A Boy Who Went Whaling


HE wanted adventure and, by the gods, he got it. He went in an old whaler down to the stormy waters of the Horn. From a stove boat, he jumped literally out of a whale’s mouth. He hunted for treasure buried by pirates on an island, whither, to this very day, men resort on the same errand. He escaped with his life from a band of armed men who nearly trapped him, when, as a runaway sailor, he lay concealed in a hut high in the Peruvian Andes. He saw the death of the great lone whale of Paita. By an odd turn of his whaling voyage, he became, first, a clerk at a South American port, then, a consul; and in 1862, when he resigned his office and embarked for home, he carried with him a fortune in gold.

This boy whaleman, Leonard Gibbs Sanford by name, was no mere vagabond adventurer. His father owned thousands of acres of timberland in up-state New York, and served his district in the House of Representatives. His mother was the youngest of the seven daughters of Dr. Leonard Gibbs of Granville. It is easy to understand why there was a family upheaval when the Sanfords discovered that sixteen-year-old Len was running away to sea — in what established household would there not have been? But in meeting the situation raised by the exploit of their lively son, the father and mother manifested uncommonly sound judgment.

If he was determined to go to sea, they reasoned, why, let him go, but in good standing and in a good ship. So they gave him a chest and an honest outfit, which no young sailor ever got from the soulless landsharks of our ports, and arranged that he should sail on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean in the ship Lancer, of New Bedford, whose captain, Aaron C. Cushman, was an old friend of George Sanford, the father.

There was no railroad, then, along the water-front of New Bedford. Big jiggers loaded with oil casks ploughed through the black dust and mud between the town and the whaling vessels that lay at the wharves in every stage of decay and repair. Some of the vessels were unmasted hulks which had served their time the world over; others were stout new barques and ships, ready to sail on maiden voyages to the antipodes. In the lofts old seamen with palms of leather and with stout needles talked of selvages and gores. In the shops and streets hammers rang and metal clanked and drays rumbled, and men of every race and color shouted and called.

They hove the Lancer down, and cleaned her, and patched her and coppered her anew. They bent on sails, and rove halyards and sheets and tacks. They brought on board staves and hoops and cedar boards. They swayed new boats up to the cranes, and stowed down new craft in the forehold. Then Captain Aaron Cushman, in his good shore-clothes, inspected all that was going on, and the ship swung out into the stream and lay until morning, when, with the captain and his wife on board, the crew mustered, and, all sail set, she put to sea.

Len Sanford was a light-haired, stocky boy, headstrong and combative, but square, honest, quick to take the part of an under dog, eager and adventurous. Once he had climbed the bare trunk of a dead pine to an eagle’s nest, which spread horizontally to all sides above him. To scale the edge of the nest, he had gone out from the tree, hand over hand, with only the rough branches of the nest to hold him up, and with only the empty air between him and the distant rocks. By nature, such boys scorned the lubber’s hole, but were quick to resent injustice; they made magnificent sailors, but flared up at the exactions of an ill-tempered officer.

Len Sanford had signed the articles for four years; but in three years, nine months, and twenty-nine days, the Lancer came home without him.


With her lookouts nodding at the masthead and her officers pounding the lore of ships and the fear of God into the green hands, the old whaler crossed the Atlantic on the first leg of her long voyage. Young Sanford learned to pick out by instinct each tack and sheet and brace, on the darkest nights. He learned to ride a top-gallant yardarm with the ship swinging under him like a pendulum. In such boat-drills as no ‘varsity crew has ever dreamed of, he swung a long ash oar under the cold eye and profane tongue of a bucko mate, until he could pull with the best of them, as they drove the light boat through tumbling seas for hours on end.

They were a month and five days out when they first sighted sperm whales and lowered for them. Their ill fortune is tersely recorded in the logbook, thus: ‘At 7 A.M. saw S whales at 8 lowered 4 boats went alongside a large whale and missed him. Larboard boat John Baptiste.’

Poor John Baptiste! After seventy years the record of his failure still stands on the pages of the log-book for all to read who will. He committed the unforgivable blunder of missing a large whale.

