THIS WEEK IN SAG HARBOR HISTORY
April 20, 1784
Should I Stay Or Should I Go Now?
The American Revolution caused immense pain and upheaval on Long Island. Coming under British occupation after the Battle of Brooklyn (August 1776) it remained so until the end of the war (September 1783). Those who could fled Long Island to escape life under British rule. Many moved to Connecticut and lived there for the rest of the war, slowly building a new life.
After Independence was won, these Long Islanders faced a choice: Stay in Connecticut, or return to Sag Harbor and try to pick up the pieces of their former lives?
One person making that decision was Mr. Benjamin Price. A cooper by trade (that’s a barrel maker) he moved his family to Stonington in 1776, and went on to serve for some time in the American Army.
Weighing his options after the war, Price decided to return home.
On April 20th 1784, Captains John Sandford and David Pierson were requested by the Town Trustees to go to Sag Harbor “at the request of, and the cost of” one Mr. Price, to view a piece of land where he hoped to set up a cooper’s shop.
This was when the Sag Harbor whaling industry began in earnest, so Price probably realized he had the opportunity to get in on the ground floor of what can only be called a “growth industry.” Four whaling vessels left the port that year – a sloop, schooner, brig and ship - each needing some 500 to 1,000 barrels, which must have kept Mr. Price very busy indeed.
A few years later, in the records of the Presbyterian Church from 1791, Price is noted as a “merchant,” which certainly feels like a higher status title than “cooper,” so apparently his choice to return to the village and start anew paid off.
Well done Benjamin!
[Pictured: A colonial era cooper at work]
MONDAY'S MUSUEM MEMO
Re: Raising The Roof!
Ahoy! We have a new posting series for you, where we'll highlight museum news, events, behind the scenes happenings and more. Hope you enjoy!
The off-season is typically when we tackle our various renovation and preservation projects. Case in point - our new boat shed roof! The shed was originally built in 1983 and, not surprisingly, after some forty years it was time for some repairs. ☺️
Take a look at the before and after shots - quite the improvement! Many thanks to our Board member Peter Drakoulias for overseeing the project.
And a special shout out and special thank you to all our members and supporters who help make projects like this a reality!
See you all here in May!
THIS WEEK IN SAG HARBOR HISTORY
April 12, 1800
Something’s Rotten In The Streets Of Sag Harbor
Although there are records of whaling voyages out of Sag Harbor as early as the 1760s, the industry didn’t begin in earnest until after the American Revolution. But even as the whaling industry grew, there was still lots of local farming going on.
Farms mean crops, and crops need fertilizing. In this, Long Island farmers had an ace up their sleeve. The waters around the Island teemed with a fish called menhaden (variously called a mossbunker, or bunker). These could be caught – quite literally – by the hundreds of thousands at a time. Small and oily, menhaden were not much to eat, but they were an excellent fertilizer. Farmers would cover their fields with the fish and plow them into the soil.
So all in all: a valuable resource.
Which is why it is something of a mystery to find this passage in the records of the Town Meeting of April 12th 1800:
“Complaint is made that burying fish on the common land or highway at Sag Harbor is a damage to the public, and dangerous to travelers.” An ordinance was enacted forbidding such burial of fish on penalty of $10 for every offence, with half the fine going to any person who successfully sued the offender.
As it is hard to believe that anyone would ever bother burying a single fish, it seems likely that huge piles of discarded menhaden were the issue. As to why they were discarded, or why public land or village streets were the location chosen for burial, well, that is something of a mystery.
So we are left to ponder this fact: In Sag Harbor c1800, there were evidently enough criminal fish buriers roaming the streets for a law to be passed.
There goes the neighborhood.
[Below: The Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus]
AHOY THERE! - NOW HEAR THIS!!
We will be OPENING FOR THE SEASON on SUNDAY, MAY FIRST!
We will be open THURSDAY through MONDAY, 10am-4:30pm, with last entry at 4pm. (Closed Tuesday and Wednesday)
We're excited to open this season with "THE ART OF WHALING," an exhibit of European and American whaling paintings, prints and drawings from the early 1800s to present day.
For the marine artist – indeed, all artists - whaling offers some of the most dramatic themes and compositions available. The first sighting of a whale, the launching of boats, and of course the encounter with the whale itself: A handful of men in a fragile wooden boat putting their very lives on the line to catch an animal that could be some 60 feet long and weigh up to 60 tons.
Come see how artists over the last two centuries have explored, interpreted and portrayed one of the world’s most dangerous professions – and one of the most noble and beautiful animals on earth.
THIS WEEK IN SAG HARBOR HISTORY
April 1, 1861: Who’s the Fool?
