In the 18th and 19th century, whaling was an important industry in the United States, providing oil for lamps and spermaceti for candles. It also heavily influenced the expansion of American influence. Largely as a result of the activities of American whalers, an envoy was sent to South America before the War of 1812, Captain David Porter rounded the Horn to take the first vessel of the United States Navy into the Pacific, Commodore Perry opened Japan to foreign trade, and both Hawaii and Alaska became American territories.
Early whaling activities were concentrated in southeastern Massachusetts and Long Island. Nantucket was the primary whaling port. As a result of the revolutionary war, many Nantucket whalers emigrated and sailed under British and French flags. It was on a British-flagged ship that a Nantucket captain first exploited the Australian grounds. The first whaleship to round Cape Horn was an English vessel manned by Nantucket sailors.
After the War of 1812, American whalers dominated the Pacific for almost a hundred years. The Arctic grounds were discovered in 1846 when an American ship drifted northward in dense fog through the Bering Straits.
The advent of steamships, combined with its proximity to the whaling grounds, brought San Francisco to the fore in the late 19th century. However, the development of petroleum-based alternatives and a diminishing of the whale populations brought American whaling to an end early in the 20th century.