Taking a blackfish three days later did not go far to console them; but on the sixth day after that, the starboard boat, headed by Chief Mate Owen Fisher, struck a whale and saved it. In the log-book of the Lancer, the picture of a black whale with a bloodred spout, drawn with firm hand and liberally inked, which stretches from one side of the page to the other, under the entry for September 19, expresses the general exultation.

That night the wind blew a gale, and the next morning a heavy sea was running when they began to cut in. Although the sea added immensely to the risks and labor of the officers and men on the outswung staging, who shaped with their spades the great blanket pieces of blubber, at nine o’clock the next evening they finished the body and lay by the head; but at eleven o’clock word that the seas had parted the head-chains brought all hands on deck; for in the head is situated that great cistern of pure spermaceti, the case, which yields the oil worth more in proportion to its bulk than that from any other part of the whale. They worked all night to save the case; at day-light they began to bail spermaceti; by noon the next day they finished bailing and cutting, and let the worthless shell of the great head go down.

When the work of boiling was fairly under way, the mincing machine broke; but with knives they continued the mincing, — slicing the blubber into thin leaves, like bacon cut and left on the rind, — and the boiling went on apace.

As they boiled, the thick black smoke permeated every garment and compartment, and the fetid smell crept into forecastle and cabin. The fires flamed up, and the men, stripped to the waist, leaped like devils in attendance on the bubbling try-pots. Smith, carpenter, and cooper worked at anvil and bench; the grindstone whined incessantly against steel spades and knives, and the blunted edges of used irons. So rugged was the weather, when the Lancer was boiling her first whale, that the rolling deck ran with oil and water.

Then they cooled the oil and coopered it and stowed it down; cleaned away the grease, holystoned the deck, and cruised along south toward the Azores, whaling as they went.

In their idle hours, which were many when no whales were seen, they made jagging wheels and ivory combs and model vessels; and on the polished teeth of sperm whales they engraved with marvelous skill pictures of whaling vessels and men-of-war and island women.

As the men worked, the yellowhaired boy watched them and listened to their yarns, or tinkered at a whale’s tooth. Strange stories were told, and many of them were true. Adventure has little more to offer those who have struck a forty-barrel bull, and have ridden tempestuous leagues at the end of a taut line, with smoke streaming from the logger-head, until a lance struck to the ‘life,’ and clotted blood showered the boats and stained the sea.

He sat ready by his oar when they swept down under sail on feeding pods. He did a man’s work when, in calm weather, with paddles, lest the sound of oars startle the wary creatures, they sneaked up on solitary whales, and with keel to black-skin, struck the irons to the hitches, towed their catch back to the becalmed ship, which lay topsails down, and cut it in while the sharks bit out great chunks of blubber, stealing a quart of oil at every bite, and the vessel heeled under the strain of the great tackles, and the decks were as slippery as the places where the wicked stand. It was a hard life, but it made a man of him.

Of all the incidents of that adventurous voyage the grimmest, and the one most sobering to the boy whaleman, happened three months out. They had touched at Flores and at Fayal, where they had landed seventysix barrels of oil by lighter. Thence they had taken a new departure and had stood southwest. Lowering several times for blackfish, ‘coopering’ bread and oil, sheathing the decks, and one day sending a boat on board a passing French ship, they had made good progress on the second leg of the long voyage. But on November 22, Captain Cushman died, after an illness of a few hours.

Consider the appalling suddenness with which death came among them in mid-ocean. They were prepared for death in the heat of action, but not for such a death as this. During four days they steered toward Pernambuco, with all sail set. On the fifth day they raised land; and on the sixth they made Pernambuco harbor and sent a boat on shore with Mrs. Cushman; but the port authorities clapped the captain’s widow and the crew of the boat into quarantine, and refused permission to land Aaron Cushman’s body.

For seven days the Lancer lay off and on at Pernambuco, with the captain’s body on board in a pipe that the cooper had set up for it.

On the seventh day, the boat’s crew came out to the ship for ‘Mrs. Cushman’s duds,’ — I take the phrase from the log-book, — which they fetched ashore. On the second day thereafter, — December 6, — the Lancer took on board fresh water, and on December 8, still standing off and on with her dead master, she spoke the brig Thomas Walker of Philadelphia, bound to her home port, whose captain agreed to take Aaron Cushman’s body to North America.


