Herman Melville called him Ishmael. As every English major knows, Ishmael joined a whaling crew, led by a certain deranged, peg-legged captain, and set sail out of Nantucket in search of a very large, very white leviathan. What most English majors — and Hudson Valley residents — don’t know is that Melville just as readily could have penned the Pequod launching its doomed voyage out of Poughkeepsie or Newburgh or, most plausibly, Hudson. Beginning just after the Revolutionary War and continuing until the 1840s, that city was one of the most important whaling centers in the country.
Well, blow me down! Who knew?
Ina Griffin-Guilzon, museum teacher at the Columbia County Historical Society in Kinderhook, sort-of knew. “I had learned about it as an undergraduate studying history, but I had not been deeply involved in it,” she says. In 2010, she was hired at CCHS with grant money to develop new lesson plans that teachers could use in state school districts. “We got together and brainstormed, looking for topics, and someone mentioned whaling,” she says. The more she researched it, the more she realized the importance of the Hudson Valley’s whaling heritage. In fact, without it, the city of Hudson might not exist at all.
At the time of the American Revolution, the place wasn’t even called Hudson. It was known as Claverack Landing, a tiny speck of a farming community with about 10 families and no more than 150 people living there. Whaling, one of the world’s largest and most important industries, was the furthest thing from the community’s mind. So was the ocean, which was more than 100 miles away.
New England had been the colonies’ whaling center since the first sperm whale was killed off of Nantucket in 1712. But when the Continental Congress voted to suspend trade with England in 1774, the British effectively shut down whaling ports along the coast. The industry suffered greatly, and some forward-thinking whalers and merchants began looking for other bases of operation.
The current Hudson city seal pays homage to the whaling industry that bolstered the city’s growth
In 1783, two Nantucket merchants — Seth and Thomas Jenkins — gathered up $100,000 and sailed first to New York City and then up the river, looking for property. They found it at Claverack Landing. “At that time there were two bays in the area deep enough for whaling ships; land that was suitable for a port; and nearby farms to supply merchant ships, which was also part of their business,” Griffin-Guilzon says. The Jenkins brothers bought the land; in the fall of 1783 Seth Jenkins and his family arrived, building a house while living on their boat. Other families, known as “the Proprietors,” soon followed. They formed a company called the Nantucket Navigators and laid out the city’s grid, all meticulously thought out to transform Claverack Landing into a major shipping and whaling city. “The 30 men who were the Proprietors made it a truly planned city,” she says. “They knew they’d need ship-builders, sail-makers, rope-makers, and all the businesses to support shipping — and you can see it all planned for in their early maps.”
They also changed the name to Hudson when the city was chartered in 1785. By 1790, the population had exploded to 2,500, making Hudson one of the largest cities in the state and the 24th largest in the country. The population doubled again, to more than 5,000, by 1820. By then — approximately 1819; records conflict, says Griffin-Guilzon — the Proprietors had sailed their last ship.
But their success bred competition. Four other whaling companies soon formed in the Valley. In 1829, a new group called the Hudson Whaling Company started in Hudson. The Poughkeepsie and the Newburgh Whaling Companies both began operations in 1832, and the Poughkeepsie-based Dutchess Whaling Company set sail a year later. But at their peak, their fleets were not even close to what New England ports — which flourished again after the war — could boast. “There were tall tales of Hudson being the greatest and largest port, but it was small and short-lived,” Griffin-Guilzon says.
Indeed, the entire industry was short-lived. By the mid-19th century, whale blubber was being replaced by other fuels, such as kerosene, and whaling began its slide. The Newburgh company lasted just three years; the Poughkeepsie, Dutchess and Hudson whaling companies all sent their last ships to sea in the 1840s. Start to finish, whaling in the Hudson Valley lasted just 60 years.
But those 60 years are remarkable. “Who would think these merchants would come 130 miles up the Hudson River to start a whaling company?” Griffin-Guilzon asks. “It’s a great topic, especially for children, because it’s an adventure story. The spirit of these people who came here to make a new life and build this city is as amazing a story as what they did on the ships.” Even Ishmael might agree with that.
1690 Ichabod Paddock of Long Island is brought to Nantucket to teach whaling
1712 Nantucket sailor Christopher Hussey kills the island’s first sperm whale, beginning the deep-ocean whaling industry
1740 50 whaling ships sail from Nantucket
1765 New England whaling towns of Bedford, New Bedford, and Fairhaven are founded
1766 British Parliament places duty on whale oil shipped to Britain
1774 U.S. colonies ban trade with Britain
1783 Several whaling businesses, shaken by the destruction of the Revolutionary War, relocate their operations from New England to Hudson, which is more than 100 miles from the open ocean. A group of proprietors called the Nantucket Navigators purchase Claverack Landing, a village of 10 families and about 150 people
Nov. 14, 1784 To honor the river and its discoverer, the Proprietors change the name of their settlement from Claverack Landing to Hudson
1785 The city of Hudson is chartered
1785 The city’s first newspaper, the Hudson Weekly Gazette, is published
1790 Hudson named a port of entry. The population reaches 2,584
1793 War between France and Britain, ships seized
1810 Hudson population: 4,048
1812 War between the United States and Britain
circa 1819 Last ship owned by the Nantucket Navigators sails
1820 Hudson population reaches 5,310
1829-30 Hudson Whaling Company formed
circa 1844 The last whaling ship sails out of Hudson
1850 Hudson’s population reaches 6,286 — about the same as today