April of 1861 was a very tumultuous time for the nation. Seven southern states had already seceded (four more would follow in the next few months). The questions of slavery, abolition, and civil war were at the forefront of the entire nation’s conscience. Through it all, leading members of society were coming down on one side of the issue or the other. One of these was the preacher Henry Ward Beecher.
The son of Lyman Beecher (who from 1798 to 1810 led the East Hampton Presbyterian Church) and sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe (author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin), Henry Ward Beecher was one of the most famous clergymen in America. The pastor of the Plymouth Church in Brooklyn, he was known for his social reform platform; he championed women’s suffrage, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the abolition of slavery. A gifted public speaker, he was a huge draw on the speaking circuit, and lectured all over America.
So it must have been quite exciting for the residents of Sag Harbor to learn that Beecher would be coming to give a talk in the village. To hear Beecher’s thoughts on the state of the Union would have been riveting; the fact that he would give a major lecture in the village was astounding. Handbills were plastered all over the village the Beecher would give his talk on the coming Monday evening. Which, as it turned out, was: April first.
“Some bright chaps, wishing to make as big fools of the good people of this village as they were themselves, posted bills all over the place” the local paper explained. But since the announcements were printed locally, their style, size, print type and paper were identical the other local handbills; Mr. Beecher would have had his printed in Brooklyn and they would have looked quite different. As the paper explained:
“The game did not work… therefore it is considered that the persons with whom the bills originated were the biggest fools.”
[Pictured below: Henry Ward Beecher at about the time of his "talk" in Sag Harbor]
COME ABOARD JOIN THE CREW!
If you're a friendly, bright, outgoing "people person" who would like the chance to work at one of the South Fork's leading cultural institutions - do we have an opportunity for you!
We'll be opening May 1st, and are looking to hire one or two new staff members to work at our admissions/gift shop counter. This entails greeting and admitting guests, explaining the museum layout, answering basic questions about our exhibits, handling gift shop sales, etc.
We will be open from May 1 to October 17th. The job is 6.5 hours a day (10am to 4:30pm with one hour for lunch), Wednesday-Sunday. The pay is $15 an hour. Previous retail or museum experience and familiarity with using cash registers and credit card machines is all a plus (but not required).
If you're interested, please send an email with the subject line "STAFF" to: [email protected]
We look forward to hearing from you!
THIS WEEK IN HISTORY
March 26, 1841: Why Go Whaling?
On this date the whaling ship Thomas Dickason, with Captain Wickham S. Havens in command, returned home after a voyage of 21 months and nine days. Her course had taken her across the Atlantic Ocean, down the coast of Africa, around the Cape of Good Hope, into the Indian Ocean, through the waters around New Zeeland, across the Pacific, around the tip of South America, up the Brazilian coast and finally back home.
That was nothing out of the ordinary for Sag harbor whalemen of the day; by this time the Atlantic had been “fished out” and more and more ships were travelling to the far reaches of the globe in search of whales, often circling the globe.
What did make the return of the Thomas Dickason out of the ordinary was her cargo. Twenty-four other ships returned to the village in 1841; their average cargo was 2,370 barrels of oil, with a value (in 1841 dollars) of $33,371. Captain Havens did better. Much better. He returned with 4,000 barrels of oil, with a value of some $57,770.
It was one of the largest cargos ever brought into Sag Harbor. In fact, it was one of the largest cargoes brought in by an American whaleship to any port - ever.
So what does $57,770 in 1841 equate to in today’s money? Money can be measured in different ways, with different contexts and variables. The “historical” component adds another layer of complexity, but we will do our best.
One way to look at it is in terms of “Real Price” – this measures the purchasing power of this amount to buy a fixed “bundle” of goods (food, shelter, clothing, etc). In these terms the cargo, in 2021 dollars, was worth $1,770,000.
Another way to look at it might be “Relative Income” – prestige value. If somebody in 1841 said “I’m worth $57,770 dollars,” what would that mean in todays terms? It would be equivalent to someone saying “I’m worth thirty-nine million dollars.” Not too shabby.
And yet a third way to look at it – perhaps the most accurate - is using the “Economic Share,” which measures the value of the voyage as a percentage of total US economy of 1841. Whaling was a business, after all. How important was Haven’s voyage to the economy of its day? In those terms, the voyage was equal to a company that in 2021 made $731,000,000.
You read that right. One voyage. Worth seven hundred and thirty-one MILLION dollars in today’s money.
And now think about this: At its height, in 1845, Sag Harbor has 64 whaling ships.
[Below: Detail of a portrait of Captain Havens (by artist Hubbard Latham Fordham) in the Museum Collection.]