The desperation of the stranded whale,
When wedged ‘twixt jagged rocks he writhes and rolls
In agony among the ebbing shoals,
Lashing the waves to foam; until the flood,
From wounds, like geysers, seems a bath of blood,
Echo all night dumb-pealing to his roar;
Till morn beholds him slain along the shore.
– “Greenland and Other Poems,” by James Montgomery, 1819
In June of 1827, the people of Portsmouth were not expecting to see a huge sea serpent, swimming in the waters of the Piscataqua River. There had been rumors of such creatures in the vicinity of the nearby Shoals. But this was many miles from the ocean.
Up until this time, Portsmouth merchants had focused on building ships and trade imports. The closest whaling ships were further down the coast in Massachusetts. Only five years later the Portsmouth Whaling Company would be set up, followed by at least one other.
But back to our story. As you read this adventure, keeping in mind that the Colonel Decatur mentioned as being one of the whale chasers, was one John P. Decatur, brother to the famed Commodore Stephen Decatur. Colonel John was appointed Naval Store Keeper at Portsmouth Navy Yard, N.H. on 21 October 1823. Later in 1829 he was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to be Collector of Customs for the District of Portsmouth NH. As a matter of fact, he was a good friend of President Andrew Jackson, and named one of his sons after him.
From the Portsmouth Journal–TAKING THE WHALE.
The scene exhibited in the Piscataqua last week, was an occasion worthy of the description powers of the Author of Waverly or Mr. Cooper. A small whale of the pikeheaded species, so common on the New-England coast, in chasing a shoal (or school as our fishermen have it) of alewives, was induced to enter the river, and in the eagerness of the pursuit, finding the game perhaps very abundant, actually passed the Portsmouth bridge, about three miles from the sea. He ascended the river for some distance, sporting in its clear water, making sad havoc amongst the small fry, and being a source of wonder and delight to all the men, women, and children who live in these regions. In descending the river at his leisure, his whaleship showed an evident reluctance at again passing the bridge; whether the sight of it terrified him, or whether as some think, he had bruised himself against the piles in going up; or whether, as seems to us more probable, the tide, which runs at the rate of four or five miles an hour, in coming in contact with the piles, sounded to him like the sea upon the breakers, we cannot determine.–But so it was; he would not pass the bridge, but upon coming in sight of it, turned about the ascended the river again with great velocity.
For a distance of six or eight miles from the sea, the Piscataqua is a deep, and broad, and beautiful river, large enough to contain the whole navy of the United States, were it forty times as big as it is now; but at this distance it diverges into 3 or four smaller streams, neither of which is thought worthy to retain the name. The largest of these is the Exeter river, and across this, about six miles above the first, is thrown another bridge; and of this bridge the monster seemed to entertain the same sort of apprehension as he did of the other;–so that the two helped to form a sort of enclosure, which proved as effectual to prevent his escape as if they have been bars of iron.
In the meantime the cupidity of the fishermen and the zeal of the sportsmen begun to be roused, and the river was soon covered with boats in full chase for the Whale!–Some of his pursuers were armed with spears and lances, some with muskets and a few had harpoons;–not one of them had ever seen a whale killed, or had thrown a harpoon, except perhaps at a porpoise or a hallibut; but to it they went, determined to make up in resolution and perseverance what they lacked in knowledge and dexterity.–The attack commenced on Friday afternoon;–his pursuers however seemed to make but little impression for some days; the musket balls he cared no more for, than for the pellets of a pop-gun;–they could not reach him with spear or lance, and it was long before they could get properly shaped harpoons, and longer yet before they could throw them with any certainty;–so that the death of the whale seemed an event somewhat remote; and it was even suggested that we had better send to Nantucket or New-Bedford for a reinforcement.
On Monday afternoon he seemed determined to give his pursuers as fair a chance as they could desire; he moved slowly up against the tide, appearing at the surface every three or four minutes, to take breath, and to look about him;–there were not less than twenty boats in the river around him, and the bridge below, and the highlands on each side, were thronged with spectators;–he would rise slowly to the surface head foremost, throw up a column of water some twenty feet in the air, bend his huge carcase into the shape of a crescent, and gradually disappear, after having shewn half his body as if in sport, or in derision to his host of enemies;–he could evidently discern the boats as he rose, for although he did not advance up stream twenty rods for half an hour, yet he always contrived to avoid the boats, which were dashing across in every direction.
This day however passed without success, and so had nearly the next; but at five o’clock in the afternoon, avoiding his enemies, he betook himself into that branch of the river which leads towards Berwick, followed by a single boat, manned by some enterprising fishermen by the name of Willey.–They now felt sure of their game, and following him rapidly into this stream, they soon had an opportunity to throw a harpoon fairly into his back.–The creature made tremendous exertions to free himself; and at last broke the cord attached to the harpoon; another however was instantly dispatched, and down the river went the whale, dragging a boat containing several seven seamen with the velocity of lightning.–He soon encountered another boat commanded by Col. Decatur, who again transfixed him, and yet not withstanding the innumerable thrusts he was receiving from both boats he continued to drag them up and down river until seven o’clock the next morning. Such tenacity of life we can scarcely comprehend.
The Whale was brought into town the next day and was exhibited for the gratification of public curiosity. It does not seem to be accurately described in any book on zoology which we have had an opportunity of examining; it is pike-headed, but wants the dorsal fin of the common pike-headed whale.
– Article from: New-Hampshire Statesman and Concord Register, (Concord, NH) Saturday, June 23, 1827; Issue 5; col B
– Whale Drawing from: “A Book of Whales,” by Frank E. Beddard, NY, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1900
–The Decatur Genealogy, by William Decatur Parsons-
—A WHALE OF A READ—
– Portsmouth Fails at Whaling, from seacoast.com.