Tales of a Maine Whaler

A Column of Interesting Research Tidbits Related to Maritime Maine
By Charles H. Lagerbom | Aug 27, 2020

While researching my book "Whaling in Maine" (2020 Arcadia Publishing), I culled from over 175,000 entries from the National Marine Digital Library database for anyone who went into American Whaling who also listed Maine as their birthplace or residence. The vast majority had nothing in either category, but I sorted out over 2,500 names of Mainers who went whaling, likely a fraction of the actual number. Things pop out that intrigue me from this exclusive Maine database, things I want to learn more about and delve into deeper. One question currently on my radar is about whaling Mainer, Albert McLane (or McLean).

Albert McLane was born in Maine around 1809, though where exactly is not known, possibly Alna. Some records list McLanes or McLeans from Olney or Alney, towns I cannot locate in the Pine Tree State. Regardless, Albert went into whaling early and soon gravitated to New London, Conn. He is listed as crew at age 20, under master James Pierson for the 1828-1829 voyage of John and Edward, a 318-ton whaleship built in 1807 in Glastonbury, Conn. It was her maiden voyage as a whaler and they returned the following year with 1,210 barrels of oil, 133 of which were sperm whale. Albert went right back out with Pierson and John and Edward and returned in 1830 with 1,403 barrels of oil.

McLane then did back-to-back yearly voyages to South Atlantic aboard Flora, a 338-ton bark first under Franklin F. Smith, then with Christopher Allyn. Flora was built 1811 in Mystic, Conn. Those voyages netted 21 tons of baleen or whalebone and 4,325 barrels, 115, sperm oil. Straight back out in 1832, this time aboard Julius Caesar, they returned to New London the following year with 2,300 barrels of oil. Albert rose quickly through the ranks and was named master for Flora’s 1833 voyage. He was 24 years old. The database describes him as 5’ 11” with dark skin and dark hair.

As master of Flora, he oversaw a crew of 33, some seasoned whale men and at least a dozen in their teens. No one else from Maine was aboard that voyage unless seaman John Bain’s birthplace was Sweden, Maine and not the country. They returned with 2,200 barrels of oil. Back out again with Flora, Albert netted another 1,850 barrels and seven tons of baleen.

Albert and Julius Caesar then did two back-to-back voyages and returned with 4,100 barrels of oil (230 sperm whale). In 1837, his voyage aboard Julius Caesar came back empty-handed. He immediately headed back out and managed to bring in 1,800 barrels, 200 being sperm oil. His time as Captain of Julius Caesar is mentioned in Nathaniel W. Taylor’s 1929 publication "Life on a Whaler or Adventures in the Isle of Desolation."

McLane next took command of Uxor in 1838, but likely did not even sail as databases list no returns that year for that ship. That same year, he was back in command of Julius Caesar and netted 2,400 barrels of oil. He then was master of Superior for a couple of two-year back-to-back voyages to the South Atlantic, and netted 5,900 barrels of oil, 270 sperm whale. The 1840 voyage may have included a younger brother named James McLean, listed as 25 years old. Records indicate he was from Alney (Alna?), Maine. He may have returned to sea as steward aboard Florida for its 1846-48 voyage, or Superior may have been his one and done. A James W. McLane is buried in New London’s Cedar Grove Cemetery, died February, 1864. As master aboard Palladium for two more two-year back-to-back voyages, Albert McLane returned to New London in 1847 with 4,930 barrels of oil (380 sperm) and 19 tons of baleen. He was 36 years old and at the peak of his game.

But then something happened. At the height of success, Albert McLane suddenly dropped off all whaling records. This guy had continuously been whaling out of New London since 1828, nearly 20 years. He achieved some prosperity; records indicate he was also part-owner of other whaling ships. There is no notice of him marrying, having children, financial difficulties or being sick.

There are, however, a couple of clues. One is a small, nondescript grave in New London’s Cedar Grove Cemetery with the name Albert McLean. It is off some distance from James W. McLane’s grave. The stone offers little other than that this interred McLean died April 17, 1850. Another clue is a small obituary notice in the Jan.1, 1851 issue of New London Weekly Chronicle of an Albert McLean (no age given). It says he died in San Francisco on April 17, 1850. Is this him? The dates match the Cedar Grove cemetery stone but what was he doing in San Francisco? And what were the circumstances around his death?

San Francisco in 1850 was a pretty rowdy place in the grips of the California Gold Rush. Perhaps he had commanded a ship that took gold seekers out West to California, maybe he caught a little Gold Fever himself? Albert McLane would have been 41 years old. Definitely more to this story…

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through Historypress.com. 

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