High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

Whalers: The Link to our Past

Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum
Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum

The descendants of these daring, skillful men are our friends, neighbors and business associates all around Cape May. These first families came from Long Island, Connecticut and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Many of them have connections to America’s first families aboard the Mayflower. They include the Hands, Ludlams, Spicers, Hildreths, Leamings, Shaws, Matthews, Swains, Stites, Corsons, Godfreys, Townsends, Taylors, Hughes, Carmans, Whilldins, Eldredges, Fosters, Cresses, Schellengers, Stillwells, Robinsons, Reeves, among others.

Their Colonial history and cultural influences have been shrouded by the glitzy glamour of Cape May’s Victorian era and its preservation. The whalers are, in fact, the backbone and a major gene pool of the area. They brought with them to this new wild landscape their vision of home from New England. They did not build log cabins, but plain heavy timber frame buildings reminiscent of England from whence most came. Recent architectural studies reveal there are more First Period (1690 – 1730) homes in Cape May County than any one ever realized. Most of the surviving houses are located in the Cape May countryside and in the past, no one really bothered to look at them as historically significant.

Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum
Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum

The life of a whaler was no romantic adventure. It was brutal. Few men could handle the physical demands and dangers, risking life and limb. Only six men in a small wooden boat give chase to this most mammoth of mammals. Whales weighing over 100 tons and 100 feet in length face off with this small crew in a tiny open skiff with sail. Visualize a longer version of a Cape May lifeguard boat. With the greatest of bravery, muscle and balance, the whalers captured these giants of the sea, mortally wounding and dragging them ashore for butchering and rendering their blubber into valuable oil.

Of course there are no photographs from the era, so imagine their hunts. Four oarsmen row the boat, a harpooner steers at the stern, and a sixth man takes position on the bow as the look-out and captain. Once close to the whale, the harpooner changes positions with the captain. When the harpooner strikes for his kill – like a javelin thrower– he propels his eight-foot steel harpoon into the whale’s flesh.

Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum
Courtesy of Nantucket Whaling Museum

The drama intensifies. The whale panics and fights for its life by diving deeper into the water. The whalers, in a split second, decide if the whale is diving and taking them down to death. If so, the ropes are cut and “let ‘er go.” Or, the whale takes off in a powerful swim, the hunters dragging along behind for miles in what was later called a “Nantucket sleigh ride.”

The trickiest part comes once the whale is worn out. Sensing the sailors coming up from behind for the kill, the whale has an instinct of danger. The boat is closing in to the right of the powerful tail, but the whale has no rear view mirror. Success comes when the crew sneaks up and lances the whale in its vital organs, bleeding it to death, the bay waters running red as the giant flounders and is pulled ashore.

Nearly all parts of the whale were used. The blubber was rendered into oil over open fires. Oil and bone were shipped to New England and Europe. Sperm whale oil in particular was precious. It produced a clean, bright light in lanterns and was an ingredient in soaps, cosmetics and lubricants. Bone was used in the manufacture of canes, whips, helmet frames, corsets, umbrellas and parasols.

Jamie Hand's restored home at his farm in Goshen, New Jersey.
Jamie Hand’s restored home at his farm in Goshen, New Jersey.

The peak of whaling season came in February and March, months when the most wicked weather whips across the bay. The whalers built small cottages to provide shelter from their bone-chilling work. At the end of the season they migrated back to their home base aboard sloops and shallops. But each year their bayside cottages were improved upon. Soon the men brought along their families and made their homes and a living off the whaling industry on the high ground now called Town Bank.

When it was settled it was called variously New England Town, Cape May Town, Portsmouth and Falmouth to the north of New England Creek (now the Cape May Canal). All remnants of those settlements have been claimed by the eroding sea. The graveyard of that early life is now at the bottom of the bay.

