Behind the boat shed, on the property line between my good neighbors Phil and Beth, looming over the roof of the sail loft and the far back corner of my property, stands a towering honey locust tree (Gleditsia triacanthos). I’ve written about my love-hate affair with this same tree before ( when I ranted about the “tree turds” the old timer manages to produce and drop onto the back yard each and every fall.
I have no idea how old the tree is, but despite the mess it makes, I’ve always been fond of it, respecting its survival instincts when nearly every other tree on the property has succumbed to winter gales or late summer hurricanes at one time or another. I also suspect whomever planted it was a serious tree connoisseur, because elsewhere on the perimeter of the property once grew a majestic black cherry and an English chestnut. The cherry tree, which gave up the ghost on Christmas morning 2017 during a sudden whiteout snow squall, dropped black fruit over the yard every summer which managed to stain bare feet purple and induce shrieks of horror in my wife when she discovered someone’s purple footprints tracked all over the rugs. The chestnut, , drops spiked nuts all over the sidewalk, little green caltrops that cause the little kids walking barefoot to their sailing lessons to shriek in.
According to Wikipedia a honey locust is:
a relatively short-lived tree with a life span of 120 years. That means this tree was probably planted around 1900 or later. I’m guessing by the same person who thought it wise to plant the cherry and the chestnut.
considered an invasive species — especially in Australia where everything not from Australia goes root and goes beserk
used in new developments and on compromised land without a steady water supply to provide fast shade.
normally is covered with wicked thorns that can be turned into primitive needles or fishing hooks.
My tree doesn’t have the thorns, but it does have the little leaves and the seed pods of the species. My good friend has a honey locus in his yard, just as big as mine, but his has a rope swing hanging from one branch, and the trunk is studded with the dreadful thorns like some psycho horror movie tree that can talk and impales misbehaved children who dare to ride its swing.
After Phil and Beth moved in a couple years ago and finished restoring the houuse, the locust dropped a big branch onto their driveway, barely missing a parked car. Phil was astonished by the tree turds and how they seemed to keep dropping in an endless supply every time the wind blew hard or a storm swept through.
Last summer, after nearly decapitating myself taking a fallen Norway Maple off of the roof of my garage, I gave up any delusions of being a competent tree surgeon and called a professional, a local outfit called Treefrog. I asked them to get the maple off the garage, to finish removing the old cherry, another dead maple at the end of the driveway, and to please give the honey locus and the chestnut tree some love by cleaning out the deadwood and giving them a good going over.
The foreman on the job took me aside when his crew was finishing up and told me that the honey locust was the most beautiful specimen he had ever seen. I was glad he gave it a bill of good health.
Then one day this spring Phil and I conferred on matters related to our property line [insert the tired cliche of good fences make good neighbors here] and he floated the idea of cutting the honey locust down because of the risk it posed to his cars and the atrocious mess the tree turds caused.
Suddenly I got all sentimental about the tree. I told Phil what the expert told me, that the tree was healthy and an amazing specimen, but I had to put my usual reactionary aversion to change aside and agree with his reasons for cutting it down. My wife wasn’t a fan. She isn’t a tree lover and prefers open sunny spaces to dark, shady ones. But she knew my tree hugging fondness made me emotional about seeing it vanish.
My “woodsman, spare that tree” lament went something like this: “That thing is twice as old as we are. It survived at least six hurricanes, including 1938 and 1944 when very few trees in Cotuit survived. Squirrels and chipmunks crave the seed pods and sit on the fence eating them like cobs of corn. It shades the site of the first Masonic temple in Cotuit — my great-great grandfather’s sail loft, and has shaded four generations of Chatfields and Churbucks during summer chowder parties and other celebrations. Now it’s going to die.”
I made the case for keeping the tree, but I was resigned to see it go. Look at the bright side I told myself. No more tree turds. No more worries about English Ivy choking the bark of the trunk. No crushed cars or pedestrians. More sun for the rose bushes, less of a threat to the dilapidated boat shop and sail loft.
