Piers, landings, and oyster grants: the story of Cotuit’s Town Dock

A brief history of how Cotuit replaced a private pier with a public one.

Cotuit's town dock in the 1920s or 1930s
Photograph by Hugh Knight
Cotuit’s new town dock in the 1920s, taken shortly after its construction c.1925

Man marks the earth with ruin-his control
Stops with the shore;-upon the watery plain
– Lord Byron “The Dark, Blue Sea”

At the foot of Oyster Place Road, on the western shore of Cotuit Bay, stands Cotuit’s only public pier. Nearly 100 years old, the town dock is  a  commercial-grade pier sturdy enough for a car or small truck to drive onto for the stepping of masts, servicing of moorings or hauling away fish and totes full of whelks.

Inland of the two narrow strips of beach that flank the timber pier there are fifty parking spaces,  two security cameras,  a solar-powered trash compactor, a rain garden  that filters road run-off before it reaches the harbor, a bulletin board displaying shellfish regulations and maps of open and closed relay zones, and a wide-mouthed piece of PVC pipe with a sign inviting anglers to dispose their old monofilament fishing line into its maw. The timber approach to the pier is wide enough for a vehicle and widens to a large square section set atop a cluster of pilings permanently pounded into the black mud. The original section of the old dock is flanked on its east and west sides by two sets of seasonal dinghy floats reached via aluminum gangways. Two wooden park benches sit on either side of the pier. The planks are littered with broken shells scattered by seagulls who’ve learned to drop quahogs from a height to crack them open.

Cotuit Town Dock today

To the south, or right side of the dock, is a chain-link fence and a low concrete wall fronted by a row of boulders half-submerged at high tide.  It was there in 1875 that Captain Jarvis R, Nickerson and his son-in-law, Captain Washington Robbins, dumped wagons filled with rocks and sand into the shallows to build the foundation of a stone-fill pier for loading and unloading the cargo carried to and from Cotuit aboard the coastal schooners that once were the mainstay of the village’s maritime industry. Now there is nothing left to indicate there was once a busy commercial wharf there until the early 1920s. The square foundation of sand and rubble is overgrown with salt-stunted bushes and weeds, the faded traces of what was once the working center of Cotuit Port at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 2020, the current owner of the property where the old wharf once stood  filed an application to demolish the remains of the old Jarvis Nickerson pier and replace it with a new dock for his own use. That application is still pending at the time this was written in February of 2021  but it has focused community attention on the history of Cotuit’s waterfront and its gradual evolution from a commercial port to a summer resort.  Buried in the past history of the town dock is a story of Cotuit’s waterfront spiced up with a whiff of greed marking the end of Cotuit’s identity as the home port of a society of sea captains and watermen to its present reputation as a  summer resort trying to hang onto what’s left of its traditions.

update 2021.03.04: the current application by 33 Oyster Place has been withdrawn by the applicant.


Today’s town dock was built nearly a century ago in the mid-1920s.  Before there was a dock, there was simply the town landing, a narrow strip of empty beach at the end of a road that  curves up a hill to the former commercial  center of Cotuit.

Oyster Place Road first connected the town landing to Main Street in 1867. In the center is a hay scale, used to weigh cargoes arriving and departing Cotuit Port. The shack on the shore is a boathouse belonging to the Lowell estate.

There were other places  like the Oyster Place landing in the village –   places where one could “land” passengers or cargo from a small boat.  There was a landing on  the shore of the inner harbor at Cordwood Landing  and another inside of Handy’s Point at the end of Little River Road adjacent to the old Handy shipyard. The foot of Old Shore Road, where Braddock Crocker built the first dock on the harbor in 1787, is  called Hooper’s Landing, after Samuel Hooper, the village’s first summer resident who came to town in 1849 seeking a Cotuit captain to sail one of his ships to China and who ended up buying that captain’s farm with the promise to look after it while the sailor was at sea. The village also had a landing at  Riley’s Beach at the bottom of Cross Street in the High Ground near the harbor entrance, as well as other  landings at Rushy Marsh, Crocker Neck, and Shoestring Bay. In the 19th century most Cotuit residents knew where the landings were,  but were unsure about the actual boundaries, unaware the town only owned the land  as far as the high water mark in some cases, meaning any person landing on such a land locked landing would technically be trespassing except at high tide.

Round Cove c. 1910 – Nelson Nickerson’s oyster shanty on the beach beside Winthrop Sturge’s houseboat.

There were no “beaches” in the village before the 1920s.  Few people, if any, went to the beach in the mid-19th century with the intention of swimming and basking in the sun. There were bathhouses scattered along the shore where people would change into their “bathing costumes” before wading into the bay to cool off during a summer heatwave, but there were no public beaches set aside for recreation.  The waterfront was a working place, the domain of sailors, shipwrights, oystermen, and fishermen who used the beaches to build, launch and repair their boats.  The shore was  cluttered with skiffs moored to cedar posts set in the mud, flanked by heaps of oyster shells (in the early days of Cotuit’s oyster business the clams were shucked and brined in barrels before being shipped off-Cape)   used to pave the village’s  sandy roads and paths down to the waterfront.  While the colonial ordinances from the 1640s granted ownership of the beach down to the low water mark, the owners of the shoreside lots in the mid-19th century were mainly sailors themselves who shared the beaches with the local watermen who worked the oyster grants  and fished in Nantucket Sound. Some of the watermen built shacks along the shore, small sheds tucked under the foot of the bluffs that circle the bay, set atop cedar pilings to spare them from flooding on high tide: weathered shanties used to store nets,  traps and cedar planked skiffs.  The paths down to the waterfront crossed private property but no owners seemed to mind, given that most of the village was dominated by the names of a few old families such as Nickerson, Fish, Hallett, Coleman, Bearse, and Handy and more often than not the man walking down the path with a pair of oars over his shoulder was a cousin, nephew or son-in-law.

 Captain Nickerson builds a wharf

The Nickerson family came to Cotuit in 1810 from Harwich when Seth Nickerson, a fisherman  looking for a protected anchorage to moor his fishing boat (Harwichport had no harbors then), sailed west seeking a safe harbor and a place to settle.  He came upon a small salt pond with a channel into Nantucket Sound at Cotuit’s Rushy Marsh.  The pond (now closed off from the sea) was protected by Sampson and Gull Islands, with a deep water anchorage behind them where a small ship could lay protected at anchor. A hurricane in the early 1800s washed the first Nickerson settlement  out of Rushy Marsh  (leading local historian James Gould to speculate that the area became known as “Oregon” because an early map noted Rushy Marsh was the “original” Nickerson settlement). Nickerson moved his family north to the bluffs overlooking Sampson’s Island giving that neighborhood it’s present name as the “High Ground.”

The Nickerson’s prospered,  multiplied and spread throughout Cotuit Port to such an extent thag by 1880 more than a quarter of the homes in the village along Main Street were occupied by one  Nickerson or another  as noted on the edition of Walker’s Street Atlas published that year.   

Jarvis Nickerson was born in 1817 in  Cotuit Port to Seth Nickerson’s son Shubael  and daughter-in-law Rebecca Phillips Nickerson.  Like most Nickerson men, he went to sea in his teens and learned the ropes aboard a whaler. In 1840 he married Deliliah Ellis of Harwich and a year later their first child, Rebecca was born. Rebecca married Captain Washington Robbins in 1861.   Robbins was master of the Mary B. Wellington and set a record sailing from Boston to New York, returning in a few hours less than five days.  He was an excellent mariner and had a reputation as a “driver”, which meant that he sailed his ship hard and with as much sail as she could carry. The Wellington was lost in a collision in Boston Harbor with a vessel owned by Capt. Benjamin Crosby of Cotuit.

Jarvis and his son-in-law owned the schooner Hattie M. Howes — along with shares in other Cotuit coasters – a practice the local captains employed to spread the risk of a shipwreck across several ships rather than stake all of their financial security in a single ship of their own.  The town built a road from Main Street down to the town landing in 1867 and a few years later, in 1873, the two men applied to the state Board of Harbors Commissioners for a license to build a solid fill-wharf on the foot of the Jarvis’ property beside the landing’s beach, described by Cotuit historian James Gould as “merely a side landing for fishermen.” In January 1874, the legislature passed House Bill No. 12, “An Act to authorize Jarvis R. Nickerson and Associates to construct a wharf in Barnstable.”

Solid-fill wharves were the sturdiest and easiest method of constructing a waterfront structure in the 18th and 19th centuries. Wagon loads of boulders, stones and land fill were hauled down to the  beach and dumped to create a raised piece of land that jutted into the waters past the low water mark and beyond until enough depth could be assured to permit a boat or ship to tied up alongside. Also known as “quays” or “moles, solid-fill wharves were the basis of most early wharfs. Timber docks were favored for seasonal use, their posts pounded into the bottom with mallets because the heavy equipment needed to drive a substantial and permanent wooden piling into the mud didn’t exist in the late 1890s.

Painting by Edward Darley Boit, c. 1910 — the remains of the first wharf in Cotuit, built by Braddock Crocker in 1797 at the foot of Hooper’s Landing on the site where the Cotuit Mosquito Yacht Club’s seasonal pier stands today. The method Crocker used — dumping land fill into the harbor and surrounding it with wooden pilings, was the same Jarvis Nickerson would use

Nickerson and Robbins  encased the 40’ x 60’ rectangle of  landfill with a wooden bulkhead, then decked over the pile of  sand and rocks with heavy planks. In 1881 a derrick was erected on the wharf “which will be a great convenience to boats landing cargoes.” The following year the  Barnstable Patriot reported: “We hear Capt. Jarvis Nickerson is going to enlarge his wharf, and the schooner H. Cole will load and discharge there in the future.” Evidently neither the addition of  derrick, nor the expansion of the wharf, required new liceses from the state’s harbor commissioners, as there are no mentions of  any additional  petitions by Nickerson in the commission’s annual reports.

The pier was leased to  the Sears lumber company of Hyannis beginning in 1887  for the storage of lumber and coal. Other tenants over the half-century the pier was in existence included a plumber, carpenter, boat builder, fishmonger and oyster company . Several shanties were build inland to house those tenants. The wharf became the busiest part of the Cotuit waterfront as soon as it was completed, and it shifted the commercial center of Cotuit Port south from the cove at Hooper’s Landing where the waterfront was undergoing a transition from a depot for island packets and cordwood schooners, to a summer resort at the Santuit House.

Capt. Bennett Dottridge’s yard on Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf, c. 1895. Cordwood was in high demand on Nantucket, and was loaded by hand from the stacks piled on the wharf onto the schooners that plied the route between Cotuit Port and the island every day. After losing his son in his third shipwreck, Dottridge managed the Sear’s lumberyard and coal yard

Cotuit Bay was (and remains) too shallow to serve large schooners and ships such as whaling barks. Local knowledge of the channels and shifting shoals was mandatory for any vessel of any size to enter and exit the bay. But because Cotuit Port was situated on the middle of the coastal route used by schooners hauling freight between Boston and New York (before the opening of the Cape Cod Canal in 1914)  Cotuit was a popular layover for schooners that needed to make repairs , wait for a favorable tide to carry them through Vineyard Sound, or in the case of the three dozen schooners that called Cotuit their homeport, a place to stop to check in with the family, pick up some clean clothes, and re provision the schooner’s galley. Few of those schooners could enter the shallow bay, anchoring instead outside of Dead Neck in Nantucket Sound at an anchorage called “Deep Hole” , a spot marked as the “Cotuit Anchorage” on old nautical charts. In early December, before winter’s ice closed the harbor,  most of Cotuit’s fleet of  schooners would be brought inside of the bay and moored in Round Cove off of Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. Only the smaller, two-masted “tern” class of schooners with centerboards regularly entered the bay to load and unload their cargoes at the wharf. Jarvis Nickerson permitted schooners other than the one belonging to him and his son-in-law – the Hattie M. Howes — to use his private wharf, Old photographs from the 1890s show several schooners rafted up alongside the end of the wharf . Two large coal sheds were erected close to the town landing for the storage of coal delivered to the village by schooners (coal can spontaneously combust when wet, so storing it under a roof was important).

