The Essex and Its Legacy

On November 20, 1820, an enraged sperm whale rammed and sank the Nantucket whaleship Essex in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles from the nearest land.  Twenty sailors survived the attack and quickly outfitted their three small whaleboats to make a journey to safety.  They had limited food and water, and could only hope that their supplies would last them as they slowly sailed for land across miles of open water.

Three months later, five emaciated survivors were picked up by passing ships, three more remained stranded on a deserted island, and twelve men were dead—seven of them eaten in desperation by their starving shipmates.  Their tale of choices, survival, and leadership would stun the maritime community, eventually serving as part of the inspiration for Moby-Dick.

To learn more, explore the materials listed below that can be found in the NHA archives and collections and at the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

Banner image by Essex seaman and survivor, Thomas Nickerson (1805–83), pencil drawing from his first-hand manuscript diary of the Essex disaster, 1876. Learn more about the NHA Collection of Thomas Nickerson Material (MS106).


Read articles reflecting on the Essex disaster and its legacy into the 21st century.More Read more from Articles

Historic Nantucket

Topics surrounding the story of the Essex have inspired a wide variety of articles written by renowned historians and authors, featured in the NHA's Historic Nantucket publication.More Read more from Historic Nantucket


View recordings of presentations and lectures discussing the story of the Essex tragedy.More Read more from Videos

Stove by a Whale Exhibit


The Essex and its legacy has been a recurring theme in exhibitions at the Nantucket Whaling Museum. View the most recent exhibitions that have explored aspects of this dramatic story.More Read more from Exhibitions

Melville and Moby Dick

The story of the Essex tragedy greatly influenced Herman Melville as he wrote Moby-Dick. Explore additional materials in the NHA collections on Melville, Nantucket, and Moby-Dick.More Read more from Melville and Moby Dick

Mariners Lost at Sea Database

NHA research has identified over 1,100 seafarers lost aboard Nantucket vessels between 1724 and 1896. This database lists those brave mariners and what we know about them.More Read more from Mariners Lost at Sea Database

Search the Collection

The NHA holds a number of artifacts and manuscripts related to the whaleship Essex, her owners and crew, and the story of her demise.More Read more from Search the Collection


Shop for books about the tragedy of the Essex and what happened to her crew.More Read more from Shop

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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