Manatee Stories Go Back into 1756 - Fernandina Observer (2024)

By Lauri deGaris

I have a subscription to This allows me to search thousands of newspaper articles from around the world. Many newspapers have been digitized and date back hundreds of years. For a research geek like myself, this database provides me with endless hours of amusem*nt and amazement.

Recently, I decided it was time to write about manatees. I could not wait to review historical stories printed in the past about these gentle giants. I set aside ample time to review the historical record. And I was not disappointed with the results of my efforts, not one bit.

In my research, I discovered that the words manatee and sea cow were sometimes used interchangeably. However, there were also times when the word sea cow was referring to Steller’s sea cow, one of the last Pleistocene survivors to go extinct. And there were times when the phrase “sea cow” referred to the much smaller “manatee.”

The sea cows were relatives of the manatee and dugong. However, unlike these two species, the sea cow adapted to cold water well. The sea cow was also much larger than a manatee. A typical sea cow was 30 feet in length compared to 10 feet for a manatee. And manatees live in warm water regions versus sea cows that live in cold water regions.

The oldest published story I could find was written in the Oxford Journal on May 22, 1756. The article advertised a magazine containing a piece about the anatomy of a “manatee or sea cow” found near an island east of Kamchatka, off the coast of Russia.

In London, the Newcastle Weekly Courant reported that on August 4, 1759 the vessel Marislante was in port at “one of the carribbee islands 30 miles N.E. of Dominica.” The captain noted “sea cows with calves are plentiful in the region” in his log.

On May 16, 1771 the sailing vessel Sea Cow cleared port in Pennsylvania. And, a Greenland ship brought home 130 sea cows which were said to have produced more oil than a whale, according to The Derby Mercury – September 23, 1784.

In 1792, reports were noted that sea cows were hunted for their meat. A few years later, the Dunlap and Claypoole’s American Daily Advertiser in Philadelphia advertised Conrad Weckerly on Race Street was selling sea cow teeth along with salmon, codfish, New England cheese and northern whale oil.

The head of a sea cow was listed as a display item in Mr. Ganter’s Grand Museum traveling show. “The Saloon of Arts” was in town for one day in Yorkshire with many objects including the horn of a unicorn that is eight feet long. Admission – one shilling.

The Evening Post – Broadway, New York reported on September 6, 1822 that Dr. Leonard Fisher, surgeon dentist performs the operation of teeth extraction, replacing them with teeth made from the best sea cow bone.

Manatee or sea cow bones and skin were obtained from the Indians by officers at Tampa Bay on April 24, 1830. Specimens included “the rib bones of several sea-cows which were 1 to 2 inches in diameter and so nearly resembled ivory as scarcely to be distinguished from it.” The Philadelphia Inquirer went on to report sea cow skins being used by the Indians for various purposes where strength and durability are required. Sea cow skins were found useful for rigging canoes and building homes. The article said that “officers at the camp have made offers to produce to them one entire sea-cow, dead or alive.”

The Charleston Mercury reported the capture of a “Manitee or Sea Cow” in local waters. The “bull” was at least 10 feet long with very small eyes, flippers and a round tail. The American Museum offered $10,000 for the complete carcass of the manatee according to the Pensacola Gazette on August 10, 1850.

A sea-cow was caught in Indian River Lagoon and exhibited in Jacksonville according to the Florida Agriculturist on August 6, 1879.

The San Fransisco Alta – March 16, 1884 reported a rare and valuable specimen was brought down from Bering Island by the Alaska Fur company’s steamer St. Paul. The sea cow was found by Dr. Leonard Steineger, a member of the scientific societies both in this country and Europe. He was sent to the island in the interests of science by the Smithsonian Institute.

Whalers killed sea cows for oil. And natives used their bones to make runners for their dog-drawn sleighs. Noted scientist, Georg Wilhelm Steller, who was with one of Vitus Bering's expeditions, wrecked on the island and wintered there in 1741. Steller noted that the sea cow was 28 to 30 feet long with a tail like a whale.

Manatee Stories Go Back into 1756 - Fernandina Observer (1) Life reconstruction of the Steller's sea cow. (Biodiversity Heritage Library, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

There are more fascinating stories to share about manatees and sea-cows. And, I promise to share them with you very soon.

Manatee Stories Go Back into 1756 - Fernandina Observer (2024)
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