Schooners rafted up on the wharf, c. 1890. The shanty on pilings to the right is the Lowell boathouse. The town landing is the narrow band of sand behind it between the coal sheds.

In the mid-1880s  Jarvis Nickerson suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right of his body. His sailing days at an end, in 1884, less than a decade after its construction, Jarvis Nickerson’s wife Delilah sold the wharf to Freeman Ballard Shedd of Lowell, Massachusetts.

The Shedd Pier Years

Freeman B. Shedd was a former pharmacist born in the mill city founded and named for the same Lowell family that had made Cotuit their summer home since the 1870s. Shedd served in the Civil War as a medic and saw several battles during his enlistment in the Union Army. After the war Shedd returned to his former job at a drug store in Lowell where he and a co-worker invented a men’s cologne called “Hoyt’s German Cologne.” Shedd ran the company and amassed a fortune that enabled him to bequeath a 200 -acre park to the city of Lowell which bears his name today.

Freeman B. Shedd: the “Cologne King” of Lowell and former owner of the Jarvis Nickerson pier .

Shedd expanded the pier and continued to run it as a depot for cargo entering and leaving the port. During his three decades of ownership, he added a boat shop on pilings to the southwest side of the landfill, and erected the coal sheeds on the property beside (perhaps even encroaching on) the beach belonging to the town landing.

Jarvis Nickerson died in 1892, finally succumbing to the stroke that had crippled him. His widow Delilah continued to live in their home atop the bluff overlooking the bay.

The Oyster Place wharf, c. 19o4. The original 60′ x 40′ landfill is between Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish shack and the Sears Co. coal shed on the left, indicating a considerable (and unlicensed) expansion of the wharf on either side by the construction of two annexes built on pilings. The derrick added to the wharf in 1885 is in the center of the photograph.

In 1904 an unknown incident occurred at the town landing that was enough to motivate Cotuit’s voters to place two articles on the warrant for discussion at the 1904 town meeting . The first article was to: “…see if the Town will vote to instruct and impower the Selectmen to employ a competent surveyor and have the present Town Landing (below the estate of the late Jarvis Nickerson) in the Village of Cotuit resurveyed and permanently bounded and appropriate a sum of money therefore, and to act fully thereon.”

The Oyster Place Wharf, c. 1910 – Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish market sits on pilings alongside the original pier, flanked by a mound of oyster shells, or “culch” used to pave lanes or provide baby seed oysters with a foundation to attach themselves to. Note the bath houses on the beach under the bluff below Freedom Hall.

Had Shedd or one of his tenants on the wharf encroached on the town’s strip of sand? We may never know unless some forgotten document or plot plan emerges from the archives.

Update 2021.03.03:

Thanks to Mark Walter and his persistence, a librarian at the Massachusetts archives was able to locate the plan for Shedd’s 1906 application to the state’s harbor commissioners for a license to expand the pier.

The 1906 expansion plan indicates in red ink a new set of pilings for an “oyster house” which would sit against the lot line between the wharf and the town landing.

Time is a cruel eraser of history and the deeds and newspaper clippings from that period lack any back stories that might explain why Cotuit requested a survey of the town landing’s boundaries. Histories and reminiscences of life in Cotuit often omitted the “bad” side of recent events because their authors were sensitive not to offend the parties involved or their extended families. A historian must infer, from the limited amount of primary source material available, that all issues brought before the town meeting at the voters’ request had their origins in some issue or conflict, especially an issue as specific as that 1904 warrant article calling for a survey of the property specifically adjacent to Jarvis Nickerson’s commercial wharf, and not the other side of property adjacent to the boathouses belonging to Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell. One can speculate that Shedd had done something (or announced plans to do something) that irked the old sea captains who tacitly ran the town from the Mariner’s Lodge in Thomas Chatfield’s sail loft and Freedom Hall’s attic.

The addition of the second article for the 1904 town meeting was about another town landing in Cotuit: “To see if the Town will vote to appoint a committee to look up the records of the Town’s Landing at Little River and report at the next Annual Meeting.” Seeking official clarification of the legal status of the village’s waterfront holdings was to be expected given the memory of an alarming dispute between the town and two Cotuit property owners that occurred eight years before. There was an urgent need across the entire Cape after the turn of the century to nail down what public access points existed as the old captains and watermen in other Barnstable villages and Cape towns realized the informal paths and ancient custom of sharing the beach was insufficient against the plans of an off-Cape real estate speculator determined to exercise or even nullify the public’s traditional but informal rights on their land.

Thomas Fisher, grandson of Capt. Thomas Chatfield, was voted the “strongest man” in his class at MIT. Here he applies himself to a lever while launching a catboat on the public landing at Ropes Beach in the 1930s or 40. Before boat ramps and a town dock, locals launched and hauled their boats over the sand of the town landings.

The natives grow restless

The two town meeting articles of 1904 concerning the status of Cotuit’s landings were intended to determine the precise boundaries of the two most important pieces of public property on the shores of Cotuit Bay. Perhaps the articles were forced by some unrecorded expansion and encroachment of the old Sears Co. pier’s operations onto the public landing. The need to a fix the property lines of the public’s landings wasn’t just Cotuit’s problem. It was a familiar issue from one end of the peninsula to the other in the first decade of the 20th century, as one Cape Cod town after another formed committees and hired surveyors and title examiners to determine which, if any town landings a town thought it owned, were actually owned. Droves of off-Cape developers and syndicates of investors were buying large tracts of property held for generations by the descendants of the Cape’s colonial settlers. The land boom had already transformed the working waterfront from a few scattered homes and beach shanties, into summer estates owned by summer people from Boston who became alarmed by the sight of an oysterman walking over their land to get to his skiff and posted no trespassing signs to stop the practice.

Cotuit first confronted the ambiguity surrounding its landings in 1896,  almost ten years before the rest of the  Cape realized they were facing a huge problem and the risk of losing public access to the shoreline. The real estate boom arrived early in Cotuit, fueled by the early influx of guests introduced to the village’s many charms while visiting the Thorndyke, Hooper, Lowell and Codman estates, and by wealthy vacationers who lodged at the Cape’s first hotel: the Santuit House overlooking Hooper’s Landing. In 1890 Grand Island (known today as Oyster Harbors) was purchased by a “company of New York and Boston men” who intended to develop the former woodlot and Wampanoag summer camp with a golf course and shoreside mansions. Their plans depended on the legislature’s approval of their request to construct a draw bridge from Osterville to the islandin 1891. Cotuit’s carpenters were busy across the bay building the first summer homes on Grand Island, and the scenery around the shoreline was changing from undeveloped bluffs and saltmarshes to rows of new houses on land that for over 100 years had been only used for cutting cordwood needed on Nantucket.

Loading cordwood for Nantucket, c. 1880

“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore…”

In 1891, the legislature, at the urging of Frederic Law Olmstead’s protégé Charles Eliot, passed a bill to create The Trustees of Public Reservations, a non-profit organization devoted to preserving the state’s remaining historical structures, vistas and open space vanishing under the pressure of development. Among the Trustee’s founders was Cotuit’s Colonel Charles R. Codman, owner of the three-story mansion atop Bluff Point. In the first annual report of the Trustees, an extensive (and sad elegy to an old way of life) was published as an appendix: J.B. Harrison’s “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”

Jonathan Baxter Harrison, was a prominent New Hampshire minister and crusading journalist who devoted his career to advance the emerging cause of conservation and preservation through his writing and eloquent letters to the editors of New England’s newspapers and magazines. Those letters are credited with making the general public aware of the urgent need to preserve open space and guarantee their access to the shoreline.  Harrison surveyed the coastline of Massachusetts from Salisbury on the New Hampshire state line to Westport on Rhode Island’s.  His report as published in the first appendix of the Trustee’s first annual report is a sad obituary to a way of life along the state’s coastline, one vanishing under the pressure of wealth and greed.

Jonathan Baxter Harrison was one of the first conservationists to warn about the closing of the coastline and the displacement of the traditional watermen who depended on access to the sea to make their livings.

“I found everywhere recent changes in the ownership of land, and a movement of people of means from the cities and the interior of the country to the shore regions of the State . I found leagues and leagues together of the shore line to be all private holdings, without the intervention, in these long reaches, of a road of space on the shore to which the public has a right to go. I walked across the domain of one man who owns about six miles of shore line. I found a great population inland hedged away from the beach , and all conditions pointing to a time, not remote, when nobody can walk by the ocean in Massachusetts without payment of a fee.”

J.B. Harrison, author of the Trustees of Public Reservations’ “Report upon the public holdings of the shore towns of Massachusetts.”

Harrison was alarmed and saddened by the impact the new money was having on the remote sea-side towns and villages, and his report warned about the threat those places faced to their ancient paths and town landings as outsiders bought the land and posted no trespassing signs.

“Except in a few instances, the public holdings in these towns have not been measures, and their area is unknown. It would be well to have them accurately surveyed, the bounds marked, and their area made a matter of public and authoritative record.

“In a large proportion of the shore towns the public holdings have diminished in extent. Not only have all the old common lands, town pastures, and woodlands and extensive shore holdings been parcelled out to individual possession, but many of the towns have permitted serious encroachments upon the smaller public holdings which were intended by the founders and early inhabitants to be permanent. In many instances it is evident that the first settlers had a pretty clear idea of the value and need of open spaces for public use in town and villages, and they showed commendable foresight and public spirit in providing for them.

“Wherever the summer people have bought places on the seashore, they show a disposition to exercise the right of exclusive domain, and to repel as trespasser all who enter upon their grounds for any purpose whatever. In some instances, people are thus excluded from places where rights of public resort and passage have been exercised for generations. Even where the ancient legal rights of the people are clear, they are being generally relinquished because it costs too much to maintain them against such aggression.”


Harrison’s report predicted  “The problem of title to the shore, and the use and enjoyment of it by the people of the State, will in time be a most vital and important public question here.”  Regarding the situation in Cotuit, Harrison was prescient. A year after he wrote his report for the Trustees of Public Reservations, its next annual report of 1893 found in  Barnstable  “There are believed to be five public landings; but of these only two – one at Cotuit and one at East Bay, Osterville – are known to belong to the town.”

The landing with no beach

When Cotuit petitioned the selectmen in 1904 to send a surveyor to mark out its town landings, the village’s elderly sea captains backed the request. They had already confronted the issue of  who owned the traditional ways to the shoreline eight years before in 1896, when two property owners in the High Grounds – Capt. Oliver C. Lumbert and Alexander C. Adams – applied to the state Board of Harbor and Land Commissioners for licenses to build two wharfs on the small beach behind Sampson’s Island that is known today as Riley’s Beach.

The Barnstable Patriot, February 3, 1896
The situation at Riley’s Beach at the foot of Cross Street in the High Ground sounded the first alarm over Cotuit’s ways to water and town landings.

