I. Obeasts in Early America

We offer food to you so that you will eat and be content and whisper to Oxinuaca [god of abundance] of the spirit our people and the quality of our crops. Eat of our maize and drink the water from our bowl and know that we honor you who keep the wind in your bellies and speak to the gods.  (Laguna proverb)

Wedding vase in the shape of an obeast (Acoma). Fired clay, circa 500 B.C. Excavated near the site of the San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico.

Obeasts have been an important feature of the North American cultural landscape for tens of thousands of years, and yet little is actually known about these shy and endangered animals today. Artifacts have been uncovered in North Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and even as far north as New Brunswick Canada, which depict the obeast and its revered status amongst native cultures.

Tribes including the Quapaw, Acoma, and Laguna considered the creatures to be spiritual envoys to the gods, particularly to gods of the harvest. Thus in native cultures the obeast is symbolic of abundance and plays an important role in folk lore, craft and religious ceremonies. Northern tribes like the Shawnee also considered the obeast to be a holy animal and honored their gods by making sacrificial offerings of their pelts and nutritious blubber.

Click here to view a gallery of artifacts in the MOCS collection.

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II. Hunting the Land Whale

Obeast populations were devastated during the 1800s when they were hunted as an easy and abundant substitution for whale oil. By 1824 right and sperm whales, whose oil was vital for illuminating homes and lubricating machinery, had become scarce in the Atlantic Ocean due to over-hunting. Whalers, frenzied in their attempts to meet the huge fuel needs of the newly industrialized United States, rounded Cape Horn to the more abundant Pacific hunting grounds only then to be stymied by the lack of expedient means to transport the cargo to the major processing plants in New England. It simply took too long to get the product back to its consumers; although, the U.S. transcontinental railroad would be completed in 1869, by then the whale oil industry would be nearly wiped out.

Obeast oil, bottled in Mexico in 1860.

The obeasts were slow and numerous enough to seem like a viable alternative for those who could not afford $2 per gallon for whale oil. The ubiquity of obeasts meant that the oil could be processed locally, thereby nearly eliminating the costs (and time) of transporting it from processing plants to consumers. Further, the size of the obeasts made them manageable for some enterprising families to render the meat and blubber themselves. Many small businesses were built from this trade including the McConnell’s restaurant chain and Chariot Hotels, which are still prospering today. Indeed for pioneering families seeking the American Dream, obeast was the perfect product.

While inexpensive, obeast oil had the disadvantage of not burning as brightly or cleanly as whale oil. (Users often remarked on its smoky, corn-like aroma.) Obeast oil was also not as plentiful as whale oil; it took four or five obeasts to produce the same amount of oil as one whale.  Still, there were enough obeasts to provide oil, meat, and pelts for nearly 60% of U.S. families from 1826 to 1860. Then, in 1862 the obeast oil supply (and the obeast population itself) was finally exhausted by the steep fuel needs of the Civil War and was subsequently replaced by a newly invented product called kerosene.

Obeast oil almost singlehandedly fueled the early waves of western exploration, including the 1849 California gold rush. It is a sad irony that obeasts unwittingly facilitated the very western expansion that resulted in the development and loss of their precious habitats. Human encroachment coupled with dramatic over-hunting was nearly the death knell for the species. As scientists now know, obeasts prefer to live and graze the same area for generations. Their lack of adaptive nomadic foraging skills makes them particularly susceptible to habitat loss or infringement. Still, despite the widespread colonization during the 19th century it seems that small groups of obeasts managed to evade notice and persecution by living in far-flung rural areas like the hills of Appalachia and the deep woods of Vermont and Maine.

A sportsman with his kill. Virginia, 1922.

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries local hunters and sportsmen still bagged obeasts for private use or even just sport, but at nothing like the scale of harvesting done earlier. The emergence of petroleum products made obeast goods obsolete by World War I, although they remained important staples for poorer families who rendered the blubber and cured the pelts themselves.

The meat rationing efforts of World War II again foisted obeasts into the role of commodity, only this time more for their flesh than oil. Rural farmers and hunters found themselves in possession of sizable portions of meat, which they then sold or traded on the black market. By the war’s conclusion in 1945, obeasts were thought to be completely gone from the entire eastern coast and extremely rare everywhere else. These numbers became only more bleak as North America continued to grow and build in rural areas during the 1950’s and 60’s.