I went to Nantucket on Monday to revive the stalled Captain Chatfield project which I started with great enthusiasm in the spring of 2006. To recap, I transcribed the reminiscences of my great-great-grandfather, Captain Thomas Chatfield, and got them into “digital” form by manually retyping them over the course of many lonely evenings in Raleigh, North Carolina. When I finished I considered turning to his Civil War letters, but somehow the amateur historian in me wanted to focus from the beginning, on something more interesting than transcription. I wanted to do some research.
When I was in college in the 1970s I seriously considered majoring and going on to graduate school in American maritime history. I have an abiding passion for 19th century commercial maritime history, particularly shellfishing, coastal trade, and American yacht design. Historians like Howard Chappelle were my heroes and I wrote a very good paper (for a sophomore) on the development of the New Haven Sharpie which recently resurfaced when a correspondent asked me to sign a copy for his brother who was building one of the oyster skiffs. Unfortunately commercial reality diverted me from my dream of becoming a professor of maritime history but I continue to read whatever I can get my hands on and am a true sucker for a maritime museum like the New Bedford Whaling Museum or Mystic Seaport.
One discipline that was pounded into my head at Yale was the supremacy of primary research: going to the archives, the registry of deeds, the hall of records, the clerk of courts, and reading the Grantee/Grantor books, the plats, the marriage and death certificates. The first time I had it pushed on me was in my first American History course when the assignment was a straight forward project around the Boston Massacre. Here was a seminal event in the history of the country and I had to read the court records and the accounts of the witnesses, the defense of John Quincy Adams …. I was hooked. I became a total library rat, digging for the letters, the first-person accounts, the official record and turning my back on some other historian’s neat and pat condensation of events.
So I arrived at the Nantucket Whaling Museum and the docent asked if I wanted a tour. I asked for the library and was told I was in the wrong building altogether and needed to walk across town, over the cobblestoned streets to the Nantucket Historical Association housed in an annex attached to the Quaker Meetinghouse. Reader’s of Nathaniel Philbrick’s, In the Heart of the Sea will be familiar with the role the Quakers played in founding the Nantucket whaling industry. For a short time in the early 19th century, Nantucket was arguably the most prosperous, wealthy, and wordly place in the world, with the possible exception of London. Nantucket whalers were exploring the South Pacific, the first white men to arrive on many islands only explored a few decades earlier by Cook. They brought back great rewards for their risks, amassing (and saving with their thrift) huge fortunes some of which survive, much diminished in some old Massachusetts family fortunes. As I poked my head into the meetinghouse I thought, “This was the Sand Hill Road of the 1820s. Imagine the voyages planned, the losses mourned, and the profits celebrated on those hard benches.”
The library of the NHA is a little place: a few tables, a nice skylight, a curator’s office and a librarian’s station by the glass door. I didn’t have an appointment and felt bad about intruding, but I explained my mission to the librarian – I wanted to get some information about the Ship Massachusetts, its fate, and, if possible, the whereabouts of its logs, the “diaries” maintained by the captain (my ancestor) and his officers. The challenge of the reminiscences is that they are a narrative written to Chatfield’s four daughters, and as such are certainly bowdlerized to some extent to spare their young sensibilities. More maddening is the variance in place names and in some instances, what appears to be the coining of new place names like the “Friendly Islands” or “Mucktoe Bay.” My goal is to correlate Chatfield’s stories and remembrances with the precision of the logs. The first challenge is to locate those logs – some of which my father discovered in a trunk in the early 1970s and promptly donated to the Kendall Whaling Museum in Sharon, Massachusetts. Those logs had been given to the captain’s daughters who used them as scrapbooks, pasting newspaper clippings and illustrations from magazines over the accounts of the voyages! Kendall paid to have them restored, microfilmed and provided them a secure, climate controlled shelf. I thought my father had also given some of the material to Nantucket (he died in 1980), but wasn’t sure. I remember him ruing the loss or undiscovery of the log of the final voyage before the Civil War, the last whaling voyage Chatfield made before enlisting in the Union Navy.