It was a sad experience for all who were in any personal way associated with Captain Cushman; and in more ways than one it affected the fortunes of young Len Sanford. Chief Mate Owen Fisher became master; and perhaps it was because Captain Cushman had kept an eye to young Sanford’s welfare that Captain Owen Fisher hazed him until life in the Lancer became a torment. For a while the boy had a rough time of it; but his misfortunes served him better than he knew.

Down in the South Atlantic, six or seven hundred miles north-northeast of the Horn, two boats from the Lancer got fast to a whale that made history. The first warning the oarsmen had was the wild yell of the boatsteerer, ‘Jump! Jump! Jump for your lives!’

Dropping his oar, Len turned in the larboard boat and saw that the whale lay on its side and that the long lower jaw was closing on the boat s crew. He saw the black head, the white mouth, and the small eye of the beast; then, jumping actually out of its mouth, he dived into the sea as the jaws snapped together.

The boat was stove to splinters, and Len Sanford was knocked unconscious; but the waist boat picked him up with the others, and though the boat header was forced to cut loose to save their lives, they later found the whale and got him alongside. It was so rugged that they broke a blubberhook cutting in, and it took them six days to finish trying out the blubber.

They cruised along the western coast of South America, and on the offshore grounds, — while standing his tricks at the wheel, Len committed to memory Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome; in more ways than one he was an odd stick of a whaleman, — and in March they touched at Cocos Island, which lies some three hundred miles off Panama, in the old track of the galleons that carried treasure on the way from Peru to Spain.

There was scurvy in the crew, — for months had passed without shore leave, — and they hastened to give some of the men the ‘earth cure’ by burying them for a time up to their necks, on the principle that fresh soil draws like a poultice. It is reported that the treatment was efficacious.

During the three days they spent there young Sanford roamed over the island from end to end. He tried to scale a mountain peak, but was unable to penetrate the thick undergrowth. He found beautiful birds, a few snails, and some pigs; and like many another boy who went whaling long ago, he industriously dug for the buried treasure of the pirate brig Relampago.

The treasure of Cocos Island is famous in stories of the sea. For more than three years Bolivar, waging against Spain his war for independence, besieged the castle of Callao, at the port of Lima, which held out longer than any other fort on the Pacific. Finally, when the defending force had become an army of walking skeletons, the wealthy Spaniards of the town assembled their gold and plate and precious stones, and set sail in the Relampago for Spain; but the crew, learning that treasure was on board, walked the passengers over the plank in the most approved piratical fashion, and laid a course for Cocos Island, to divide their plunder.

There they quarreled murderously among themselves, and the survivors buried the treasure, burned the brig, and sailed for the mainland in small boats.

Some the authorities caught and executed. Others escaped, and scattered the world over. Periodically, for half a century thereafter, members of the crew, real or pretended, kept turning up with projects for recovering the treasure.

Dying men have confessed in their last moments that they had a part in the robbery, and have told where to find the gold. Ancient seamen have produced old charts to show the hidingplace. Within a month of the day these words are written, an aged man has arrived in Boston from a Caribbean port, who says he is the only survivor of those who have had the key that makes it possible to find the treasure. He tells of helping remove the gold and jewels from Cocos Island, where they were first hidden, to an uncharted island, where they have since remained; and he is trying to organize an expedition to go back and recover them.

It gives one a strange feeling of being actually in touch with old whaling days, to come upon this paragraph in the shipping news of 1922; but although the different records place the value of the treasure at from $5,000,000 to $6,000,000, and although the story was well known in Len Sanford’s day, the island is so rough that it would take a regiment of men and many years of hard work to search it thoroughly. So, as far as we know, the gold and jewels remain on one island or another, to tantalize new generations of young adventurers. The tale is one of the great true stories of buried treasure.


By the time the Lancer visited Cocos Island there was trouble in the ship, and even the log-book records the low rumble of gathering mutiny. In May, 1857, eight men, headed by the luckless boatsteerer, John Baptiste, refused duty. Len Sanford was not of the eight, but he was leading a dog’s life on board, and, as did so many young fellows in those old, hard days, he resolved to take his fortunes in his own hands and strike out for himself.

