The Mast-Head: How Whales Were Divided

Time was that drift whales, as they were called, were of tremendous importance here

A dead whale washed up at Indian Wells Beach in Amagansett on Monday. Another hit the beach east of the Maidstone Club yesterday. Predictably much of the response was downcast. “Sad,” some said, implying that human activity in the sea was to blame. 

Maybe it was the hand of man that killed this particular whale, a minke, or maybe it was not. The cause could be determined conclusively after a study of its carcass and tissues by biologists. Like all living creatures, though, death must come, and a hard east wind like the one we have been having on and off for the past week will drive some of them ashore.

Time was that drift whales, as they were called, were of tremendous importance here. In the early days of the East Hampton plantation, there were few laws, but a good number of them, as well as agreements with the native inhabitants, concerned whales found along the beach.

 The 1648 deed for East Hampton executed with the local sachems reserved for them the “fynns and tails of allsuch whales as shall be cast upp.” Moreover, the colonists agreed to pay 5 shillings to any Indian who found a whale. Unequal treatment was true from the beginning, though; a white “man of ye Towne” would be entitled to a piece of the valuable blubber three feet wide.

At the Town Meeting of November the 6, 1651, John Mulford was ordered to “call ont ye towne by succession to loke out for whale.” Two months later it took a Town Meeting to resolve a dispute over how a whale would be divided among residents. 

Wyandanch, the sachem of Long Island, put his mark on a deal by which Thomas James, the town minister, would get “one halfe of all the whales or other great fish shall at any tyme bee cast up uppon the Beach from Napeake Eastward to the end of the Lland. . . .” Lion Gardiner, of the island that bears his name, would get the other half. What, if anything, Wyandanch got was not described. 

James and Gardiner, perhaps the leading citizens of the time, were exempt from the communal dirty business of cutting up whales. Instead, they were to “give A quart of licker a peece to the cutters. . . .”

Whales were valuable enough at the time that debts could be settled with their oil or bone, the baleen. And they were valuable enough that the Town Court was called to settle several disagreements in the early days, including one in 1674 when James Loper sought redress after John Combes stole a portion of a whale from Loper’s cart. Combes countersued, claiming that Loper had snatched up bone and whale that belonged to him. 

Town Meeting in about that time established a law dealing with whales found floating dead without visible marks of a wound from a harpoon. By then the men were busy with the chase during whale season from small boats, and under the sharp eye of the watch, dead whales could be claimed well before they ever hit the shore.

These days, after the biologists’ work is done, whales are loaded onto a truck and taken off for incineration. As far as I know, none of the Montauketts living in this area has asked for their promised fins and tails for hundreds of years.