Saturday, October 3, 2015

Saturday Serendipity (October 3, 2015)

After a brief hiatus for a trip to the Adirondacks, Saturday Serendipity returns this week with an unusual posting -- a single recommendation for inclusion on your reading list. 

Those with an interest in U.S. History -- and particularly those with genealogical roots in maritime New England  -- will find Leviathan (2007) by Eric Jay Dolin an especially informative and interesting read. Dolin's book is a history of whaling in America and as such it spends considerable space discussing the rise and trajectory of the New England whaling industry. 

So far as I know, there is as yet no evidence that anyone in my Rhode Island/Massachusetts-based genealogy was a whaler, but there were a few generations of blacksmiths; therefore, my interest in the history of whaling in New England increased substantially when I read Dolin's succinct synopsis of the far reaching impact of the rise of the whaling industry.  As Dolin elucidates, the move to actively hunting whales rather than merely awaiting their drifting ashore . . . 

               "[R]equired new ships, which were built by an expanding human fleet of shipwrights,
               carpenters, and caulkers. New wharves were erected . . . to unload the catch. More casks
               were made to store blubber and transport oil to market, and the number of coopers
               expanded to meet the rising demand. Great supplies of iron were needed for harpoons and
               ship fittings, and blacksmiths worked their forges as a result. Sails and ropes had to be
               made, keeping the sail lofts and rope manufacturers busy. The whaleships needed food and
               supplies, and a cadre of merchants kept them provisioned. [Besides Nantucket]. . . Other
               whaling ports in Massachusetts and Rhode Island went in search of whales in the
               open ocean and expanded their infrastructure accordingly."

As Leviathan engagingly demonstrates, the reach and impact of open ocean whaling in New England was far and wide for perhaps 200 years. Anyone with a genealogy rooted in colonial maritime New England forward is likely to find this book of value. As the dust jacket review of the book states,
"[W]haling is one of the mightiest themes in American history. Indeed, much of America's culture, economy, and even spirit was literally and figuratively rendered from the bodies of whales." 

I highly recommend Leviathan for the history and genealogical clues it provides. This book belongs on the shelf of any genealogist with deep New England roots!

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Image of the Leviathan dust jacket from the hardback copy of the book in the author's personal library.
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Copyright 2015, John D. Tew
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  1. Planking, timbers and masts contributed to deforestation of New England for building the ships. Timber surveyors were employed to inventory what in particular was on a given plot of land. Lumbermen cut the wood, retrieved it by ox and mule and even horse teams, and usually floated the logs in vast rafts down navigable waterways (this enterprise responsible for many deaths). Sawyers worked in sawmills . . . . and when the New England timber trade dwindled, these men often moved to western Pennsylvania and the Carolinas to denude timberlands there, and then to the Northwest, supplying the "why" for moves of families hundreds of miles.

  2. Thank you John, for the kind words about my book. I am sure many New Englanders, and people much farther afield, have whaling roots in their family. In April, you might want to check out my new book, BRILLIANT BEACONS: A HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN LIGHTHOUSE. Many people also have connections to keepers who worked at lighthouses. All the best, Eric Jay Dolin

    1. Jay: It was my pleasure to give whatever small amount of additional exposure to Leviathan this blog can muster! I thoroughly enjoyed your book and it put many pieces of a puzzle together for me. I hope other genealogists will find Leviathan as informative and useful as I did.

      I will absolutely get your new book come April. A great, great uncle of mine was a keeper at Beavertail lighthouse in Rhode Island for a time..

      John "Jay" Tew

  3. Eric: My great, great uncle -- Benjamin Walker -- was Assistant Keeper at Beavertail Lighthouse circa 1862. I posted about Benjamin at the following link (where you can also see a photo of Benjamin Walker).