Sunday, July 25, 2010

Nantucket Whalers in North Carolina: The Pinkhams

There’s a different world on the coast.  Outer Bankers are said to have spoken an older English dialect which still has traces today and while most North Carolinians can trace their ancestry back to England and Barbados, few of us realize the enormous maritime contribution of New Englanders like the Barnards, the Coffins, Folgers, Chadwicks, Colemans, Harkers, and numerous other families that still survive in North Carolina today.  Another factor which contributes to that “alien” feel to the Outer Banks, drawing a distinct line between farmer and seaman, is the recent presence on our coast of an industry that no longer exists today.  Creatures of the sea were hunted to extinction and the industry died with them.  The oil and ambergris they produced were no longer found off North Carolina.  These were “right whales” (shown above) and the enormously profitable whaling business has been conducted until the 19th century right here, off the coast of the Old North State.


Still, New England led in this industry and provided the whaling crews and captains that became a part of New England legend… and some that contributed to Carolina legend and folklore.  What were these men chasing whales for, you may ask?  I asked.


Whale oil was then used for making soap and burning in lanterns and candles, purely personal items.  In 1736, London, England went from the reputation of being the darkest city in Europe, with the darkest and most dangerous street corners to a lighted city, thanks to the discovery that “right-whale” and spermaceti whale oil burned cleaner and with a distinctly sweeter smell than vegetable oil, in use before 1736.  The lanterns went on poles and the street light was born.  The increased use of oil lamps on streets made whales very important in the English maritime world and contributed to great fortunes in the Americas.  Without an agricultural staple of value in New England, whale oil became a leading export, rising over three times in price from 10 pounds to 30 pounds by 1770. 


England's desire for the oil shows in the bounty provided from the British government on whale oil, increasing from 20 shillings per ton in 1733 to 40 shillings in 1749.  By 1757, the Lords of Trade and Plantations declared, "whale-bone and whale oil are materials indispensably necessary for the manufactures of this Kingdom."  The price of whale oil had risen so fast, in fact, that merchant Aaron Lopez, in 1761, joined eight other merchants to form a trust to control the price and distribution of whale oil.

In his History of Massachusetts, II (Boston, 1767), 445, Hutchinson writes, with reference to this period: "The increase of the consumption of oyl by lamps as well as by divers manufactures in Europe has been no small encouragement to our whale fishery. The flourishing state of the island of Nantucket must be attributed to it. The cod and whale fishery, being the principal source of our returns to Great Britain, are therefore worthy not only of provincial but national attention."

Still, whaling was a dangerous occupation, with the dangers of an open flame on board an already storm-threatened ship in the dangerous North Atlantic.  Still that’s where the whales were to be found… from Newfoundland to Cape Hatteras.  And that’s where many a whaler met his death.  Whalers always died young and rarely left wills.  Many of them died passing the deadly shoals of Cape Hatteras.  Numerous eighteenth-century newspaper articles reflect a sailor’s preoccupation with the Cape.  This example is only one of many:


Cape Hatteras, meeting place of the Gulf Stream and Labrador sea currents, churning dangerous shoals, topped off with Nor’easters immediately following hurricane season, became known as an obstacle to mariners and a place of danger.  Thrill-seeking whalers from Nantucket must have liked it.  They found it a great place to camp during the fall whaling season.


One unusual demographic factor amongst these whaling crews was the presence of the Native American.  Algonquians, mostly, comprised a large portion of whaling crews and often shared in the dangers of the whaling trade.  Another danger to whaling crews, as if fire and storms weren’t enough, were the French:






Pinkham was one of the old time whaling Nantucket families.  Zephaniah Pinkham, recently married to Sarah Maxey in 1744, was commanding a vessel that had fourteen crew, including these three Indian men.  Pinkham and several men escaped from Canada in short time:




This intrepid mariner’s son, Zephaniah Pinkham Jr. found North Carolina to his liking (probably because of family money problems) and came there in 1762, purchasing land in Carteret County on the “Straits” from two fellow Nantucket Chadwick brothers.  Presumably, Indian crews followed or Algonquians of North Carolina found work on whalers just as Mordicai Job and his friends.  Certainly, there was interchange because the whaling industry thrived on following the herds, as Sioux with buffalo.