When the Harbor Commissioners published two legal notices in December 1895 announcing the date and time of hearings for the Lumbert and Adams’ piers, the people of Cotuit took immediate notice, enough that the following month, on January 27, 1896, the Barnstable Patriot reported:

“Cotuit is interested in a matter before the legislature to provide for a public landing in the westerly part of the village. For years one of the public roads has led down to the shore, at which there was a boat landing. On one side of this road the land is owned by Alexander C. Adams and on the other by Oliver C. Lumbert. The town only owns to the high water mark, and the stretch between this and the low water line belongs to the two abutters. These parties have forbidden trespassing on their property, and the townspeople are shut out from the landing except at high tide. To remedy this, they have petitioned the legislature for the right to purchase or take by right of eminent domain the strip of land in question.”

Barnstable Patriot, January 27, 1896

The contingent from Cotuit filed an article for the town meeting “To see if the town will raise and appropriate a sum of money for the purpose of purchasing a town landing in the village of Cotuit.”  At the town meeting in early March of 1896 “Captain U.A. Hull, T.C. Day, Thos. Chatfield and Capt. Walton Hinckley spoke in favor. Their arguments persuaded the other town meeting members from the town’s other six village to appropriate $200 to buy the beach rights from Lumbert and Alexander. At the request of the board of selectmen, the state legislature approved House Bill No. 171 to authorize the town of Barnstable “to take certain lands in the Village of Cotuit, between low and high water mark, for a public landing place. To take by purchase or otherwise, so much of the flats and lands between high and low water mark, adjoining a town road, which road leads from the Country Road (Main Street) .”

The Shedd Pier expands

Bruised and perhaps on high alert after the surprise that the town didn’t own the beach rights, Cotuit’s contingent of old sea captains remained on high alert and served as a warning to Osterville, Centerville, Hyannisport and Hyannis that they too might not own the shorefront they believed they owned. The newspapers from the era note other villages in Barnstable asked the selectmen to do the same surveys and title searches in the othervillages. In Eastham, and Wellfleet the towns’ selectmen were asked to “ascertain the cost of a town landing.” In Centerville the matter was so urgent that some concerned citizens bought an ad in the newspaper to urge the County Commissioner “to view the Town Landing in the Village of Centerville on Long Beach, for the purpose of locating same; and erecting necessary bounds.”

In1898, two of Cotuit’s captains — Carleton Nickerson and Thomas Chatfield — fought Osterville’s long-standing desire to cut through Dead Neck and create a channel directly from West Bay to Nantucket Sound. The two sailors argued any man-made alterations to the natural coast line would lead to shoaling and changes to Cotuit Bay – arguments the state ignored  when it approved the construction of the Osterville Cut after two raucous public hearing by the state Board of Harbor Commissioners at Freedom Hall in Cotuit and a day later in Osterville. Yet, besides settling the location of the town landings and keeping Cotuit Bay open, the Cotuit captains had another pressing issue on their list of concernhs: the town’s shellfish regulations, or lack thereof.

At the same town meeting in 1904 where Cotuit asked for an official survey of the town landings at Little River and Oyster Place, the village also proposed article 27 “to make all possible effort to prevent the destruction of shellfish in the water of the Town or do anything in relation to the same.”

There are no published reports of shellfish being destroyed in Cotuit, but elsewhere in town, at Barnstable Harbor on the northside, locals were furious that out-of-town fishermen were trapping eels in traps called “fykes.” Without providing any context for the issue or publishing any reports about shellfish being destroyed, the Patriot reported: “Capt. Chatfield advocated that something be done to prevent the wholesale destruction of shellfish. Capt. C.H. Allyn. Lorenzo Lewis, A.S. Childs, and Dr. W.H. Row spokes on the article. A motion to indefinitely postpone was voted down. John S. Nicholson advocated that the Selectmen enforce the present laws and prescribe regulations for taking shellfish. It was later so ordered.”

A year after Cotuit asked to clarify the boundaries of the town landing, in 1905 Shedd  filed an application with the state for a license to “maintain a wharf, partly solid and partly on piles, and to widen a portion of the same, on piles in Cotuit Harbor.” Whether this was an “after-the-fact” attempt to get permission for something he had already built, or because the pier needed repairs and modifications, Shedd received approvals from the town and the state to go ahead with the work, with the proviso that “….no part, however of the proposed widening to extend easterly of the line E-F on said plan, extended southerly.”

It is unknown if Shedd ever made the improvements, but the wharf had definitely expanded far beyond the footprint of the original 1875 pier.

A stranger comes to town

In 1912, Harry D. Haight — a summer resident of Wakeby Pond in Sandwich and a wealthy executive at the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York —  became a big fan of Cotuit’s oysters.  So big a fan that he decided he should own all of of them. Oyster harvesting began in Cotuit in the mid-19th century, and ever since about a dozen Cotuit  independent oystermen had tended the oyster grants given to them by the town.  Those early oystermen had shucked, brined, and shipped the oyster meat off the Cape in barrels, but the extension  of the Old Colony railroad from Sandwich  to Provincetown  in 1874 opened up a lucrative  opportunity to ship live oysters off of the Cape packed in barrels, unopened and still in their shells to the restaurants of Boston and New York.

Harry D. Haight, Oyster Entrepreneur

In 1912 Haight founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and incorporated it and its trademarks with the Commonwealth’s Secretary of State. Haight, emboldened by the backing of his silent partners and investors, stunned Cotuit when his intentions to consolidate and dominate the local oyster business became known as he bought up nearly all the independent  oyster grants in Cotuit; grants that had been worked since the mid-19th century by a dozen or more local oystermen. The May 13, 1912 edition of the Barnstable Patriot contained three separate items announcing Haight’s sudden arrival in the village.

  • “The Cotuit Oyster Company has rented the building formerly occupied by A.C. Savery and C. H. Stubbs and is fitting up office there.”4
  • “We understand H.D. Haight of Boston, who is treasurer of the Oyster Company has bought the house of Mr. W.B. (William) Crosby at Little River and will live there.”
  • “We understand that H.D. Haight for Boston, a summer resident of Wakeby, has incorporated an oyster company with a capitalization of $150,000 and is manager of the same. The company has taken over the oyster grants of nearly all the growers of Cotuit.”

Haight was busy in the spring of 1912. On May 12, 1912 the Cotuit Oyster Company purchased William Crosby’s land in Little River, including a license Crosby had received from the state in 1910 “to build a sea-wall and pile wharf and to fill solid and maintain a building on piles in Cotuit Bay.”

The oyster shanties at Little River on the shores of the Inner Harbor. The Cotuit Oyster Company is located there today, but most of the shanties were destroyed by the Hurricane of 1938

In June of 1912, Freeman B. Shedd filed an agreement at the Barnstable County Registry of Deeds  made between himself and Haight’s Cotuit Oyster Company to sell the wharf and land around it to the Oyster Company for $4,000 to be paid in four installments over the next year. In August the Oyster Company purchased the “house of Delilah Nickerson [Jarvis Nickerson’s widow) over looking the wharf and coal sheds they have lately purchased.”

Before Haight’s company could finish paying off the promised $4,000 to Shedd, the Lowell cologne king died in March of 1913.  Two months later Shedd’s daughter and the executors of his estate filed a new agreement reached with Haight at the registry of deeds, extending the deadline for the remaining payments to the end of the year.

In early 1914, the Cotuit Oyster Company petitioned the state for “a license to build a bulkhead, fill solid and extend a wharf in Cotuit Harbor.” The license was granted that spring and and the plan submitted with the application notes the land was the property of the “Estate of Freeman B. Shedd” with, in parenthesis — “(Cotuit Oyster Co.) — appended below it. It would take another four years until 1918 for the Cotuit Oyster Company to officially take possession of the deed to the wharf and surrounding land from Shedd’s daughter Mary , when a final payment of $1,018 was made on the property.

The Cotuit Oyster Company’s plot plan to expand the wharf from 1914

Haight’s expansion plans for the wharf didn’t especially concern the Cotuit sea captains. But his private-equity tactic of consolidating the independent oyster grants under one roof did.

The hottest article on the 1914 town meeting warrant was number 30, but the moderator moved it for discussion after the rest of the warrant had been discussed and voted on:

“To see if the Town will appoint or cause to be appointed a committee of not less than three to investigate the conditions governing the leasing of grants for the cultivation of oysters and other shellfish in, and adjacent to the water of Cotuit Bay; to ascertain the conditions under which the Cotuit Oyster Company is cultivating oysters and other shellfish, if any, in the waters of this Town of Barnstable; the number of grants together with the full description therefore used by them; the number and par value of its shares of stock, together with the names and residences of the owners thereof; the number of barrels and kinds of shellfish which it has marketed each year, and any and all other particulars which may seem to said Committee, material to the issue and to report the same to the town, on or before the annual meeting of 1915: and to raise and appropriate a sum of money not exceeding $500 for the expenses of said committee and to act fully thereon.”

“Article 30  was tabled for discussion until the very end of the town meeting. The Patriot reported on March 3, 1914: “It concerned the residents of Cotuit mainly and they indulged in a spirited discussion, assisted by others of the townspeople. Senator Gifford (state senator and future U.S. Congressman Charles Gifford), Capt. U.A. Hull, Maurice Crocker, Wm. B. Crosby, B.F. Crosby were among the participants in the discussion. A motion was first made to indefinitely postpone, the vote was doubted and found to be tied, 19 for and 19 against. Captain Chatfield moved the appointment of a committee of three to investigate the matter and appropriation of $200 for the same. This motion was not adopted.”

The Barnstable Patriot’s account of the 1914 town meeting discussion and decision to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.

A two-person committee was eventually appointed to look into the Cotuit Oyster Company and its finances. In 1915, at the annual town meeting, E.L. Chase and Z. H. Jenkins, the committee of two who investigated the company, made their report:

“At the outset we awaited the outcome of the pending legislation regarding the leasing of grants to non-residents or corporations, feeling that that might be such as to render much research on our part unnecessary.

“That Legislation not as far reaching as was at first anticipated, but does make provision for leasing for grants to corporations.

“ We have learned from the commissioner of corporations that the Cotuit Oyster Company reported on June 18, 1914

“This company has taken over (by some agreement) 14 separate grants in or near Cotuit which were originally granted to and held by residents of this town. We cannot learn that any resident has invested money in the enterprise, other than as they may have accepted stock for the assignment of said grants.

“During the year 1912 we believe they planted about 53,547 bushels of seed oysters and during 1912 about 3,000 + bushels. Marketing during the two seasons, about 15,000 and 16,000 bushels, respectively. During this past year we cannot find that they have either planted or harvested any considerable quantity if any.”

Report to the town meeting of 1915 from the committee appointed to investigate the Cotuit Oyster Company.

The report was accepted, and discussion deferred until later in the meeting. The Patriot reported “The last thing to come before the meeting was the discussion of the Cotuit oyster question. Capt. Thos Chatfield addressed the meeting at some length on this matter, after which the meeting was adjourned.”

Heave Short!

The newspaper may not have been inclined to quote Capt. Chatfield’s harangue against Haight and the oyster company, but thankfully a hint at the emotions stirred up by the controversy can be found in a tattered copy of a pulp novel about Cotuit published in 1923 by Milton Bradley, better known as the company that sells Monopoly.

The Skipper of the Cynthia B was the first of three volumes published by Milton Bradley in the early 1920s as the “Bluewater Series” by Charles Pendexter Durrell.

In 1923 Captain Chatfield’s son-in-law, Charles Pendexter Durell, published the second novel in his Blue Watertrilogy for teenaged readers: Heave Short!

