American History

Up In Flames

Swabbies in the U.S. Navy of the mid-1800s coveted coastal survey duty. Crews doing this work mapped such details as depths, shallows, obstructions, and tides along the American coasts. Survey duty meant regular shore leave, fresh food, and slim chances of combat. On Monday July 13, 1846, the crews of cutter USS Gallatin and schooner USS Wave completed a day of surveying the waters off Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and Martha’s Vineyard, a large island 13 miles from Cape Cod’s south shore. Sailing east, the warships anchored outside the harbor at Nantucket, the main town on an island of the same name about 35 miles east of the Vineyard. Around midnight, a sailor standing watch noticed a glow over Nantucket. The seaman alerted his superiors that the 48-square-mile island seemed to be on fire.

The Wampanoag, Nantucket’s aboriginal natives, had long scavenged the remains of beached whales for oil, meat, and bone to make tools. In the late 1600s, the island began to attract members of the Society of Friends. When Quakers came to New England to escape persecution in England only to encounter persecution by the region’s dominant Puritans, Quaker missionaries encouraged coreligionists to relocate to Nantucket, which was home to no organized sect. Nantucket’s first Quaker meeting established itself in 1708. As more and more Friends took up residence, the Wampanoag passed along their whale-scrounging skills.

Quakers, who lived simply and dressed plainly, opposed war, drink, and, sometimes, slavery. They were industrious, establishing banks, businesses, and philanthropies as well as founding on a Nantucket harbor opening to the northwest a town they initially called Sherburne.

Soon rudimentary three-and four-story buildings lined Sherburne’s narrow streets. Other towns and fishing villages, including Siasconset, eight miles east, took root. By 1742, the island’s Quaker population numbered 2,400.

From beachside carrion-picking, islanders progressed to sailing the globe in pursuit of live whales, which could weigh 65 tons. Setting off from ocean-going ships in rowboats, whalers ambushed surfaced cetaceans, hurling barbed lances called harpoons and fixed to a whaleboat with a stout line paid out around a hub. A successful strike set off a when a sperm whale stove in his ship’s bow and sank it. After the whaler wrecked in 1823, killing his seagoing career, Pollard retired to a job as one of his hometown’s night watchmen.

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