Ann M. Becker on John A Strong. America’s Early Whalemen: Indian Shore Whalers on Long Island, 1650 – 1750. Native Peoples of the Americas. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2018. 232 pp. ISBN:0816541515. $30.
America’s Early Whalemen: Indian Shore Whalers on Long Island, 1650 – 1750 by John A. Strong is part of the Native Peoples of the Americas series edited by Laurie Weinstein, and presents a detailed picture of the intricacies of whaling rights, land purchases and conflicts between Native American tribes on the east end of Long Island, New York and various factions of European colonists who settled there in the 17th century. Strong’s primary goal was to “open a window on the cultural transition experienced by the Native peoples of Long Island during the decades following the first European settlements on Long Island in the mid-seventeenth century (xi).” His well-researched study of whaling contracts, land ownership and the continuation of cultural practices long held by Indigenous peoples draws from seventeenth-century primary source material held in town archives on Long Island, family account books and ledgers found in various museum and library archives, and local historical society holdings. By illuminating the often unfair accommodations required of Long Island Indians as they attempted to co-exist with the European colonists who worked to take their land and utilize their labor unfairly, Strong provides clear evidence of the importance of the whaling industry and its impact on Native peoples.
Drift and shore whaling had long been practiced by Native Long Islanders, who honored the whale spirit by ceremonies and sacrifices which made use of the whale’s fin and tail. The European interest in the great beasts was commercial as the oil rendered from the blubber and the whales baleen plates (made of keratin and used like plastic for corset stays, whips and other manufactured goods) were extremely valuable commodities. The book offers an overview of the evolving relationship among various Native tribes along the east coast and between the recently arrived European settlers while providing detail about the whaling industry. Conflict over the access to whale oil disrupted relationships between the east end settlers as well as local Indians.
The hunting of North Atlantic right whales was an important industry on Long Island, and the local Native American population was integral to its success as the men from various tribes constituted the bulk of the laborers sent out to harvest whales. The work was dangerous, dirty and required particular skills which were in short supply among the English colonists, making Native American whaling crews the norm. Strong’s well researched book asserts that with the nearly complete land alienation of Indians on Long Island by 18th century, “the loss of their traditional hunting, gathering and planting grounds gave the Native peoples little choice but to enter the English economy as laborers on the margins of the dominant colonial society (163).” For many Unkechaug, Shinnecock and Montaukett men, this forced them into the whaling industry as contract laborers with little power to negotiate for fair employment contracts. Many Indian whalers ended up in debt over the course of their contracts, given the terms and conditions of their employment, which often required them to purchase goods (including alcohol) at inflated prices from the companies that hired them through a system of debt patronage and economic bondage.
The use of alcohol to control indigenous populations has a long history, and Strong addresses this in America’s Early Whalemen by explaining how, though it was prohibited by law without a license, English colonists were able to use the sale of intoxicating liquor as “an incentive to recruit and manipulate Indian labor” (87). Alcohol played a major role in the Indian trade, as it was a desired commodity, yet its abuse “could result in the disruption of both Indian and English families and communities (87).” The book provides insight into the cultural clash felt by the local Native Americans as they struggled to adjust to a changing set of economic and cultural patterns as reflected in their involvement in the whaling industry on Long Island. Strong competently explores the intricate detail of individual whaling contracts, land acquisitions and the relationships between English colonists, local and regional governments and the east end Indians, within a variety of chronological contexts, and moves his discussions from town to town and among various Native communities. Overall, America’s Early Whalemen makes important connections between the economic viability of whaling on Long Island, its impact on the Indians struggling to survive and thrive, and the local English communities who sought to capitalize on the labor of the Native peoples while divesting them of their land and heritage.
John A. Strong, who retired as a professor emeritus of history and American studies from Long Island University, has authored numerous articles and several books on the Native peoples of Long Island, including Algonquian Peoples of Long Island, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island: A History, and We Are Still Here: The Algonquian Peoples of Long Island Today.