But deep down inside I was getting more sad about the tree than I expected. I’ve never planted a tree. I’m not a big celebrator of Arbor Day and I am quick to pull out the chain saw to do away with a shitty tree like a pernicious maple trying to undermine the foundation of the house. But this tree had a hold on me. I stare at its branches through the skylight over the bed in the winter. In the summer, when its leaves finally fill in (later than other trees), the entire canopy makes a soothing susurration in the breeze. I started to mourn it, staring at it all this past spring like I was saying goodbye to it.
On Monday of this week Phil called to let me know the tree service was coming the next day to take out a shattered maple and take care of the honey locust. Yesterday their trucks backed down the driveway, a man in a hard hat ascended in a bucket truck, and by 10 am his chain saw was making short work of the maple.
I took a few farewell pictures of the tree, recalling John Cheever’s beautiful description in his novel Oh What a Paradise It Seems of Connecticut’s former elm trees before the Dutch blight killed them all off in the 1960s.:
“He was old enough to remember when the horizons of his country were dominated by the beautiful and lachrymose wine-glass elm tree and when most of the bathtubs one stepped into had lion’s claws. “
I was sad. “Woodsman spare that tree,” I muttered to myself as I went to work and avoided going outside the rest of the day to witness the felling of the tree. I wanted to put it out of my mind and vowed to plant another tree, maybe not a honey locust, but the same impulse that makes people rush out and buy a puppy after an old beloved dog passes away.
Late yesterday afternoon Phil called. His tree surgeon had said the same thing my guy said — the tree was special and shouldn’t be cut down. Beth agreed. Phil agreed, and with true tears in my eyes I stepped out of the boat shop and looked up at my old friend and smiled. It sports a few steel cables in its canopy and some deadwood is gone, but it still stands and hopefully will stand for a long time to come.
While getting my first dinghy sticker at the Harbormaster’s office I bumped into my old friend and shipmate, Dan Horn, the harbormaster himself. I told him about a conversation I had the week before with two of his staff planting 25,000 baby oysters in Cotuit Bay.
A man and a woman wearing waders were working away in the mud, setting out dozens of bags of tiny oysters on racks designed to keep them off of the bottom. The man excitedly waved me over to look and told me what they were doing, setting out 25,000 oysters as part of the Department of Natural Resources’ aquaculture program and moving them out to deeper water at low tide where they would be submerged most of the time.
I asked him about the program and he and his colleague patiently talked about the town’s use of a FLUPSY (a floating upwelling system) to grow tiny seed oysters into full grown clams for the town’s recreational permit holders to harvest in the fall. She talked about the filtration effects of oysters on removing nitrogen from the water — basically a win-win for both the harbor and my belly. It looked like miserable work, humping bags of clams from their skiff to the racks, then moving the heavy “tables” back out to deeper water.
I asked them if they worked for the Harbormaster, and they laughed and said “He works for us.”
Whoever you work for, I said, they need to know you’re working overtime in the cold mud so some summer clammers like me can get a dozen Cotuit oysters for the table.
If I have to pay a new dinghy fee (subject of a future post) and my $25 can buy some more oysters to clean up the bay, then even that’s not enough. Lots of volunteers from the Barnstable Association of Recreational Shellfishermen (like my step-father Warren Nickerson) wade into the mud alongside the staff and hump quahogs and oysters in relays from polluted waters to clean ones. Over and over and over.
Thanks to the “Drone guy” on YouTube, three drone videos of the dredging project now underway in Cotuit.
From Capecod.com “The Department of Public Works, in collaboration with Three Bays Preservation, Massachusetts Audubon, and Barnstable County, began operations for dredging the Cotuit Bay Entrance Channel and the western tip of Sampson’s Island this week. This phase of the project will widen the existing channel by approximately 130’ and the dredged material will be utilized for beach nourishment purposes on the southern side of the eastern end of the island at Dead Neck Beach and for a habitat enhancement area. Weather pending, dredging operations will be on-going, Monday through Saturday from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. until completion of this phase of the project. Dredging operations are expected to be completed by January 15, 2019.”
Part 1 – November 23, 2018
Part 2 – December 29, 2018
Part 3 – January 1, 2019
A couple observations.
