Known affectionately as the Black Ahab, William Thomas Shorey was born on January 25, 1859 on the island of Barbados in the British West Indies. He was the son of a Scottish sugar planter and a West Indian woman of mixed African and European ancestry. In 1875 he shipped to Boston, Massachusetts as a cabin boy and in the next year made his maiden voyage on a whaler. Learning navigation and moving up rapidly through the ranks, Shorey came to San Francisco, California on the whaler Emma F. Herriman in 1878. After only ten years at sea he became the only African American ship captain on the west coast. In 1886 Shorey married Julia Ann Shelton, daughter of one of the leading black families in San Francisco. Together they had five children and Captain Shorey occasionally took his family to sea with him.
Shorey was a skilled captain, known for his ability to bring both ship and crew back safely from long voyages to dangerous Pacific and Arctic whaling grounds. His crews included men from the United States, Europe, Australia, Asia and the Pacific Islands, and vessels under his command were known to be “happy ships.” Gradually petroleum and other products replaced those made from whales and Captain Shorey retired from the sea in 1908 at the age of 49. Onshore he lived in Oakland and worked on the docks as a special policeman for Pacific Coast Steamship Company from 1912 to 1919, the year he died of pneumonia. William, Julia and daughter Zenobia share a headstone in Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.