The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

One man’s adventures from the Gold Rush through a Siberian shipwreck to the Battle of New Orleans

Bethuel Handy was my great-great-grandmother Florentine’s big brother. He was born in Cotuit on Cape Cod in 1829 and was 74 years old when he died in 1904. I knew very little about him when I was growing up save for two detailed mentions in my great-great grandfather’s reminscences.

The first event occurred in October 1858 in the Sea of Okhotsk amongst the Shantar Islands, a wild archipelago that teems with bowhead whales, pilot whales,* beluga whales, killer whales, sea lions, Siberian tigers and Kamchatka brown bears. Bethuel was 29 years old and had been the captain of the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix for all of six months after the ship’s original master, Joseph Hinckley of Centerville, fell ill just before she sailed from Hawaii to the frozen Russian sea in April of that year. It was his first command. He had been on only one other whaling voyage and now was captain of his second. The first was on his Uncle Horace Nickerson’s ship, the Massachusetts, and that is the second mention of Bethuel made by his brother-in-law, Thomas Chatfield.

Chatfield wrote an account of his life’s adventures for his four daughters in 1905.   Bethuel’s death may have caused the women to press their father to write down his sea stories  before he too slipped his hawser. So he wrote his autobiography and Bethuel did not, which meant all the family legend and lore of the Gold Rush, about whaling in the Pacific, capturing Confederate blockade runners off the Florida Keys were but one man’s version of events which only hinted at what Bethuel experienced in those same tumultous times.

For some reason no one in the family thought it worth disclosing that Bethuel married Thomas’s sister Mary.  I didn’t fully grasp the strangeness of that double-brother-in-law relationship until I subscribed to and started building the family tree.  Thomas married Florentine Handy first, and then a few years later, Bethuel Handy married Mary Chatfield, the only girl in a family of ten btothers.  So I started musing about that kind of family dynamic and how uncommon it is, and how perhaps the isolation of Cotuit Port in the mid-19th century and  biological urges to mate with a new member of the gene pool from outside of the community, as well as the expediency of available eligible spouses at a time when a whaling voyage lasted three or more years, and well……it just seemed really weird to me for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.

So I decided to learn more about Bethuel Handy. For the past five years I’ve been digging through the archives of the Nantucket Historical Association, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, the California Daily Alta, and talking to Handy’s descendants to find out what documents he may have left behind. The result was startling. Among the things I learned after a lifetime of hearing one version of events, were some startling truths that my family didn’t know. To wit:

  • Chatfield ran away from his home in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson in 1847 when he was sixteen years old. He had been working at a textile mill on Moodna Creek since the age of 12, forced into child labor by his father Nicholas, a destitute tanner with 11 children who had been expelled from England for refusing to pay a tax to the Church of England. When he met two brothers on a schooner from Cotuit at the quay of Albany he lied and told them his name was “John Thomas” and that he was recently arrived from England in search of his family, whom he had been told were somewhere along the Hudson, but now were apparently in Boston.
  • Chatfield maintained that alias and fictional story for years in Cotuit after he was taken in the Nickerson clan — Bethuel’s mother’s side of the family.  Bethuel learned the truth about his future brother-in-law in San Francisco during the Gold Rush when he happened to meet some sailors from the Massachusetts who knew Chatfield’s true identity. He confronted Chatfield about this fact back in Cotuit in the spring of 1853, and forbid the young man from marrying his sister Florentine until he returned to Cornwall to prove that he wasn’t a fugitive from justice.
  • Bethuel told the full story of his wreck in the Sea of Okhotsk to a reporter at the San Francisco newspaper, the Daily Alta, in 1859
  • Bethuel’s experiences at a Russian fort over the winter of 1858-59 were shared by a young deserter from another ship, Daniel Weston Hall, who published an account of that winter in Siberia in a book Arctic Rovings
  • Bethuel’s experience as a volunteer office in the Union Navy during the Civil War was very different from Chatfield’s. Bethuel was assigned to a gunboat that was part of Admiral David Farragut’s assault and capture of New Orleans and siege of Vicksburg.
  • Bethuel was so unsettled by his wartime experience on the Mississippi River that he had a religious experience involving a promise to God to get baptized at the earliest opportunity should he survive the carnage aboard the gunship USS Wissahickon. When the ship was pulled out of the battleline by Farragut and sent to Philadelphia for repairs, Bethuel missed orders assigning him to a new ship. His excuse?  He was getting baptized. He was demoted as a result, and in a fit of anger resigned, leaving the service in 1862.

