In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whales and “porpoises” (actually bottle-nose dolphins)* were hunted commercially by Outer Banks fishermen. Evidence of this industry on Ocracoke Island survives in the name of Try Yard Creek, located 6.1 miles northeast of the village of Ocracoke.
A “try yard” was a place where whales or porpoises were processed in order to “try out” or render the oil from blubber or fat.
Today, whales and dolphins are not only protected, but have become iconic symbols of ocean conservation. A number of organizations are dedicated specifically to the protection of marine mammals. Tour boats around the world take tourists and photographers on “Whale Watching Cruises” and “Dolphin Watching Cruises.” Some coastal communities offer opportunities to swim with captive dolphins, and the Internet contains thousands of images and videos of whales and dolphins taken by amateur and professional photographers.
A Whale Sighted off Ocracoke’s Beach:
It is easy to forget that life on the Outer Banks, even one hundred years ago, was much different than it is today. The residents of these wind-swept sandy banks were isolated, poor, and unsophisticated. They were also resourceful, creative, and self-sufficient. They did what they could to survive and feed their families, and that sometimes meant hunting whales and “porpoises.”
By the early 1700s the American whaling industry was centered in New England.
Engraving from Account of the Arctic Regions (1820), by W. Scoresby:
In 1666 Peter Cartaret, assistant governor of Albemarle (which later became North Carolina), granted a commercial whaling license to three New England mariners, granting them permission to take whales in the colony’s waters. There is no evidence that they took advantage of the license.
For almost two centuries, beginning in the mid-1600s, residents of coastal North Carolina engaged in shore-based whaling activities, while New England whalers eventually operated far out to sea in square-rigged ships specially outfitted for the task.
North Carolina whalers never pursued their prey in the open ocean. Initially, they relied exclusively on “drift whales,” cetaceans that became stranded in shallow water, or that died at sea and washed ashore. Later, pursuit of whales became more active as crews ventured just off-shore in small boats rowed by four men. In 1725 the governor of North Carolina issued a license to Samuel Chadwick of Carteret Precinct “to fish for Whale or Other Royall fish on ye Seay Coast of the Government and whatsoever you shall catch to convert to your own use paying to ye Hon. ye Governor one tenth parte of ye Oyls and bone Made by Vertue of this License.”
License Granted to Samuel Chadwick:
Most North Carolina whaling was based at Cape Lookout and Shackleford Banks, although it extended throughout the region from Hatteras, southward. The season began in December, and continued into June. The peak months were February, March, and April.
Sperm whales, humpback whales, blackfish (short-finned pilot whales) and others were sometimes pursued, but the right whale (so named because it was the “right” whale to hunt) was the primary target. Right whales typically swam closer to shore, were more docile, and floated after being killed.
The typical Outer Banks whaleboat was 20-25 feet long, double-ended, high in the bow and stern, and constructed of lapped planks. It was designed to be rowed by four men. Another acted as steersman, while a sixth, often the captain, remained in the bow, ready to throw the harpoon.
The earliest harpoons employed in North Carolina were of the simple single-flue or two-flue variety. Later, “toggle-irons” (harpoons with a pivoting barbed head secured with a wooden shear pin) were used. After penetrating the whale’s muscle, tension on the harpoon line broke the shear pin, turning the barbed point at a right angle making it difficult to dislodge.
Outer Banks shore-whalers employed a drudge (also called a “drag,” a “drug,” or a “drogue”), a block of wood that was tied to the end of the 40- to 240-foot long harpoon line. Although the drudge acted somewhat as a sea anchor, slowing and tiring the whale, it was primarily intended as a buoy to help identify the harpooned whale’s position.
Unlike pelagic whalers, North Carolina whalers seldom maintained continuous contact with the harpooned whale. This may account for the fact that no Outer Banks whaler is known to have been killed in pursuit of a whale.
After the Civil War, shoulder guns were sometimes used to fire explosive “bomb lances” that penetrated and exploded deep within the whale’s body.
Dead whales were towed to shore, often requiring hours of hard rowing. A block-and-tackle was used to pull the carcass above the high tide line where it was butchered and tryed.
The trying process, which remained essentially unchanged for more than one hundred years, was graphically described by H. H. Brimley in his 1894 article, Whale Fishing in North Carolina: “The head is cut off and the whalebone cut out of the upper jaws in blocks and piled up like a shock of corn. The tongue is next cut out in pieces, being too large to handle whole…. The tools used in cutting up are known as spades. They are long and broad-bladed chisels, ground very sharp and fitted with a long wooden handle. The whole tool is some six or eight feet long, and the blade six or eight inches across. The blubber is cut in long strips with a pushing, jabbing motion of the spade and then crosswise so as to get it off in square blocks small enough for two men to handle. A hole is cut near one edge, a pole run through it and it is then carried across to the try kettles….”
