For Sandi Brewster-Walker, connecting names and histories to the men who worked on whale boats in the 19th century is a passion.
In particular, her interest is in making visible those men of color — Indian and well as black, freed slaves and runaway slaves — who worked on whale boats that set sail from eastern Long Island to work the world’s oceans and who brought back the oil that lighted homes and cities and powered the Industrial Revolution.
“I want to put names next to faces,” she said. “To make these whalers real people. They had lives. I do their genealogy so I can know who they were and where they came from. They were invisible and I want to correct that.”
Ms. Brewster-Walker has long been interested in this history. Growing up in Amityville, she heard stories from both her mother’s and father’s sides about their Indian ancestors, the Montauketts, who lived at the eastern end of the South Fork.
“There were Fowlers on both my mother’s and father’s sides, and that is an old Montaukett name,” she said.
Last Saturday, Ms. Brewster-Walker spoke about her work at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead. Her talk was a Black History Month feature event and part of the society’s “Book and Bottle” series of author lectures. Ms. Brewster-Walker’s talk was called “Long Island Whalers of Color.”
“There were men of color and native men from Long Island who traveled all the world’s seas looking for whales,” she said. “They had amazing adventures, only to come home to segregated lives here.”
She mentioned black Long Islanders like Pyrrus Concer from Southampton, born the son of a slave in 1814, who sailed aboard the Manhattan, the first American ship to visit Tokyo in 1845. She spoke about Shinnecock and Montaukett men like Warren Cuffee and Stephen Talkhouse Pharaoh, who worked on whaling boats out of Sag Harbor.
Nomi Dayan, executive director of the Cold Spring Harbor Whaling Museum, said the major Long Island whaling harbors were Sag Harbor, Greenport and Cold Spring Harbor, with a smaller operation in New Suffolk.
“It was rare to find any whaling ship that didn’t have a person of color on it,” she said. “Whale ships were kind of floating U.N.s, especially during the height of whaling. There was an incredible amount of diversity on ships from around the world.”
Jennifer Anderson, an associate professor of history at Stony Brook University, said at least 25 percent of the men who shipped out on whaling boats from Long Island and New England were people of color.
“There were native populations living in the region, and they had experience,” she said. “The sea was where they could find employment. Captains needed skilled whalers. They acquired a level of social status on board ship that they didn’t have back home. At sea, it was most important how good your skills were.”
For many black men who worked on whaling boats, the elevated social status and the money they earned allowed them to buy land and homes back on eastern Long Island. The community of Eastville in Sag Harbor was established by such men.
The individual stories of some of these whalers are what keeps Ms. Brewster-Walker up at night doing her research. Ms. Anderson has the same keen interest. In interviews, both recount the story of the five Lee brothers. They were born on Shinnecock land to an Indian mother and a black father, who was likely a runaway slave from Maryland.
The five sons were part of an illustrious Indian whaling family. One was named Garrison, who was likely named after the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Milton Lee served aboard the Panama, which shipped out of Sag Harbor with a total of 10 Shinnecock men aboard out of a crew of 26. Notley Lee sailed on the Philip the First out of Greenport.
Historians say Notley jumped ship in the Tonga Islands in the South Pacific. He never returned to Long Island. Robert Lee returned to Long Island aboard the California, according to a paper prepared for a conference held last year at Stony Brook University.
A year after his return, Robert Lee was among 10 Shinnecock men who died while trying the salvage cargo from the freighter Circassian in Bridgehampton. Nearly all the Indian men who died on that ship had been whalers, including Warren Cuffee.
The ship ran aground on a bitter December day in 1876 during a storm. The men volunteered to rescue the cargo. The ship broke apart. The men fell into the freezing water; none survived. The deaths devastated the Shinnecock community, with 25 Indian children losing their fathers.
It was reported later that people on shore could hear the men singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” before they died.
Steve Wick is the executive editor of the Riverhead News-Review and The Suffolk Times. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.