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Determining the Facts

Reading 2: The Pennimans: A Whaling Family

Edward Penniman was born in Eastham, Massachusetts on August 16, 1831. He began his life at sea at age 11 when he signed on as a cook on a schooner bound for the Grand Banks, a rich fishing area off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Unfortunately this trip ended in disaster, and for the next several years Edward only fished the local waters. In 1852, at age 21, he went to New Bedford where he set sail on his first whaling voyage. He held the position of boatsteerer aboard the Isabella. When he became captain, Edward chose New Bedford as his home port. From this busy harbor, Captain Penniman set sail seven times to hunt whales. His letters home often hinted that he did not like life at sea, but the riches to be earned could not be ignored. He wrote to his son Neddie from the Bark (a sailing ship with three or more masts square rigged) Jacob A. Howland:

Dear Neddie,

I hope you will not be a sailor. At best it is a miserable life to follow, full of hardships and trials, to say nothing about being away from home, and friends for long years at a time, you must learn all you can at school, so by the time you are twenty years old, I hope you will have a much better education than I did at that age. By and by when you are a man and go out into the world you will see the need of it. This is the way I found it.


In order to make the three to four year whaling voyages more bearable Captain Penniman took his family with him several times. The Captain's wife was Betsy Augusta Penniman whom he called "Gustie." Being on board a whaling ship for years would have been a hardship for many women, but Gustie appeared to make the best of it. She enjoyed spending time cooking, making clothes out of fine fabrics, teaching her children, keeping journals and corresponding with friends back home. She also had navigation skills and was an active participant in the whaling expeditions. In her journal she says, I spent the day washing and taking care of the ship. For a crew I had four Portuguese, one Irish, one German. We manage very well. Her daughter Bessie tells how one time when the Captain and most of the crew were ashore off Patagonia, South America, a large storm arose and blew the ship 100 miles out to sea. Under Gustie's direction the ship weathered the storm and two days later sailed back to pick up the Captain and his crew. Another time Gustie spotted a large sperm whale close to the ship while the Captain and crew were five miles away in the whaleboats, open rowing boats used to hunt the whales. In the excitement the carpenter hoisted the flag upside down, a distress signal, so the Captain returned quickly fearing Neddie had fallen overboard. The whale was still there, and after processing it, they collected $10,000.00 worth of oil. It was the most valuable single cargo ever brought to New Bedford and the ship's owner gave Gustie $600.00 as a token of his appreciation.

On three of the whaling voyages Mrs. Penniman brought one or two of their three children. Their first son Eugene, at age four, sailed with them on a four-year trip to the Arctic Ocean. Eugene, or Genia, as his parents called him, liked whaling so much that he eventually became a whaling ship captain. Neddie, the Penniman's youngest child, and Eugene were both with Mrs. Penniman onboard the Europa from September 1876 to September 1879, her second whaling trip. Six-year-old Neddie amused himself by crafting toy wooden boats on their three-year journey. He also drew pictures of other ships they passed using the remaining pages of a journal that had belonged to a mate onboard the Europa after that unfortunate man drowned earlier in the trip. Daughter Bessie, at age 13, joined her mother and father on Mrs. Penniman's third and last trip. This voyage included stays in Panama, Hawaii, and San Francisco. Bessie learned to speak some Hawaiian and she met the royal family.

An excellent navigator, the Captain entered ports in the Arctic, Cape Verde Islands, New Zealand, Hawaii, and many more. To successfully navigate in unknown seas and strange ports around the world, Captain Penniman used many special skills. He had to rely on the clear night sky to help him navigate using a sextant, a tool that measures the angle between a heavenly body, such as a star or planet, and the horizon. If the sky was not clear, his readings could be inaccurate and the ship might be lost at sea. Another tool he used was a chronometer, which measures time, and he was skilled in reading charts. He also knew how to handle his ship in extreme weather, avoiding icebergs in Polar Regions, and sailing out of danger when necessary. In 1865 Captain Penniman quickly sailed his ship to a new location to escape the Shenandoah, a Confederate privateer, sent to the Arctic to sink Yankee whalers during the Civil War.

In spite of his reservations about life at sea, Captain Penniman went on to become one of Cape Cod's most successful whalers. In the 1860s whale oil sold for $1.45 per gallon, sperm oil sold for $2.55 per gallon, and whalebone sold for $15.80 a pound. On various voyages he took 4,237 barrels of sperm oil, 12,096 barrels of whale oil, and 166,871 pounds of whalebone. It was said of Captain Penniman that "he was so successful that at age 53 he was able to retire with a considerable fortune."

Captain Penniman and his family traveled around the globe, became familiar with many different cultures, accepted diverse crewmembers from distant ports, and communicated by letters about their experiences with family and friends. Unlike the majority of their Eastham neighbors who lived quiet, Puritan lives in simple Cape Cod homes, the Pennimans "actively accumulated wealth, retired in leisure, and showcased their good fortune." Captain Penniman was one of the most successful whaling captains in New England history. Finally, in 1884, he returned for good to his beloved Fort Hill and his grand home.

Questions for Reading 2

1. What advice did Captain Penniman give to his son Neddie? Why do you think he felt that way?

2. Why did Captain Penniman bring his wife and children on some of his whaling voyages? How did Mrs. Penniman contribute to life on board ship?

3. What skills and tools were needed to successfully navigate a voyage around the globe? Why was the clear night sky so important?

4. Using the going prices for the time and the amount of goods he brought back, approximately how much money did he make?

5. Would you have wanted to travel with the Pennimans on a whaling voyage? Why or why not?

6. Why do you think Captain Penniman was considered one of the most successful New England whalers?

Reading 2 was compiled from documents at Penniman archives at Braintree, MA Public Library and Providence, RI Public Library; The Pennimans: A Cape Cod Whaling Family at Home and Abroad, Cape Cod National Seashore, Eastern National, 2001; and Journals of Augusta Penniman, collection of Cape Cod National Seashore.


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