Soon, North Carolina entrepreneurs desired a piece of the whaling action and fitted out a vessel expressly for that purpose… with Zephaniah Pinkham as the master of this sloop, named Sally, owned by Richard Ellis and refitted in 1768.  No massive whaling industry developed.   It may be that North Carolinians were content with hunting porpoises.  Still, Pinkham continued his base in Carteret until his death.


North Carolina held even more attraction for Zephaniah Pinkham in the lovely feminine form of Susanna Hampton, probably of the Currituck County Hamptons.  Zephaniah had at least two children by her, for in a deed, dated 1771, he leaves “Susanna Hampton” his land in the Straits for the love and affection he bore to her two sons, “Nathaniel and Job Hampton.”


The trouble that Zephaniah had, after 1770 was the woman that he married in Nantucket, Mary Coffin.  It has been surmised, not by myself… rather by my colleague, Roberta Estes, that Zephaniah gave Susanna the land because he feared her wrath.  That’s quite possible!  A male just doesn’t see these clues as well… or so my wife tells me.  As Roberta guesses, he had at least two children (3-5 years of personal history), with Susanna’s expectations shattered by the news of his marriage to Ms. Coffin.


That Pinkham still operated his Carolina trade we know from a 1774 Greenwich Hospital record on the Thames in London.  “EXTRACT from accounts of the collector of the Greenwich Hospital sixpenny duty: MARY and HENRY, of North Carolina, Zepha. Pinckam, master, of North Carolina trade. 6 Oct.”


What’s the phrase?  A girl in every port?  We can only wonder what Mary Coffin knew.  Perhaps her surname helped to form a picture not unlike the dangerous storms and shoals of North Carolina.  Davy Jones together with James Coffin and his shotgun… not pleasant.


Zephaniah Pinkham later settles in North Carolina permanently, records showing that Mary Coffin Pinkham married a cousin of Zephaniah’s, Charles Pinkham, by 1775.  Mary probably got wind… Susanna then adopts the name “Pinkham” as do the two boys, Nathaniel and Job.  We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt and declaring them to be married.




Zephaniah serves North Carolina in the Revolution as 1st lieutenant of Fort Hancock on Cape Lookout, a patriot like his sons, Nathaniel and Job in the War of 1812.  Zephaniah eventually passes on c1787.  Susanna married again to John Larrance (Lawrence) in 1796.


Nathaniel, now "Pinkham," becomes quite a North Carolina personality, serving John Gray Blount as crewman of the Beaver before joining in Blount’s venture of Shell Castle Island at the inlet at Ocracoke.  Nathaniel ran the tavern on that man-made island for “Governor” John Wallace, an uncle of David Wallace, a probable son-in-law of Zephaniah Pinkham.  Shell Castle Island was terraformed into a 25-acre facility that held storehouses and retail supplies for mariners, attracted to Carolina fishing.  As Pinkham would testify, it also held some entertainment at his establishment… the island’s tavern.


Shell Castle Island Tavern offered lodging, rum, wine, beer Porter, and many kinds of liquid refreshment as well as food.  Windsor chairs were even ordered by Wallace to spice up the atmosphere, which included imported wines and beer, all the way from Liverpool, New York, and Philadelphia.  Not to worry, fellow mariners and whalers, the state controlled the prices of the liquor:




“India Rum” was only 8 pence if sweetened with loaf sugar and “Country Made Brandy,” 6 pence.  Or, you could have a punch made from your favorite liquor at a fraction of the cost.  Step right up!


