Part of a continuing weekly series on Alaska history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage or Alaska history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
“God have Mercy on this Whaling Fleet and deliver us from the cold and Icy shores.”
A desperate and despairing whaling ship captain wrote those words in 1871. At that time, sea ice had trapped his and 32 other vessels of a 40-ship American whaling fleet in the waters off Alaska, between Wainwright and Point Barrow. Onboard were 1,219 scared people who would eventually have to abandon their ships and cross the icy seas in open whaleboats. Collectively, this event is known as the whaling disaster of 1871, and it changed the whaling industry forever.
In June 1871, the 40 whaling ships entered the Bering Strait. For most of the vessels, their homeports were the far-distant whaling centers of New England, like New Bedford. Other ships in the flotilla were registered out of New York, Honolulu, San Francisco, and even one from Sydney, Australia. Their names included the Comet, Elizabeth Swift, Eugenia, Fanny, Florida, Monticello, Reindeer, Roman, Seneca, and Gay Head, the latter a town in Massachusetts now called Aquinnah.
They wanted the whales for their valuable oil and baleen, known as whalebones. Whale oil had many uses, including lamp fuel, lubricants, and soap. Designers and dressmakers used whalebone to provide the structure for corsets and skirts. Whalebones were also popular for whips, umbrellas, canes, fishing rods, brushes clubs, and every other product that called for slender and flexible materials.
As the ships passed through the strait, the whalers began killing every walrus within reach. When the American whaling ships first began harvesting the waters off Alaska, the walruses had shown no fear, even approaching the ships out of curiosity. When the whale populations declined, the walruses, also harvested for their oil, were increasingly attractive targets. A single ship might kill 500 walruses during a seasonal run, until the walrus population itself began to collapse. Some captains were sickened by the slaughter and its ramifications for Indigenous people on both sides of the Bering Sea. In 1872, an anonymous “Shipmaster” wrote in the New Bedford Republican Standard, “This cold winter, I have no doubt, there is mourning in many an Arctic home as the little ones cry for something to eat, and the parents have nothing to give, for the walrus are killed or driven far away.”
The ships crowded together in the narrow, ice-free channel in the Bering Strait. In July 1871, one of the captains noted, “The ice was still heavy and well to the south all across the ocean.” Iñupiat who traded with the whalers warned them to retreat while they could, but the captains pressed forward. The sea ice through the strait and off the northern Alaska coast was only open for a few short months each summer, and the money to be made — or lost if they turned around — weighed heavily on their minds.
By the beginning of August, the fleet was behind schedule, encountering strong winds and heavy ice. On Aug. 6, many of the ships passed Icy Point, with Wainwright as the next goal and Point Barrow as their final destination. The captains navigated through a narrow channel between the shore and ice, secure in the belief that the winds would continue to blow the ice farther away from land. The reality quickly became more treacherous as ships avoided floes or even became briefly trapped in the ice, as with the Seneca, then the northernmost whaler. By Aug. 17, 33 of the 40 ships were working along the coast, still 70 miles from Point Barrow.
Before Aug. 29, 1871, the situation shifted from dangerous to dire. The wind reversed, and the floes drifted back toward the shore. That afternoon, the Monticello and Elizabeth Swift ran aground. The ice creaked and groaned around them. Willie Williams, son of the Monticello captain and still a boy, was forever haunted by the ice. He later recalled, “There is within it a power which cannot be expressed and can only be partially comprehended.”
Over the next few days, the sailors fought to free ships or keep them from becoming trapped. On Sept. 1, the Roman was hit by ice and sank. Its crew rowed their overloaded whaling boats 20 miles to the nearest ship. The next day, the brig Comet was caught between two floes. The grinding action snapped its timbers and pressed the wreckage upwards, allowing sailors to escape by dropping to the ice below. Six days after that, the Awashonks was also struck by ice and sank. Attempts to send lightened ships for help failed. During the night of Sept. 9 to 10, the water around the ships froze. The 1,219 people aboard the trapped whalers were left with one choice.
On Sept. 12, the choice was made to abandon the ships and strive for the seven remaining vessels of the fleet that were anchored 40-90 miles away on Blossom Shoals off Icy Cape. The stranded ships were then located around Point Belcher, northeast of Wainwright. The captains signed a statement and left their flags flying upside down, a universal sign of distress.