Jamie Hand is the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Thomas Hand, a whaler. In the 1690s, more than 300 years ago, the Hands were among the original Long Island families who first set forth on the bay dunes.
Jamie Hand is the great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of Thomas Hand, a whaler. In the 1690s, more than 300 years ago, the Hands were among the original Long Island families who first set forth on the bay dunes.

J. P. (Jamie) Hand is a 10th generation descendant of the whaling families who settled on the bay dunes in the mid-1690s. It was my lucky experience to meet him in the deep of winter when I was beginning a search for the genesis of whaler’s life here on the tip of New Jersey. He and his genealogy-digging pal Mike Shaw were swapping stories about their ancestors in the cozy library at the Cape May Historical and Genealogical Society at Cape May Courthouse.

“Families here are inter-related in many ways,” says Hand. “Consider Mike and me. Our Long Island-to-Cape May whaler families have been connected for more 350 years. This incident happened before our families moved to Cape May.”

The year is 1657. The place East Hampton, Long Island. A complaint was made to the town leaders that Mike Shaw’s ancestor Goodwife Elizabeth Garlicke, wife of Joshua, had practiced witchcraft. A baby girl had been born and the young mother, the daughter of the wealthiest, most prominent citizen, reported she saw darkness in the room – an evil spirit. As the mother lay dying with her sick baby, she identified the evil spirit as her former maid Goodie Garlicke. One story led to another, and Goodie Garlicke was officially accused of being a witch for causing sickness in children and the death of cattle.

“At the time Long Island was under Connecticut rule, and the trial was ordered in Hartford,” says Hand. “It was decided that Townsman John Hand [Jamie’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather] would transport Goodie Garlicke by boat across Long Island Sound to Connecticut to face trial for witchcraft.” Witch trials were held in Hartford before the more famous ones in Salem, Massachusetts.

As it turned out, Lion Gardiner, whose daughter made the accusations and caused the trial, came to Goodie Garlicke’s defense. She ultimately was found innocent of witchcraft. Jamie Hand shows a letter to East Hampton from the Connecticut court:


Whereupon though there did not appear sufficient evidence to prove her guilty yet we cannot but well approve and commend the Christian care & prudence of those in authority with you in searching into ye case according to such just suspicion as appeared.

Jamie Hand laughs. “Well, Mike here doesn’t hold anything against me for my ancestor John Hand sailing his ancestor to possible hanging for witchcraft,” says Hand. “Our families have been friends and relatives for a long time here on the Cape.” Mike Shaw, a life-long resident of Goshen, says that Goodwife Elizabeth Garlicke’s grandsons, Captain William Shaw and Joshua Garlicke, became Cape May whalers.

Three of John Hand’s sons followed the whales to the tip of South Jersey in the mid- 1690s. Thomas, whaler, and Jamie Hand’s great-grandfather nine generations ago, is shown in records as having purchased 400 acres from the West Jersey Society on the bayside in Lower Township. Benjamin, a yeoman (farmer), bought 365 acres in Dennis Township. Shamgar, a gentleman, already wealthy from whaling on Long Island, obtained 700 acres in Middle Township in 1695. Shamgar named his plantation Romney Marsh for an area in Kent County, England from where the Hands migrated to Long Island.

Coxe Hall Cottage, circa 1691, restored by Jamie Hand, currently relocated to Historic Cold Spring Village.
Coxe Hall Cottage, circa 1691, restored by Jamie Hand, currently relocated to Historic Cold Spring Village.

Most of these lands previously had been sold to the West Jersey Society (a group of 48 London businessmen) in 1692 by Daniel Coxe (1640-1730), a London court physician. Coxe never set foot on New Jersey soil. He was a speculator and had purchased 95,000 acres – virtually the entire peninsula – through a land grant from the King of England. He supported a whale fishery on New England Creek. Records in 1688 quote him: “I have at the Expense of about three thousand pounds settled a Town and Established a fishing for Whales which are very numerous about Cape May both within the Bay and without all along the sea coast.”