The Lancer next touched at Paita, and there, on the tenth day in port, ten months and two days after sailing from New Bedford, Len ran away.

Some shipmates, when he was on shore leave, smuggled his chest out of the ship. With the help of natives they concealed him and his belongings in a hut high on the side of a hill and left him.

Late that night, as he lay in the hut, he heard steps outside. It was a wild, lonesome place, and no good was to be expected of untimely visitors. The conviction surged upon him that someone who knew of his presence there was bent on killing and robbing him as he slept. At all events, the alternative, that they were going to arrest him and take him back to the ship for the customary reward of five or ten dollars, was bad enough.

The sound of steps came nearer. While he listened he got on his feet and stood a-tiptoe by the door. The strangers paused just outside and whispered together.

As they entered, young Sanford ran into the area behind the hut. A tall fence of palms inclosed the area; but he scrambled over the fence with fingers and toes as the men burst out after him. They leaped up and clutched at his feet, but he tumbled down on the outside and ran.

In the middle of the long road down the hill, he saw by the bright moon a man left on guard. He ran straight at the fellow, leaped into him feet first, knocked him sprawling, and left him there in the moonlight.

The next morning Len went to the consul for help. He got it, too, which is more, for the consul hid him until the ship sailed. It was never the custom of consuls to harbor runaway sailors; they were far more likely to pursue such fugitives and deliver them into the hands of irate skippers, who took unholy pleasure in drawing on a man’s wages, in accordance with the articles, to pay the officers; so there is a pleasing mystery about this incident in the story; and a mystery it must remain, for I know of no one living who can explain it.

Len Sanford never recovered his chest or his outfit; but in 1857, under Consul William Miles, he became secretary of our consulate at Callao; and in 1858, under Consul Fayette M. Ringgold, he became secretary of the consulate at Paita.

Off Paita ranged ‘Paita Tom,’ one of the famous ‘lone whales,’ as the morose, solitary bulls were called that lived alone like rogue elephants and fought against all comers. During his stay at Paita young Sanford saw the death of old Tom, who was recognized by a notched, ragged spout and an uncommonly large hump, and had established in whaling circles a worldwide reputation as a dangerous old bull.

At four bells in the afternoon watch, a whaleship was standing in for Paita, when the familiar cry, ‘Thar blo-o-oows! Blo-o-o-o-o-o-ows!’ brought all hands on deck. A large whale lay in plain sight, perhaps a mile away, and two points off the lee bow.

Instead of giving the usual order, ‘Haul back the main yard! Hoist and swing!’ the captain, closing his glass, said to the mate, ‘No use to lower, Mr. Malloy. That ‘s Paita Tom. I know the old devil. He smashed two boats and killed a good man for me last voyage. He ‘s sent more men out of Cape Cod to Davy Jones than there’s barrels of oil under his black skin. No, no, you precious rascal, you don’t juggle a boat down this time. Keep your course and we will ours. Steer small, Mr. Malloy, and leave that chap astern.’

It was the mate’s first voyage in the Pacific, and although he was a quiet, surly fellow, he was a good seaman and afraid of no whale that ever spouted. Those who watched him could see that the captain’s order had keenly disappointed him; but the men were glad enough to let Tom go.

The vessel stood into the harbor, and the captain, leaving her to lie off and on in charge of the mate until the next day, went ashore to ship new hands and get the mail.

The mate held her all night on a course that, in his judgment, would bring her well to windward of the harbor by dawn; but unsuspected currents carried her so far to leeward that, for several hours after he discovered his position, he had to beat up against a strong land breeze, which swept down from the Cordilleras. He hoped thus to take advantage of the sea breeze that sprang up every afternoon, and so enter the bay, take the captain on board, and be off to the whaling grounds; but by the middle of the morning the wind went down and left the ship virtually becalmed, five or six miles off the promontory of Paita.

At eight bells — the very moment when the cook was bringing forward the kids — there came simultaneously from the lookouts at fore, main, and mizzen, the wailing cry, ‘Thar blo-oo-o-ows! Blo-o-o-o-o-ows! Thar again! Blo-o-o-o-o-o-ows! Blo-o-o-o-o-o-ows! ‘

The great black back of a sperm whale rose into plain sight, a mile off the lee beam.