“We, the undersigned, masters of whaleships now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful situation, have all come to the conclusion that our ships cannot be got out this year, and there being no harbor that we can get our vessels into, and not having provisions enough to feed our crews to exceed three months, and being in a barren country, where there is neither food nor fuel to be obtained, we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning our vessels, and trying to work our way south with our boats, and, if possible, get on board of ships that south of the ice.”
Whaling expeditions lasted years, which understandably strained relationships between long-separated partners. As the 19th century progressed, an increasing number of wives, typically officers’ wives, joined in for the ride. By the 1850s, as many as one of every six whaling ships carried the captain’s wife. Several women also joined crews while dressed as men, people like Georgiana Leonard, also known as George Weldon. Leonard/Weldon was only revealed after attempting to stab an officer.
As such, several women — and children — were among the 1,219 stranded people at Point Belcher. Eliza Williams, mother of William and wife to Thomas, captain of the Monticello, was among them. She was five months pregnant when she first left on a whaling expedition. As of the disaster of 1871, she had given birth to three children at sea and was still at her husband’s side.
The crew loaded the whaleboats with what provisions and gear would fit, and then they left the scene, not as one mass but in dribs and drabs. Young Willie Williams wrote, “I doubt if I can adequately describe the leave-taking of our ship. It was depressing enough to me, and you know a boy can always see possibilities of something novel or interesting in most any change.”
Somewhere between 150 and 200 whaleboats took part in the journey. Those small, open, and relatively frail boats bobbed in the water, with passengers and food soaked by the salty spray. And yet, they all survived. Every single one of the 1,219 people lived. None even had a serious injury. By Sept. 17, all the survivors had reached the remaining ships, which dumped most of their catch and equipment to make room.
Of the abandoned ships, 32 were destroyed. Most were crushed by the ice and sank. Nearby Iñupiat stripped some and set them on fire. The following year, the bark Minerva was surprisingly found intact and was salvaged. Decades of waves, currents, and ice dragged the wreckage for miles, scattering the pieces far and wide.
The whaling disaster of 1871 was a significant inflection point in the decline of the American whaling industry. However, other factors played a role, including the most obvious, the massive depopulation of whales. Whaling ships operated under a singular objective: “You are not to omit taking a whale when you can.” The market for whale byproducts also shrunk from the introduction of competitors, like rapeseed oil for whale oil and steel for whalebones.
From a peak of 736 ships in 1864, the American whaling fleet declined to less than 100 by the 1890s and less than 50 in the early 1900s. In the second half of the 19th century, lost whaling ships were often not replaced, including those destroyed by Confederate raiders during the Civil War, another 12 ships lost in Alaska waters in 1876, or the numerous others taken by ice, storms, and the degradation of time. Most of the lost 1871 fleet was insured, but the owners increasingly shifted their investments toward other avenues, primarily textiles.
More than 150 years later, the most inconceivable aspect of this story is the presence of enough sea ice to trap an entire fleet in September. Still, the diminished sea ice of today allowed for a final footnote to the story. In 2015, The NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries’ Maritime Heritage Program launched a new search for remains from the 1871 fleet in cooperation with several other federal, state, and local agencies, and including interviews with Iñupiat elders.
The research team surveyed the nearshore waters between Wainwright and Point Franklin and discovered wreckage from what they determined were two members of the doomed whaling fleet. The ravages of time made specific ship identifications impossible, but their details matched those of period whaling vessels in general and the 1871 fleet specifically, including iron braces for try pots. A distinguishing feature of whaling ships, try pots were used to boil out the oil from whale blubber. More debris surely remain hidden in the waters off Alaska, relics of a different, long past time.
Barr, Bradley W., James P. Delgado, Matthew S. Lawrence, and Hans K. Tilburg. “The Search for the 1871 Whaling Fleet of the Western Arctic: Writing the Final Chapter.” International Journal of Nautical Archeology 46, no. 1 (2017): 149-163.
Bockstoce, John. Whales, Ice, and Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1986.
Lindgren, James M. “‘Let Us Idealize Old Types of Manhood’: The New Bedford Whaling Museum.” New England Quarterly 72, no. 2 (1999): 163-206.
Nichols, Peter. Final Voyage: A Story of Arctic Disaster and One Fateful Whaling Season. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2009.