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Delaware’s only whaling venture

19th century scrimshaw / Smithsonian Institution

The Wilmington Whaling Company (1833-1846) was the only venture of its kind ever launched in Delaware, and one of the very few outside New England.

The company was founded in late 1833 with a capital stock of $100,000.

In May 1934 Captain Richard Weeden headed out from Wilmington on the Ceres, “completely furnished for a 3 year voyage to the Pacific.” By early November the ship rounded Cape Horn. “Captain Richard Weeden was at Payta on the 16th of December, seven months out, with 50 barrels of sperm oil on board,” reported the United States Gazette in July of 1835. “It will thus be seen that Captain Weeden has lost no time in paying his respects to the inhabitants of the vasty deep—he has made a good beginning.” 

The whaling concern was officially incorporated in 1835. Its charter stated its intention to build 10 ships, and a manufacturing plant for candles and sperm oil. WWC raised another $300,000, its full stock subscription, only a month after being chartered. 

Whaling in the South Seas. London Illustrated News
Whaling in the South Seas. London Illustrated News

Wilmington Whaling Company purchased its second ship, the Lucy Ann, in July 1835, and in September that ship sailed down the Christiana River and out to sea headed by Captain J.J. Parker and officers from New Bedford, MA. “The Whaling Company’s ships are temperance ships,” The Philadelphia Inquirer pointed out. “No spirituous liquors are being taken on board except a small quantity for medicinal purposes.”

Captain Heman Crocker left port at the end of December 1835 on the Superior, ship number three, fitted out, as the Ceres had been, for a three year voyage to the Pacific. “Her crew, exclusive of the officers and boatsteerers,” said The Philadelphia Inquirer, “is composed of respectable young men from Philadelphia, Wilmington and the vicinity, who have embarked in the whaling business as a permanent occupation.”

By March 1836 the Lucy Ann had accumulated 50 barrels of sperm oil, 700 barrels of ‘right’ whale and 5,000 pounds of whale bone. In mid-June that year the newest Wilmington Whaling Company ship, North America, ship number 4, arrived from New York. The company appealed to Congress for aid, and in 1836 the government appropriated $15,000 to improve Wilmington’s harbor.

The Lucy Ann, the first ship back, returned to Wilmington from the south Atlantic and Indian oceans on April 28, 1837 with 4,400 barrels of whale oil, 300 sperm oil, and 11,000 lbs of bone, all valued at $26,000. It was so weighted down that it couldn’t reach the Wilmington wharves without first unloading portions of its cargo. 

1880s Smithsonian Institution display of whaling harpoons.
1880s Smithsonian Institution display of whaling harpoons.

“None have died but the colored cook,” reported the Delaware Gazette. “The Lucy Ann is the first whale ship that ever arrived with a cargo in the Delaware River,” said the Vicksburg Whig, “and her appearance in Wilmington created quite a sensation. The vehicle was absent nineteen months.”

In February 1838 the Superior reported in a letter back to Wilmington that it had taken 1,200 barrels of oil, and was intending to next head for the coast of Japan.

In early June 1839, WWC purchased its 5th ship, Jefferson, from Baltimore. “Really, our neighbors in Wilmington are driving a ‘whaling’ business,” quipped the Baltimore Sun

“This is a growing business, and it may not be saying too much if we venture the prediction that Wilmington will, at not a very distant day, be as celebrated for its whale ships as it is now for its mills,” glowed the Delaware Journal.

In March 1841 the company’s first bad news struck. “A letter received from Captain Charles Compton, of the North America, dated July 10, 1840, stated that that ship was, on the 6th of the same month, wrecked in Geography Bay, New Holland, during a hurricane,” reported the Delaware Gazette.

Wilmington Whaling Company declared a stock dividend of seven per cent in August 1841. The optimism was premature. In December that year the Superior returned to port six months before she was expected due to the death of Captain Smalley. The ship had gathered only 600 barrels of sperm oil, a loss to the company.

From 1841 to 1845 the only mention of the Wilmington Whaling Company in the newspapers is the return of the Lucy Ann in June 1844. She arrived in Wilmington after having been absent for two years, making only a small profit. Plus, during those same years the Jefferson had made two unprofitable trips, the Ceres one. Far too much red ink.

“The Wilmington Whaling Company have suspended future operations,” announced the Brooklyn Evening Star on June 23, 1845. “They are now returning to the stockholders 8 percent of their capital, on demand. Their last ship has been purchased by a New Bedford house.” 

Wilmington, DE riverfront ca. 1840, artist Bayard Berndt
Wilmington, DE riverfront ca. 1840, artist Bayard Berndt

WWC had only ever launched 5 of the planned 10 ships they intended to acquire, and one had been lost at sea. But the bigger issue was new technologies for lighting. Coal oil, though smokier than whale oil, was already being used in lamps, and kerosene, which completely displaced whale oil, was just over the horizon. The whaling industry was finished.

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