Excerpt: Native American Whalemen and the World, by Nancy Shoemaker

shoemaker_nativeIn the nineteenth century, nearly all Native American men living along the southern New England coast made their living traveling the world’s oceans on whaleships. Many were career whalemen, spending twenty years or more at sea. Highlighting the shifting racial ideologies that shaped the lives of these whalemen, Nancy Shoemaker shows how the category of “Indian” was as fluid as the whalemen were mobile.

In the following excerpt from Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race (pp. 40-44), Shoemaker explores the racial profiling and “glass ceilings” that affected Native American and African American whalemen in the 1800s.


Native Americans were one small constituency in a diverse whaling workforce brought together by ship owners for one purpose only—to cooperate in gathering whale products from the world’s oceans.[1] The merchant investors, who did the initial hiring, sought trustworthy, skilled officers and cheap, hardy, and obedient laborers. With profit as their objective, they were open to hiring any man who could do the job but not if the crew’s social composition threatened orderly collaboration. From the top down, federal laws and industry standards applied measures to enhance productivity by dampening the volatility such diversity produced: they privileged rank over race and regulated the number of foreigners serving on American ships. From the bottom up, seamen brought prejudices on board with them. The color of one’s skin, the land of one’s birth, and the language one spoke inflected how shipmates interacted with each other and at any time could combust in conflict. Even though race had no formal role in how the ship operated, it loitered beneath the surface to bear on who was hired to do what job and shadowed shipboard relations with unspoken assumptions. Cultural differences rooted in national origins, though more institutionalized in industry policies than race, created another kind of divisive social hierarchy informing shipboard relations. Gender had the capacity to ease tensions rooted in race and ethnicity by giving whalemen a means to construct a more unified shipboard culture around a common identity as men.

Race generalized to create distance between white men and men of color but also particularized to produce myriad, divergent experiences. That Native American and African American men were both racial minorities within the United States or that Native Americans and Pacific Islanders were both indigenous peoples confronting colonization suggests that bonds might have formed along these lines, but if any one ethnic group felt a special allegiance to another aboard ship, it is not apparent in whaling records. Even New England natives showed the strongest attachment to their own local communities, and Mashpee Wampanoags, Gay Head Wampanoags, and Shinnecocks often shipped in groups but did not usually intermingle. Five or six Shinnecocks on the same voyage was especially common. But the rare instances of Long Island natives and Wampanoags or Wampanoags from Mashpee and Martha’s Vineyard working on the same vessel appear to have happened only by chance.[2] All whalemen recognized a connection as occupants of a small, floating social community, but their heterogeneity could often pull them apart.

Race was one of the most divisive elements even though it had no official function in how the whaling industry operated. Beginning with the first nationwide census in 1790, the U.S. Census Bureau highlighted race as a vital social characteristic for understanding the makeup of the American populace, but federal maritime law downplayed race. The U.S. Customs Bureau’s paperwork for overseas voyages—seamen’s certificates of protection, crew lists, and shipping articles—had no category for race. The certificate of protection acted like a passport. Issued by a port authority, it gave a seaman’s name, birthplace, place of residence, age, and height and described his complexion and hair for purposes of personal identification. As the early American republic’s response to Barbary pirates, French and British privateers, and British impressment of American sailors, the protection vaguely hinted at diplomatic relief for sailors captured by pirates or foreign governments.[3] Inside the United States, federal and state laws left ambiguous the citizenship status of free blacks and did not consider Indians U.S. citizens, but as American-born seamen of color on overseas voyages, they were entitled to the same protection afforded white native-born and naturalized Americans.[4]

Information from protections was transferred to crew lists, which therefore had columns for height, complexion, and hair but still no category for race. One port authority in New London in the 1840s must have thought race important because, after filling in the complexion column with “black” or “Col’d,” the official added in the margins “A Negro,” “An Indian,” or “Mulatto,” but the form itself did not ask for racial designations.[5] The absence of a racial category on crew lists has confounded historians investigating race in maritime history. Some have attempted to treat complexion and hair as a proxy for race.[6] However, the plethora of complexion labels defies easy synthesis. Men who probably thought of themselves as white appear on crew lists with fair, light, dark, brown, sandy, ruddy, freckled, and occasionally swarthy complexions. Men of color were all over the map, too—rarely brown or dark, but instead black, African, negro, Indian, native, Kanaka (from the Hawaiian word for “man” and referring to a Pacific Islander), mulatto, colored, yellow, copper, and occasionally swarthy. Hair color, or “quality” as on some printed forms, added racial content. “Wooly” on a man with a yellow or colored complexion implied African descent, whereas a man with a yellow or colored complexion but “black strait” hair suggested Indian ancestry. That “brown” and “dark” rarely described the complexions of men known to be of Indian or African descent in a time when dark and brown had racial inferences, in phrases such as “darkies” or “brown people,” is one of crew lists’ peculiarities.

