The Thomas Chatfield Project

“Children: You have asked me to jot down the principal incidents of my somewhat varied life, and something in the nature of a history of my ancestors. I am afraid it will be anything but satisfactory, either to you or myself. Most of it must be from memory – some, even, tradition – and with my limited school education, both spelling and grammatical construction faulty.”

To while away my idle evenings in Raleigh I’m going to tackle a project that has been nagging me for a few years and post it here on Churbuck.com in html, .doc, and pdf formats.
My great-great-grandfather, Thomas Chatfield, ran away from his Hudson Valley home in the 1830s to seek his fortunes on the seas. He became captain of the Nantucket whaler, Massachusetts at the age of 20, participated in the California Gold Rush, whaled in the Arctic, New Zealand, and Sea of Okhtosk, and was an officer in the Union Navy’s Gulf Squadron, maurading the Gulf coast of Florida from Key West to Tampa. He retired to Cotuit, captained a coastal schooner, operated a sail loft (now my bedroom closet), founded the Cotuit Masonic lodge (in my bedroom closet/sail loft), and was, by all accounts a decent and exemplary man.

A novel based loosely on his life, The Cut of Her Jib, was written by my distant relative Clara Nickerson Boden and published in 1954. A series of boy’s novels, The Skipper of the Cynthia B, were written by my distant relative Charles Pendexter Durrell and published in the 1920s. Again, the main character, Captain Seth Nickerson, was loosely based on Captain Chatfield. He had a big impact on all who knew him, and continues to cast a big shadow through the family tree on my cousins and myself. My home is essentially a museum of his life.
His friend, A. Lawrence Lowell, the president of Harvard, lived next door in Cotuit, and urged the captain to pen his reminiscences. The result was a 200 page typescript that has been handed around the Chatfield clan. My father had a dozen copies xeroxed and bound, but I think it’s time to get the manuscript into a digital format for easier sharing throughout the family. This was written for his four daughters, and thus not as salty as one would expect the true story would be. Another chronicle of his life are his letters to his wife, Susannah Nye, written during the Civil War and compiled by the Cotuit minister in the 1970s.
So, not wanting to slice up my one copy of the Reminiscences so I can run it through an OCR scanner, I thought I’d rekey it and post it here, seeking out supporting material such as navigational charts, illustrations, and his original ship’s logs which are now held by the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts. I’ll post the first few pages now and keep updating as I go along. Comments are appreciated.

Eventually I may scan the pages so I can get an accurate picture of the manuscript which has some hand drawings of anchorages, battles, and other marginalia, but for now I’ll transcribe a few pages every night and post them in a sub-page here. I will try to scan some photos of the Captain and try to enrich the text. I am not going to clean up the manuscripts misspellings or punctuation errors, nor will I flag those with sics and footnotes.
Interestingly enough, these Reminscences have an ASIN number (B0008CRZNU) and the title is already listed at Amazon! Having never been published, I suppose the copy on the shelves of the Cotuit Library which has its catalogue on the Cape’s interlibrary load system led to its being catalogued. Anyway, Amazon lists it, but you can’t buy it.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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