The Charles W. Morgan is named for her original owner, a Quaker whaling merchant who ordered its construction from the shipbuilders Jethro and Zachariah Hillman of New Bedford, Massachusetts. The ship’s maiden voyage began on September 6, 1841, with a journey around Cape Horn and across the Pacific Ocean. Following Charles W. Morgan’s initial three-year, four-month voyage, she came home with 1,600 barrels of sperm oil, 800 barrels of whale oil and 10,000 lb (4,500 kg) baleen (whalebone) which was worth around US$56,000.
The hull and deck of Charles W. Morgan reflected the three typical functions of a whaling ship. They served as:
a mother ship to a fleet of small whaleboats, which were stored on the davits when not in use,
a factory and a refinery ship with tryworks for extracting oil from whale blubber,
an oil tanker.
In her 80 years of service, she made 37 voyages ranging in length from nine months to five years. Charles W. Morgan, in total, brought home 54,483 barrels of sperm and whale oil and 152,934 pounds of whalebone. She sailed in the Indian and South Atlantic Oceans, surviving ice and snow storms. Her crew survived a cannibal attack in the South Pacific. Between 1888 and 1904 she was based in San Francisco.
Charles W. Morgan had more than 1,000 whalemen of all races and nationalities in her lifetime. Her crew included not only Americans, but sailors from Cape Verde, New Zealand, the Seychelles, Guadeloupe, and Norfolk Island. The ship’s crew averaged around 33 men per voyage. As with other whaleships in the 19th century, Charles W. Morgan was often home to the captain’s family. Charles W. Morgan was owned and managed by the J. & W. R. Wing Company of New Bedford.
During her years of service, Charles W. Morgan was used in several movies, including Miss Petticoats (1916), Down to the Sea in Ships (1922) and Java Head (1923).
On the night of June 30, 1924, Charles W. Morgan caught fire when struck by the flaming wreck of the steamer Sankaty, which had drifted across the Acushnet River from New Bedford harbor. Badly charred, Charles W. Morgan narrowly escaped destruction.
The whaling days came to an end with the advance of petroleum refining. Charles W. Morgan was under the care of Whaling Enshrined, Inc. until 1941, when she was transferred to Mystic Seaport, where she remains. The ship is the only surviving wooden whaling ship from the 19th century American fleet.
Charles W. Morgan arrived at Mystic Seaport in December 1941, narrowly avoiding destruction during World War II.[clarification needed] The ship was declared a National Historic Landmark and listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1966.
In 1971, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative stamp honoring Charles W. Morgan.
An initial restoration and preservation project was undertaken in 1968. In 2010 Mystic Seaport was engaged in a multi-million dollar restoration, intended to restore the ship to seaworthy status.