The book is set in a fictitious village on Cape Cod named “Saquoit,” (A blend of Santuit, Cotuit and Waquoit) and it tells the story of a spoiled rich boy from Boston, Sam Hotchkiss, who comes to the village one summer while his father convalesces from some unknown illness. Young Sam becomes friends with an elderly whaling captain named “Seth Nickerson,” who tolerates Sam’s entitled snobbery and takes him clamming and sailing in his catboat the Cynthia B.. TThe first volume in the series is dedicated “To Captain Thomas Chatfield, A Mariner of the Old School” and Durrell, writing in his foreword, acknowledges “the friendly assistance of Captain Thomas Chatfield and Captain Freeman S. Hodges [Chatfield’s son-in-law], from whose nautical experience I have gained much.”

Capt. Thomas Chatfield, master of the whaler “Massachusetts” and owner/captain of the three-masted schooner the “Joseph Eaton, Jr,” – born in England in 1830, he came to America when he was three years old, and ran away from his home at Cornwall-on-the-Hudson when he was 15 to escape a childhood working in a textile mill. He came to Cotuit Port aboard the Aaron and Horace Nickerson’s schooner, was sent to live with with Seth Nickerson, founder of the fishing settlement at Rushy Marsh, and at the age of 17 shipped out for the Pacific about the “Massachusetts” under the command of Capt. Seth Nickerson Jr… In the last decades of his life, Chatfield was one of Cotuit’s old master mariners who fought to preserve the village’s public access to the harbor.

In the second book in the series — Heave Short! — Sam Hotchkiss returns to Saquoit via the railroad depot where his train is met by the driver of the Saquoit stage coach service Eben Bates (based on Cotuit’s avuncular Willie Irwin). When the stage stops momentarily at  “Craig’s Mill” (Marston’s Mills)  so Bates can deliver the mail, another passenger in the coach tells young Hotchkiss that Bates is being “wooed by a Mister Hastings” with a fancy dinner at a local hotel that very night.

“Hastings?” asked Sam. “I guess I don’t know him.”

“No, you wouldn’t know him. You ain’t been here since last summer and Hastings jest hove in. Wal, I’ll tell ye. He’s what they call a promoter, from New York. Got lots er money: dresses right up to the nines. He’s formed a stock company to run all the shellfish business in town. Been buyin’ all the shellfish grants he could and sellin’ stock in the company besides. Purty good thing, too. He’s bought nigh everybuddy’s oyster grants here at Saquoit and over to Masonville [Osterville], and they claim there’s some big capitalists back of it. I hear that Cap’n Seth and two or three more is kinder holdin’ off and won’t sell out to the company, nor buy stock, nuther one. I reckon after a while they’ll come to it. I’d go into it in a minute if I had any money.”

From “Heave Short!” by Charles Pendexter Durrell

The story of the oily Mister Hastings and his plot to roll up all of the independent oystermen, fleece them of their savings by selling them worthless shares in the company, and then skip town is the outline of the plot that ties together the novel’s picturesque attempt to capture life in Cotuit during the Roaring Twenties, interspersed with dramatic forest fires and the dismasting of the Captain’s beloved catboat, the Cynthia B..

Sam Hotchkiss becomes alarmed by Captain Seth’s fretting that the poor oystermen of Saquoit are being screwed out of their savings by Hastings, so the boy decides to write a letter to his father, a well-connected Boston businessman, and asks him to consult an attorney about Hastings’ new oyster company.

By the time the book reaches the denouement of its plot, that same lawyer, (as well as his ace investigator and a district attorney looking to make an example of the confidence men prowling the Cape) all converge on the village to investigate Mr. Hastings and catch him in the act of shaking down an oysterman. High excitement ensues when Hastings, realizing he’s been found out, tries to flee the scene but is tackled by the plucky Sam Hotchkiss.

From “Heave Short!”, illustration by Harold Brett

All’s well that ends well. Hastings is arrested, brought to trial and sent to jail. Durrell wraps up his story of the Oyster Company scheme with:

“After the trial, when the investors in the scheme had their money and their oyster grants returned, the village relaxed into its former quietude. Uncle Seth and Aunt Cynthia were happy once more, with no shadow of fear for their friends and neighbors to bother them.”

You won’t have Harry Haight to kick around anymore

Harry D. Haight sold the wharf and land to Stuart and Wilson Scudder in 1920, eight years after the Eastman Kodak executive founded the Cotuit Oyster Company and attempted to roll-up the independent oyster grants granted decades before by the town to the local oystermen who had worked them since the 1850s. Haight struggled to keep the oyster company afloat and was probably shunned by some villagers dismayed by “the shadow of fear” that followed his arrival in 1912. In 1920 Harry Hastings called it quits and sold his shares in the Cotuit Oyster Conpany to Charles Gifford, who first appears on a document as the company’s new treasurer when he signed the deed that sold the Oyster Company’s remaining land to his wife Fannie in 1921. The Scudders represented Scudder Bros., a Hyannis-based coal and heating oil dealer (that was the origins of the Scudder Bros. that founded the Hyline Ferry service in the 1960s). The transaction was completed under the condition that the Scudders demolish the coal sheds and not build any new buildings on the property over the next twenty years without the written approval of Fannie Gifford.

The two coal sheds beside the town landing and the old Oyster Place wharf, c 1910. This view is to the east, looking up the Narrows to North Bay, with the sandy bluff nicknamed “The Whale” visible on Grand Island. Capt. Carleton Nickerson’s fish market and boat yard are in the right foreground, the town landing is hidden by the lower of the two coal sheds. Beyond them are the boat houses of Harvard University President Abbott Lawrence Lowell.

 Gifford kept the Cotuit Oyster Company alive for a decade and a half, eventually selling it and its trademark “Cotuit’s R Superior” ( as well as the exclusive right to market any oyster taken from Cotuit Bay as an official Cotuit oyster) in 1934 to a subsidiary of a  New Haven oyster company that operated it until the early 1960s when the operation was sold to the same company’s local caretaker, who in turn sold it to Dick Nelson, who sold it  to its present owner, Christopher Gargiulo.

End of an era

In 1922 the last of Cotuit Port’s whaling captains died at the age of 91. Thomas Chatfield had arrived in Cotuit in 1846 after running away from his home on the Hudson River to Albany, where he was adopted by Seth Nickerson, Sr.’s sons Aaron and Horace and put to work as a deckhand on their schooner, the Highlander. They brought Chatfield home with them to Cotuit Port, where the young man was taken in by Seth Nickerson, taught the fundamentals of celestial navigation, and then sent to sea in 1848 with the elder Nickerson’s son Captain Seth Nickerson, Jr. .

Chatfield married Florentine Handy, Nickerson’s granddaughter, completed three voyages aboard the Massachusets to the whaling grounds of the North Pacific, and in 1856, at the age of 26, was given command of the Massachusetts. In 1858 he rescued his shipwrecked brother-in-law, Captain Bethuel Gifford Handy, brought him safely to San Francisco from the frozen Russian coast of the Sea of Okhotsk, and left Bethuel in command while he rushed east via Panama to enlist as an officer in the Union Navy. During the war Chatfield commanded a small schooner on blockade duty along the west coast of Florida. The city of Tampa surrendered to him, and with the influence of Admiral commanding the Gulf Squadron of the Union Navy, joined the Masonic temple in Key West.

Returning to Cotuit Port, Chatfield spent the years after the Civil War owning and skippering the schooner Joseph Eaton, Jr. , then retired to make and mend sails and perform rigging services for the coastal schooner trade in the sail loft above his boatshop in the village center. Along with Captains Carleton B. Nickerson, Ulysses Hull, James Handy, William Irwin, and many others,Chatfield led the fight for  Cotuit against the closing of its shores, the end of independent oystering in its waters, and the Osterville Cut that would forever alter its coastline.

Captain Thomas Chatfield’s passing in 1922 marked the end of decades of fighting to preserve Cotuit Bay and the public’s right to access it.

A Dock for a Dock

Before Chatfield died, the town meeting voted and approved a request from Cotuit to “construct a public wharf at Cotuit, same to be located on the public landing at the foot of Oyster Road.” A committee consisting of Milton Crocker, William H. Irwin, and William F. Nickerson was appoited to “have charge building the wharf.” In 1923 they made their recommendation to the board of Selectmen.

“To the Selectmen of Barnstable:

Your committee after due investigation and consideration find that there are four available places along the shore frontage in Cotuit Harbor where a wharf may be located. These are all town landings of more or less merit for the purpose. In the judgment of your committee the two farthest to the west seem the less suitable owing to exposure to the strong southwest winds which prevail and which render a pile-driven wharf less liable to withstand the buffeting of wind and waves. A wharf of stone or concrete structure would be expensive. Moreover, the water is shallow and unless the wharf is extender’, far out it would seem to be unsuitable unless the places were dredged, except for skiffs and boats of small draft. Cotuit has no public bathing beach of any extent but insofar as such privilege does exist these two places seem to be as good as any. and perhaps better.

Of the two remaining places the one furthest to the east seems to be as well adapted as the other except for the depth of water. This place would also require dredging and consequently entail expense. It would even then be no more desirable than the remaining place of which we are soon to speak. Moreover, this also seems to be a place very suitable for bathing purposes. The shore does not make off abruptly but on the other hand gradually shelves making the water warm and safe for everyone. It is at a very convenient distance from the center of the village and easily and safely approached by people who walk or by automobile parties seeking shore privileges.

“We now come to the last available place, this, in the judgment of your committee, seems the logical place. It is in the immediate center of the village and consequently convenient for visitors coming in boats or yachts to do with little traveling after they land whatever errands or business they may have to transact. It appears to your committee to be of less value than any of the other places for bathing purposes owing to the comparative abruptness of the shore and the “presence of fish houses close at hand. The abruptness of the shore on the other hand, and consequently deeper water, makes it particularly adapted for a wharf. The expense of construction will be less because of the short distance of extension into the water necessary and because less dredging will be required. This location is opposed by some because the wharf will interfere with the bathing. This is true in a measure, but not wholly objectionable on this account. It seems the most desirable place available, and as has been said before, the logical one.

“Your committee, therefore, with the utmost respect and consideration for those who differ, make the following recommendation: That the proposed wharf be located in Cotuit harbor at the public landing known as the foot of the Oyster Road, between the shore frontage of Mr. A. Lawrence Lowell and Mrs. McKinley.”

1923 Report of the Cotuit Town Dock Committee to the Board of Selectmen

In January of 1924 the state legislature passed House bill No. 1214  (which had been  filed by the town’s state representative) authorizing the town to extend the wharf and public landing in Cotuit Harbor. The dates when the town dock was constructed and officially opened aren’t known,  but knowing the village there was doubtlessly a celebration to mark the occasion. The first photograph in this essay was taken by Chatfield’s grandson, Hugh Knight, and it shows the new dock beside the demolished remains of the old Nickerson pier, and the Congressman’s summer office standing where stacks of lumber and heaps of oyster shells were once piled up. The office is identifiable from its brick chimney which was all that remained standing after the 1944 hurricane demolished the building. The presence of a Ford Model A (first released in 1923), and a high-bowed, black hulled motorboat are additional clues that the dock was open circa 1925.