Another is how a man’s complexion might change over several voyages. On crew lists for vessels out of his home town of Mattapoisett from the 1830s to 1850s, Amos Haskins had a “copper” complexion and “black” hair but was listed as having “marly” hair in 1849 and, in 1851, on his first voyage as captain, a “mulatto” complexion. The complexion of his younger brother Samuel, who resided at Gay Head for most of his adult life, was “dark” in 1844, “mulatto” in 1852, “black” in 1856, “Indian” in 1858, and “black” in 1865.[7] Samuel Haskins’s own identity was probably not this quixotic. Rather, he must have acquired multiple protections, and the process of recording his complexion varied each time. Who determined a man’s complexion? Did the whaleman himself have a say? Did all three men involved in the process—the seaman, his witness, and the port official—debate the issue, or did the port authority simply decide by looking at the applicant? Because seamen’s protections also could be obtained from a distance, more idiosyncrasies entered in. A Cape Cod middleman who bought a share in Jesse Cowet’s voyage in 1815 told the ship’s agent that Cowet “wants a few things—he wants a Protection he measures 5 feet 5 Inches—not much hare on the top of his head—a yellow skin he is 25 years old.” Cowet must have lost his previous protection, which listed him as “mulatto.”[8] What one observer judged mulatto, another thought better summed up as yellow. In any case, descriptions of complexions skirted around race without assigning men to racial categories.

Race did not regulate the use of space on whaleships either, since rank dictated where one ate and slept. In the early nineteenth century, during the period crew lists sometimes demarcated a group of men at the bottom as “Black Hands,” some ship owners and captains may have extended the same racial segregation to living quarters. Addison Pratt, a white foremast hand on the Rambler in 1822, described how the forecastle, where foremast hands usually slept, was “filled with darkies” and separate from where “the white portion of the hands lived.” He believed this a deliberate policy intended to prevent foremast hands from plotting mutinous alliances.[9] But the ill-fated Nantucket ship Essex, sunk by a sperm whale in 1820, was not racially segregated. Two-thirds of the twenty men making up the ship’s complement, including the company’s six blacks, resided in the forecastle. The boy Thomas Nickerson lived in steerage, where he felt himself “fortunate indeed to escape being so closely pent up with so large a number of blacks.” Rank prevailed over racial antipathies. Race may have factored in more subtly since blacks were among the first to die and be eaten as the Essex’s survivors fended off death by starvation.[10] And on some vessels, forecastles may have appeared as though segregated because foremast hands aligned themselves by race when choosing their bunks. But segregation by rank, not race, was the industry mandate.[11]

Racial preferences in hiring were also not codified, but shipping agents made decisions within racial frameworks, perhaps to appease white crew members’ fears of associating closely with blacks. Whereas perceptions of blacks and Indians in New England culture often collapsed them into a single racial category as colored people (see chapter 9), on the ship, racial assumptions contrasting each race’s abilities expanded Indians’ opportunities while limiting those for black seamen. If Indians were the ideal harpooners, African Americans were the ideal servants, and most easily found work on whaleships as cooks and stewards, service positions that offered a better lay than that of foremast hands (1/110 versus 1/170, for example) but led nowhere. After one voyage as steward, Amos Smalley of Gay Head pleaded with the captain on his next voyage to make him a boatsteerer: “I want to get up a little, Captain. I don’t want to ship again as a steward. I want to steer a boat.” Smalley’s father, Samuel, born in New York and identified in vital records as African and mulatto, had served as a steward on whaleships for years, but it was his boatsteerer brother Frankie whom Amos emulated.[12] Some black whalemen were boatsteerers and officers in defiance of typecasting, just as some Indian and white men took the jobs of cook and steward, but everyone in the industry knew that cooks and stewards were typically black.[13]

Occasionally, there was a blurring of racial categories. On the Draco in 1850, Captain James Cox found James W. DeGrass in steerage “playing cards with the cook and some of the crew.” On his third voyage with Cox as captain, DeGrass had worked his way up to second mate but was now off duty for illness. Or, “he says he is sick days but nights he appears well enough,” Cox wrote in his journal, lamenting further that “he has been with me nearly eleven years and this voyage he shows the negro.” With a Cape Verdean grandfather, DeGrass had some African ancestry. (Frederick Baylies’s 1823 parsing of Martha’s Vineyard Indians into fractions recorded six-year-old James DeGrass as five-eighths “Ind” and three-eighths “Neg.”) But in the incident aboard the Draco, DeGrass’s behavior—Cox’s belief that he was feigning sickness out of laziness while socializing with the cook—made Cox see him as black at that moment.[14]


From Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race by Nancy Shoemaker. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Shoemaker is professor of history at the University of Connecticut. Her book, Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race, is now available.