Coxe was a visionary from across the sea. He supervised building Coxe Hall, a large manor house on a stream that was named for him, Coxe Hall Creek. (Coxe Hall Creek is now partially piped, and enters the bay at the dead-end Pinewood Drive, off Beach Drive in Town Bank.) The building was designed as a center for a proprietary or manorial system of government specializing in agriculture and whaling. During his five-year reign, 47 settlers are recorded as becoming tenants. Part of the arrangement toward ownership was to pay with a “fat capon” or hen at Christmas at Coxe Hall.

The manor house, with a tower to view the bay, no longer exists. But miraculously, Coxe Hall Cottage (once part of the original manor house) just a few years ago was discovered deteriorating on Jonathan Hoffman Road along the canal. It had been moved there in the late 1800s from Coxe Hall Manor’s original site.

Again, enter Jamie Hand, who specializes in the restoration of early Colonial buildings. Hand and architectural historian Joan Berkey discerned that Coxe Hall Cottage dates back to 1691 when Coxe Hall Manor was built. It is constructed of hand-hewn timbers that are pegged together with hand-carved oak pins. This type of construction is known as a heavy timber frame or post-and-beam. The carved (fancy gunstock) corner posts on the second floor reveal its early age.

“For generations local lore connected this small cottage to old Coxe Hall,” says Hand. “Neither Joan or I thought the legend would prove true. But within minutes inspecting the cottage, we realized this was, indeed, a First Period (1690-1730) structure. This one-and- one-half-story cottage turned out to have the most elaborate carved corner posts of any Cape May County house in the First Period.” They believe the cottage is the earliest structure in the county at 317 years old!

Cottage owner Christopher Bannon donated this piece of history to Historic Cold Spring Village, a museum of early American life and buildings on Route 9, in Cold Spring. Jamie Hand and restoration carpenter Lew Thomas carefully returned the little cottage to its original appearance. It was opened to the public last summer.

Touring the cottage with Jamie Hand is an interesting experience. He is a high-octane 21st century sort of guy, always functioning, it seems, on eight cylinders. He is quick in wit and speech. His words spill out faster than one can absorb them, spanning centuries, continents and 11 generations of Hands. Yet, his life’s passions reach back to the time his family was whaling.

The interior of Coxe Hall Cottage
The interior of Coxe Hall Cottage

“Coxe Hall Cottage is similar to the tiny homes in which many whaling families lived,” says Hand. “As we see here, typical was a single room on the first floor with a fireplace for cooking, a table for the family meals and usually the parents’ bed in the corner. Visitors were received in this room. The work of the whalers’ wives and children was accomplished here: spinning wool, making candles, grinding grain, preserving produce, meats and fish for winter.”

Upstairs is a half-story chamber. Children slept on the second level dormitory-style accessed by ladder or winder stairs. They shared space with stored grain, ropes, leathers and wool.

Jamie Hand and Joan Berkey have worked together for the past four years on another significant historical project embracing the whalers’ era. They crawled musty basements, spider-webbed attics and up ladders and steep stairs to locate First Period homes in Cape May County. The result is a new book by Berkey, Early Architecture of Cape May County, New Jersey – The Heavy Timber Frame Legacy. It is scholarly, but easy-to-read, ground-breaking research with photographs about the colonial period 1690-1832. To date, she has identified 38 county homes she believes were built before 1730.

“When I told people I was writing a book about the early architecture of Cape May County,” writes Berkey, “their reply was invariably, ‘Oh, you mean the old Victorian houses?’ While this response shows the great recognition bestowed upon the much-loved, gingerbread-trimmed dwellings in Cape May City,” she says, “it also reflects the relative obscurity endured by the county’s significant collection of heavy timber frame (also known as post-and-beam) buildings.”