First and most noticable is the creation of a new area for nesting habitat to the east of the point. I assume this big “plain” of sand is intended to entice nesting terns to make their nests on a dune-like section of habitat.
Second is how little material seems to have been removed from the point of the island itself. The “new” point to the south of the original end of the island still is in place. This is near the area where some strange clay-like mud emerged a few years ago and apparently was dumped there by a past dredging project.
The fascinating thing to watch is in the third video where the drone flies all the way down the Seapuit River to show where the sand is being pumped to build up the eroded beach behind the jetty at the Wianno Cut. This is the section of the barrier beach with the most erosion standing as it does in the “lee” of the shorter rock jetty. Were there no cut and no jetties, Dead Neck would still be a “neck” attached to the mainland at Osterville. Since there is a cut (circa 1900), the jetties are blocking the natural littoral drift of the sand causing an imbalance that will always starve the eastern end of the island of sand.
Spoiler alert: if you are from Cotuit and want to read the book described below, stop now
Nevil Shute was an English author and aeronautical engineer best remembered for his post-nuclear apocalypse novel, On the Beach. I bumped into his writing as a kid reading a truncated version of his classic Trustee of the Toolroom that had been butchered and stuck in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book.
Recently I downloaded a ton of classic lit from Project Gutenberg and epubbooks.com and came across a copy of Shute’s An Old Captivitywhich I loaded into my Kindle and started to read during my commute. It takes place in the 1930s and is about a young Scottish pilot named Donald Ross who scrounges around London for a flying job and is referred to an Oxford don, an archaeologist who is planning an expedition to Greenland to perform an aerial survey of an abandoned Viking settlement on the south coast.
After ordering a new seaplane from an American manufacturer, Ross, a former bush pilot who flew float planes in Labrador and up to Hudson Bay in Canada, fits it out for the long flight from Great Britain to Iceland and then eventually onwards across the Atlantic to Greenland.
During the layover in Reykjavik, Ross seeks out a druggist to get some pills to help him sleep due to the long hours and stress of overseeing the safety of the professor and his somewhat surly daughter. These pills evidently have the desired effect and Ross is able to catch up on his sleep before the long, grueling flight west to the ice-strewn coast of Greenland.
Ross likes these pills and begins to depend on them, but they seem to have the opposite effect and he gets unhinged and suffers a nervous breakdown from the stress and strain of flying over ice floes and perpetual fog banks. The professor and his daughter confiscate the drugs and Ross passes out for 36 hours into a coma-like sleep.
The novel shifts to an extended dream sequence in which Ross imagines himself to be a young slave owned by Leif Erikson, son of Eric the Red, founder of the first settlement on Greenland around 982 CA. The dream imagines Ross paired with another slave, a girl, and they are put aboard a Viking longboat (known as a knarr) after another expedition of discovery returns from a voyage to the west and reports the sighting of forested land but no landing due to the timidity of the Viking captain, one Bjarni. Erikson, infuriated, sets out to explore this land and Ross’s dream imagines the long sail to the coast of Newfoundland where the expedition party goes ashore and founds the settlement known today as L’Anse aux Meadows.
So I’m reading along, a little indifferent to the narrative because it’s a weird shift from the brutal realism and details of arctic aviation circa 1936 and because I know a little about Erikson’s purported expeditions to Canada and New England. There’s lots of local lore and conjecture about Viking settlements in New England, none with much conclusive evidence. There’s Dighton Rock
The runes carved onto Dighton Rock, from Wikipedia
in the Taunton River in Berkely, Massachusetts and also claims that the Viking land of “Vinland” was actually on Cape Cod near Bass River and a place called Follins Pond
“Holes drilled into rocks along water ways and former water routes have been classified as Norse “mooring holes” by some writers. Presumably, when landing in areas where a speedy departure might be necessary, the Norse drilled a hole in a suitable rock and inserted a mooring pin into it. The pin was attached by a line to the ship. When mooring, the Norse inserted the pin into the hole. For departing they simply tugged on the line, pulled out the mooring pin and stored it for use the next time they landed.