The men crowded rail and rigging and watched the whale, which lay in the slow, oily seas, ‘methodically puffing out his vapory jet, as leisurely as the smoke from the pipe of some fat, dozing Dutchman.’ Each spout, instead of being a low, even puff of white vapor, was notched and ragged. For the second time they had sighted Paita Tom.

It is hard for us to realize all that the sight of that infamous old cetacean meant to a whaler’s crew. It was very much as if the Old Boy, wearing horns, tail, and hoof, were to rise up, with the smell of brimstone and sulphur, before the congregation of an Afro-American ‘ Old-Ironsides-Baptist ‘ church.

As they watched him he turned up his mighty flukes and sounded. For an hour longer the ship lay becalmed; then, a mile away, the whale rose again.

‘All hands lay aft!’

It was the mate who spoke. His sharp voice startled them. As they gathered in the waist, he closely watched their faces.

‘You all know when the captain is ashore I command the ship and answer for what is done aboard. We are out here for “ile,” and want to fill up and make a straight wake for Buzzard’s Bay with a full hold. Not a horse-piece has come over the gangway for six weeks, and I, for one, am tired of such soperin’ luck. That old bull off the beam there will stow down one hundred barrels easy; and with a good boat’s crew to back me, I believe we ‘ll have him alongside in two hours. Now, if there are enough good men among you, game to man my boat and lay me on that hump, then stand out here and let me see your cutwaters. I won’t come back without a dead whale or a stove boat. I don’t, want a hand but what will jump at the chance to go with me. I never was gallied by a whale yet, and won’t be by this, if you ‘ll pull me on to that fellow. There ‘s five thousand dollars laying out there under that chap’s black skin. I only want enough of you to man my boat, and we won’t come back without blubber. Every man who goes must volunteer. I won’t urge any of you. Now then, those of you who ‘ll get me on that whale can lay over to windward, and the rest of you stay where you are.’

For a moment no one spoke. The cooper, who had been in a boat stove by Paita Tom, stepped forward, but thought better of his impulse, and stepped back again. It was a young fellow from Martha’s Vineyard who cried, ‘Here goes for luck!’ and walked across the deck. A Kanaka boatsteerer followed him; then another man, and another, and another, until not one was left at the lee rail.

‘Well,’ said Mr. Malloy, ‘I’m sorry you can’t all go.’

He chose four men and his own boatsteerer, spoke a moment with the second mate, and ordered the crew to break out an empty ten-barrel cask.

From the mate’s boat they removed, at his direction, all whaling gear and craft except the oars and a single lance. The lance he chose for himself, with special care. Ordering them to lower the boat, which the absence of the usual equipment made unusually light and buoyant, he spoke again to the second mate, and went down the side with his picked men. The cask, which now lay in the water beside the ship, they succeeded in taking into the boat and balancing across the bow; then they pulled out of earshot of the ship, and while the men rested on their oars, the mate briefly addressed them.

Again they began to row slowly toward the whale. The sky was clear from horizon to horizon, and those on board the ship could see every flash of the oars and every motion of the men. The third mate, ordering his boat lowered, waited beside the vessel for whatever should happen.

The whale reared his colossal head from the sea, perpendicularly, like a titanic column, and slowly turned and gazed about with his small, unblinking eyes. The act was deliberate, almost malicious. Crashing down on the water, he charged over the surface, leaving a wake like an ocean liner, straight upon the little boat in which were Malloy and his men.

As the whale’s head rose, Malloy had changed places with the boatsteerer. When the whale charged, piling up before his blunt brow a white wall of foam, Malloy pushed the cask overboard and thundered, ‘Starn all!’

As the men drove the light boat back, the cask floated quietly in the path of the angry bull. Checking their headway the crew rested, each man with his hands on the loom of his oar, and waited for orders.

Veering from a straight line, the whale turned until his small eye perceived the floating cask; then he dashed at it. It rebounded unharmed from his broad head. Again he rushed upon it, and again. Turning, he snapped at it with his long lower jaw, but his teeth slipped off the rolling staves. He turned and turned again in growing fury, as he worried the elusive thing.