It was in the Heyday of mercantile bliss, in 1802, just as Shell Castle Island proved its worth, that native Hatteras Indian, Elizabeth Elks, deeded as a gift, the Indian grant of 1759 to Nathaniel Pinkham for his use until her son came of age.  The question is: what did Pinkham need with an old Indian village?  He may have been interested in a fishery to provide food for Shell Castle, not too distant from Hatteras.  John Wallace mentions in another letter that Pinkham was to “return with mullet” probably located in abundance on the sound side of Hatteras Island.  David Cecelski, in The Waterman’s Song, says that:


Mulleting demanded  able boatmen who knew their way around local waters but also required an intimacy with the barrier islands to tolerate the camp life.  


Carolina mullet fisherman usually built crude temporary shelters, resembling “Robinson Crusoe looking structures,” often rounded in shape quite like West African roundhouses (slave contributions).  This could very well have been what Nathaniel Pinkham was doing with the Elks land on Hatteras.  The fish supply would have been a great asset at his tavern on Shell Castle Island.


 The island site may also have served as a storage base for the Shell Castle salvage operations, due to the limited storage space available on the primary facility at the inlet.


The state became quite interested in the enterprise at Shell Castle, calling for a beacon to be constructed there in the same requisition as the lighthouse at Hatteras as this 1796 newspaper report tells.


A 1795 hurricane left little damage to Shell Castle Island.  Business was lucrative until a major hurricane struck the Carolina coast in 1806.  The 1806 hurricane, however may not have done much physical damage to the facilities as to currents and shoals at the inlet, restricting the traffic flow and access to the docks.  It also took quite a few lives.


WikiReference:  Great Coastal Hurricane of 1806—“The first major hurricane of the 19th Century made landfall south of the city of Wilmington on the southern shores of North Carolina on August 21st, and then proceeded on a gradual northeasterly drift for about 250 miles over the subsequent 36 hours. Constant gale force winds produced tremendous beach erosion, and "firmly established" the sandbar of Willoughby Spit at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay near Norfolk. It was also responsible for the loss of the ship, Rose-in-Bloom, which founded near Barnegat, New Jersey.”


This hurricane was said to have accounted for at least 46 deaths, not to include all of those who may have died later from disease and infection.  Penicillin has yet to be invented (actually not until the 20th century!).  Realistically, hundreds may have died from this storm and may account for another brother of Nathaniel Pinkham’s, George’s death (seen as witness on an 1802 deed, the registration of which stated that he was dead in 1823) as well as others.  Census records indicate that Nathaniel had a rather large family in 1800, but a much reduced core group by 1810 and few Pinkhams survive in census records or as heirs to Nathaniel (actually, only one according to estate records, Nathaniel Jr.).  Nathaniel’s brother Job seems to have been spared the loss of his two sons, William and James who later moved to Beaufort County (Bath & Pantego areas) and founded the greater part of the Pinkham family that still lives in North Carolina today.  Job, himself may not have been so lucky, apparently gone by 1810, another possible victim of nature’s “indigestion.”


All in all, the venture on Shell Castle Island sank beneath the waves eventually, lasting about fifteen years.  The storm may have had a strong affect on people and business at Shell Castle, and most likely the formerly deep channel it was built upon shoaled up and became useless to Wallace and Blount.  The only visual memory that remains is this image on a ceramic pitcher showing the facilities on the island


Nathaniel Pinkham served as a Justice of the Peace and as representative for Carteret County in the General Assembly at various times from 1798 to 1819.  He passed away July 1821 leaving a small family to follow him, three daughters and one son.  His brother, Job, despite his own early demise, left a large number of descendants in Beaufort County.


Like the churning maelstrom that is the Outer Banks, the exciting tale that is the Pinkhams in North Carolina comes full circle and settles down.  Nathaniel Pinkham Jr. married Rebecca Styron, daughter of Littleton Styron and followed a large Carteret contingent to the newly-opened former Indian territory of Alabama following the 1830 Indian Removal Act under Andrew Jackson.  The Pinkhams of North Carolina, though remain with us still.

5 comments:

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