In Featured/ OCNJ Nostalgia

The Natives of Ocean City

Photo by Josh Kinney

Photo by Josh Kinney

Have you ever wondered who were the natives of Ocean City NJ?Very little is known about the Lenni-Lenape natives (Unalachtigo) who began coming to Peck’s Beach during the warmer months of the year long before the birth of Christ. They were from a branch of the peoples referred to generally as Algonquins or Delawares by the white men who first encountered them throughout the southern “Jerseys.” There were numerous rivers and streams they could paddle their dug-outs down to reach the area which later became known as Somers Point. And from there it was an easy crossing of the bay to Peck’s Beach, where they found plenty of small game, fish, crabs and clams to feast upon.

Dutch sailor and explorer Cornelius Jacob first sighted the southern tip of the “Jerseys” in 1611 and spent several years exploring and mapping what is now known as Cape May County. However, he is not known to have made any landings on our seven-mile-long island, which came to be known as Peck’s Beach – named after the whaler who began beaching right whale catches on the island around 1700.

John Peck would certainly have encountered the so-called “Indians” as Columbus incorrectly first identified their Caribbean cousins. As every schoolboy ought to know, Jamestown, Va., had been settled in 1607 and Plymouth, Mass., in 1620. Thus Peck and his men would not have been surprised to find native Americans on “his” island, nor were they surprised to see him coming. But the white men soon intimidated them with their superior weaponry and then – unsurprisingly – put them to work helping to butcher the beached whales.

In those days whales were quite valued for their blubber (fat), which was boiled in huge vats (in a process known as flensing) and used not only in oil lamps but also as a lubricant and to make soap, paint and varnish. The native peoples might also have eaten their flesh, which was a good source of vitamins.

The east coast of Massachusetts was well known as the whaling capital of the young United States and its large, multi-masted sailing vessels roamed the seven seas for months at a time – competing with other nations – seeking every type of whale they were able to harpoon. Valpariso, on the west coast of South America, became one of the principal ports of call for these vessels. In order to get to the Pacific Ocean, most had to round the tip of South America, a hazardous and freezing cold endeavor much of the year, with the prevailing winds against them.

Back in South Jersey, it’s not known how Peck brought in his catches, although he likely had small boats at the ready to be launched as soon as a whale was sighted off shore. He may even have had a crudely-made pier somewhere at either end of the island, where he docked a sailboat of some sort. Peck may have also built a wooden observation tower for whale spotting during the daylight hours. All of this is speculation, of course, but it’s fun to think about.



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