The revelations of this research convinced me it was worthy of a book. For the longest time I struggled to find the best way to tell Bethuel’s story.  Was it fodder for a novel? How could I fully explore the fascinating relationship between him and Chatfield on the basis of a few scanty newspaper clippings and ship logs? In the end I decided to first write the story as a diligently researched and attributed work of history, inserting my novelistic projections of the emotional lives of the two brothers-in-law where appropriate, but hewing closely to the factual footnoting and sourcing on the first draft.

I began writing in November of 2019 and finished the first draft in 100 days. Now, during the social distancing phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m revising the manuscript, taking a machete to the text and removing the redundancies, re-ordering the chapter structure, and inserting — where it feels honestly appropriate — my own speculations into the untold story of these two men and their wives during a period of incredible change in society. These men were born at a time when they weren’t expected to live past 50 years. They were the last master mariners in the age of sail and experienced warfare aboard steam powered ships in a brutal war that introduced machines to warfare for the first time. They were true 49’ers — experiencing the phenomenon of the California Gold Rush first hand as young men. They were whalers at the peak of the golden age of that messy, profitable industry, capable of sailing tens of thousands of miles to the antipodes to hunt and massacre the biggest animals on the planet.  They lived dangerous lives, lives of uncertainty and fear with none of the conveniences we know today. No charts. No GPS. No engines. No communications. They lived most of their marriages apart from their wives, coming home long enough to impregnate those poor women with another baby, a child that would be born while they were at sea.  They were the generation that had to adapt to huge change — born in a world of candle light and wooden ships, dying in a world of telephones, electric light, automobiles and flight. They had no safety net. No social security. No medicine. Nothing but themselves and their knowledge of the sea and the stars.

And as I, along with the rest of the world, found myself contemplating my mortality as the killer virus threatened my ability to have a dinner out with my wife, I began to project myself into the minds of two very different men who lived parallel lives bound together by more than friendship and I wondered why one, the native son of Cotuit, Bethuel Handy, vanished from the village after the Civil War; and why the other, Chatfield, a fugitive who arrived in Cotuit a stranger under an alias, transformed himself from a brawling runaway into the cliche of the old salt, celebrated for his civic commitments, his Masonry, and his life simply because he wrote it down.

Anyway, as usual I digress. I thought I’d publish some of the first draft here in installments over the coming weeks. I don’t know what will happen to this work, eventually I’ll ask an agent to give it a look and seek out a publisher. But I know it is far from done, and won’t be done in my mind until I get myself to the Shantar Islands to see, with my own eyes, the place where two young men made their fortune and misfortune so far from home. I feel it’s time that Bethuel Handy get credit for an act of heroism on a level with Ernest Shackleton’s.

What follows is an account of Bethuel Handy’s wreck:

The Phoenix was sailing amongst the Shantar Islands, specifically the one island furthest west and closest to the Asian mainland near the mouth of the Uda River — at the time the border between Russia and China.  The American whalers called the island “Elbow Island” because of its shape. The Russian name for the place was Ostrov Medvezhiy, or “Bear Island” and little did Handy and the crew of the Phoenix know, but that a whaler had been killed and devoured on the island a few months earlier.

The Shantars were surrounded by whales during the short Siberian summer. The Sea of Okhotsk, a big inland circle behind the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kurile Islands, the Japanese north island of Hokkaido and the penal colony of Sakhalin Island, is frozen over for eight months of the year, swept by immense blizzards blown over it from the vast taiga wastes of inner Siberia. This is a place with winter temperatures of -55 fahrenheit, a sub-Arctic wasteland that not even the Russians could get to work as anything other than a penal colony and place to trade for furs.

