Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thar She Blows!

Beached whales on Cape Cod, 1902.
In Plymouth Colony of the late seventeenth century the whaling industry was vigorous. Whales in the northwestern Atlantic were plentiful. Dead whales washed up on the beaches were a common sight. It’s likely that the great majority of these so-called “drift whales” had been injured or killed by whaling men upon the sea and for any of various reasons never retrieved. The carcasses of drift whales provided valuable commodities of blubber, oil, and whalebone. So naturally, disputes over possession of drift whales flared. To deal with these problems, laws concerning drift whale rights proliferated through the Plymouth Colony. Many towns appointed men to dispose of these whales and turn over the proceeds to the town coffers.

Yarmouth, MA, with Mill Creek in the center just above the bay.
In February 1680 at Yarmouth, on the Nantucket Sound side of Cape Cod, whales drifting onto the stretch of beach from Yarmouth Harbor to the Mill Creek were put into the charge of four men. One of these men was John Rider (1663-1735), my first cousin nine times removed. He was the grandchild of my nine times great-grandparents Samuel Rider (1601-1679) and Anne Gamlett Rider (1605-1695).

On January 7, 1690, at Yarmouth, a drift whale was beached against a pasture fence belonging to James and Thomas Clark. It seems that Samuel Rider and William Harlow Jr. broke the law by taking the blubber and whalebone from that drift whale for themselves. The next day, January 8, they were charged with the crime. The blubber and whalebone were confiscated by Constable William Shurtlef, and the accused were directed to appear before the County Court at Plymouth.

One of the two accused men, William Harlow Jr. (1657-1711), was a first cousin of the John Rider who was in charge of disposing of drift whales at Yarmouth.  William Harlow Jr.’s mother Rebecca Bartlett Harlow (bef 1634-1664) and John Rider’s mother Sarah Bartlett Rider (abt 1636-bef 1680) were sisters. They were also granddaughters of Mayflower passenger Richard Warren (abt 1580-1628). William Harlow Jr. isn’t related to me by blood, only connected by marriage, but the whole story of this drift whale crime was certainly a family affair.

The exact identity of the other accused man, Samuel Rider, is harder to determine. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries there were Samuels in every generation and branch of the Rider family. Most of them were still children during the drift whale incident or born afterward. But there are three reasonable possibilities for this Samuel Rider.

Grave of Samuel Rider (1632-1715), Burial Hill, Plymouth, MA.
John Rider’s father was a Samuel Rider (1632-1715). But why would this Samuel Rider have committed this crime when drift whales were his son John’s responsibility? Maybe Samuel thought he and his nephew William Harlow Jr. could get away with it simply because John was his son. Maybe John was actually in on it. Or maybe it was one huge misunderstanding. But I think this Samuel is the most unlikely possibility for the identity of the accused since his son John testified in the drift whale case. This Samuel was my nine times great-uncle.

Another Samuel Rider to consider was John Rider’s brother. This Samuel was born in 1657, but controversy surrounds his history. Some say he died young. If he did, then he can’t be the Samuel Rider of the drift whale story. Others say he’s been conflated with his father, the Samuel Rider of the previous paragraph and that he died in 1715, well past the age of thirty-two, which is how old he would need to have been to fill the role of the drift whale Samuel Rider, so he's a possibility. If he was that Samuel, why did he break the law his brother had the job of enforcing? Sibling rivalry? This Samuel Rider was my first cousin nine times removed.

The only other Samuel Rider who seems possible was a first cousin of John Rider. Their fathers were brothers. Samuel’s father was another John Rider (1636-1705). I don’t know the birth or death dates of this Samuel Rider, but extrapolating from a couple of his siblings’ dates, this Samuel may have been born sometime around the 1660s. If so, he would have been reasonably close to the age of William Harlow Jr. who was thirty-two when he and Samuel were charged with pillaging the drift whale. I like this Samuel as the best possibility for Samuel Rider, drift whale pillager. He was, like the previous Samuel, my first cousin nine times removed.

William Harlow Jr.’s father was Sergeant William Harlow Sr. (abt 1624-1691), whose house still stands in Plymouth, Massachusetts, although now it’s a museum. The elder Harlow had a problem related to this charge against his son. William Harlow Sr. was one of the Selectmen of the town of Plymouth and sat on the County Court. He couldn’t sit in judgement against his son. So on March 19, 1690, he appointed Ephraim Morton Sr. as his attorney to appear in his stead in court.

The next day, Monday, March 20, 1690, John Rider testified in court to give the location of the drift whale’s beaching. He said nothing concerning the accused men, both of them members of his family.

The following day, Tuesday, March 21, 1690, Samuel Rider and William Harlow Jr. were tried in the County Court of Plymouth for their illegal appropriation of a drift whale. Judgment was found against them and they were fined the cost of the suit—twenty-seven shillings and sixpence.

