for 1846 gives us an insight into the activity of the ports. Edgartown and Homes’ Hole together had fourteen ships, thirteen of them being at sea during the year. Of this fleet three ships returned and two departed on new voyages. Although this was a relatively quiet year it is explained by the fact that whaling vessels were often at sea for three years’ duration. When they were full they came home. Some years, therefore, were very active with many arrivals, as were the years just before and just after 1846. Often from five to nine vessels returned in one year.

Among the ships at sea one hundred years ago were many famous Island whalers. They were the bark Alfred Tyler, ship Almira, ship Champion, ship Vineyard, brig Vesta and ship York from Edgartown; and the ship Delphos, brig Malta, ship Ocmulgee and ship Pocahontas from Holmes’ Hole. The bark Milton of Edgartown was withdrawn from he service during the year.

It was the famous ship Almira which had already made voyages and was to make six more before she was “stove by the ice” and lost in the Arctic in 1870. The Ocmulgee under Capt. Frederick W. Manter of West Tisbury is said to have been the first ship, in 1847, to sail through the uncharted Behring Straits to open up the Arctic whaling grounds.

Most of these vessels had sailed to the Pacific whaling grounds on voyages averaging about three years. Three ships cleared for Atlantic grounds on voyages of twelve to fourteen months’ duration. No log-books are known to exist for any of these voyages unless they are in private hands, so we must rely on Starbuck and the Whalemen’s Shipping List for the results of the voyages for the year.

Under the column Arrivals and Departures in the Vineyard Gazette we frequently see that a Nantucket whaleship has “arrived at Edgartown to fit for Pacific Ocean sperm whaling.” At least seven Nantucket ships are known to have put into Edgartown for this reason during the year. All this required efficient outfitters such as carpenters, chandlers, sailmakers, riggers, blacksmiths and coopers.

There is another phase of Island whaling history to mention here and that is the part that Vineyard masters, seamen and harpooners played in sailing and manning the ships of other ports. In 1846 at least thirteen Vineyard men were masters of Nantucket, New Bedford, Newport and other ships at sea during the year. Among names familiar to Vineyarders were John A. Baylies, Henry Colt of the Lagoda, George Coffin, John Norton, Nathaniel Jernegan, John R. Sands, Francis C. Smith, Rufus N. Smith and John S. Smith, Capt. Littleton C Wimpenney of Edgartown, master of the whaleship William Penn of Falmouth, was also at sea in 1846. A year later his ship struck on the island of Whytootacke and was a total loss, although 1,200 barrels of oil were saved and sold for 50 cents per barrel.

Bartlett Mayhew, another Island man, master of the brig Annawan of Mattapoisett, left in August, 1846, for a two years’ voyage in the Atlantic.

Counting Vineyard-owned ships, those of other ports sailing under Vineyard masters, and Nantucket whaleships which fitted or returned to Edgartown, a total of thirty-three whaling ships were involved during the year.

What did the year 1846 mean in terms of dollars and cents to the Islanders? In the thirteen ships at sea that year there was nearly half a million dollars in invested capital when fully fitted. The aggregate catch of this fleet would be a sizable sum for the thriving little ports. The Splendid, Pocahontas and Vesta together brought home 1,850 barrels of sperm oil, 2,850 barrels of whale oil and 28,000 pounds of whale bone worth about $90,000.

This is far from being a record catch, and the Vineyard was to have years of even greater returns. But the prosperity brought home in Vineyard-owned ships, together with the returns from fitting out Nantucket ships, and also the wages brought home by Vineyard masters, officers and men from other ports, all contributed toward making the Vineyard an unquestionable leading among whaling communities.

Compiled by Hilary Wallcox