But the whaling in the middle of the 19th century was incredible, so fruitful that at the peak 300 ships worked the same waters simultaneously. American whalers sailed 23,000 miles from Massachusetts around Cape Horn to the Sea of Okhotsk because a single successful voyage was worth the equivalent of $1.5 million in profit in whale oil and “bone” or baleen, the fibrous filters the whales strained krill through.

Handy had been to the Okhotsk once before, with Chatfield on the Massachusetts during that’s ship’s voyage of 1853 under the command of Bethuel’s uncle Horace Nickerson. Bethuel was a harpooner on that voyage, his first as a whaler, a profession he had avoided because of the long absences from home. He preferred the life of a coastal schooner sailor, the life his father James Harvey Handy had followed as the owner and captain of his own schooner. But James died from cholera while unloading Maine granite on the quay in Albany, dying a month after Bethuel’s first voyage to the Okhotsk.

Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr.

Chatfield was captain of the Massachusetts at the age of 25 and he too was fishing the Okhotsk during the summer of 1858, warning Bethuel at one point when their ships were close enough for a gam, not to linger inside the Sea beyond mid-September, and to beware of the singular southeast gale that would swing around 180 degrees to blow out of the northwest from the depths of Siberia and commence the long winter with a hard prolonged blizzard.  It was Chatfield’s fourth voyage on the Massachusetts, his third cruise in the Okhotsk. He had spent every one of the previous nine years aboard her with only a total of nine months ashore between  voyages. His first whaling cruise was in 1847 as cabin boy helping Captain Seth Nickerson, Jr.’s wife Rosilla, with their three children — two sons and an infant daughter Ella. That voyage detoured to San Francisco with a supercargo of crazed 49ers they picked up in Callao, Peru, along with some jungle fever that infected the infant and killed her somewhere off the Galapagos. The crew and the miners had donated their daily rum ration to pickle the baby’s corpse in a cask that was hung over the taffrail until the ship returned to Cape Cod and the babe could be laid in the family plot in Mosswood Cemetary.

By 1856, after nine years working up from cabin boy to third mate, then first mate,  Thomas Chatfield had proved himself enough as a capable mariner and whaler in the judgment of the Nickersons to receive their blessings and recommendation to the ship’s owner, Zenas Adams, to be named her captain.  Would that promotion have rankled Bethuel? He was older by three years, and his mother Mary was a Nickerson. He was no fan of the whaling life, he said so himself, but still, when the Massachusetts was fitting out for her voyage in Edgartown over the summer of 1856, Bethuel was not planning on sailing aboard as her mate under his brother-in-law.

Thomas Chatfield

Bethuel was born to sail, almost literally born on the beach, in a little house near the Handy family’s shipyard in Cotuit Port’s Little River neighborhood. His grandfather, Bethuel Handy, Sr. was a shipwright. His father James a coaster captain. His mother’s side of the family — the Nickersons — were devout fishermen and coasters and whalers who lived on the other extreme of the village overlooking Nantucket Sound from the Highgrounds. His education would have started in a skiff,  progressed to Cartesian principles and spherical trigonometry — his letters confined to enough literacy to read and write enough to keep a ship’s log and book of accounts. The secret knowledge of the master mariner was celestial navigation, that arcane act of measuring the angle of a celestial body from the horizon and comparing it with the measurement for that same date and time as taken in Greenwich England at the Royal Observatory on Longitude Zero, the Prime Meridian. He would have been drilled incessantly by father or uncle in the dense vocabulary of the sea, learning about parrels and bunt lines, spring and neap tides, the handiwork of marlinespike seamanship, of Matthew Walker knots and sheepshanks. The hammering and sawing from the family shipyard, the pungent resinous smell of Atlantic white cedar planed into curled shavings, the hammering of locust trunnels, the steaming of planks before they were bent onto the ribs and fitted into the rabbets of the stem and sternpost — Bethuel grew up in a boat yard, his feet wet, his future assured.