Henry Churbuck’s converted catboat yawl, the “Bawlin’ Yawl”, alongside the new Cotuit town dock, circa 1930. Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s boathouse is on the beach beyond. The concrete wall of the former commercial wharf is visible on the lower left. In 1952 it was reinforced with a rip-rap barrier of boulders. Photo by Hugh Knight

Missing pieces

What remains unknown from the research into the saga of Cotuit’s town dock are some minor but possible important details.  In 1942 the Gifford’s filed a map of the property which shows a 10-foot strip along their property and the town landing which widens the parking lot at the driveway for  33 Oyster Place Road. Did the town acquire or take that strip when it built the dock? The 1942 map also shows what appears to be a row of pilings extending diagonally and inland from the corner of the former Nickerson pier, all falling within the 10-foot strip of expanded town landing, and indication the town landing was widened onto the northern edge of the Nickerson-Shedd-Oyster Company land.

The Hurricane of 1944 was the worst storm to hit Cotuit in the 20th century. It tossed catboats onto the waterfront like toys, and demolished the summer office of Congressman (and former Cotuit high school teacher) Charles Gifford. Only the office’s brick chimney remained on the footprint of Jarvis Nickerson’s former wharf. Henry Churbuck’s converted catboat yawl came to rest on some arbor vitae bushes. He didn’t mourn its wreck as the boat was evidently impossible to tack in a brisk breeze.

When did the town actually take possession of the landing? Was Oyster Place a town road, a county road, or a path opened up to become a wagon track? The road was built in 1867 according to Jim Gould, but the deed, if it was granted to the town in the 1700s or early 1800s, was probably lost in the disastrous County Courthouse fire of 1827 which destroyed ninety-three of the ninety-four books of deeds recorded since the first English settlers arrived in the 1630s. At some point the town landing was widened, but it isn’t known at this time if the town took the land from Congressman Gifford by eminent domain, sale, or gift. The Congressman passed away in 1947 without rebuilding his summer office by the shore, nor ever using the remains of the old wharf as a dock.

Gifford was a very successful real estate developer and legislator and so can be assumed to be an expert in real estate law, especially the Colonial laws regarding ownership of the waterfront and the rights of a land owner to not only close the beach between the high and low water marks to any trespassers (with the exception of hunters and anglers engaged in “fowling” and fishing, and sailors in the act of navigation) but their own riparian rights that extended a substantial distance off of the beach into the waterways, rights the first Colonial administrators granted to property owners in order to encourage the private construction of commercial wharves to handle the oncoming rush of settlers, cattle and cargo that arrived with increasing frequency in the mid-1600s.

Gifford was intimately involved in the fate of the old commercial wharf. He ended its fifty year run as a commercial venture by buying out Harry Haight and selling the property — as the company’s treasurer — to the Scudder Brothers who began to demolish every vestige of the former wharf save its low concrete wall. With the Oyster Company’s other property at Little River — the former William Crosby land — Gifford was quick to end its use of the old Jarvis Nickerson wharf and consolidate the Oyster Company at Inner Harbor.

Gifford would also have been extremely interested in the town’s plans to build a town dock on the landing beside his property, and he must have realized that it’s plans set it in very close proximity to the former commercial wharf he bought back from the Scudder Brothers in 1921. He would have known the footprint of the planned town dock would infringe on the riparian rights that went with the old wharf. There were no zoning regulations in the town of Barnstable when Jarvis Nickerson first built his wharf in 1875, and certainly no prohibitions against the construction of new docks such as the Dock and Pier Zoning Overlay district that banned them in Cotuit after passing with enormous effort in 2001. Yet Charles Gifford — 12-term Republican Congressman, prosperous real estate developer, oyster company owner and cranberry farmer — could easily have built any pier he wanted to and objected to the town’s plans to crowd a pier of their own next to his property.

Charles L. Gifford, school teacher, legislator, real estate speculator, inn keeper, oysterman, and cranberry farmer preferred to live without a dock to spoil his view.

The former president of the Cotuit -Santuit Civic Association, Stewart Goodwin, in a 2021 letter opposing the present application to build a long dock next to the town landing, related to the town’s Zoning Board of Appeals the story of how as a teenager he worked around the Gifford property as a landscaper, and on one occasion in the early 1940s while visiting the Congressman in his office asked Gifford why he didn’t have a dock — to which Gifford replied, “it would spoil my view.”

To the present

Oyster Place Road wasn’t paved until 1954. In 1957 — with the backing of the Cotuit Civic Association — an article was debated at the town meeting to spend $5,000 to extend the pier further into the harbor. That request was voted down (by the same frugal town fathers who turned down Sidney Kirkman’s gift of the 15-acre Bluff Point property and beach and sold it for the cash instead), but the request came back the following year, seeking $6,000 for the extension and repair of the wharf.  That article was indefinitely postponed, but the request came back yet again to the town meeting in 1961 — this time the price tag was $14,000 for the extension and repair – and it too was defeated.

In the 1970s the old square pier was extended out into the harbor with an additional L-shaped extension. In the early 1980s the town installed four floating dinghy docks with aluminum gangways, in an attempt to keep up with an explosion in the number of moorings being set around the western half of the Bay. In the late 1980s, Tom Hadley of Cotuit began a private launch service to carry boaters out to their moored boats from one of the dinghy floats. While he sold the launch eventually, he still drives it to this day for the present owners of the service.

Congressman Charles Gifford’s grandson, Frederic P. Claussen, was the last native Cotusion to live on Oyster Place. Fred was Barnstable County’s Register of Probate for 39 years, making him the longest serving elected Republican official in Massachusetts of all tine.

In 2005 Claussen granted the town a permanent easement from the town dock’s parking lot across the base of the old commercial wharf to perpetuate the path the Giffords had let the public use to access the shoreline of the cove. When a subsequent owner of 33 Oyster Place erected a fence and blocked that path, Claussen re-asserted the old easement, but the property owner fought it and persuaded the town’s attorney to nullify Fred Claussen’s easement and convert it into a revocable easement that could only be used in daylight hours. The present owner, who is seeking to demolish the remains of the commercial wharf, has offered as part of his application to build a private pier, to reinstate the Claussen-Gifford way to water permanently.

As always (because I don’t know what I don’t know) I appreciate any corrections, clarification, contributions or questions. The best way is either to comment here, or email me at david AT churbuck.com.

[1] The Henry E. Cole, owned by Issac Sturgis.

[2] In 1882 there were thirty-one schooners run by Cotuit captains. The Barnstable Patriot noted in its December 5, 1882 issue: “On Saturday, Capt. J. Hallett sailed the Plough Boy from Deep Hole to an anchorage near Jarvis Nickerson’s wharf. These are harbingers of the coming winter fleet. In anticipation of the winter, sailboats have been quite generally pulled up onshore and some of them nicely housed.”

[4] The Cotuit Oyster Company’s business office was located on School Street, across the street from the current Kettle-Ho at the intersection with Main Street, it isn’t known if the Patriot’s report referred to a shanty on the Oyster Place Wharf or the School Street office.

1853 whaling bark model

This is a half model of the whaling bark Jireh Swift, built in 1853 in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Plans of whaling ships are hard to find because builders worked from their own half models and the design was so ubiquitous no naval architect seems to have drawn one. I finally located a set of plans in the Smithsonian’s collection which were derived from a recent half model.

This hull will be finished bright (varnished) to show off the walnut topsides and mahogany bottom of the hull. The keel, cutwater, waterline and stern post are made from 1/16th” basswood veneer. I’ll mount it on a red oak backboard eventually.

An expert opinion on cutting away the masts during a shipwreck

Last November, just as I started writing the first draft of The Wrecks and War of Bethuel Handy, I made a pilgrimage to Mystic Seaport to spend some time aboard the last surviving whaling ship, the Charles W. Morgan.  I pestered the docent who was standing by the ship’s wheel with all sorts of questions about the restoration project that resulted in the Morgan making a cruise up the New England coast  during the summer of 2014. I was in Provincetown  when the ship came into the harbor under sail and was in awe of seeing such a mythical ship alive again.

I watched a few videos about the restoration and the cruise, and paid close attention to the words of the Morgan‘s captain, Kip Files, as he described the process of wearing ship, or tacking.

Captain Kip Files and the Charles W. Morgan, via Mystic Seaport

A few weeks ago I hunted him down on LinkedIn and asked him, as the only living captain of a whaling ship, what he thought of Bethuel Handy’s options as the Phoenix went ashore on Elbow Island in the Sea of Okhotsk during a mid-October blizzard. He kindly replied and asked for more information — which I pulled together from my research and sent to him last night. Here’s what he had to say about Bethuel’s options at 4 am on October 11, 1858 off the coast of Siberia:

“Interesting story. Very tuff situation.  There is no true way to get off a lee shore. Every time would be different as the shore, waves, current and wind would hardly be the same. It is something an experienced captain would take all his years of knowledge of sailing and his particular vessel to give it a try. having only one anchor made his job more difficult. . There would be no helm ( steering by rudder) until the vessel had some way on. Even then in those seas it would be a miracle if it responded at all. you would need lots of movement by the rudder for it to respond.

 Cutting away the mast. I do not think there would be time. Desperate move not knowing were they would fall. They are built to stay in place just cutting them might force them thru the deck. I have never known anyone to do this but it is possible. I am going to read this again. Hard to get what is going thru the captains mind. Logs don’t reflect it well as they show no emotion on purpose.  Do you have the lat and long of were this happened? I might have a better feel for what was happening.  I do know that the class of whaling ship are pretty handy. They sail a lot better than shore side experts give them credit. 


I’m really looking forward to his reaction after he reads the sailing instructions for the Gulf of Uda and the Shantar Islands.  It sounds like sailing in hell to me.

Foreword to The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy

Here is the foreword to my book about Bethuel Gifford’s and Thomas Chatfield’s adventures. A download link for a PDF version of the first chapter — the wreck of the whaling ship Phoenix is at the bottom of this post. Enjoy. Comments and criticism most appreciated.

The shoreline of an island in the Shantar Archipelago


I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.                                                            Herman Melville, Moby Dick


They were the sort of  men who clubbed baby seals, tattooed their faces during drunken benders, spread syphilis throughout Polynesia, and carved pornography into the teeth of dead sperm whales. They were fugitive alcoholics shaking in their bunks with delirium tremens,  greenhorn farm boys keen for an adventure, negroes and Wampanoags and descendants of Hessian mercenaries stranded by the defeated British Army.  They were controlled by acerbic mates from bleak Cape Cod villages who kept to themselves, mostly brothers and cousins, nephews and uncles, and were fast with their fists to keep the scum from rising up from the mephitic stench of the forecastle to mutiny on the high seas.

The first thing that happened to them when the pilot was sent ashore and the ship cleared Gay Head was the collection of their knives so the captain could snap off their points in a seam of the deck, blunting them to reduce the number of stabbings. They were divided into watches and picked by the mates in a quick draft to sit in one of the five whaleboats. The Captain had one, the chief or first mate another, and so on down to the fourth mate. Each whaleboat carried six men. The mates and captain steered. The other five pulled an oar. The harpooner pulled the bow oar because he did his work from the prow of the light boat, bracing his knee in a semicircle cut into the thwart, reaching behind to his right to lift a harpoon from its split oak crutch.

Once a whale was struck, the harpooner and the mate swapped ends, rushing to pass the other and take their place while the whale ran, sounding deep and taking fathoms of line with it. Then the harpooner took the tiller and became the boatsteerer and the mate lifted a long lance and prepared to kill the leviathan by stabbing it in the heart and lungs until it expelled a geyser of dark red blood through its spout.

They were butchers who could cut up a whale and convert it into oil. They worked in gore, slipped on decks marinated in fat and blood, and lost their sense of smell  as the fishy stench of whale shit and blood festered out of the woodgrain in the tropical heat. If they fell from the rigging, dislocated a shoulder, or sliced themselves open flensing blubber from a whale they had to heal on their own. If their muscles ached and their teeth became loose then they were scorbutic and began to die in the absence of fresh fruit and vegetables, barely subsisting on a diet of salted meat and dry crackers.

