When English colonists first began settling the eastern seaboard of North America, they quickly discovered in its coastal waters enough fish to feed the growing Euro-American population for generations. A variety of whales also swam the coastal waters of America’s astonishingly rich fisheries too. While fish supplied food, whales yielded precious sperm oil and whale oil, which in time became the fuels of choice for lighting American homes, businesses, and streets, and later still, important lubricants for industrial machinery. Skyrocketing demand for these substances spurred massive growth in the commercial ocean-going whaling industry by the early 18th century, and by the 19th century, whale and sperm oil had become indispensable elements of energy production undergirding the American economy.
As the number of American whaling ships soared into the hundreds, whalers fished out American coastal waters along the eastern seaboard, forcing them to take the hunt further afield into the Pacific and Arctic oceans. The US Navy produced this map in 1851 to show whaling ship captains the chief cruising grounds for the most commonly hunted varieties of whales. Using data from a variety of sources (including the log books of whaling vessels), the chart makers marked these areas with colors and a variety of pictorial and letter symbols to indicate the primary locations of seasonal migration routes for each whale species.
The chart’s creator, Lt. Matthew Fontaine Maury, served as the superintendent of the US Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments (later the US Naval Observatory) from 1842 to 1861, and for his work recording ocean conditions, historians now consider him the father of modern oceanography.
Maury produced his whale chart at an auspicious time, the golden age of American whaling. Just four years before, in 1847, whalers had their most productive year ever, churning out an all-time high of 430,000 barrels of sperm and whale oil. Even as the whaling trade was riding high, though, new energy alternatives to sperm and whale oil such as lard oil (a derivative of pig fat) and kerosene appeared that soon challenged the traditional dominance of this fuel source. Whaling received its final deathblow after the discovery of crude oil in Pennsylvania in 1859. For the next half-century, the whaling life, which Herman Melville had portrayed so poignantly in his 1850 novel Moby Dick, died out almost completely.
I found this chart in the course of my historical research among a collection of Maury’s ocean wind and current charts at the Library of Congress. The Navy originally produced it for mass distribution, so copies of it are scattered far and wide throughout libraries and archives in the US. The trick was finding a goodcopy that was accessible to the researcher, and which could be reproduced electronically. In my first go at searching for this, I found poor-quality black-and-white versions at the National Archives, so I had to look further afield, where I found the version of the whale chart you see here.