In September of 1858, with a full cargo of whale oil and many tons of bone stowed below, Chatfield sailed from the Shantars to Lahaina where he would sell the cargo to a shipping agent, refit and reprovision and cruise the tropics for whales until the following spring when it was time to return to the Russian coast. Chatfield was a lucky captain and because the crew and mates were paid on a “lay” system of shares, his success was shared by all three dozen men aboard. The owner took half the profits to pay for the ship and its provisions. The rest were divvied up in fractional shares, with the Captain standing to profit the most with TK percent as well as the profits from the ship’s slop chest — its store of spare clothing, tobacco, and other necessities the crew could buy at extremely inflated prices.

Bethuel had a meager summer of success off the coast of Russia, working through the sea ice through leads and gaps between the shore and the ice field, usually socked in bythick fog, chasing bowheads by the sound of their exhalations through the ice, hearing the giant mammals crack the ice open with their triangular humps on their heads. By September the Phoenix, along with most of the rest of the fleet, was working the straits between the Shantar Islands, anchoring the ship in a protected harbor on the south side of Feklistoff Island and sending off its five whaleboats to hunt for whales along the coast. Bowhead whales were called “Right” whales by the sailors for the simple reason that they were one of only three whale species that floated when they were dead. A crew could harpoon and kill a whale, stick a flag with the ship owner’s mark on a cedar pole into its back, and continue hunting, returning later to row the dead carcass back to the ship where it would be cut up and rendered into oil on the ship’s brick furnace or tryworks.

Sometimes the whale was lost, blown by the winds or carried by the fierce currents that roared between the Shantar islands in every 30-foot tide. Those whales were called “stinkers” by the whalers and they were every bit as valuable as a freshly killed whale. Bethuel and his crew saw their luck turn in September, they began to kill a steady supply of whales and recover enough stinkers to finally put some oil into the hold of the Phoenix. They weren’t alone. As the season drew to a close a few other ships kept the Phoenix company. The Ocean Wave of New Bedford, a new ship on her maiden voyage was working the same waters in the Uda Gulf, delaying her departure as long as she could while the whales continued to oblige.

In early October the fleet had sailed for warmer latitudes, but Bethuel Handy was still in the Sea of Okhotsk, working hard to get one more whale cut up and boiled down into barrels.  The weather began to show signs of making its big season shift. The prevailing winds of summer, which blew from the south over the forested wilderness of northern Manchuria began to flirt with a new pattern, shifting west and north towards the colder latitudes of inland Siberia and the taiga. Heeding his brother-in-law’s advice, Bethuel sought shelter off the western end of Elbow Island, anchoring a half-mile off the steep bluffs of the uninhabited island in the company of the Ocean Wave.  The Phoenix was down to one anchor, having lost the other earlier in the season when its flukes got jammed into some rocks and snapped off when the crew tried to muscle it up with the ship’s windlass. With no auxiliary engine to power her through a headwind, all the Phoenix could do to prepare for a gale was strike her sails, shelter behind a landmass, and trust to the holding power of her last anchor.

“Elbow Island” – Ostrov Medvezhiy

That plan was fine for a summer blow from the south, but as night fell on Sunday, October 11, 1858, the wind veered around and began to blow across the open Sea of Okhotsk from the northwest, just as Chatfield had predicted it would. Now the shelter of Elbow Island became a threat, a “lee shore” which all sailors dread, the dark mass of the island now behind the ship’s stern and not ahead of her bows as Bethuel had planned.

At three in the morning, in a driving blizzard, the crew of the Phoenix watched the lights of the Ocean Wave pitching in the building seas. Her captain decided to make a run for it, and in the full fury of the gale pulled up his anchors, set his sails, and slowly peeled off to run before the wind for the shelter of Feklistoff Island to the north. That was the last any man saw of the Ocean Wave and her crew. For all were lost almost instantly as the ship hit the fangs of the Sivuchi reef, a series of sharp rock spires to the north of Elbow Island.