They were men who voyaged into the void of the ocean for three years at a time, self-contained in their 100-foot ships, self-sufficient with enough rations and water to keep them alive for months without going ashore. They sailed into the blank spaces on the charts, to places no hydrographer had surveyed, coming upon indigenous people who gawked at the tall ships cruising into idyllic atolls and Arctic straits, corrupting them with bottles of rum and firearms, then inevitably fighting them and leaving them to die with some new pestilence.

They sailed  to the antipodes where they could be beastly men far from the judgment of those they left behind.

They were whalers and they were fortune seekers a hot for a dollar as any prospector or ambitious American. They were the operators of the most complicated and highly engineered machines in existence: tall ships built to survive the caprices of the sea.  In those ships they prospered, and many died. In those ships they explored lands as alien as the planets they navigated by.

They were equivalent to  astronauts as they explored the blank spaces around the edges of the known world. Their space capsule was made of oak and pine; tar,  hemp and canvas; 100-foot, three-masted abattoirs that announced themselves by their stench wafting on the wind long before the emerged over the horizon.

They guessed where they were all the time, sailing with only a rough  idea of where they were and where they were going, but never exactly  sure until they sighted a known landmark. They existed as lost men lost in the void of the true blue sea.

They lived with doubt whenever they sailed. They rarely stopped, only going ashore and anchoring in ports where water and food could be found or bought,  and oil and bone could be sold. If they stopped then some would run away, undone by the constant anxiety of the endless blue water passages through doldrums and cyclones. They fled and hid until the ship sailed away, emerging from their hiding places to stand on the beach, new men becoming shuffling, sun-burned beachcombers and Crusoe’s beneaped and stranded  far from home.

The ones who stayed aboard placed their trust and lives in the abilities of the aloof figure who stood alone and unapproachable at the windward shrouds by the wheel. He was the only man aboard other than the mate, who had  the knowledge and the tools to find and measure the angles of the  sun and the moon and the stars. He was the only man who could calculate and note  in the ship’s log, with the shaky confidence of a scientist who doubts his tools — his hand wound chronometer gimballed in a box, the fogged, cracked glass of the  eyepiece of his spray warped    wood and ivory quadrant – the daily position of the ship. That made him the Master of the ship, the diviner of the celestial mysteries, the holder of the knowledge that made him king of the floating kingdom and kept his three dozen illiterate subjects obedient and at bay in their miserable lair under the deck of the ship’s bluff bow.

They were fugitives from justice, raging alcoholics, Wampanoag Indians in debt to English merchants, runaway slaves, green farm boys, and romantic dandies flunked out of college. They lived like scorbutic  troglodytes in narrow bunks, the walls of the ship oozing green mold in the tropics, stinking up the fug filled stagnant air with their coughs and their flatulence. They never bathed. Knowing how to swim only prolonged their agony should they fall overboard because the ship never stopped, and even if they were lucky enough to grab a line trailing astern, there was no way they could pull themselves back aboard. They deserted the first chance they could;  preferring to take their chances ashore with cannibals than remain aboard another day. They fled the ships  if their captain was foolish enough to come into a port and give them an option to run away but  most captains were too short-handed to offer them that temptation. So they stayed at sea for months at a time, never sure of where they were, depending on the captain’s incantations and formulas to There were no drugs to soothe the constant anxiety of life aboard a wooden sailing ship with no EPIRB beacons, no radios, no GPS plotters, not even charts of the oceans because in some cases they were the first men to visit the strange islands of the South Pacific or the desolate barren coasts of the arctic.

They drank out of desperation to numb themselves long enough to endure. They persevered if they didn’t desert and rode out the will of the sea and the temper of the captain until their ordeal was finally over and they were lucky to walk away with a sliver sized  share of the profits, barely enough to pay off their debts to the ship and to pay for a bender in a New Bedford brothel. They found themselves aboard again the following fall for lack of any other place to go in the society of the land.

These were the sort of  men that  Bethuel Gifford Handy, Jr. — 29 years-old and the eldest son of the Handy-Nickerson clans of Cotuit Port —  was in command of in the spring of 1858, on the Nantucket whaling ship Phoenix, as she tacked back and forth off the shores of Honolulu, her first captain going ashore all worn out and ill and incapable of command. Handy had shipped out two years before as the first mate of the Phoenix.  Now, on only his second whaling voyage, he was in command of 36 men desperate to follow their former captain ashore and be free from the fear of the summer ahead in the Russian Sea of Okhotsk, the worst waters on the planet, a sea covered by ice three-quarters of the year and fog the rest. A  bitterly cold stark place with rough shores with no ports, no charts, no brothels, nothing but sullen natives, deranged Russians on the edge of civilization, and vast herds of right whales congregating in the kitchen of the Pacific to feast on tons of microscopic plankton. They wouldn’t be alone. There would be hundreds of other ships, identical to their own, all of them  three-masted, tall ships painted black with sheer sides and blunt bows, floating factory ships designed to hunt, chase, kill and butcher the largest animals on the planet.


Download link for Chapter One:

Chapter One The Wreck and War of Bethuel Gifford: The Wreck

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 Ancestry.com 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: Continue reading “The Wreck and War of Bethuel G. Handy”

The Capture of the Circassian

Not being an especially wealthy man, I’ve always wondered about my lack of ancestral fortunes. Ask my late father how much money he made and he always replied, “A dollar ninety-eight.” His father was alleged to have passed on partnering with Howard Johnson and the guy who invented the reclining arm chair.  There have always been many “woulda-coulda-shoulda”  regrets expressed during cocktail hour on the back porch.

But Captain Thomas Chatfield, my great-great grandfather, did pretty well by the standards of 19th century Cape Cod by doing his part to make the Right Whale a very endangered species and by assisting in the capture of a British prize ship during the Civil War.. All of which combined managed to afford a really nice old house in the center of the village.

Chatfield couldn’t have made too much money from his whaling years because he was captain for only one voyage of the whaling ship Massachusetts, the same ship he went to the Pacific three times before in his teens and early twenties. In 1858, when he was 27 years old, he was given command of the ship on the recommendation of his wife’s grandfather, Seth Nickerson.  Chatfield sailed from Edgartown on Martha’s Vineyard to the northern Pacific for his one and only voyage as captain, his last aboard the Massachusetts.

I couldn’t figure out how he managed to support himself into his 90s from a single voyage that took place in his late 20s. Whaling captains were very well paid on a share system that saw them get the biggest portion of the profit after the owners, with the remainder divided among the officers, boatsteerers (harpooners) and the ordinary seamen. So there was upside to be earned, but a whaler’s wages never seemed to me to be the kind of pay day that would keep the wolf from the door for six more decades.

Chatfield lived  12 years in row aboard the Massachusetts beginning when he was 17 and first shipped out as a cabin boy.  In 1859, after rescuing his brother-in-law Bethuel Handy from a shipwreck in the ice of the Okhotsk Sea, Chatfield docked the Massachusetts in San Francisco,  shipped her cargo of oil and bone east on a clipper ship, then sold the old Mattapoissett whaler to a local San Francisco merchant, put Bethuel in command and because he missed his wife and daughters, he shipped himself back to Cape Cod via the Panama isthmus.

When the Civil War broke out Chatfield immediately volunteered and was commissioned an “acting volunteer lieutenant” in the U.S. Navy. A lot of whaling captains shipped out on Union war ships, handling the navigation and seamanship while the career officers and Naval Academy graduates managed the gunnery, tactics, and other war stuff. Chatfield received orders to report to the New York Navy Yard where he was given his commission signed by the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles, as well as a uniform, saber, and orders to sail to report aboard a freshly built Staten Island steam ferry, the U.S.S. Somerset.

Chatfield described the Somerset in his Reminiscences:

“The Somerset was simply a Ferry boat of the size of those plying in Boston Harbor. She had been bought by the government while on the stocks, had been strengthened to enable her to support a battery, and was designed for service on the blockade, and for river work. Her battery consisted of two nine-inch smooth bore Dahlgren guns placed on pivot carriages, one on each end, and four long thirty-two pounders in broadside: a very effective fighting craft in smooth water, but next to worthless in a sea. Her crew consisted of one naval lieutenant, commanding, four acting masters, and four acting master’s mates – these of the line. Her staff officers were one acting first assistant (chief), and three second assistant engineers, paymaster and surgeon, with enlisted men sufficient to number one hundred and thirty, of all ranks: and she had no spars, simply two flag-staffs.”

U.S.S. Somerset

The Somerset was under the command of Lieutenant Commander Earl English, a 33-year old graduate of the Naval Academy who had been severely wounded only a few years before in the assault on the Barrier Forts at Canton during the Opium Wars of 1856. He had started his career in 1840 as a midshipman aboard the U.S. frigate Constellation, then was assigned to Annapolis, graduating in ‘46 and then assigned to the frigate Independence on the California coast during the Mexican War. Chatfield’s peer in age, but superior by far in naval credentials, English was highly respected by Thomas is his letters home to his wife in Cotuit and later in his reminiscences.

The orders to take a double-ended, flat-bottomed Staten Island ferry out of New York Harbor and into the open Atlantic was cause for concern as the Somerset received orders directly from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to sail to Key West and join the East Gulf Squadron and its blockade of the Florida coastline. The fact that the ferry was steam powered and could out-maneuver any sailing vessel would have made it an invaluable vessel. On April 13, 1862, the Somerset and her sister-ship the U.S.S. Fort Henry sailed south in company, only to have to put in at Hampton Roads, Virginia when the Henry’s machinery made it impossible to go in reverse. There Chatfield was able to tour the ironclad Monitor, fresh from its battle with the Merrimac.

Thos. Chatfield

After an uneventful voyage from the Chesapeake to Key West, the Somerset refueled and reprovisioned, let its boilers cool down, and was then ordered to patrol the Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba. That same spring of ‘62, Admiral David Farragut and the West Gulf Squadron had successfully attacked and captured New Orleans. Welles ordered English and the crew of the Somerset to keep a keen eye for any Confederate blockade runners trying to rush cotton to England’s mills as the ports of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama were closed by the Union Navy.

On her maiden patrol in the Straits of Florida, the Somerset steamed within sight of the coast of Cuba west of Havana. What ensued that Sunday, May 4, 1862 wouldn’t conclude until a Supreme Court decision three years later.

Chatfield writes:

“I think it was the fourth day out: the weather was a beautiful morning, wind light, sea smooth: and being Sunday the crew were dressed in white. I had charge of the deck from eight to twelve. At nine o’clock we sighted a large, square rigged steamer coming from the eastward. We were then some half way between Havana and Matanzas, and some six miles off shore. I headed the Somerset for the steamer, shaping her course so as to intercept her, and notified Capt. English: and very soon everyone was one deck, all agog for what might turn up. We passed within easy hail. We were turning the helm astarboard to fall quickly in her wake. Capt. English hailed “What ship is that?” The answer came: “The British ship Circassian.” Then from our Captain: “This is the U.S. Str. Somerset. Hove too, I’ll send a boat aboard of you.” The answer came quick “Havn’t got time.”

