It was a late spring Saturday of fine weather and with topgallants flying, the Ship Tuscaloosa left the Pacific Ocean. She was sailing east, thirty nautical miles* beyond Cape Horn as she cleared the dangerous Drake Passage between the tip of South America and Antarctica. Soon, Captain James Goodrich would steer her north into the South Atlantic, bound for their home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Captain Goodrich recorded the date—November 8, 1834.
The Tuscaloosa was a wooden sailing vessel, rated for 284 tons of cargo. During her 1834-35 voyage, she plied the California coastal trade and returned with 220 tons (4400 quintals or hundredweights) of pearl shells, almost 13 tons of copper, cow hides and horns, and silver and gold bullion. These items would provide raw materials for the industries of New England and other areas. The shells could become mother-of-pearl buttons, inlay, jewelry, dinnerware handles, and firearm grips. The hides were destined to become shoes and countless other leather items. The horns could also be fashioned into buttons or used as containers for gunpowder. The copper might become cookware, and the precious metals used for plating and jewelry, or exchanged at the US Mint for coinage.
When manned by an experienced crew, vessels such as the Tuscaloosa were capable of long duration voyages to almost any of the world’s seas and oceans. In early January 1835, two months after rounding Cape Horn, Tuscaloosa was about 400 miles south of Bermuda where she was hailed by Captain Elihu Coffin of the whaler Mary Mitchell. Coffin was steering her for Nantucket after a 43-month cruise that began in 1831.
Initially, the Tuscaloosa was part of a large fleet of cargo, passenger, and whaling vessels operated by Grinnell, Minturn & Co. In later years, this company’s fleet would include the famous Flying Cloud and other clipper ships that offered passage and cargo service to Europe, the California Gold Rush, and the Orient.
On subsequent voyages, the Tuscaloosa was operated by Howland & Hussey Co. as a whaler in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In 1840, she returned with 1868 barrels of whale oil, and in 1844, she landed 1663 barrels of sperm whale oil. Both oils were burned for illumination. Whale oil was smoky and gave off an odor, but the more valuable sperm oil (from cavities in the heads of sperm whales) burned cleaner. It was used as a fine lubricant (especially for clocks and watches) and was made into cosmetics and other products. If commodity prices and shipbuilding costs are adjusted for inflation to the 21st century, Tuscaloosa’s cargoes would have fetched almost $500,000 in 1840 and nearly $1.3 million in 1844—quite good returns from a vessel that likely cost less than $500,000 to build.
During her years of service, the Tuscaloosa sailed vast distances over the world’s oceans. Why she was named for a relatively small inland city, county, or river far from her home port is a mystery. Perhaps the name was noticed on early maps or there were family connections, since a number of early Tuscaloosans came from New England. Whatever the case, it is possible that some of the products made from the raw materials transported by the Ship Tuscaloosa eventually found their way to her namesake city.
Suggested additional reading and viewing:
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Two Years Before the Mast (film), directed by John Farrow (1946).
Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
*A nautical mile is a unit of distance used by navigators. It represents the distance between minutes of latitude. One nautical mile equals about 1.15 statute or land miles. Thirty nautical miles is approximately 34.5 statute miles.