Skip to main content

W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives: Maritime History

A guide to the historical materials and resources available in the W.B. Nickerson Cape Cod History Archives

Whalers on Cape Cod

   Evidence of early shore whaling is found in the Nickerson Archives, including multiple first-person accounts, colonial laws, and proprietor records which document drift whale hunting on Cape Cod as early as 1652.  In the 1700s, as the North American whaling industry developed, much of the whaling took place in Cape Cod Bay. 

   The Nickerson Archives holds an extraordinary compilation of materials related to that industry - including 77 ship papers, 50 ships' logs, numerous registers, manifests, blue prints, photographs, and payroll rosters.  The majority of items are irreplaceable, such as the Mayo Beach Lighthouse letters (1862-1892), transcriptions of Wreck Reports (1833-1898), the Josiah Hardy Diary (1870-1895), the U.S. Lighthouse Service Reports and the Yearly Life Saving Service Reports (1881-1916) and the Thomas Henry Knowles Collection with its log of the ship Minerva (1860). 

Log Books

      The Nickerson Archives houses several log books which were maintained by a member of the crew during voyages.  These books contain daily entries which describe in varying levels of detail the activities and progress of the ship and its crew.  Entries will typically describe the weather conditions for that day, the location or direction in which the ship is currently traveling, as well as any recent significant events.

Scrimshaw Collection


The Robert Minshall Collection consists of more than fifty rare and valuable scrimshaw items, whaling irons, and antique fire arms.  Scrimshaw refers to the engraved teeth or bones of whales, produced mostly by whalers but also by merchant seamen.  This practice began in the late Colonial era and continued into the 20th century. 


      In the Minshall Collection, one will find vases, drinking gourds, spoons, rolling pins, sail seam makers, pie crimpers, corset busks, and even miniature ship models - all carved from whale bone or teeth!  Many of these items also exhibit detailed artwork and colorful decorations.  Items in the Minshall Collection can be seen on display in the Nickerson Archives Reading Room or by appointment. 

Ships' Papers (c. 1827-1907)

      The Nickerson Archives preserves a collection of records from various Cape Cod ships, including schooner Abbie Bursley, bark Cape Horn Pigeon, schooner Charles & Edward, schooner Ella F. Crowell, bark Matilda Sears, schooner Billow, schooner Carpenter, bark Commodore Morris, bark Dartmouth, schooner Gurnit, schooner Henry Clay, schooner Joseph G. Dean, schooner Katie P. Lunt, sloop Martha, schooner Samuel Obei, bark Sunbeam.schooner Taylor Small, ship Undaunted, sloop Union, schooner West Dennis, schooner Western Star, and schooner William F. Miller.

      Included in this collection are sales agreements and bills of sale; bills for repairs, supplies, and equipment; bills for towing and harboring; papers relating to the hiring pay and conditions of crew members; marine insurance records; shipping articles; accounts, whaling inventories, and agreements relating to the division of proceeds of voyages; bills of lading; landing certificates; and affidavits of U.S. Consuls in various parts of the world regarding crew desertions.

Find Materials in the CLAMS Catalog


Click on the icon above to search the CLAMS catalog.

Archival materials are non-circulating and available for library reference only

Search results often represent an entire collection, rather than a single item.  Want to know more about the specific items that can be found within a collection?  Check the collection finding aid!