Herman Melville & the White Whale That Swam to Albany (History, Literature)

By Daniel T. Weaver

Herman Melville, one of New York State’s greatest authors whose 200th birthday we are celebrating this year, had multiple sources to draw from for his greatest work, Moby Dick. One was the sinking of the Essex, a whaling ship, by a whale. Another source was an aggressive white whale known as Mocha Dick. A third inspiration for his novel may have been the story of a white whale that swam up the Hudson to Fort Orange, now the city of Albany, New York.

Moby_Dick_final_chase

The account of the visit by this whale and a brown whale was discovered in a memorandum book kept by Antonie de Hooges from 1643-1648. The New York State Department of Education describes the memorandum book as “a record of the legal and financial affairs of the patroonship kept while Antonie de Hooges served as principal business manager of the colony.”

On the 29th of March, in the year 1647, a certain fish appeared before us here in the colony [of Rensselaerswijck], which, as we could see, was extraordinary in size. He came from below and swam past us a certain distance up to the sand bars and towards the evening came back again, going past us again downriver. He was snow-white, without fins, his body [was] round, [and he] blew water up out of his head, like whales or tuna [do.] It seemed very strange to us because, in addition to the fact that there are many sand bars between us and the Manhatans, [it] was also snow-white, such as none of us had ever seen, in particular, I would say, as it had passed through a distance of more than 20 mijlen of fresh water, as opposed to salt [water,] which is its element. Only the Lord God knows what it could mean. This, [however,] is certain: I and most of the inhabitants watched it with great astonishment.

On the same evening that this fish made his appearance before us, we had the first thunder and lightening of the year.

On the 19th of April in the year 1647 around noon, with the high water, a fish (judged to be a whale by seafaring people who had sailed to Greenland) appeared here again, before Fort Orange. [It] was greater in size than the aforementioned [one], [it] was brown in color like a [ ] with large fins on its back, and it blew water from its head like the previous [one].

It swam upstream against this extraordinary current. This seemed strange to me, because it had happened that several years earlier a tuna had appeared here, which at that time caused great amazement, that the fish had swum so far, and then, in this one spring [season], two such large fish appear. That, for the reasons described in [the account of] the previous fish, is unprecedented.

The original account was written in Dutch. Both sides of Melville’s family were Dutch. The NYS Department of Education states that “Herman Melville could trace his ancestry back to New Netherland through the Gansevoort family in the maternal line and that Peter Stuyvesant arrived as the new director general in May of 1647.”

We should also keep in mind that Melville had a relationship with Albany, New York where the white whale was sighted. Melville’s father moved the family to Albany in 1830. Melville attended Albany from 1830-31. After his father’s death, he went to work in an Albany bank. In 1835, he enrolled in the Albany Classical School and later that year, he re-enrolled in the Albany Academy and stayed until 1837, when he left to teach school in Massachusetts. Later on Melville would live in Lansingburgh, New York, twelve miles north of Albany.

Because of his Dutch ancestry and the time he spent in and near Albany, it is likely that Melville heard the story of the white whale that made its way up the Hudson to Albany. The story of the white whale was significant enough that it was recorded in a memorandum book, a book not intended for the recording of such events. It may very well have found its way into the folklore of Albany’s Dutch community.

Antonie de Hooges’s final comment appears to connect the sighting of the whale with the first appearance that year of lightening and thunder. Melville too saw in his white whale a symbol of something more than just a whale.

While there is no proof that Herman Melville knew of the sighting of a white whale in the Hudson River at Albany nearly 172 years before he was born, the above evidence strongly supports the idea that that he did know this story and that it was one of several sources for Moby Dick.

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One thought on “Herman Melville & the White Whale That Swam to Albany (History, Literature)

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  1. Note also that a building off North Pearl Street and Clinton Avenue in downtown Albany has a historical marker labeling it as a Melville residence.

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