With the Ocean Wave gone the captain and crew of the Phoenix were alone. As the ship pitched in the building waves rushing at it from the darkness, it began to lever the anchor chain off the bottom. Bethuel ordered the crew to quickly forage the ship for any iron, to chain it together and heave it over the side to act as a second anchor, but that was a futile gesture, and the ship began to slide backwards before the storm, her only anchor skipping useless over the bottom, unable to bite in and hold her steady.

She struck the outer reefs surrounding Elbow Island stern first, her huge twenty-foot oak rudder snapping its pintles and turning into a battering ram which began to punch holes through her planking. Bethuel issued the order that no sailor wants to hear: “Cut away the masts!” The crew began to chop the fore and mainmast with axes, others slashing at the shrouds and rigging to clear the tall spars before they toppled over the side, the thought being that if the heavy spars could be ditched over the side the wrenching pendulum effect of the spars on the ship’s keel and planking would be reduced. Spars could be recovered and re-stepped after the storm subsided. The only thing on the mind of the crew was to ease the torment of the Phoenix and keep her afloat until morning.

Chatfield’s map of the wreck of the Phoenix from his Reminscences

On the rising tide the ship was lifted over the reef and settled uneasily into a deep water cove just off the narrow beach of the island. At daybreak, the blizzard still shrieking and driving snow like pellets, the crew assayed the damage and worked the pumps to try to get ahead of the water rushing through the punctured hull.

Handy conferred with his four mates and it was agreed that the ship was beyond saving due to the loss of her rudder, and that all they could hope to do was salvage what they could and get ashore to build a shelter. The anchor chain was slipped and the 100-foot hull was beached, her deck towards the shore so her crew could get whatever provisions and tools they could out of her and ashore.  Some sailors hurried to build a shelter against the wind and snow while others formed a bucket brigade to empty her hold of any salt meat and biscuit, tools, spare lumber and other essentials. Handy gathered the ship’s log, his sextant, the chronometer and what few charts of the region he carried.

They worked non-stop to get as much as they could ashore. The storm continued to blow and intensified, the surf spinning the Phoenix‘s black hull around in the night so the crew had to hack holes through her copper sheathed bottom to gain access to her hold. They tied the bow and stern to trees ashore, trying to hold her in place while they worked non-stop to get as much as they could ashore.  On the third night, while they slept at the base of the sheer cliffs, the ship vanished, broken up and her wreckage scattered along the shore, the water smoothed by whale oil released from her precious cargo.

At that point their options were reduced to only one course of action: they would be spending the next eight months on a desolate island in a Siberian sea and would have to survive long enough for the next season’s fleet to return and rescue them.

Next – Bethuel sets out over frozen waters to find help in the wilderness

*Thanks to commenter K. De Roo for challenging me on pilot whales, which are not a species found in the Sea of Okhotsk.




Author: David Churbuck

Cape Codder with an itch to write

9 thoughts on “The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy”

  1. Absolutely brilliant David! Can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. I don’t believe pilot whales occur off the Shantar Islands. Also what’s the source for that sailor getting devored by a bear on Elbow Island?

    1. You’re right, beluga are present, not pilot whales. The source for the bear attack is Espadon, of Havre, July 1, 1858, Medvezhy Island, in Polynesian, Honolulu, October 30, 1858, Vol. XV, No. 26.

      1. Thanks. How did you originally find the reference to the bear attack?

    2. Correct, beluga, not pilot whales. For the bear attack, Espadon, of Havre, July 1, 1858, Medvezhy Island, in Polynesian, Honolulu, October 30, 1858, Vol. XV, No. 26.

  3. So great to see you are going forward with this project. Would love to share the little I know about Baker and the Ocean Wave, as well as sources in case you missed any.
    – John York
    A sailor from Handy country here in Cataumet.

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