The Essex entered the Pacific Ocean in December 1819 at a time when Nantucket whalers’ practical knowledge of where to hunt and where to resupply was rapidly changing. As sperm whales became scarce in the familiar waters off Chile and Peru, captains looked for new cruising grounds. The discovery by Nantucket captains of rich sperm-whale stocks in the remote Offshore Ground in 1818 and the distant Japan Ground in late 1819 altered the whale-hunting map of the Pacific. And Hawaii quickly became the gateway to these new grounds after the Equator of Nantucket and the Balaena of New Bedford became the first pelagic whalers to call at the Sandwich Islands, in September 1819.
Navigating the World’s Oceans
Captain Pollard navigated his way around the globe by dead reckoning, carefully charting his ship’s speed and direction. Noon observations of the sun on clear days gave him his north–south position, but, unlike more accomplished navigators, he did not know how to use lunar observations to find his east–west position. Like most whalers, he did not carry a chronometer (seagoing clock).
(Click on an images for more detail)
Stopping Points in the Pacific
Veteran whalemen knew where to reprovision safely along the South American coast. During 1820, Captain Pollard brought the Essex into a half-dozen well-known harbors between Cape Horn and the equator to lay in wood, fish, fruit, vegetables, and—most vital—water. A week in the Galápagos Islands yielded 360 giant tortoises, prized by whalers for their longevity and taste.
The Offshore Ground
In 1818, Captain George W. Gardner sailed the Nantucket whaler Globe into the open ocean a thousand miles west of the Peruvian coast, where none of his fellow islanders had sailed before, and discovered rich stocks of sperm whales. Word of this Offshore Ground spread quickly, and scores of ships were hunting there within two years.
Captain Pollard and his mates knew little about the more remote places of the Pacific. They had heard rumors of cannibals in the Marquesas Islands, although American merchant ships called there from time to time. They were entirely ignorant of the Society Islands, despite 20 years of English missionary activity there. As Nantucketers, they trusted places they had visited and distrusted places they had not.
Whaling Voyages, 1819–20
Hundreds of vessels and thousands of sailors hunted whales on the world’s oceans in 1819 and 1820. Adventure and danger were as common as backbreaking labor and oily gore.
Explore some of these voyages below through logbooks and journals in the NHA collection. Also, visit Gosnell Hall in the Whaling Museum to see the interactive exhibit from the 2015 exhibition that highlights the journeys of these vessels based on logbook entries.
Ship Spring Grove
Owner: Campbell & Watson, London
Master: George Rule
Logbook keeper: J.K. Davidson
Return: 1,657 barrels of sperm oil
Owner: Zenas Coffin
Master: Isaac Chase
Logbook keeper: William Sayer, first mate
Return: 1,100 barrels of sperm oil
Owner: Richard Mitchell & Co., Nantucket
Master: Micajah Gardner
Logbook keeper: Micajah Gardner
Return: 500 barrels whale oil, 40 hogsheads sperm oil, 1,500 pounds whalebone
Owner: S. & O. Macy
Master: John Brown
Logbook keeper: unknown
Return: 1,515 barrels of sperm oil
Owner: P. & C. Mitchell
Master: George W. Gardner
Logbook keeper: George W. Gardner
Return: 2,090 barrels of sperm oil