“This conversation lasted say thirty seconds. Immediately the order “Beat to Quarters” was given, and the drummer was ready with his drum, and within not more than two minutes a blank cartridge (a peremptory order to hove to) loomed from gun No. 1. No notice was taken of that. Next came the order: “Solid shot across her quarter point blank. Don’t hit her,” and a minute after the shot plunged up the water a short distance of her starboard quarter. No notice was taken of that either. Next the order came “Load pivot with five-second shell: elevate seventeen hundred yards. Fire to hit.” Now that order might seem inconsistent. The five-second shell would explode at thirteen hundred yards: four hundred yards short, had the ship been distant seventeen hundred yards. But Captain English did not wish to injure the ships hull, but to explode the shell over her. The aim was true, and the distance well estimated: the shell cut one gang of her forerigging off just under the top, and exploded over her forecastle, scattering the pieces about her deck. Fortunately no one was hurt. Her engines stopped immediately, and she came too with helm aport, and lay until we came up to her.”

The Circassian

The Somersets boarding party examined the ship’s papers, learned she was British owned and sailing under British flag and therefore ostensibly a neutral ship. But finding irregularities with the Circassian’s lack of a destination, Commander English declared the ship was a blockade runners and seized her and her cargo as a prizes of war. The British captain argued that the ship was very neutral despite having sailed from New Orleans before Farragut captured it, and now that he had captured it, the blockade of the port was no longer in effect because Farragut lifted it when he occupied the city and took it for the Union. Doubtlessly perturbed by the Captain’s convoluted interpretation of admiralty law, English ignored the protests and had the Circassian taken under tow by the Somerset because his own engineers didn’t know how to start the captured ship’s boilers and her own black gang refused to cooperate.

Chatfield writes:

“We took the big brute in tow, first transferring her crew, with the exception of her officers, steward and two of her engineers, to the Somerset, placing them under guard: and in that shape started for Key West: and with the help of the Gulf Stream were off Sand Key (entrance of Key West Harbor) early the next forenoon: and a novel sight it must have been to onlookers. That ferry boat, looking more like a big sea turtle than a war ship, creeping into the harbor with that big square rigged ocean steamer in tow..”

A fan of of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubreyad gets the concept of naval prizes. Basically it was a very legal and enriching form of commercialized sailing with large amounts of gunpowder involved. It was the basis of some big British admiralty fortunes and was still in effect during the Civil War for officers and crews in both the Union and Confederate fleets, not to be discontinued for another couple decades.

If an enemy vessel — naval or merchant — was captured, it was then auctioned off by a Naval Prize Court who dispersed the proceeds on a formula not too different from the share system used on New England whalers. The Admiral overseeing the operation, even if not aboard the victorious ship, got a percentage. The commander of the ship got a big share, and then every other officer and sailor got a piece of the action. If the ship was full of gold, then an ordinary seaman could receive as much as five years pay from a single prize. Often the capture got tied up in the courts, which was the story of the Circassian in the decade following the end of the Civil War. If you want to read the Supreme Court opinion, click here. The opinion was penned by Justice Salmon Chase and gives all the details a lawyer or admiralty law geek could ask for. The New York Times published an editorial  on the matter which basically said “huzzah” to the court and sneered “…we think that foreign Governments will hesitate before they treat the judgments of that tribunal as so wanting in equity as to justify reprisals.”

While the cargo was disposed of and the Circassian’s owners lawyered up, the Somerset went on to have an illustrious series of actions along the western coast of Florida, freeing slaves, busting up saltworks and maintaining the blockade. A great and very detailed history (sourced in part from Chatfield’s war letters and accounts) of the ship’s subsequent actions can be found at the Naval History and Heritage Command’s website.

The New York Times  reported on the sale of the Circassian’s cargo. It was a very rich prize:

“A portion of the cargo of the prize steamer Circassian, was sold yesterday at No. 18 Murray-street, by Mr. JONES, auctioneer, by order of JAMES C. CLAPP, Esq., United States Marshal for the District of Florida. There was a large attendance of buyers, and the bidding was very spirited, as the articles offered were, in the main, of a superior description.

The sale opened with a case of porcelain articles embracing vases, fruit dishes, wine coolers, and mantel ornaments, 30 pieces, which were purchased at $140. One case of hardware containing one dozen carpenter’s pencils, one dozen tower nippers, quarter dozen coach wrenches, four dozen C.S. gimlets, assorted: two dozen boxwood rules, half dozen Kent hammers, half dozen saddler’s hammers, half dozen bright garden hammers, half dozen hatchets, half dozen claw hatchets, hail dozen turn-screws, London, was sold at $295.

A case containing miscellaneous articles of French manufacture, glass tubes, leather spectacle cases, and fancy articles in general, was bought by Mr. S. HOUSEMAN at $1,200. There were 107 lots offered in all, which brought prices varying from $25 to $1,200. The proceeds of the sale will amount to about $100,000.

In August last, the first part of the cargo of this steamer was sold for $125,000. The vessel has since been appraised and taken by the Government at $107,000. The brandies she had on board will be sold on Tuesday next, by Mr. HEWLETT SCUDDER, at the store in Park-place, and it is expected they will realize $100,000.”

By war’s end the Circassian stood as one of its richest prizes with a gross value of $352,313.

How much of that went into the ancestral pocket will never be known. Chatfield was a frugal guy who supported a big family of daughters and son-in-laws as well as his own siblings and parents back in Cornwall-on-the-Hudson. How he managed to finish his whaling career at the age of 33, spend three years in the Navy, then return home to Cotuit and prosper is probably due in part to some of the Circassian prize money. That windfall and his own thriftiness probably allowed him to own the Joseph Eaton, a coastal schooner he captained until his 50s hauling granite from Maine to Albany for the construction of the State Capitol. He also managed to own two Greek Revival houses across the street from each other in Cotuit’s center, using one for sleeping the other for eating, with a Wampanoag woman cooking in a shed called “Little Mashpee”, and daughters, son-in-laws and grandchildren scattered between two other cottages. In his reminiscences he mentions the Panic of 1873, the financial crisis that sparked a two-decade “Long Depression.” He never was wealthy, but by Cape Cod standards any whaling captain was the 19th century equivalent of a hedge fund cowboy. It has been said that Nantucket and New Bedford were the wealthiest cities in the world per capita at the zenith of the whale oil market in the 1820s and some substantial Quaker fortunes live on to this day such as the Howland’s (Hetty Green, the “Witch of Wall Street”). At least one of Chatfield’s daughters married a wealthy man, Freeman Hodges, an Osterville native who worked for Henry Flagler as his real estate “front man” — buying up the land that would be the right-of-way for Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway that ultimately would terminate in Key West.

In his retirement Chatfield made and mended sails in the sail loft at 854 Main Street, the same loft where he held the first meeting of Cotuit’s Masonic Mariner’s Lodge. His sailmaker’s bench, his leather sailmaker’s palm, massive fids for splicing hawsers, blocks and sheaves: all still hang from the rafters.

The sad end to this story is the wreck of the ill-fated Circassian in the late fall of 1876 on the southern shore of Long Island near Shinnecock Inlet. Despite several very heroic small boat rescues and weatherong two gales and multiple attempts to float her steel hull ship off the beach, the Circassian went down with a skeleton crew of Shinnecock Indians put aboard to salvage her, but who were trapped by a third fatal storm that killed all but four survivors.

A great story published by TheHamptons.com describes the end of the Circassian:

“Every home on the Reservation had been affected because so many of their lost men belonged to the same families and so many of the families were interrelated. The two Walkers were brothers; the three Bunns cousins. The Cuffees too were of the same family, two brothers and a cousin. Andrew Kellis had left work on the Circassian a week before to start on a whaling voyage; now another Kellis brother was out on the beaches looking for Oliver. Every house was in mourning. All three of the tribe s Trustees were dead, and all of the men lost were married with the exception of William Cuffee. In one house a woman lost a husband and a brother; in another a husband and a brother-in-law. Her daughter, with several young children, was also made a widow. In all, nine widows and twenty-five fatherless children were left behind. Long Island history has never seen any shipwreck so devastating to so many closely related families. Brothers, brothers-in-law, and cousins were all lost. “

The Whaleboat Project

I don’t have a “hobby.” Not a hobby in the classic sense of collecting stamps, knitting sweaters out of dog hair or playing with model trains in my basement the way my grandfather did.  He didn’t have the opportunity to binge watch Breaking Bad with a bag of Cheetos like I do, so there’s no surprise he whiled away the long Cotuit winters in the 1940s and 50s making ship models and reading novels while listening to the same radio that brought him the news of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

He and my grandmother gave me a taste for model ship building, a pastime my grandmother let me assist her with when I was ten years old and she built a scale model of the Grand Banks schooner the Bluenose after being widowed and needing — I assume — something to get her mind on other things.

Cotuit in 1930s through the 1950s was doubtlessly a very quiet village in the wintertime, and other than playing bridge with friends, volunteering at the church, or attending the monthly meeting of the Masons at the Mariner’s Lodge, there wasn’t a lot to do in the evening other than listen to the radio and read. And read they did. Television wasn’t on the scene so books filled the hours. Books and making models.

My grandfather and father collaborated on a model of the launch of the Bounty, the open boat which Captain Bligh and his sympathizers were set adrift in by Fletcher Christian in 1789, and then, against all apparent odds, successfully sailed 3,500 nautical miles to the Dutch Indies with some loyal crew lost to attacks by hostile islanders along the way. That model was preserved in a glass case and hung on the walls of the living room next to the old Captain’s navy saber,  and I studied it for hours after reading Nordoff and Hall’s trilogy about the Mutiny in grade school.

My father built  model airplanes. I remember him building a seaplane when he was a student at Harvard Business School. Impulsive, he decided to test the engine at Loop Beach in Cotuit without installing the radios needed to fly it; he fueled it, fired it up, and for some strange reason set it free to take off and successfully fly off towards Portugal to the east, never to be seen again. So I’ve always been around xActo knives and T-pins and strips of basswood.

This past winter My youngest son expressed an interest in making a plastic model of an American battleship, the USS New Jersey. He’s still working on it, learning how to wield an airbrush and assemble the thing correctly and I have no doubts it will be a magnificent thing when he finishes it. But something nagged at me, something that wanted to work with wood, so I went online and searched for a modest project that I had some connection to; e.g. something to do with whaling because of my Great-great grandfather’s stint aboard the Edgartown whaling ship the Massachusetts from the 1850s until the Civil War.

There are two approaches to wooden ship models. One is to shape a miniature version of the original ship’s hull out of a roughly pre-formed piece of wood. The second, which I have never tried but seems to the most authentic and aligned to actual boat building is to build the hull over a frame with strips of wood like actual planking and ribs. I looked for a whaling ship model — the Massachusetts was built in Mattapoisset and rigged as a bark and the closest thing I could find was a model of the Charles W. Morgan, the last remaining whaling ship which is maintained and berthed at Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut.

I remember from watching my grandmother build the Bluenose that the real challenge in model shipbuilding lies in the rigging of the masts and spars, an utter rat’s nest of thread and tiny deadeyes that involves the patience of Buddha and fingers like a pickpocket’s, I knew if I went big I’d have a project languishing around for years, so I decided to focus on a smaller boat, one without a lot of sails like royal top gallants and spankers and studding staysails, but a simple small boat or sloop.

I picked a New Bedford whale boat, the iconic pulling boat used to hunt, harpoon and kill whales for most of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Perhaps the most produced style of wooden boat in the world, with an estimated 60,000 built to supply the whaling fleets of New England, only a handful of original examples exist today, partially because they endured a lot of abuse and rough use and were to built be cheap and only survive the two- to three-year voyage to the Pacific. This Currier & Ives print sort of sums up the fate of a lot of these double-ended sail/row boats suffered.


So I bought a kit on Amazon. It arrived in a box. A lot of wood, a little box of hardware and thread, and a roll of plans. I gathered all my grandparent’s boat building tools, cleared a space on the dining room table, and got to work.