The early settlers who built and lived in these homes were not all whalers. There were coopers, planters, cordwainers (shoemakers), gentlemen, farmers, carpenters, weavers, blacksmiths, coopers, boat builders, rope makers and merchants. The farmers grew Indian corn, wheat, rye, flax and tobacco. They owned horses and cattle that grazed freely to the water and wilderness edges. They raised sheep and pigs, but warned against feeding the swine whale’s blubber because it “spoylt” the pork for eating. It is written that Daniel Coxe imported the first slaves in New Jersey. Some of the more successful whaling families owned slaves, as were reflected in their inventories.

The earliest inventory, according to Joan Berkey, was chronicled in Cape May County in 1687. The list of possessions on the death of John Storres shows just how simply the colonists lived.

A chest and small things
On [one] gun
2 brass cities [kettles] and on [one] frying pan
2 axes and on [one]
shobel [shovel]
On [one] sadel [saddle]
2 parlor chers [chairs]
On [one] blanket
One house and improvements
On [one] stier [steer], 4 year ould [old]
2 stiers [steers] going on 2 year ould [old]
2 cows and calves
On [one] bull
On [one] heifer whit [with] calfe [calf]

One wonders where he slept? On a straw mat or sheep’s pelt?

Inventories often included whalers tools: toggle irons, gorge spades for cutting, blubber pikes to hook blubber, a temple toggle to inflict a fatal blow in an artery. Too, there were listed boats, oars, fish knives and carpenter’s tools. Some early settlers were skilled wood workers.

There are generations of carpenters in the Hand family. When Jamie Hand is not restoring 17th and 18th century buildings, you will find him sitting on his traditional South Jersey decoy maker’s bench outside the barn-studio on his 47-acre farm in Goshen. “I carve outside because I like the natural light,” he says. There, in the noonday sun, with the old-fashioned daylilies breaking bloom, he carves and paints decoys. His face appears finely chiseled as he works– appropriate for a man who spends hours shaping duck and dove decoys for hunting. Hand is a master decoy carver. His work is considered folk art and frequently exhibited at museum shows. Like his ancestors, he hunts water fowl. For over 25 years he’s guided water fowl hunters and birders over meadows and salt marshes.

Whaler descendents Mike Shaw and Jamie Hand
Whaler descendants Mike Shaw and Jamie Hand

Across the field his partner Gwen and her friend are at the 18th century-replica horse barn designed by Jamie. She is mucking the stalls, and saddling up one of the horses. She is an equestrian and a gourmet cook who sometimes caters events. For lunch that day she shared a bowl of the most remarkably delicious strawberry shortcake. Was it the local berries or the homemade cake, or the real whipped cream?

J.P. “Jamie” Hand and other descendants of these early whaling families take comfort in still living in the area where their kin settled so long ago. Thomas Hand, the first generation bay whaler, found good fortune here on the Jersey Cape. In 1699, he bought 340 acres of ocean front. That land is where the City of Cape May now sprawls. The epicenter of his acreage is where Congress Hall now stands. He gifted the land to his two eldest sons John and George. Amazingly, George’s house still exists on North Street as a private residence. In the Victorian era it was called the Blue Pig, a gambling house and reputed house of ill-repute.

Thomas Hand, the patriarch, preferred living on his bay front plantation. His 400 acres stretched from Fishing Creek to Green Creek. Jamie Hand enjoys driving the road that snakes through Del Haven in the area his family owned and called “The Home Plantation.”

As he drives down Beach Drive along the bay in Town Bank, the only evidence of any whaling memory is the big sign outside a restaurant called Harpoon Henry’s. There’s still a view of the bay all the way to the ocean, but no more whales spouting off. They were hunted so fiercely that the Cape May coastal waters were picked clean before the start of the American Revolution. After hunting the waters for two months, Lewis Cresse reported in a diary in the 1750s: “We never saw a whale nor a spout of a whale that we knew of, in all of that time.”

This article originally ran in the Fall 2008 issue of Cape May Magazine. Photos by Macy Zhelyazkova