Samuel Small underwent two life changing events at the age of 15 in 1706. That fall he caught his first whale and was apprenticed his mother’s father, a shipbuilder in Portsmouth, RI.
The fact that the whale was deceased at the time Samuel found it did not detract from his excitement. Whaling in those days consisted of salvage of dead whales that washed up on shore and so called “drift whaling”, which consisted of launching small boats through the surf whenever whales were spotted near the shore and harpooning one. Attached to the harpoon was a long rope with a wooden float on the end of it. When a whale was exhausted from towing the wooden float through the water it could be easily killed with a long lance and towed ashore.
Once beached, the whale would be stripped of its blubber and baleen and the remains left on the beach to be carried off by the tide. The baleen was a material similar to human fingernails, which grew in the whales mouth forming a filter through which water could be expelled so that the bits of food in the seawater remained in the whale’s mouth. It was put to use in a some tools as well as ladies’ undergarments. The blubber was cooked in large pots called try pots to extract the whale oil from it. The pots together with the fireplaces over which they were heated were called the try-works.
Samuel had been raised on the waters off Cape Cod and loved boats. He had experimented with skiff designs as a child and had recently built a model with high curved sides and a narrow flat bottom. When he stood on a rail the boat would lie down until the rail was almost in the water but the resistance to tipping increased dramatically the more it tipped and it was just about unsinkable.
With the rail close to the water, fish could be conveniently pulled on board and when the boat righted itself the high sides made it ride large waves without shipping water. The sides were high enough that Samuel could stand up to row.
He was halibut fishing one day in Cape Cod Bay from his new boat when he saw something big floating low in the water in the distance. He rowed over to it and found that it was a right whale that had either suffered an accident or died of old age. The creature was nearly three times the length of Samuel’s twenty-foot boat.
Right Whale with Calf
Samuel knew that this was an extremely valuable find. He attached several of his large halibut hooks to the great head and running a line to the stern of his boat he began to row. He was several miles offshore and making slow going of it, towing the sixty ton carcass toward the beach at Corn Hill Landing where drift whales were butchered. From there the blubber would be hauled by wagon up Corn Hill to the try works, which were set on high ground to minimize the effect of the smoke and to be close to a plentiful supply of firewood.
Darkness fell and still Samuel rowed. The tidal current was not strong but it had significant effect on the whale carcass because it rode so low in the water. When Samuel came close to shore by moonlight he realized that he was over a mile from the landing. Laboriously he reversed his direction and rowed to keep the whale away from the shore until the tide turned in a favorable direction. Then he pulled hard for the shore, letting the tide bring him exactly where he wanted to be. He anchored the whale to the shore and ran home so that at dawn he was rousing his family to come and see what he had caught.
They were worried about Samuel’s overnight absence and planning to look for him at first light. Instead they were admiring the right whale carcass when the sun came up. Samuel’s father Francis knew what to do. He went to the Dr. William Dyer and got him out of bed to bear witness to Samuel’s single handed capture of the whale. The physician was delighted to be part of the excitement. All of Truro turned out to cut up the whale and try the blubber into oil. Samuel received the principle share of the profit.
Samuel’s skill as a boat designer and builder had of course come to the attention of his grandfather Samuel Hicks, for whom he was named. Samuel Hicks still operated a shipyard in Portsmouth, RI. He suggested and Francis agreed that young Samuel would be an apprentice at the yard for a year to see how it went.
Samuel in fact worked three years in Portsmouth expanding his knowledge of ship design and construction. He proposed a design for a sloop at the end of his second year and with few modifications his boss ordered it built. It was forty-seven feet long and ten feet in beam, with a deep keel weighted with lead. There was a single mast with a large gaff rigged main sail and a jib. A small crow’s nest was hung on the mast above the gaff.
Samuel had a natural instinct for the factors that affected drag on a vessel and his sloop was by far the fastest boat around. As soon as the sea trials were over Samuel convinced Samuel Hicks to let him take the sloop to sea to hunt for whales where they lived rather than wait till they were near shore.
The sloop needed at least three men to handle it comfortably. For a long voyage Samuel thought four would be better. He headed home and signed up his brother Daniel as one crew member. There was a retired sailing master named Roger Upham living in Truro who was a good friend of Samuel’s father Francis. Francis convinced him to come out of retirement to sail with Samuel to improve Samuel’s formal deep water sailing education. The fourth crew member was Pierson Young, a man of twenty-five, who had experience as a harpooner drift whaling.
On August 15, 1709 Samuel and his crew sailed north-northeast from Truro under fair skies. They sailed from dawn to dusk and drifted at night. The object was to locate the whales rather than cover a lot of ground so they didn’t want to sail by a pod them in the dark. At the end of the fifth day they lay just southwest of the Bay of Fundy.
Daniel had the mid-watch, from midnight to four o’clock in the morning. About one o’clock he lowered himself from the crow’s nest and went below to shake Samuel by the shoulder.
“Sam, wake up,” he whispered. “Come up on deck!. There is ghosts rising out of the sea all around. Lord help us it must be the spirits of drowned seamen.”