Malloy stood in the bow of the whaleboat, lance in hand. He waved to the oarsmen, and the boat shot forward and slightly to the right. As she flashed along the side of the preoccupied whale, Malloy, with all the strength of arms and body, drove the lance to the socket, straight into the spot just behind the fin that covers the ‘life.’

The whale turned convulsively toward the boat, but the boat had already shot ahead, free and clear. With thrashing flukes and jaw, he flung himself out of water and fell from mid-air on the cask, which bobbed out unharmed from under him. Suddenly his clear spout flamed crimson.

The men roared in triumph.

The crimson flood darkened and thickened. The whale half-breached, and threw himself round. He struck his flukes on the sea, with reports as of cannon. He dashed first one way, then another, filling the air with foam and clots of blood; he went into blind, futile paroxysms of rage, now growing weaker, now rushing about in desperate spasms.

In just twenty minutes he rolled, fin out, and lay still.

That afternoon the usual breeze came up, and the ship sailed into port, and the boats tallied on to the whale and towed him to the anchor ground.

They cut in old Tom and boiled him down, and got, to their surprise, only seventy-five barrels of oil instead of the hundred they expected, which the bull’s life of constant fighting perhaps explains. They found in the blubber twenty or more twisted and corroded harpoons. One of them, which had cut through the orifice of the spiracle, had caused the peculiar form of Tom’s spouts.

To the amazement of the whalemen, the inhabitants of Paita were enraged that their whale was taken, and put out in makeshift boats to shake their fists and spit angry oaths at the vessel. Old Tom had come, in their minds, to be a sort of guardian of the port, and they attributed to him their good fortune in having no sharks in Paita Bay. But they nevertheless swarmed by hundreds down from the dusty streets and lined the shore, to see the whale cut in, for even though they considered him as in a manner their tutelary angel, the processes of disposing of his blubber were strange and very interesting.

It is said that George Sanford, Len’s father, who was an old friend of General Scott, persuaded the general to break the habit of a lifetime and use his influence to push the boy ahead. At all events, on September 3, 1858, President Buchanan appointed Len United States consul for the port of Tumbez, Peru, and the Senate confirmed the appointment. Len was then only nineteen years old, and to hold the appointment the law required him to be twenty-one. He kept his true age a carefully guarded secret.

He had deserted from the Lancer on June 6,1857. On September 6, 1859, — exactly two years and three months later, — as ‘consul of the United States of America for Tumbez and the dependencies thereof,’ he signed, at the request of Captain Owen Fisher, a certificate that Captain Fisher had discharged from the Lancer John Duty, a sick sailor, and had paid him three months’ extra wages. There is humor in the thought of that meeting between the captain and his quondam runaway.

During his years in South America Len learned Spanish and various Indian dialects, and traded on his own account in India rubber and Peruvian bark and fresh vegetables; and in search for the supplies that he sold to visiting whaleships, he rode far and wide throughout the country and high into the mountains.

There are few records of his life during those years in South America; but the little that is known indicates that he had his full share, and more, of adventure. He met the Indians in their own huts and villages. He traded with native farmers in the valleys. Once, when he was riding on a lonely trail in the Andes, a puma leaped from a tree and killed his horse under him.

It was a stirring life; but letters entreating him to return home kept coming, and he himself was eager to visit his family. He resigned his office on March 31, 1862, and set out on the long journey north, with $10,000 dollars in gold, earned by shrewd, honest enterprise. For years he had worked to prove that he was no ne’er-do-weel. He was still a very young man, remember, and for a lad of his age it was in those days a small fortune that he was bringing home to justify himself in his father’s eyes. He was very eager to see his father again; but when he came to the Isthmus of Panama, he found waiting for him the letter that told him his father was dead.

He returned to his native state, and there spent the active years of a notable life. But to his last days, he retained his keen, youthful interest in the lands and seas whither he had gone as a boy whaler; and as long as he lived he remembered every word of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, which he had committed to memory during the tropical nights when he was standing his tricks at the wheel of the old whaleship Lancer.

His story is a personal chapter from the history of the old whaling days. He died on April 7, 1912, in his seventy-fourth year.