  1. [1]On crew diversity, see Busch, “Whaling Will Never Do for Me,” ch. 3; Schell, “A Bold and Hardy Race of Men,” ch. 6.
  2. [2]Examples include six Mashpee men (Isaac F. Hendrick, Walter R. Mingo, Watson F. T. Hammond, Kilbourn Webquish, and Grafton and Nicholas Pocknett), Departure crew list. U.S. Customs Office list of men departing on overseas voyages (DPT), ship Liverpool II of New Bedford, 1851–1853; seven Gay Head men (George and William Belain, Jonathan Cuff, Zaccheus Cooper, Joel Jared, William Weeks, and Thomas Jeffers), DPT, ship Adeline of New Bedford, 1843–1846; and ten Shinnecocks (Andrew, Wickham, Elias, and two James Cuffees, David and Alonzo Eleazer, Russell and William Bunn, and Milton Lee), ship Panama of Sag Harbor, 1847–1850, departure crew list at New Bedford Whaling Museum (NBW).
  3. [3]Stein, American Maritime Documents, 50–58, 145–48, 154; Sherman, Voice of the Whaleman, 59–65; Dana, Seaman’s Friend, 177–78.
  4. [4]Bradburn, Citizenship Revolution, ch. 7; Kettner, Development of American Citizenship, ch. 10.
  5. [5]For example, Departure crew list. U.S. Customs Office list of men returning from an overseas voyage (RTN), ship Jason of New London, 1842–1844, and ship Robert Browne of New London, 1842–1845.
  6. [6]Silverman, Faith and Boundaries, appendix B. Bolster, Black Jacks, 234–39, divides complexions into two categories, black and white; Putney’s Black Sailors similarly treats those with “yellow,” “coloured,” “mulatto,” and “black” complexions as African American.
  7. [7]Amos: DPT, bark Dryade of Rochester, 1834–1835; brig Mattapoisett of Rochester, 1839–1840; the aborted voyage on the brig Chase of Mattapoisett, 1841–1841; brig Annawan of Mattapoisett, 1843–1844; bark Cachalot of Mattapoisett, 1845–1847; bark Willis of Mattapoisett, 1847–1848; bark Elizabeth of Mattapoisett, 1849–1850; bark Massasoit of Mattapoisett, 1851–1852 and 1852–1853; bark Oscar of Mattapoisett, 1857–1861; his personal information is blank on brig March of Mattapoisett, 1860–1861. Samuel: DPT, brig Annawan of Mattapoisett, 1844–1846; bark Valparaiso of New Bedford, 1852–1856; schooner Palmyra of Mattapoisett, 1856–1857; brig Elvira of Mattapoisett, 1858–1859; bark Sarah of New Bedford, 1865–1867; for bark Samuel & Thomas of Mattapoisett, 1850–1852, complexion is blank. On their family relationship, see Shoemaker, “Mr. Tashtego,” 128.
  8. [8]S. Macy to Owners & Captain of Ship Thomas, 27 Sept. 1815, Edouard A. Stackpole Collection, MS335, Folder 1014, Nantucket Historical Association Research Library, Nantucket, Mass.; DPT, ship Walker of New Bedford, 1808–1810, and ship Martha of New Bedford, 1810–1811.
  9. [9]Pratt, Journals, 15–16.
  10. [10]Philbrick and Philbrick, Loss of the Ship Essex, 71, 73, 88 (quotation); Philbrick, In the Heart of the Sea, 165–67.
  11. [11]Bullen, Cruise of the Cachalot, 4.
  12. [12]Smalley, “I Killed ‘Moby Dick,’” 172–74; Samuel Smalley, 26 Jan. 1861, Marriages, Tisbury, and 9 Oct. 1893, Deaths, Gay Head, Massachusetts Vital Records, 1841-1910 (database), New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, Mass.
  13. [13]Bolster, Black Jacks, 167; Busch, “Whaling Will Never Do for Me,” 34–41.
  14. [14]SHP, bark Draco of New Bedford, 1847–1850; 15 Jan. 1850, James V. Cox, Journal, bark Draco of New Bedford, 1847–1850, Log 201, PPL; Baylies, Christiantown section.