Whaling and Hunting

Whale oil and baleen were commonly used products derived from whaling throughout the 1800s. Whaling was the United State’s first venture of natural resource extraction and began the immense American demand for fuel that to this day shapes U.S. energy, economics and environmental policy. Prior to the war, the American whaling industry included over 700 ships and harvested about 10,000 whales each year (26). Whales are unable to sustain healthy populations while experiencing such high harvest rates because they have low reproductive rates and take many years to reach sexual maturity. Women’s fashion began demanding the use of more baleen from bowhead whales because it was used to make hoop skirts and corsets, causing market prices to increase notably for these products. The expansion westward allowed for dual coast whaling on both the Atlantic and the Pacific, increasing the rate of harvest. The discovery of petroleum in 1859 in Pennsylvania greatly reduced the need for sperm whale oil in lamps, but bowhead whale product demands continued to supply women’s fashion (1). The war was overall detrimental to the whaling business, Confederate cruisers destroyed over 50 Yankee whaling ships. The whaling company, New Bedford, gave up 37 whaling ships to create the “Stone Fleet.” The Stone Fleet was a Union attempt to block shipping of Southern harbors by sinking the whaling ships just outside the mouth of the harbor, making the entrance impassable (1)(pictured above).

At this time in history there was no concept of sustainable harvest and there was no legislation on bag limits for any species, so other species besides whales were harvested at ridiculously high rates. The attitudes about hunting and trapping were primarily about conquest over the hunted and direct personal profit for the hunter, as opposed to modern day hunting practices that fund almost all conservation programs and research through an excise tax on every purchase of hunting equipment (33). One man described the profits and personal satisfaction garnered from hunting, “the dangerous but exciting pursuit of the animals whose skins are valuable as furs; and large fortunes have been made by persons engaged in the fur trade. Stirring adventures and perilous situations are invariably the accompaniments of the hardy trappers and traders whose days are passed in the hunting regions of the North and West” (14). The American bison was almost completely exterminated during westward expansion as people settled the Great Plains. The United States Government even encouraged the wide-scale slaughter of bison as a way of starving out the Native American tribes residing in the plains region (43). The practice of hunting and widespread gun ownership became far more common after the war due to the arms industry reaching record levels of production and the invention of guns that made reloading much less difficult, and far more appealing to trigger-happy veterans (48). By 1890 the population of American bison was less than 1,000 (43). In the picture below two men proudly oversee a mountain of harvested bison skulls.