William T. Shorey: California’s Only Black Whaling Captain


Ship captain; Entrepreneur; Whaling


William Thomas Shorey was a skilled captain and navigator. He mastered his work to command vessels of any size anywhere in the world. He was not afraid of storm threats, unrest of crews, and whales. The dangers of the sea did not deter him from pursuing his career.

Thomas Aquinas portrays captain Shorey in his quote, “If the highest aim of a captain were to preserve his ship, he would keep it in port forever.” Shorey aimed beyond preserving ships. He fought typhoons and protected his crew from dreadful disasters. His fellow crew called him the “Black Ahab.”

Early Life

Shorey was born on July 13, 1859, on the island of Barbados. His father was a Scottish sugar planter, and his mother, Rosa Frazier, a West Indian.

Shorey’s extraordinary career in sailing began at a very tender age. Contrary to his parents’ wish to be a plumber, Shorey chose deckhand. The sea had a strong natural attraction for him. He shipped as a cabin boy on a vessel destined for Boston. His navigation journey began here.

The ship’s captain began teaching Shorey navigation skills. Shorey knew sailing had challenges, but he enjoyed the freedom missed in other occupations for black people.


Shorey made his first whaling voyage in 1876 when he was 17. By 1880, Shorey became a whaling officer, serving as a third-class officer.

He sailed to San Francisco on a three-year whaling voyage aboard the Emma F. Herriman from Boston. At the West Coast, he progressed to a first-class officer. He received his certification in 1885.

Shorey gained his first command in 1886 after sailing again on two shorter voyages of less than a year each. After a decade at sea, Shorey became the only black ship captain on the West Coast in the late-1880s and 1890s. 

In 1891, Shorey did not suffer a single casualty when they sank in the Arctic ice pack in the Bering Sea.

In 1904, whales shattered two boats to pieces on one voyage, but no life was lost. In 1905, a voyage brought a return of 230 barrels of oil and 3000 pounds of bone. During an 11-month trip, Shorey’s ship survived two severe storms, and he returned to the port in 1907.

The crew testified that Shorey’s calmness and ingenious seamanship saved a wreck. Shorey safeguarded ship and crew on long voyages and risky Arctic and Pacific whaling grounds.

His whaling voyages were outside San Francisco on the whaling bark, John, and Winthrop. He had crews from America, Australia, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Islands.


Shorey’s whaling career led him to California, where he met and married Julia Ann Shelton (1865-1944) in 1886.

They had five children: Zenobia Pearl Shorey (1888–1908), Elvira Jane Shorey (1891–1893), Hazel E. Shorey (1893–1894), Victoria Grace Shorey Francis (1898–1971), and William T. Shorey Jr. (1902–1969). Only Victoria and William lived to adulthood.

Since some voyages lasted over a year, Shorey often took his family to sea despite the danger.

In 1898, Julia became treasurer and later the president (1901-1911) of the Aged and Infirm Colored People board of directors.

Later Years

In 1903, William held a banquet in honor of Booker T. Washington. Booker spearheaded a fund’s drive to support Shorey’s school at Tuskegee.

The whaling industry weakened at the discovery of petroleum. In 1908, Captain Shorey retired from the sea at 49. He lived in Oakland until his death.

Between 1912 and 1919, Shorey served as a police officer for Pacific Coast Steamship Company. He joined St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Death of the Black Ahab

Shorey William died in 1919 because of pneumonia. He was a victim of the Spanish flu pandemic. They buried him in Mountain View Cemetery, plot 14B in Oakland, California, USA.

Other Spanish flu victims were buried in plot 53 of the same cemetery. The other members of Shorey’s family were buried in the Mountain View Cemetery.

After Shorey’s death, Julia and her surviving children Victoria and William Jr. relocated to 1268 28th Avenue. Victoria worked as a stenographer for Larche & Maurice, while William Jr. worked as a waiter.

Legacy and Honors

Shorey Street in West Oakland was named after Shorey. On August 24, 1907, Mayor Frank K. Mott approved it.

The Shorey House received a historic landmark in April 2013 in Oakland. He became the first black Oakland resident to be honored.

Captain William was a person to be reckoned with. He stood out as an intelligent, experienced, and exemplary man. He earned respect and admiration of his crew. They celebrated him as a pillar of Oakland’s African American history.


The Black Male Archives


  1. William Shorey
  2. Capt William T. Shorey
  3. Black Whaling Captain, William Shorey


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