Many can claim a heritage rich in New England history replete with ancestors whose actions and deeds both great and small helped to shape socioeconomic realities that built our nation. But how many are able to take on the research necessary to put flesh and personality on those who have been long buried. That takes intense interest in the subject matter and the ability to weave a history that sometimes requires imagination along with solid facts.
Such a person is Helen Frink, author of “Oil, Ice, and Bone: Arctic Whaler Nathaniel Ransom” (2015, Randall.) Through her telling of Ransom’s whaling exploits, Frink gives this blood relative renewed life if but for a brief hour.
Beyond her academic and literary talents, Frink is also one darn good storyteller. On February 16, she entertained while giving an in-depth presentation sponsored by the Mattapoisett Museum, taking her audience on a cold, wet, dangerous journey into the realities of the whaling industry.
Before we venture onto the high seas with Nathaniel Ransom, let us say that when digging into the past, piecing together sometimes the tiniest fragments of data is not for those who are in a hurry. Such investigatory efforts take time, patience and persistence.
Armed with those virtues, Frink was aiming to find out more about one great (possibly great, great) grandfather (Matthew Hiller) when she happened upon a newspaper article that mentioned Ransom, another of her forefathers. Intrigued by this detail, she went down the rabbit hole of time and found an unexpected person of interest. Her research would become the genius of her book.
Frink said that Ransom was born in 1845 in Carver. The Ransom family moved to Mattapoisett in 1855. At age 14 Ransom completed his schoolroom education, an age generally speaking, when formal education ended and the work of living began, especially for boys. For this young man, like hundreds of others before him, shipping out on a whaler to earn one’s keep would become the hallmark of his life.
But these were not the days of whaling when a ship could simply slip into the Atlantic a few hundred miles off shore and find whales. Overfished and nearly completely obliterated from local oceans, whalers had to travel farther and farther away from homeport in search of marketable whales, taking years to return.
Ransom would eventually find himself hunting primarily between Alaska and southern climes chasing bowhead whales. From the journal that he kept nearly every day of his life, Ransom recorded the high-sea journeys he took, material that Frink would later plumb for details. One detail was the amount he earned. A good trip taking several years might net as much as a thousand dollars, a princely sum for that age. The young Ransom’s hunting success meant he could marry, buy a home and plan for his eventual and permanent return.
But the story Frink shared didn’t shy away from the extreme brutality of the whale hunt. She described the spears, later the use of explosive charges, the rendering of whale blubber, the smell, the slime and filth. She also shared Ransom’s experience of encountering starving whalers who had survived the loss of their ship but were near death when found. They had apparently been cared for by indigenous people living along the coast, subsisting on walrus blubber, only walrus blubber. Ransom would urge his fellow whalers to stop killing the walrus, a practice being done on a massive scale to harvest their blubber and tusks. He understood how much the native people depended on the walrus. His compassionate conservation efforts were for naught, Frink said.
The Civil War was noted as having an impact on the whaling industry with the production of better and more accurate weaponry. Frink also said that the use of bowhead baleen for all manner of women’s fashions drove the market demand for decades.
Then there was the story of 33 whaling ships stranded in the ice pack, yet all were saved by other whalers. And that during subsequent trips to that area, wood from the stranded ships was scavenged for fuel.
Ransom would spend a total of 15 years whaling, eventually settling down with his family on Foster Street in Mattapoisett around 1871 and dying in 1910 at the age of 61. Frink said it was believed that the hard years aboard whaling ships trimmed years off his life.
Portions of Ransom’s diary are available to view at whalinghistory.org. Frink’s book is available at all major outlets.
By Marilou Newell