Diamond City, NC Occupations

The Last Whale Killed Along These Shores

It was April 3, 1898. The sun came up over the Atlantic Ocean with a burst of glory. The first thing to catch its early morning rays was Cape Lookout Lighthouse, which towers 165 feet above the sand dunes of Carteret County. As it cast its shadow westward, it fell across a lovely strip of sand dotted with cedar, yaupon, and sea myrtle. This was Shackleford Banks.

Here lived a sturdy race of people–the Guthries, Moores, Davises, Lewises, Chadwicks, Willises, Royals, and Roses. With their bare hands they eked a meager living from the surf, oyster rocks, and clam beds; and with their bare hands, they would attack and kill the world’s largest living creature, the Leviathan of the deep, the mighty whale.

This is how they did it, as told by an eyewitness, Stacy Guthrie, whose father, Devine Guthrie, built the boats, and whose brother helped to kill the “Little Children.” (Note: “Little Children,” a whale killed by children, and so named.) The 65-foot mother, a Right Whale, was named because some of the older men had grown weary of waiting for a whale to show, and had gone off looking for clams and oysters. They had to use some “shirttail” boys to make up the crews. (All whales were given names.)

Lookouts were posted along the beach, and when a whale was sighted, they came running up the beach, shouting at the top of their voices, “Whale! Whale! Thar she blows!” At that moment, pandemonium broke loose. Men, women and children came running from every direction, shouting, “Whale! Whale! Man the boats!” They grabbed hold of the three 18-foot whale boats, and literally carried them into the surf where eight men scrambled aboard each boat–six oarsmen, one helmsman in the stern, and a harpoon man in the bow. These boats were made of wood lap-streak siding, oak and cedar ribs and knees, and sharp at both ends. They were sturdy enough to stand severe pounding of the surf, and an occasional slap of a whale’s fluke.

Now the whales, when undisturbed, follow a set pattern. They blow (or come up to breathe) three times in a row at fifteen minute intervals, then they submerge for one hour. Therefore, Captain Guthrie was surprised when he saw the whale three times in less than five minutes, and gave a warning shout, “Look out boys! Thar’s three whales out thar!” And to everyone’s amazement, they discovered there was a bull, a mother, and a calf.

The way of the sea is cruel indeed. They had to first attack the calf, knowing that the bull would turn at the first sight of danger, but that the mother would stay and protect her baby, though it cost her her life. So they thrust a harpoon in the fleshy part of the calf, with no intent to kill it, as they had no cash value; but so they could get a better chance at the mother. Captain Stacy says that if you wound a calf so badly it can’t rise for air, the mother will take it in her fluke, and hold it above water so it can breathe. When she knows it is dead, then she will head for the briny deep.

In this case, they did not kill the calf, but all three boats attacked the mother whale with the fury of desperate men, knowing that food for their babies depended on the death of this monster.

To kill a whale, you have to hit its vital organs which the whales refer to as “her life.” To do this, you aim about two feet under the water just aft of her spout. When she goes down, you follow by the whirlpools caused by her tail when she swims. A good boat crew can usually row as fast as he swims. When she rises and blows, they are there ready for another thrust of the harpoon, and a shot from the gun which carries an explosive head. If the water is clear when the blows, you know you have missed the mark. If it is tinted with blood, you are getting close. If it is solid blood, you have hit “her life,” and had better stay clear, for she then goes in her death struggle, slapping with her tail so hard it would smash your boat like a match box.

This time, however, the men had done their work well. Slowly the great fish began to calm down, the whirlpools and foaming waves subsided. Then, with one mighty last effort, she thrust herself half out of the water, then settled back beneath the surface. All the boats started closing in to where the whale had disappeared from view, and as they neared the spot, the great hulk rose slowly to the surface, motionless as a log. Then all the men stood up, held their oars straight up in the air, and gave three loud whoops, telling the people anxiously watching along the shore that the battle was over and the victory won. That was also the signal for the women to head for home and “put on the pot.”