Samuel scrambled to the deck and looked all around. In every direction luminous jets were rising from glowing swirls on the sea.
“Roger…Pierson,” he called. “Get up here as quick as God will let you.”
Roger popped out of the hatch and took a quick turn looking a the display of weird lights.
“Boy’s them is whales. We are right in amongst them. That is fire in the water you are seeing. Sometimes when you stir the sea it makes that blue-green light. Listen, you can hear ‘em blowing.”
Sure enough some of the nearer lights rose in conjunction with a definite whoosh.
When daylight came Samuel’s vessel was still in the midst of large group of whales. They weren’t moving as a mass in any obvious direction, just sort of milling about as they fed. Daniel and Pierson launched one of the small boats that would come to be known as a dory and harpooned a medium sized whale. Away went the whale with the harpoon, the line and a wooden raft with a flag attached to it.
The dory men returned to the sloop and Samuel got underway to follow the flag. Before long the whale became exhausted lolled about on the surface. Again the dory was launched and the whale was killed by the sharp lance that Pierson plunged into its body.
Two additional lines were attached to the whale for security and Samuel carefully maneuvered the sloop alongside to take the lines and attach them at the stern of the sloop. The dory was hoisted aboard and Samuel set out for home. It took some practice to drag a sixty ton whale behind a twenty ton sailboat which had to tack back and forth into the prevailing southwest wind. Roger told him to not take the most direct route back but to swing in to twenty miles or so off the Maine shore where the current would be more favorable. On the 2nd of September, Samuel’s crew beached the whale at Truro.
For the next year Samuel was dragging a whale carcass back to Truro about as often as he wanted to. He had learned navigation, seamanship and the habits of the great whales. But the whales did not agree. In May of 1710 the migration back to the bay of Fundy failed to happen. After a nearly solid year of catching whales, Samuel sold his whaling operation and went back to the shipyard.
The business of dragging whales, one at a time, to the home port was greatly slowing down the production that Samuel thought might be possible. At the shipyard he designed a two-masted schooner fitted out with barrels in which just the blubber could be brought back to port. The baleen could be stacked on deck.
In less than a year Samuel was underway in his new ship. He returned to Truro with the baleen and blubber from half a dozen whales and the try-works took weeks to recover the oil. There was a problem with the oil quality. It did not try out as well from blubber that was not fresh. The problem could be minimized by whaling in cold weather so the deterioration of the blubber was slowed.
It was late in 1712 when Samuel decided to make another try at a proper whaling vessel. He went back to the shipyard with a design for their largest vessel yet. A three-masted square rigger vessel called a brig was built. Amidships were two wood fired furnaces made of refractory brick, on which huge try pots could be fired. It was a complicated ship to build and it was the fall of 1714 before Samuel could make his first trip to the North Atlantic whaling grounds.
In the time between 1711 and 1714 Samuel slowed down enough in his pursuit of whale oil wealth to fall in love. Samuel at 21 was the most eligible bachelor in Truro; ambitious, intelligent and quite well-to-do. Beyond that he was good natured and good looking. All the young women from Provincetown to Portsmouth knew of Captain Small and wondered what were their chances. Samuel however did not look far from home.
Dr. Dyer had a daughter Isabel. She was 17 in the summer of 1712 and Samuel had known her all her life. She had been a happy child and was confident young woman. Samuel made the first move by asking Dr. Dyer for his blessing on their courtship. Then he asked Isabel to join him on a picnic with his mother and young sister. Things went on from there and Samuel and Isabel were married in 1713.
Samuel spent 1714 through 1716 whaling the North Atlantic, rarely more than 800 miles from home. His new ship was a huge success. He could bring his finished whale oil to whatever port offered the best price. In 1716 copies of his design began to show up on the whaling grounds but none approached his ship in the combination of speed and carrying power.
In 1718-1719 Samuel did not show up on the whaling grounds and no one seemed to know where he had gone. In November of 1719 he returned from a voyage to the South Atlantic where he had filled and refilled his ship with whale products, selling them in Spain at enormous profit. Again in 1721-1723 he made the South Atlantic run.
In 1724-1726 he took the still larger ship he had ordered and went all the way to Tierra del Fuego gathering whale products. On this trip he expanded his catch to include sperm whales. They yielded not only the finest oil but spermaceti that went into the best quality candles and ambergris which was a base for perfume. Ambergris was literally worth more than its weight in gold.
By April of 1729 Samuel and Isabel had seven children:
Samuel Small, 9/15/1714, Truro, MA
Taylor Small 9/15/1716, Truro, MA
Francis Small, 8/2/1719, Truro, MA
Mary Small 10/1721, Truro, MA
Isabel Small 4/1724, Truro, MA
Lydia Small 5/1727, Truro, MA
Hix Small 4/11/1729, Truro, MA
In June of 1729 Samuel again left for an extended voyage with two new, larger ships. One commanded by him and the other by his friend William Eames. In August both ships were caught at sea in the hurricane that devastated Puerto Rico that year. They went down with all hands. Isabel was left the saddest and poorest widow in Massachusetts. All the family wealth was tied up in the two new ships.