The Wreck of the Corinthian

Background Information

Enduring Understandings

After reading two accounts and examining a painting of an historic event, learners will understand that:

  1. Whaling as practiced by the New Bedford whalers was a risky and dangerous endeavor.
  2. Primary sources were recorded by individuals who had specific perspectives and knowledge, and this affected what they saw and recorded.
  3. Some sources that appear to be primary might actually be second- and third-hand.
  4. Information about historic events comes in many formats, including logs, newspaper stories, and paintings.

The Event

In the 19th century, whale oil and baleen (plates in the mouth of the whale that were commonly referred to as whale bone) were important commodities for daily life in America. The supply of these products depended on whaling ships that set out from seaports like New Bedford, Massachusetts, on dangerous journeys that often took up to six years. Known as "cruises," these trips were chronicled in ships' logs, a daily account of life at sea.

Thousands of logs from whaling ships have survived, becoming valuable original narrative sources for historical and scientific research about whaling — and also about its role and its impact. Along with many routine entries about the weather, the catch, and daily activities onboard the ship, logs included accounts of meetings with other cultures, drawings and descriptions of rare natural phenomena, and gripping stories of disaster at sea.

One such account is the wreck and attempted rescue of the whaling ship Corinthian. The Corinthian's masts broke when it ran aground in August, 1868, on Blossom Shoals, off the North Slope of Alaska near Barrow. Another ship owned by the same company, the George Howland, attempted to rescue the Corinthian, its crew, and its cargo by towing it more than 1,500 miles south to a safe harbor in Kotzebue Sound.

The Log
The log entry for September 4, 1868, from the George Howland explains that the crew took the Corinthian in tow and attempted to repair the ship by creating a temporary mast, a process known as "rigging a jury mast" (and from which the modern expression "jury-rig" is derived). The term "boiling" in the entry refers to the blubber, thousands of pounds of which would be stripped from the whale during a voyage and boiled down to extract whale oil.

The Newspaper Article: The Loss of the Corinthian
A month after the log entry, Captain James Knowles of the George Howland wrote an account of the event, which was published in a Honolulu newspaper and reprinted in a New Bedford shipping journal. He relays how he learned that the Corinthian had run aground (here referred to as "ashore"), the efforts to recover it, and the perilous journey to take it to a safe harbor. The risk of being locked in by ice for the winter led the captain to return the George Howland to open water, with expectations to come back the next spring and complete repairs on the Corinthian.

The Painting: SHIP Corinthian in Tow of the SHIP GEORGE HOWLAND in the Arctic Ocean
The painting of the Corinthian in tow was completed a year after the event and shows the damaged ship's broken masts. It also conveys a sense of the complexity and danger of towing in icy Arctic waters. The artist, Benjamin Russell, had been a whaler, but he had no firsthand knowledge of these particular events, and no photographs to work from. His vision for this painting came instead from his own memory of life at sea, as well as from written accounts — quite possibly the newspaper article, letters, or stories he had heard.

Contrary to the hopes and plans of Knowles, the Corinthian did not remain safe and could not be repaired the next spring. Within six months, the boat was crushed by ice in Kotzebue Sound. The George Howland met the same fate in exactly the same place in 1871.

To read another account of an Arctic whaling voyage, check out The Voyage of Kealoha.

To learn about the navigation techniques used in 19th century whaling voyages, check out Ways of Navigation.

Interactive Activity

Interactive Activity

This interactive activity, adapted from material provided by the ECHO partners, presents three accounts of the story of the wreck and attempted salvage of the whaling ship Corinthian. The documents include a ship’s log from another whaler, the George Howland, which towed the Corinthian to a safe harbor; a newspaper account of the events; and a painting based on the story.

Open the Flash Interactive Activity in a new window

Questions for Discussion

Questions for Discussion

  • What can you learn from looking at a source document? How do first-person accounts differ from the history we might read in textbooks or see onscreen?
  • Reliability, authenticity, and accuracy are three important aspects of historical evidence. How would you valuate the three resources according to those three criteria?
  • Where and how could you get additional information about this event in history?
  • Why were ships from New Bedford in Alaskan waters?
  • Can you think of any other sources that could have information about this type of event?