Explore the Rise and Fall of Southampton’s Whaling Industry

Whaling art painting
Image Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum

The Southampton Historical Museum is proving that Sag Harbor isn’t the only Hamptons town with serious whaling roots. Opening Saturday, March 4 and running through December 30, the museum’s major new exhibition, Hunting the Whale: The Rise and Fall of a Southampton Industry, is displaying a massive collection of artifacts not seen for some five decades and telling the stories of a wide range of historic characters from the whaling era.

Exhibition curator Emma Ballou explains that creating Hunting the Whale: The Rise and Fall of a Southampton Industry has been a goal of hers since she first saw Southampton Historical Museum’s collection of whaling artifacts when she began working there four years ago. “It’s astounding,” she said of the collection, which includes scrimshaw carvings, maps, whale bones, vintage photographs, all sorts of ephemera, tools, art and even some rare and valuable ambergris—the much sought after substance harvested from the bowels of sperm whales and used to make perfume.

Ambergris at the museum, Photo: Oliver Peterson

If visitors make an appointment, Ballou says they can even experience smelling a piece of synthetic ambergris, which is used in place of the real stuff—the museum has that too—since whaling was outlawed.

In addition to the artifacts and ephemera from the era, the museum is allowing guests to look into the lives of the great captains of the day, as well as some of the less vaunted figures, such as slaves and indentured servants. The show also looks at women of that time, who weren’t all just waiting on widow’s walks for their men to return. In fact, Ballou says, some women even joined their husbands on whaling voyages. One such woman in the show, Caroline Rose, got pregnant during a voyage and ended up giving birth to her daughter Emma in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Thomas Warren's wife and child
Thomas Warren’s wife and child, Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum

“I tried to tell the stories of people who didn’t have much of a voice during that period,” Ballou adds.

The curator also notes that when the weather gets warmer, the show will expand into the Sayre Barn, where more artifacts will be on view.

Hunting the Whale: The Rise and Fall of a Southampton Industry kicks off with an opening reception at 4 p.m. this Saturday, March 4 at the Southampton Historical Museum’s Rogers Mansion, located at 17 Meeting House Lane in Southampton.

Along with the main exhibition, some special programs are planned, including The Men Who Hunted the Whale: Southampton’s Many Sea Captains, a lecture and tour scheduled at the Rogers Memorial Library (91 Coopers Farm Road) in Southampton on Thursday, March 9 at 1 p.m. Toward the end of the 19th century, well past the days of the great whaling boom, historian William S. Pelletreau counted some 40 whaling captains still living in Southampton and noted that their lives and adventures would make a “work of the greatest interest.” In this free talk, Southampton Historical Museum Executive Director Tom Edmonds will offer highlights from the lives of some of these courageous seamen. Following the talk, at 2:30 p.m., all are invited to the Rogers Mansion for a self-guided tour of the museum and the main exhibit.

"Life in the Forecastle" etching
“Life in the Forecastle” etching, Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum

Two weeks later, on Thursday, March 23 at 11 a.m., David Bunn Martine, great- great-grandson of David Waukus Bunn, a Shinnecock whaler who died on the Circassian shipwreck off Bridgehampton in 1876, will talk about Shinnecock whaling and Shinnecock cultural history in Shinnecock Culture & Whaling History with David Bunn Martine. The lecture is free and located at the Rogers Mansion.

To register for either event, call the museum at 631-283-2492.

To learn more about Hunting the Whale: The Rise and Fall of a Southampton Industry, visit southamptonhistoricalmuseum.org.

1858 map of Southampton
1858 map of Southampton, Courtesy Southampton Historical Museum

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