Cutting up Whale Blubber on Shore:
Brimley continues, “The try kettles are large iron pots of about fifty gallons capacity…set in brick-work over one fire. The blubber, as it is cut from the carcass, is piled up near the try kettles. It is then ‘minced,’ either with a spade in a tub or on a bench with an old scythe blade, and is then thrown into the kettles. As the boiling is finished the oil is dipped out with a long-handled copper ladle and poured into the strainer, which consists of a wide-flaring trough with holes in the bottom, the holes being plugged loosely with bulrushes. The strained oil runs into a long dug-out trough with a partition across the center, the partition also having auger holes plugged with bulrushes. The secondary straining renders the oil perfectly clear, and from the lower end of the big trough it runs through a hole in the side into a small movable trough which connects with the bung-hole of the barrel. The barrel lies on its side in a hole in the ground and as soon as filled is lifted out and replaced by another. The crackling is dumped from the strainer in a pile and used as required, in conjunction with red cedar wood (the common growth on the banks), in keeping up the fire under the pot. On the leeward side of the kettles the steam from the boiling oil, combined with the thick smoke of the burning crackling, makes the smell one to be remembered.”
Trying Out the Oil:
In 1737 John Brickell, in The Natural History of North-Carolina, described an incident involving whaling and the Outer Banks: “These Monsters [whales] are very numerous on the Coasts of North-Carolina, and the Bone and Oil would be a great Advantage to the Inhabitants that live on the Sand-Banks along the Ocean, if they were as dexterous and industrious in Fishing for them as they are Northwards; but as I observed before the People in these parts are not very much given to Industry, but wait upon Providence to throw those dead Monsters on Shoar, which frequently happens to their great advantage and Profit. For which reason abundance of Inhabitants dwell upon the Banks near the Sea for that Intent, and the benefit of Wrecks of Vessels which are sometimes driven in upon these Coasts. Not many Years ago there were two Boats that came from the Northward to Ocacock Island, to fish, and carried away that Season Three Hundred and Forty Barrels of Oil, beside the Bone, but these Fishermen going away without paying the Tenths to the Governor, they never appeared to fish on these Coasts afterwards, or any other that I ever could hear of.”
Although shore-based whaling was always seasonal, and never amounted to more than a minor industry on the Outer Banks, whale oil was quite valuable as a lubricant and lamp fuel. Whale oil was especially prized for fuel in Outer Banks lighthouses. During the Proprietary period (prior to 1729), whale oil even became an official medium of currency.
With the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, whaling in North Carolina was significantly curtailed. According to Marcus Simpson and Sallie Simpson in Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, “[t]he ensuing years of embargoes, seizures, war, destruction of ships, and port blockades decimated the American whaling enterprise. Just before the Revolution, the industry employed some 4,700 men and 360 vessels, with an annual production of 45,000 barrels of sperm oil, 8,500 barrels of whale oil, and 75,000 pounds of whalebone. By 1789 the fleet had been reduced to 130 vessels and the annual production of sperm oil to 10,000 barrels.”
In 1789, two North Carolina entrepreneurs and merchants, John Gray Blount and John Wallace, established a commercial entrepôt on a small oyster “rock” in Pamlico Sound between Ocracoke and Portsmouth. Dubbed Shell Castle, the island was home to more than forty people, including twenty-two slaves. Shell Castle had wharves and warehouses, a ship’s chandlery, and a tavern, as well as a wooden lighthouse and several dwellings for the owners, servants, and slaves.
Although Shell Castle was primarily used for “lightering” (transferring cargo from larger, sea-going ships to smaller, lighter vessels capable of negotiating shallower channels in Pamlico Sound), Blount and Wallace also engaged in mullet fishing, ship building, salvage operations, and storage services.
By 1793 the owners of Shell Castle had initiated a porpoise fishery, perhaps the earliest such operation, although others were established on the Outer Banks after the Civil War. Porpoises were prized for their oil, and for their skins, which produced a supple, waterproof leather suitable for boots. Porpoise meat was sometimes consumed locally, although its strong, oily flavor prevented it from being marketed commercially.
In a typical operation, fifteen to eighteen slaves in four small boats surrounded the marine mammals and contained them within heavy, large-mesh nets. Once trapped, thirty to forty porpoises at a time were surrounded by a smaller seine and hauled closer to shore. As David Cecelski writes in The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, “The rest was a grisly business. Once they had trapped them in the surf, the slave boatmen waded into the water and knifed the dolphins that had not already drowned. Then they gaffed the animals and dragged them ashore. Cutting off the flippers and dorsal fins, the men stripped off the skin and blubber and rendered their oil by fire.”
Whereas a single right whale could yield more than 1,000 gallons of high quality oil for lamp fuel or lubricant, one dolphin might yield six to eight gallons of oil. However, a single large haul of one hundred or more dolphins could provide 750 gallons of oil, a more reliable source of income, obtained at less risk (especially for the slave owner).