The holes are about 3 cm in diameter and about 12 to 15 cm deep, usually triangular in shape. Several series of holes have been identified as evidence of Norse landings. One was located on Bass River, the outlet for Follins Pond on Cape Cod. Two others were found on the shore of Follins Pond itself and the nearby Mill Pond, close to where Frederick Pohl had predicted they should be if the Norse had stayed there.”
Whatever the historical record and theories may hold, Shute continues the dream voyage from Newfoundland and I started to wonder if the shoreline was meant to be the beach of the outer Cape from Provincetown down to Monomoy Island. The Viking ship turns west at the end of the sandy strand and I started to wonder if Shute was implying Erikson had sailed along the southern coast of Cape Cod.
The knarr enters a bay in Ross’s dream and the slave and his girl companion are told to explore the forested shores and report back in a few days on their findings. I’m by this point trying to imagine if they are roaming around the upper Cape, but dismiss the hunch and keep reading as the two slaves run through the forest marveling at the landscape before returning to the bay where Erikson waits.
Before departing the two slaves — evidently Celtic prisoners captured in some coastal raid by the Vikings on Scotland or Ireland — carve their names into a stone using Norse runic characters, they set this stone on a hill overlooking the bay and sorrowfully leave aboard the boat to head back to Greenland.
Ross wakes up after his long nap and is very deranged by the dream and begins babbling about what he saw. The archaeologist encourages him to share every detail and confides to his daughter that Ross is eerily correct about certain details of the Leif Erikson saga he couldn’t have known but perhaps had come across in some prior reading.
The trio finish their aerial photography survey of the abandoned settlement (the archaeologist believe a Celtic church may be found by analyzing the photos and thus prove that Irish sailors like Saint Brendan had also made their way to Greenland) and pack up the plane to fly it to Canada where it will be sold and they will sail back to England on a Cunard liner.
Ross lands in Hallifax, Nova Scotia and they rest for a spell before pushing on to New York City where the plane’s buyer plans on meeting them. As they fly over the Gulf of Maine from Nova Scotia, Ross sights the curved hook of Provincetown and descends, excitedly proclaiming that the landscape and beach are exactly as he dreamt them. The professor and his daughter grow alarmed as the sea plane flies only a hundred feet above the beach. At Chatham they turn west and skirt the coast. Now here’s the payoff:
“He throttled back, and circled out to sea. The yellow seaplane sank towards the water; presently he opened up again and flew towards the harbour entrance about thirty feet above the water. “This is the place,” he said. They passed the sand spit and flew on above the placid inland water, with Osterville Grand Island on their right hand and Cotuit on the left. They passed on between the wooded shores into the Great Bay and turned to the north. A narrow, river–like stretch of water led inland with wooded country to the west and fairly open, parklike country to the east. They shot up this at ninety miles an hour; it opened out into a still, inland lagoon completely surrounded by the woods. The pilot took the seaplane up to about three hundred feet, and circled round.”
Okay, so my hunch was right. Shute imagined Erickson came into Cotuit Bay and dropped anchor up in North Bay or Prince’s Cove. Ross lands the plane in North Bay — where the gameshow host Gene Rayburn used to land his seaplane in the 1960s, and goes ashore with the professor’s daughter. At the top of a hill they see a stone buried in the dirt and unearth it. The professor confirms it is a geological “erratic” of the type of stone used by the Vikings for ballast. They clean it off and of course aren’t surprised to find the runic carvings of the slaves in the dream.
So that’s pretty cool, but here’s the mystery for me: did Nevil Shute spend time in Cotuit before World War II? If so who was his host? I know two summer families who’s patriarchs were flyers in the RAF. Could one of them be the connection? And what about that stone? Would Shute have thought it clever to carve one up and hide it somewhere on the bluff over looking North Bay, where it probably was destroyed by some new McMansion? And is it a coincidence that there is an actual Nevil Shute fan club on Cape Cod, organized by a married couple in Osterville? And that the world convention of Shute fans came to Cape Cod several years ago?