By the mid-eighteenth century the local Cape Cod whaling industry had declined. The whale population had been so thinned by whalers that to this day it hasn’t recovered. Disputes over drift whales declined proportionately. I suppose crimes concerning drift whales declined, too.


  1. I'm a licensed OK Educator, took Native American Studies at University of Oklahoma, from Dr. Alice Walker, who had a Cable Access TV show that I worked on from 2000-2002, mostly covering: Cherokee Indians, their cultures & traditions. I'm currently an officer on the Shawnee, Pottawattomie Co., OK Indian Ed Title 7 Parent Committee.

    It's oral tradition that the Aquinnah Wampanoag people have a Great Leader: "Moshup", who has the ability to transform into the form of a giant, & who has a history of tossing whales onto the coast for support of the Wampanoag people.

    It is my strong derivation that this legal history is clearly a "Misunderstanding" as to which party was "legally entitled" to the "gift" of whale blubber & bone--raw materials important for survival for the Native population &, for early settlers, used to make products that could be traded or sold, amongst the new English emigrant population.

    (continued in next Comment....)

  2. The Suitors, father & son: James (B: @1636) & Thomas (B: @1660) Clarke, both born in Yarmouth, Barnstable Co., MA are the descendants of the reputed "Captain" of the Mayflower: Thomas Clarke. Clarke island is said to be named after this family line. They claimed land that was in the area of the Mattachee & Mashpee Wampanoag peoples--across the bay from the Aquinnah Wampanoag peoples, & settled there.

    This story has a "deeper" history: especially one involving William Harlow's mother: Rebecca Bartlett. Before 1670, James Clarke had brought a suit of "defamation" against Sarah Barlow & Mary Bartlett, for reporting to others that they had seen James Clarke kissing his maid on Sunday (The Lord's Day). The courts fined each young woman (Mary would have been in her mid to late 20's) 10 shillings, for sharing what they witnessed.

    It is my conclusion that it is far easier for a "gentleman farmer/emigrant settler, & owner/employer of indentured servants/maids" to file suit against someone, should opportunity present itself (which the whale was beached along the shoreline property of the new English settlers: James & Thomas Clarke), once the laborious work had been completed, harvesting the valued whale blubber & bone, in order to retrieve/confiscate the benefits of such a harvest.

    John Rider-the (B: 4 Dec., 1636) local in charge of "disposing" of drift whales in Yarmouth, Barnstable Co., MA, & husband of Hester Hall, daughter of: Priscilla Bearse Hall & John Hall. (Priscilla Bearse Hall was a descendant of both Mashpee & Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal members.) John Rider/Ryder is well documented in many historical records in the area, & therefore, was regarded as a trustworthy & upstanding man of the community. John Rider/Ryder's older brother, Samuel Rider/Ryder (B: 23 Nov. 1630), is my guess as to whom is identified as the "Samuel Rider" in the lawsuit (he would have been about: 60 yr.s old at the time of the lawsuit, requiring the assistance of his younger 1st cousin, William Harlow, in order to work such a tedius job as to butcher a beached whale). Samuel & John Rider/Ryder's grandmother, Priscilla Bearse Hall, would most likely have shared the Aquinnah Wampanoag oral story about the Great Leader: "Moshup", & his blessings gifted to the Wampanoag people. (Moshup is in the Aquinnah Tribal Seal image-standing knee-high, in giant form, in the sea--holding a whale by the tail.)

    (Continued in next Comment...)

  3. (This is my 3rd & FINAL part of my lengthy comment--apologies: but I do believe that it is always best to share as much as you can prove, when genealogy histories are concerned--so as to benefit other serious genealogy reseachers.)

    ...So: as you can see--it is most probable that this 1690 law suit was indeed a "misunderstanding" as to which parties involved were "entitled" to the benefits.

    Thank you for posting this "snippet" of history, & thank you for your interest in genealogy.

    H. Self Hoyt

    4 Sources:

    * has the Google-scanned family genealogy of the Thomas Clark/Clarke lines, & includes the story of the pre-1670 suit that James Clark brought against William Harlow's mother: Mary Bartlett.

    *The Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe has a web-page listing the oral tradition/story of: "Moshup", & why his image is on the tribal seal

    *The Plymouth Court records recorded by Court Clerk, Samuel Sprague, on the 20th of Mar., 1690, hold the testimony that John Rider (Yarmouth, Plymouth area drift whale disposal authority) had located & recorded the whereabouts of a whale carcass on the oceanfront property of: James & Thomas Clark.

    *CW Swift, Library of Cape Cod History & Genealogy, No. 66: "The Rider family of Yarmouth", 1913 & James W. Hawes, Library of Cape Cod History & Genealogy, No. 98: "Ryder Genealogy", 1912

  4. Thank you, Heidi, for the deeper background and your conclusions. I appreciate your additions to my original post.