Whaling Crew List


The Whaling Crew List Database is a comprehensive index of men and ships on whaling voyages from the New Bedford Customs District from 1809 through 1927. This collaborative project originated at the New Bedford Free Public Library with the addition of records for the years 1809 to 1840, and has since been brought to completion by the diligent efforts of a team of volunteers at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The Special Collections Department at the New Bedford Free Public Library contains card indexes for whaling records, including crew lists and seamen’s protection papers.

To access the Crew List Database at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, please follow the link below:

General Information about terms associated with whaling activities:

Question: What towns are included in the New Bedford Customs District?
The New Bedford Customs District was created on July 31, 1789, being the tenth of fifty-nine such districts, as provided by an Act of the First Congress of the United States. The district was designated by the Act to “include all waters and shores within the towns of New Bedford, Dartmouth, Westport, Rochester, and Wareham, together with all the islands within the county of Bristol.” This included: Dartmouth, Fairhaven, Mattapoisett, New Bedford, Rochester, Sippican (later Marion), Wareham, and Westport.

Question: What is a Crew List?
A Crew List is a printed document containing the names and physical description of every member of the ship’s company. “List of Persons,” “List of the Company,” is most usually the title across the top of this document. Name of ship, port of registry, master’s name (captain), destination (whaling ground), and tonnage appear first followed by a complete list of all crew members, providing name, age, residence or place of birth, physical description (height, complexion tone, hair and eye color), and rank or position on board the ship.

Question: What is a Whalemen’s Shipping Paper?
A Whalemen’s Shipping Paper is a fairly large-format, printed document usually on heavy-grade paper with “Whalemen’s Shipping Paper” printed across the top. Conditions of agreement are printed beneath the heading followed by columns for: crew member’s signature (or mark); date signed; position or station on board the ship; agreed-upon lay or rate of pay; and a witness’ signature. These documents were printed locally at various ports so there is little standardization in size or content. Frequently, attachments or notes signed by Consular officials at various ports were written directly on the documents’ verso or margins.

Question: What is an attachment?
An Attachment is a note written directly on the document’s verso or margins, or appended to the Whalemen’s Shipping Paper or Crew List, signed by Consular officials at various ports throughout the voyage certifying discharges, desertions, illnesses, changes of master or promotions within the crew of men on the original listing of crew members. Similarly any additions to crew were also so certified by statement “on at——-” followed by the port.

Question: What does a Boasteerer do?
The Boatsteerer, Boat-Steerer is a petty officer aboard a whaling vessel, the harpooner. Upon casting the harpoon and making a hit, he exchanges positions with the officer who leaves the steering oar of the whale boat and comes forward to lance the whale.

Question: What does a Cooper do?
A Cooper is a man who makes barrels for provisions, water and whale oil either on board a ship or ashore.

Question: What is a First Mate?
The First Mate is the second in command on board a whaling vessel. He can assume command should the captain be unable to lead.

Question: What is a Green hand?
A Green hand, Greenhand, Greenie is an inexperienced crew member on his first voyage.

Question: What does a “Landsman” do?
A “Landsman” is a crewman with no shipboard experience; another term for a “Greenhand.”

Question: What does an Oarsman do?
An Oarsman is a man occupying any of the oar positions on board a whale boat, such as Bow Oar (second oar next to the harpooner) or After Oar (stroke oar of the whale boat), with the exception of Harpoon Oar being the station of Boat-Steerer.

Question: What is a Shipkeeper?
A Shipkeeper, most frequently the cooper, is the man who acts as sailing master of the vessel while whale boats are away.

Question: What does a Steward do?
A Steward oversees the commissary of a vessel; he is in charge of the cook.

Question: What is a “Lay”?
A “Lay” is a whaler crewmen’s pay; a share of earnings for the voyage.

Question: What does “did not ship” mean”?
A “did not ship” notation means the named man signed as crew aboard the vessel but did not present himself for boarding at the appointed sailing time; the named crewman was unaccounted for at the time the vessel left port.

Question: What does “did not return” mean?
A “did not return” notation means the named crewman was not on board the vessel when it returned to port at the end of the voyage. Possible reasons include discharge, desertion, or transfer to another ship to assume duties necessary for that vessel. Being unaccounted for may also mean that the crewman is missing, fell overboard, or simply completed his contractual agreement at some point during the voyage and did not return to the port of departure.

Question: Why does the spelling of a ship’s name sometimes differ?
A Ship’s Name is transcribed directly from the Whalemen’s Shipping Papers or Crew Lists. Indexers have not corrected, inferred, or changed spelling, but have kept the spelling of the vessel’s name exactly as it appears on the original documents.

Question: Why do some crew lists have blank fields?
Information is taken directly from original documents and may be variable. As a rule, Whalemen’s Shipping Papers seem to include only crewmen’s names, rank, lay and attachments. Crew Lists (Lists of Persons) tend to provide physical descriptions but do not include rank, lay or attachments.

Question: Where can I find more information on vessels?
Additional resources are available at the New Bedford Free Public Library and at collaborating institutions’ libraries. For more information on a vessel, including place of construction, name and date of last voyage, and/or when and why a vessel was decommissioned, a Ship Register is available for further research. A Ship log, providing a daily account of the voyage, may also be available for research. Another resource, the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchant Transcript may contain articles about a particular vessel or an event which occurred during a specific voyage.