At this point in the story, Captain Stacy was all fired up, but I just had to interrupt him with a question. I asked, “How come that whale to float? I thought all fish sank to the bottom when first killed.” At that question, the fight went out of Captain Stacy’s face and voice, and his eyes, which had been staring through the youpons and cedars across the sand dunes far out into the ocean, shifted toward me, and a smile lit up his face, as he answered, “You know, Grayden, God had a lot to do with that. Did you know that a whale was the first living creature, and the largest that God ever created? (Genesis: 1-21) Yet He gave man dominion over it, (Genesis: 1-26) and He marked it so there would be no mistake about who made it. He put 365 bones in its mouth for the days of the year; but the strangest thing of all is why a whale, as its life comes to an end, gradually turns toward the setting sun; but I know for sure that every whale killed along these shores died with its nose headed due sou’west.”

To get this monster ashore was a herculean task. When the people on the beach got the signal that the whale was dead, Captain Devine Guthrie went out in a sail boat (sharpie), to give a hand. The three whale boats were fastened together, and tied to the whale. They began to move it slowly toward the shore. When Captain Guthrie reached the scene, he fastened on to the lead boat and spread all the sails he had.

Nature smiled on those weary men, as a gentle breeze sprang up from the southwest, and the tide started coming in. It was necessary to beach the whale then the tide was at its peak, so that when the tide went out, the men could wade out, start cutting away the thick outer flesh, or blubber, which has a very high oil content.

Before they started this tremendous job, all the men took a short nap and ate a hearty meal of “Conch Stew, Hard Crabs, and Jumping Mullets.” Now “Conch Stew” to a Core Sounder, is like spinach to “Pop-Eye.” The men went about their task with superhuman strength.

They cut the blubber in chunks about eight by twelve inches, which the women and children toted ashore in wash tubs, and dumped into large iron kettles of “trypots.” A roaring fire was already briskly burning under the kettles. It took thirty or forty people from three to four days to finish the job. The most important part was cooking the oil just right. If it was cooked too fast, it would turn dark, if too slow, it would smell and spoil. Only the old and experienced hands could do this work.

The oil, when finished, was poured out in pork barrels and wooden vats to cool. A merchant came over from Beaufort and sampled it, and made an offer. Then the oil was sealed in wooden barrels, hauled across Shackleford Banks, with a yoke of oxen, loaded on sail boats and brought over to Beaufort, where the crew was paid on the average of one thousand dollars for the total products of the whale.

This divided among the thirty or forty men amounted to about $35 per man. The average kill along the Shackleford Banks was one or two whales per season. The money from the whales supplied these hardy families with gun powder and shot for hunting ducks, geese, and loons. These wild fowl, with conchs, crabs, fish, oyster, and scallops, along with collards, sweet potatoes and corn from their garden patches made a satisfactory diet for them.

All in all, life was good. The sea was cruel, yet gave these hardy souls an adventurous, stimulating living. Some of the whalers went up north and fished for whale on regular whaling ships; as described in the following sea chanty.


The boatswain* on a mast so high
With a spy-glass in his hand;
“Thar a Whale! Thar’s a Whale!
Thar’s a Whaley Fish!” he cried;
Thar she blows off the larboard* stand, brave boys;
Thar she blows of the larboard stand.

The Captain on the quarter deck,
Such a brave young man was he:
“Overhaul! Overhaul!*
Let your davit take a fall.
And low’r your boats at sea, brave boys,
And low’r your boats at sea.”

The boats being lowered and the crew got in.
The whale disappeared from view.
“Resolute! Resolute!”* to the whole boat’s crew.
“And steer to where the Whale Fish blew, brave boys.
And steer to where the Whale Fish blew.”

The Whale being struck and the line played out.
The fish gave a blow with his tail.
He capsized the boat and they lost six men;
“But neither did you kill that whale, brave boys,
But neither did you kill that Whale.”

Oh, Greenland is and ice place.
There’s never grass nor green.
Where ice and snow are always there
And daylight seldom seen, brave boys,
And daylight’s seldom seen.

*Boatswain - pronounced bo’s’n.

*Larboard - the left side of a ship.

*Overhaul - examine thoroughly.

*Resolute - determine; firm; steady.

Source: Carteret County, NC: Folklore, Facts and Fiction by Mary and Grayden Paul; Sponsored by Beaufort Historical Association; 1996; pp. 9-12.

Down East Community Tour
Core Sound Waterfowl Museum