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Setting the Stage

Edward Penniman was one of the most successful whaling captains in New England. However, his letters indicate that he did not like life at sea. Captain Penniman whaled in order to make a living. Whales were considered a natural resource even centuries before Captain Penniman set out on his voyages. The lives of many people, in addition to the captain and crew, depended on a successful whaling trip. From a single whale could be harvested several tons of oil and whalebone.

With the money earned from whaling, Captain Penniman was able to afford a large ornate house in the latest style for his family. The Penniman House, built in 1868, was considered by many at the time to be "pretentious and unconventional," but Captain Penniman was proud to say "I have sailed the seven seas and have never seen anything more beautiful than Fort Hill."

Many times Captain Penniman was accompanied by his wife Augusta and one or more of their three children on the long whaling voyages. Items found in their Eastham house reflect the diverse nature of the lands that Captain Penniman and his family explored and the people they met in their travels. Yankee whalers were often the first Americans to explore the Pacific Islands, Asia, and the Arctic realm. In order to navigate these distant and at times strange waters, ship captains like Penniman relied on specialized instruments, charts, and even the stars in the sky.

The crewmen exchanged material goods such as tools, food, souvenirs as well as ideas and experiences with indigenous peoples. In many instances, men from these far away lands joined as crewmembers on the Yankee whaling ships. At the end of the voyages, they would often settle in the United States. Eventually, their family members immigrated to join them or they married into local families thus creating a diverse cultural heritage in coastal port towns.

Today, the life and experiences of the Pennimans give us a glimpse into the lives of whaling captains and their families of more than a century ago.

 

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