Nevil Shute, via Wikipedia
Update 2018.04.07: My neighbor Phil has joined the hunt. Evidently we aren’t the only ones with questions.
One unique aspect of a life lived on Cape Cod is the relative youth of the geology compared to the continent of America to the west. The iconic upraised arm of a sand spit was only formed 25,000 years ago at the end of the Laurentide Ice Age, a mere blink of an eye in terms of geological time spans. I know enough about coastal geology to be a dangerous tyro, having fulfilled my college science requirement with “Rocks for Jocks,” and from reading Robert N. Oldale’s classic book for the layperson: Cape Cod and the Islands – The Geologic Story (free to download from the USGS in pdf format). Bob Oldale was a good friend of my mom and dad, and he and his wife Gail carved an incredible eagle and quarterboards for my father’s Wianno Senior #140, the Snafu III.
It’s been said that there is a lake or pond on Cape Cod for every day of the year. I’ve fished some of them, but this is post isn’t about bodies of water, but deep, steep-walled holes in the terrain that were formed by melting blocks of ice embedded in the outwash plain of the melting glacier that flowed south from the Laurentian section of Canada, leaving behind a huge deposit of sand, boulders and artifacts that comprise Cape Cod and the islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
Oldale describes how kettle holes were formed:
“Outwash deposits also form a highly irregular and unorganized morphology called kame and kettle terrain. A kame is a knoll or hill composed of outwash deposits, which originally filled a hole in the ice.ice. When ice melted away, the deposits collapsed to form a hill. A kettle is just the opposite of a kame. The outwash was deposited around and over an ice block. When the ice block melted away, the outwash collapsed to form a hole. Figure 9 shows the relationship between buried ice and collapse morphology in kettle holes and the ice-contact head of outwash.”
Some of these chunks of ice were very big and left behind the ponds and lakes that give rise to the adage that there is a different pond to fish in for every day of the year on the Cape. Kettle holes however, are mostly dry with boggy bottoms where they touch the lens of fresh water beneath that comprise the Cape’s single supply of water.
There are a cluster of these holes in the Santuit Village section between Cotuit and Mashpee south of Lovell’s and Santuit Ponds. On the eastern banks of the Santuit River, by the fabled Wampanoag Trout Mound, is a cranberry bog purported to the be the first commercial cranberry operation started by A.D. Makepeace, the entrepreneur who’s cultivation of cranberries led to the founding of the modern day Ocean Spray company. Further east, beside the Isiah Thomas Book Store on Route 28 and the colonial Crocker House (formerly the Regatta Restaurant, now known as Villagio’s) are two perfect kettle holes to the north and south of the highway, available for a quick glimpse as one drives to Falmouth or Hyannis.
These are very deep, crater-like formations with steep banks. Some are 50 feet deep by my estimate and seem to have their own unique ecosystem of cedars, red maples, and other swamp vegetation.
The recently opened network of trails in Mashpee’s Santuit Pond Preserve offer some good views of abandoned cranberry bogs as well as an exceptional kettle hole off of the trail that skirts the eastern bank of the Santuit River south of the new herring ladder (the trailhead and parking lot is on Route 130 to the southeast of the Access Auto Shell Station). It’s a great two hour hike through some of the most historical landscape on the Cape. The Wampanoag tribe’s traditional center is in the area, including the site of the original church built by Richard Bourne in the 1660s on Briant’s Neck, the Trout Mound, and the site of the Mashpee Woodlot Revolt of 1838.
I lost my mind around 3 pm on the first Sunday afternoon of the New Year. I woke up to negative 2 degree temperatures and spent the rest of the day lolling on the couch binge watching until I couldn’t take it anymore and had to get some fresh air. So I bundled up and gingerly slipped and slid and down Old Shore Road to the harbor for a quick walk to Handy’s Point then home again via the town dock. I surprised a gaggle of Canada Geese riding out the deep freeze in the marsh at Little River, shuffled my feet over piled up ice cakes, and eventually made it home before the sun went down for a well deserved scotch by the fire with the dog.
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.”
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.
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.
“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 Somerset’s 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.
“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.
“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. “