Transcribing History: Whaling Log Books

On and off over the past two years I’ve been writing a book about the wreck and rescue of the crew of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix. For a long time I struggled to find a first hand account of the 1858 disaster written by the captain of the Phoenix, Bethuel G. Handy, Jr. of Cotuitport, brother of my great-great grandmother Florentine Handy. The closest I came was a four-part story published in the Daily Alta, one of San Francisco first newspapers, which interviewed Handy in the fall of 1859 after he entered the port aboard my great great grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship the Massachusetts.

Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy

Chatfield’s Reminiscences briefly relates the story of the wreck and Handy’s (Chatfield and Handy married the other man’s sister and so were brother-in-laws x two) hard trek over the frozen straits between the island where the Phoenix went ashore, then over a mountain range, followed by a 100 miles hike along the coast and up the Uda River to a Russian fort where he spent the winter. I could find no first-hand account penned by Handy though, and assumed the ship’s log book had been lost in the wreck or was sitting in some distant relatives attic, repurposed as a scrapbook the way so many old whaling logs were treated.

I finally found the last logbook of the Phoenix in the collection of the Nantucket Historical Association and I made plans to take a day off from work and ride the ferry over from Hyannis for a day in the NHA’s library. I emailed the librarian to warn her I was coming, but literally missed the boat and had to postpone the research. A few weeks ago, as I made plans to get over to the island I searched for the manuscript in the NHA’s online archives and discovered the archivists had kindly digitized the book. I was very excited to download a PDF and finally read, in the fine penmanship of the time, my ancestor’s account of a summer spent hunting whales in the Sea of Okhotsk, ending with the agonizing loss of his first command on the reefs surrounding Elbow Island in the Shantar archipelago.

I transcribed the log over two weeks, struggling at first to decipher Handy’s handwriting but gradually getting comfortable with the format of the entries , his abbreviations, and the occasional illegible scrawled. After some time in the process I realized there was a trick to deciphering illegible handwriting, a combination of paying attention to context and carefully examining the ascending and descending strokes of the pen from the lines above and below the word in question. Often I would find a version of a previously illegible word that I could decipher, allowing me to go back and correct any ambiguities.

Foreword to the final log book of the whaling ship Phoenix

As I finished I received an email from the NHA announcing a gift that would fund the transcription of its collection. The email said the NHA was looking for volunteers, so I emailed Sata David, the digitization archivist running the project and offered to start transcribing other log books from ships involved in the events that took place 100 years ago.

The experience was tedious at times, doubtless a reflection of the tedium of life at sea as the Phoenix sailed from the Hawaiian islands to the Sea of Okhotsk in the spring of 1858. But then things quickly started to fascinate me, subtle clues such as the gradual degradation of Handy’s handwriting during stressful times such as gales or being lost in the pack ice in the thick summer fog. The account is very terse, there are no personal asides, no confessions of doubt or fear, just a daily record of weather, wind and work.

Who slashed X’s across the entries describing the loss of the Phoenix? The Captain? The owner of the ship? A disgruntled crew member? An annoying researcher?

Here’s the entry from October 12, 1858 when the Phoenix dragged anchor during a blizzard and went ashore on Elbow Island.

Handy’s account

And here is my transcription for that day:

Tuesday 12th [entry crossed out with large X in pencil]
Begins with a fresh breeze from E steering over toward the North Shore saw nothing began to breeze on at 2 PM wore ship and steered for Elbow Isle at 3 took in main topgallant sail at half past 3 pm took in fly jib and spanker at 4 dubble reefed the topsails at 6 came to anchor 2 ½ miles west of Elbow Isle blowing a strong gale and began to rain at 9 pm the wind came out W in squall and blowed a gale accompanied with thick snow very dark could not see anything lett[sic] go second anchor and gave her all chain she lay without dragging until half past 3 AM let up a little and blowed harder a heavy sea a running she began to drag being too near the land to slip the cables we gave her all extra iron fluke chains fin chains boat anchors etc. dragging still and very close to land commenced to cut away the masts while doing so she struck on the end of a reef and dragged over broke off the rudder pintles and done no more damage after she got over the reef she stopped dragging the tide was falling but water enough to drop the rudder out of the port wedged it up as well as could she soon began to strike bottom started the pumps and found she leaked badly pounded and found two feet of water found by keeping both pumps a going could keep her free the rudder working in the port had nocked[sic] off one of the planks off of the stern ends this day the tide down and the ship striking bottom heavey and still a blowing [another pencil X at the end]

With the final piece of puzzle in place (for now, research is addictive and I could spend another year in the archives) the writing can proceed. I’ll publish chapters as I draft them and link to the source material as I go.

Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

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