When Mashpee Indians Went Whaling Together
It was one of those overly humid, summer days when I stopped in the National Archives regional center in Waltham, Massachusetts outside Boston. I had remembered a brief email from a colleague two years before, telling me of a crew list from an 1825 whaling voyage which included men from the Wampanoag Indian community of Mashpee on Cape Cod. Not having found the document in the extensive archives in New Bedford, it seemed the “right moment” to check the holdings of Record Group 36, especially as my car’s air-conditioner was under-performing. It didn’t take long for the file box to appear, to find the original list, and to verify that seven Mashpee men, ages 15-42, were amongst a crew of 22, on the ship Good Return that departed August 1825 on a ten-month-long voyage. Unfolding that document was an exciting step in my ongoing study of how the maritime experiences of Wampanoag Indian whalers helped shape the histories of their communities.
The presence of seven Mashpee men on the same voyage is unique in my data base of Wampanoag Indian whalers. But whaling together in pairs or small groups was a community tradition, occurring, for example, in 20 voyages between 1815 and 1835. While at sea, Mashpee men likely talked about pressing issues back home including the abuse of tribal resources and their desire to govern themselves, free of appointed guardians. They also shared in the global experiences of travel and cultural encounters, learning skills while observing the lives of others. Upon returning, these men often became involved in community affairs. In January 1834, for example, the Mashpee community petitioned the Massachusetts Legislature, seeking redress from various ills. Signers included at least 10 Mashpee whalers including four who had shipped out on the Good Return in 1825, men, who after retiring from the sea, served their community as selectmen, tax collectors, and spokesmen.
Manuscript crew lists, preserved in the National Archives, help me develop life histories for specific whalers. As a community’s biographies multiply and overlap, the connections between work and home are enriched, helping us understand that Native mariners talked about much more than a great, white whale. Herman Melville did memorialize Wampanoag whalers in Moby-Dick. But unlike what happened to his character – the Gay Head Indian harpooner Tashtego – their communities survived down to the present day, in part because they went whaling together.
by: Russell G. Handsman