In the early nineteenth century, porpoise fishing and whaling were an important commercial activity in Beaufort and Cape Lookout on the Carolina coast. In 1806 about 200 gallons of oil were processed there. The enterprises continued to expand until the outbreak of the Civil War when, as noted, the cost of boats, nets and other equipment stifled the industry until the mid-1880s, when three porpoise fisheries were again active in Cartaret County.
Fishermen set up tents and temporary huts (constructed of saplings, bull-rushes, and reeds) on Bogue Banks (west of Cape Lookout) and elsewhere along the Outer Banks, as base camps from which to pursue porpoises, whales, mullet and other fish.
Whaling on the North Carolina coast came to an end in March, 1916, when the last whale, a 57-foot right whale, was killed near Cape Lookout.
Porpoise fishing continued for another ten years. At least two porpoise factories were established at Hatteras in the late nineteenth century. In 1885, former Union officer Colonel Jonathan P. Wainwright commenced operation of his enterprise (Porpoise Oil and Leather Manufactury, Wainright and Co.) which continued until December, 1892. Hatteras native, John W. Rollinson, was captain and superintendant of one of two crews.
When porpoises were sighted, fishermen on the shore launched lapstrake dories (15-foot long lightweight double-ended rowing boats with high bows and sterns, constructed with overlapping hull planks). They set thousand-foot-long nets of extra heavy twine, and hauled the mammals onto the beach. In a procedure almost identical to the operation at Shell Castle one hundred years earlier, the porpoises were killed by stabbing them under the left fin.
The processing facility was located not on the beach, but on the sound side of Hatteras village, adjacent to a dock that extended into deep water. The facility consisted of large tanks positioned over furnaces where the jaw fat was “tryed” or rendered to produce high quality oil used for lubricants in watches, clocks, and other delicate instruments. Body blubber was tryed to produce a lesser grade oil for lamp fuel and other purposes. The hides were sold for manufacturing machinery belts.
A freight boat arrived periodically to transport the finished products to market.
Fishing for porpoises usually began in October or November, and lasted until the end of May. In the first season 1,295 porpoises were caught. By 1892, the porpoise fishery was moribund. Only 57 porpoises were harvested, all of them in December.
In 1887 a smaller porpoise fishery was begun by a man named Zimmerman. But already the industry was in decline. Cheaper kerosene was rapidly replacing whale and porpoise oil for lamp fuel. By 1890 low prices for porpoise hides added to the problem. It was simply too expensive to catch the animals, prepare the hides, and try out the oil.
There was a resurgence of porpoise fishing in the 1920s when Joseph K. Nye of New Bedford, Massachusetts, located a factory at Durant’s Island, on the sound side of Hatteras village. Nye’s operation ended in 1926. A local couple attempted to continue the enterprise, but that was short-lived, and porpoise fishing never recovered.
No sustained whale or porpoise fishery ever gained traction on Ocracoke Island. The name Try Yard Creek is the only surviving relic of a fascinating experiment that captured the attention of other Outer Bankers, but seems only to have been a very sporadic enterprise on Ocracoke.
*Dolphins and porpoises, though similar in appearance, are two distinct species of marine mammals. Dolphins, which migrate off-shore of the Outer Banks in pods, were typically called porpoises by local fishermen. For that reason, I frequently adopt the term “porpoise” to refer to the dolphins that frequent North Carolina waters.
The Outer Banks of North Carolina 1584-1958, by David Stick, UNC Press, 1958, pp. 184-187
The Waterman’s Song, Slavery and Freedom in Maritime North Carolina, by David S. Cecelski, UNC Press,
2001, p. 77
Paradise Lost, An Oral History of Portsmouth Island, by James E. White, III, Mount Truxton Publishing Company,
2012, pp. 185-191
Whaling on the North Carolina Coast, by Marcus B. Simpson, Jr., and Sallie W. Simpson, NC Division of Archives
and History, 1988
Ethnohistorical Description of the Eight Villages adjoining Cape Hatteras National Seashore and Interpretive
Themes of History and Heritage, November 2005
Whale Fishing in North Carolina, by Herbert Hutchinson Brimley, 1894
The Porpoise Fishery of Cape Hatteras, Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Vol. 14, Issue 1, 1885
“The Porpoise in Captivity,” Zoological Society Bulletin, Vol. XVI, November, 1913
“Porpoise Fishery is Old,” The Day, October 31, 1917
A Historian’s Coast: Adventures Into the Tidewater Past, by David S. Cecelski, John f. Blair Publisher, 2000, Chapter 11, “Small Miracles”
History of Whaling In and Near North Carolina, US Dept. of Commerce, NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, by Randall R. Reeves and Edward Mitchell, March, 1988 (http://spo.nwr.noaa.gov/tr65opt.pdf)
“The Porpoise Factory” by Mary Helen Goodloe-Murphy, The Coastland Times, 2003 (http://www.outerbankscatch.com/news/2010/06/27/porpoise-factory)
Seasoned by Salt, A Historical Album of the Outer Banks, by Rodney Barfield, UNC Press, 1995, pp 56-65