I was unaware the kit was rated an “advanced” project. I figured since it didn’t have a mast or any rigging it would be easy. Then I started planking the hull and became very pessimistic.

Anyway, after four or six hundred hours of carvings, gluing and sanding (sandpaper is the most used tool of all). It started to come together.


I put in ribs, the cockpit ceiling, I made a centerboard trunk, and by March I had a hull. But I realized I had a serious amount of work left before I would end up with something that resembled the real thing like theseboats at Mystic Seaport:


As spring arrived and the weather improved my motivation started to flag and the project went dormant. But I picked away at it over time. Fashioning harpoons, oars, barrels, buckets and tubs.

IMG_20170721_110955Then one day is was done. Or pretty much done. And my son said, “Hey, that would make an awesome wedding present for B (my daughter).”

I looked at the little bundle of glue and sticks and paint, sighed, and then smiled and said, “You know something? You’re right.”

So I put on a final sprint and by the eve of the wedding last weekend (July 22, 2017) it was ready to be given away.


I guess I can always build another some day, it was a lot of fun….very meditative and satisfying. But it does make me glad to stick it on the mantle until the picture of the old Captain and my grandfather and realize it meant something after all.

Reprints of The Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield for sale

My cousin Tom Field kindly alerted me to this discover on Amazon: a custom publisher called “Forgotten Books” has scraped my transcription of Captain Thomas Chatfield’s Reminscences (I assume, since I invested hours in 2006 to type the manuscript and share it as pages on this blog while living the lonely-man life in Durham, NC) and is offering paper copies for $13.57.


I’m excited someone offers this service. When I looked into a custom publishing run ten years ago the cost per copy was over $50. This is a great alternative to schlepping disks to a local printer and will allow me to get some copies into the hands of the next generation of nieces and nephews with Chatfield DNA.




The Charles W. Morgan Comes to P-Town

I NEVER go to Provincetown in the summer. In 56 years the thought of driving a distance equivalent to a trip to Boston, down perilous two-lanes of distracting tourist drivers to visit the clogged streets of the zoo that is P-Town has never even crossed my mind. But yesterday, in lieu of beating over to Martha’s Vineyard in southwesterly breezes gusting to 30 knots, I easily agreed with the suggestion we show my daughter’s boyfriend the “real Cape” and head to the outermost tip of the peninsula. As we walked down from the parking lot behind the high school at the Pilgrim Monument I looked out over the harbor for the masts of the Charles W. Morgan, the oldest floating commercial vessel in the United States, the last of the wooden whaling ships, recently restored at Mystic Seaport and now on its 38th voyage, the first time it has sailed in decades.

“I knew there was a reason he agreed to do this,” said my wife, long ago having resigned herself to a lonely marriage of antisocial, agoraphobic behavior by me, the man-who-does-not-dance. There were masts abounding, but none of a New Bedford whaling ship. I had followed the progress of the Morgan from Mystic up to Buzzards Bay and then through the Cape Cod Canal, and knew she would be in Provincetown.  I’ve been aboard the ship a few times in the past at Mystic Seaport, where she has been the main attraction since 1941, but always assumed she was just an exhibit, too fragile to risk the sea.

The six of us walked to the end of the town pier, bustling with little shops, visitors arriving from Boston on the fast ferry, charter captains hosing off their decks and getting ready for their next set of sports. At the very end of the quay was a replica of a merchantman from the 1700s — a Mayflowerish sort of thing — and a not very pretty schooner, but no Morgan. A big inflated sperm whale was tethered down, nose into the southwest wind pushing white caps out in the bay into the Wellfleet and Truro shores.

“There’s a ship,” my daughter said. Out of the harbor, on the other side of the little flat-sided lighthouse at the tip of Long Point, were the masts of a bark-rigged ship slowly sailing in from Cape Cod Bay.

It was the Morgan, returning from a day sail out to Stellwagen Bank, a fertile marine sanctuary a few miles north of Race Point where right whales and finbacks cavort all summer. The ship was in port for some sort of whale awareness event, and around the inflated whale on the pier stood an helpful young woman answering questions about the state of the whale preservation movement. The exhibit had a sense of apology about it, that yes, this was a magnificent ship that embodied a rich part of America’s maritime past, but all those whales the Morgan helped slaughter were, well…..in the past when people didn’t know any better and petroleum hadn’t been discovered yet.

The ship rounded Long Point and tacked around into the wind to pick up a mooring a half mile off the end of the pier. She was not coming dockside. I was a little disappointed, the sight of an actual whaler riding at anchor was such an anachronism I turned to my son and said, “Imagine hiding in the bushes in Samoa in 1850 and seeing that arrive and drop anchor.”

“With a crew of syphilitic, dregs-of-New-England sailors,” he cracked wisely. The rest of my entourage was profoundly bored by the fact that a piece of American history was riding at its anchor in front of them in the same harbor where the Mayflower arrived in the late fall of 1620. They headed back to the insanity of Commercial Street where a man in an orange skirt and orange cat-in-the-hat hat was riding bicycle hawking tickets to an appearance by Baltimore’s pencil-moustached auteur and director of Pink Flamingos, John Waters. My son and I sat on edge of the pier, legs dangling down, and appreciated the view. Being a pedantic bore, I started the history lesson of the Morgan.

She was built in New Bedford in 1841, at the height of the American whaling fishery, a time when Nantucket and New Bedford whaling ships were exploring every corner of the Pacific from New Zealand to the Arctic, from Baja to the Okhotsk Sea of Siberia. This was the world of Herman Melville which he captured in the two books that made him a best selling author — Oomoo and Typee — an account of his voyage to the South Pacific and desertion with another sailor to live among the Polynesians.  This was a time when New England whalers were the most well-traveled people in the world.  Pushing  into uncharted waters — literally — at huge risk and discomfort to fill their holds with whale oil, bone and baleen.

The ships were slow. Built big and heavy to hold a lot of barrels of oil, a crew of 35 men, and the brick fireplace — or “try works” — that sat amidships where the big blankets of whale blubber were cut into chunks and rendered over the flames into big iron kettles into oil like big blobs of fishy Crisco. The decks were soaked in oil: slippery, rancid, foul and treacherous.  Only the Captain and the officers got rich. They worked for the ship owners — the Coffins of Nantucket or the Howlands of New Bedford — and received a share, or fraction of the profits. The crews were drunks and petty thieves, sea sick farm boys, Wampanoags and Pequots trying to work off debts, escaped slaves, Irish immigrants, veterans of the War of 1812. The only things that kept them in line were the fists of the officers and their ignorance of celestial navigation. Oh there were mutinies, but for most whaling voyages — generally lasting three years — the biggest risk was falling overboard, being killed by an angry whale, or merely suffering an accident on deck in a pre-OSHA era.

The Morgan was of a classic type of ship; a couple thousand were built in Mattapoisett and New Bedford. This is the type of ship the Pequod — Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick — was. Melville wrote in the novel, published in 1851 — ten years after the launching of the Morgan: 

… a rare old craft…She was a ship of the old school, rather small if anything; with an old fashioned claw-footed look about her. Long seasoned and weather-stained in the typhoons and calms of all four oceans, her old hull‘s complexion was darkened like a French grenadier‘s, who has alike fought in Egypt and Siberia. Her venerable bows looked bearded. Her masts…stood stiffly up like the spines of the three old kings of Cologne. Her ancient decks were worn and wrinkled, like the pilgrim-worshipped flag-stone in Canterbury Cathedral where Beckett bled. But to all these her old antiquities, were added new and marvellous features, pertaining to the wild business that for more than half a century she had followed…She was apparelled like any barbaric Ethiopian emperor, his neck heavy with pendants of polished ivory. She was a thing of trophies. A cannibal of a craft, tricking herself forth in the chased bones of her enemies. All round, her unpanelled, open bulwarks were garnished like one continuous jaw, with the long sharp teeth of the Sperm Whale, inserted there for pins, to fasten her old hempen thews and tendons to. Those thews ran not through base blocks of land wood, but deftly travelled over sheaves of sea-ivory. Scorning a turnstile wheel at her reverend helm, she sported there a tiller; and that tiller was in one mass, curiously carved from the long narrow lower jaw of her hereditary foe…A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that.”

The Morgan escaped the fate of most whaling ships. A lot were lost at sea, sunk by storms, wrecked on uncharted reefs, driven onto lee-shores, unable to beat their way to the open sea. One, the Essex, was rammed and sunk by a pissed-off whale.  A bunch were lost in the arctic, done in by greedy crews who overstayed their welcome and were frozen into the pack ice. The Civil War took its toll when the “Great Stone Fleet” — about 40 whaling ships — were filled with rocks and scuttled by the Union Navy in an attempt to blockade Charleston, South Carolina. The end of the age of sail and the rise of steam did in the rest, but somehow the Morgan escaped the wrecker and even found a second career in the early silent movie era as a prop in three movies. She was rotting in New Bedford harbor in 1924 when a steamer caught fire and nearly destroyed her in the process. The fire — which was extinguished by the firemen of Fairhaven — raised awareness that the Morgan should be preserved, and eventually the one-legged Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green, son of the notorious “witch of Wall Street,” Hetty Green, was persuaded to pay to have her restored and towed to his seaside mansion in Dartmouth, Mass. where she was pulled into the mud and put on display.

Green, who lost his leg in childhood when his miserly mother refused to pay a doctor to set a broken bone, was the heir to the great Howland whaling fortune and kept the Morgan in decent shape until his death in 1934. Four years later the Great Hurricane of 1938 demolished New Bedford and the Morgan was damaged.

In 1941 she was dug out of her mud and sand berth, towed back into New Bedford harbor, patched up, and eventually towed to Mystic, Connecticut to become the nucleus for Mystic Seaport, an amazing maritime museum (where I spent many month in the late 1970s while majoring in American maritime history at Yale).

She was patched up and put into another muddy berth, and over the years millions of visitors explored her decks and learned about the amazing history of whaling. But she never sailed again.

Occasionally they’d unfurl her big sails at the dock — sometimes one could see them luffing uselessly as they sped by in a car on Route 95 — but she was basically beached. I never expected the Morgan to sail again.  A few years ago, at the Coastweeks rowing regatta, my son and I explored the Seaport after my race. It was his first visit and we had a lot of fun exploring the exhibits, the old rope walk, the sheds of catboats and sharpies, skipjacks and pinkys. The Morgan was in dry dock to be rebuilt from the keel up. We were able to go aboard even though work was being done, and poked around the decks, me droning on about his great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Chatfield’s ship, the Massachusetts, and speculating what life must have been like for a Cotuit man in his early 20s to be given command of a 100-foot long ship and sail it from Edgartown to Siberia and back. And then do it four more times before the outbreak of the Civil War.

So yes, there’s an ancestral connection to these ships. A reminder that somewhere in my DNA is the stuff that made a man run away from home, go to sea, and live a life killing huge beasts in strange oceans on a floating fireplace.

The fact I actually saw one of those ships under sail yesterday — not being ceremoniously towed around like the USS Constitution is every summer  (the Constitution is the oldest floating American ship, the Morgan the oldest commercial one) but actually sailing— was very emotional and more than worth the long drive from Cotuit to see. I’d give a lot to experience such a thing. A few years ago I organized an expedition of a couple dozen friends down to Newport to sail a pair of America’s Cup 12-meters, and those five minutes I spent at the big wheel made me smile all over.

The Morgan heads to Boston, then back through the Canal. She’ll be n display at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy on July 26 and 27.