Object photography

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Object description

  • Harpoon head, before 1800
  • Iron, bone, cherry bark, spruce gum
  • Probably Nuu-chah-nulth {Nootka}, Northwest Coast, North America
  • L: 8 1/2 in, W: 3/4 in (L: 21.6 cm)
  • Gift of George Taylor, 1802
  • E3555


East India Marine Society Collection


This is a harpoon head for hunting see otters. An unbarbed iron point is set between two pieces of bone decorated with two etched black lines at the end. There are two lashings; first at the point and a second holding the short length of rope with a small loop at the end. Further Remarks: This seemingly modest object played a major role in shaping the course of North American history. The publication in 1784-1785 of Captain James Cook's exploration journals revealed that sea-otter pelts were greatly desired by Chinese merchants. New England entrepreneurs soon set sail for the Pacific Northwest, trading with Native Americans to acquire the luxurious pelts that were then transported to China. Traditionally, Native Americans hunted sea otters with harpoons as well as bows and arrows. The looped lanyard on this harpoon head was attached to a long line used to retrieve the animal once the head detached from the shaft.

Exhibition History

  • Uncommon Legacies: Native American Art from the Peabody Essex Museum, Washington State Historical Society; October 11, 2005 through February 09, 2006