The librarian checked her records and asked, to my delight, if I would like to read the log of the 1856 voyage. She asked another researcher to go down into the vault, handed me a pair of white cotton gloves and a mechanical pencil (pens are a total horror in the general vicinity of any rare book or manuscript).
The researcher returned with a manila box. I opened it up and set the log on the plastic lectern cradle. Immediately upon opening I realized why my father had never located it. It had been donated to the NHA by George Folger and the flyleaf carried the name of William Folger, the First Mate of that voyage.
I asked the librarian who was recorded as the log keeper. She looked it up on her database and replied it was indeed Folger. So, what I was about to read was maintained not by Chatfield, but by his first mate. That was normal for most whaling ships.
Folger had the typical “spidery” penmanship seen in 19th century manuscripts. The writing was legible, but difficult to comprehend in the early going, especially abbreviations and numbers. I turned on my ThinkPad and opened the transcribed reminiscences, searched for September 28, 1856, and got in synch with the log, following along and taking notes as I proceeded, entering the daily position into a spreadsheet for plotting later in Google Earth. Those observations were annotated as being either estimated through “dead reckoning” (D=RxT) or by “OBS” or observation, with “LUN” noted if the longitude was calculated using the “lunar” method. A typical entry is divided into three segments or periods of time: “Commenced”, or the first part of the day, “Middle Part” and “Latter Part”. The course, the wind speed, and any chores are noted.
The entry for October 4, 1856 is typical of 90% of all entries:
“Saturday Oct 4
These 24 hours begins with a moderate breeze from the WSW steering E by S
Middle part squally from the SW. Latter part fine breeze from the SW steering by the wind. Sail in sight. DR 39.55N 72.5W”
And so on and so forth for many pages. What catches the reader’s eye are the “whale stamps” — drawings of a whale’s tail flukes to indicate the sighting of a whale. Many fishermen keep detailed logs of their catches, and whalers were no different, using the margin marks to quickly scan a log for the good parts, the chase and killing of a whale.
One mark was unique, as it carried the carefully printed letters “B” and “M.” The librarian, curator and I spent 15 minutes speculating on its origin, finally agreeing that it may mean “boatswain mate” as some entries indicated which boat chased or caught the whale.
I also found this curious icon next to an entry about the capture and killing of an ocean sunfish, or mola mola. Indeed, this is what a sunfish looks like. The reminiscences carry none of these details, of men being washed overboard to their deaths, or drunken fights among the crew. But then the log has none of the narrative excitement of catching a whale through a hole in the Arctic ice pack as told by my great-great grandfather. The two versions need to be merged.
I only had four hours to spend on the log before needing to leave for some late lunch and my son’s soccer game (my ostensible reason for being on the island). The chowder was an affront – the glue/paste version – but the library time was well spent. I need to return at least one more time to continue transcribing the latitude and longitude coordinates. I think the possibilities of producing an interesting .kmz file for Google Earth are limitless and could make the combination of the very readable reminiscences, the dry but factual log, and the graphical wonder of a cartographic interface very compelling in terms of an educational tool about a very dangerous, very profitable, and very anachronistic industry.
There is something remarkably stimulating about precise historical research with no apparent profit motive, just the subtle awe of holding history (the log, after all, has been around the world) written by a very brave man of whom I know very little. Dry as it may sound, sitting in one place for a few hours wearing cotton gloves and carefully turning pages, it was actually very exciting.
I leave you with Dec 9, 1857:
“Portuguese named John Enos fell overboard, the other saved himself by clinging to the bearer. Luffed the ship to the wind immediately, but it being so rugged and dark at the time did not think it prudent to lower a boat as it was impossible to do it with any safety. He said the man could swim, I heard a faint cry once in the night. Could not descern (sic) anything. Kept on our course with heavy hearts as it was beyond the power of man to do anything for him. “