A brief history of Pacific whaling

Pacific Steam Whaling Co., based in San Francisco, was one of several firms that made a fortune hunting whales in the North Pacific, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean in the late-18th and early-19 centuries. Whale blubber was rendered into valuable oil and whale bones and baleen were used for a wide array of purposes in the pre-plastics era — everything from ladies’ corsets to chimney-sweep brushes.

Story by Matt Winters

Yankee whalers had a devastating impact on Pacific marine mammals, cleaning out one pocket of whales, seals, and otters after another. Impacts multiplied after the great Northwest coast whaling grounds were discovered in 1838, according to “A History of the American Whale Fishery,” (1907) by Walter Sheldon Tower.

When highly lucrative Arctic whaling began in 1848, whalers started to be based on this side of the continent, mostly out of California. With the arrival of railroads after the Civil War, San Francisco in effect became the nation’s whaling capital, as whale oil from the far north could be landed there and then quickly shipped by rail to the East.

(As an aside, the presence of Northern whaling ships led to the Pacific Coast’s only nautical involvement in the Civil War, when the CSS Shenandoah cruised into high Arctic waters, capturing many whalers. Unaware of Lee’s surrender on April 9, 1865, the Shenandoah fired the last shots of the war in the Bering Sea off the coast of Alaska between June 22 and 28, 1865.)

Smaller operations continued into the 20th century, including, for example, the American Pacific Whaling Co., which wintered in Meydenbauer Bay on Lake Washington, now part of Bellevue.

Locally, Bioproducts Inc. of Oregon whaled out of Warrenton, harvesting about 13 whales — including two humpbacks — between 1960 and 1965. The meat was sold to feed chickens and fur-farm mink. For reasons that are no longer easy to discern, NASA had some use for lubricating oil in the Mercury space program, but most was sold to the Mt. Hood Soap Co.

The son of one participant recalled that ground whale meat tasted just like hamburger.

These bone darts from an archaeological site in Seaside have been cited as evidence for whale hunting by Clatsop Indians in pre-European settlement times.

Tribal traditions

On the U.S. West Coast, the Makah Tribe on the northwest tip of the Olympic Peninsula is best known for a whaling tradition, one which they’ve sought to revive in recent years as an essential attribute of their culture.

Here around the mouth of the Columbia, there is less of an oral recollection of whaling. Charles Cultee of Bay Center, Washington, one of the last handful of surviving native speakers of the Chinook language, in 1890 told ethnologist Franz Boas of whaling traditions. But they primarily appear to involve harvesting whales that became stranded on beaches or washed ashore still fresh enough to scavenge.

Among the Clatsop Tribe on the south side of the river, for instance, Cultee reported there was a routine practice of always carrying knives, carrying straps and mats to be ready in case a whale became available — suggesting it happened fairly often. A large piece of whale meat was valuable enough to trade for a blanket.

Sadly, it is easy to imagine that local Indian populations had been so decimated that local whale-hunting practices had been forgotten before anyone sought their recollections.

In a 2014 paper for the University of Washington, Kayla Krantz wrote, “The archaeological site of Par-Tee in Seaside, Oregon has, over the course of excavations here in the 1960s-70s, yielded certain key finds and pieces of evidence leading to an interesting debate surrounding potential whale hunting at this site, a site located well beyond the location of other archaeologically known areas for indigenous whaling.”

Setting aside the amusing coincidence that a Seaside archaeological site is called “Par-Tee,” Krantz goes on to say, “The most compelling piece of evidence from the site, dubbed ‘a smoking gun’ by those enthusiastic about the idea that whaling was practiced in Oregon, is a humpback whale phalange deeply embedded with an elk bone point.” Analysis found the artifact dates between AD 650 and 950.