A cold, grey October morning in 1977, standing in the breakdown lane of 195 on the bridge between Fairhaven and New Bedford, flapping my arms and sneaking sips from a pint of blackberry brandy stashed in my duffel bag. I was thumbing to New Haven, my cardboard sign said as much. Hitchhiking was still a thing in the mid-70s and I enjoyed the random characters I got to meet. But that morning, as the cars and trucks whizzed past me, I started to sing: “Black Throated Wind”
“Bringing me down
I’m running aground
Blind in the light of the interstate cars
Passing me by
The buses and semis
Plunging like stones from a slingshot on Mars
“But I’m here by the road
Bound to the load
That I picked up in ten thousand cafes and bars
Alone with the rush of the drivers who won’t pick me up
The highway, the moon, the clouds, and the stars”
I was 19. I was full of self-pity and romantic sadness. My home was broken, my parents were in the process of divorcing, I had just dodged expulsion for an act of drunken mayhem, and I was hitchhiking to save the cash it would have cost to ride the bus back to a college I couldn’t afford to attend.
Twenty years later I sat at a table at Farley’s, a coffee shop on Potrero Hill in San Francisco, across from the poet who wrote those words and told him about that grey morning. I told him the song was one of my favorites and he approved.
He was John Perry Barlow. He smiled through his beard, cowboy’s crowfeet making his eyes gleam like stars, and wryly said, “Sounds like your moment of satori.”
Yesterday I learned he was dead.
John Perry Barlow was a gleeful paradox of hippy enlightenment, Wyoming GOP libertarianism, and digerati celebrity. We met online at the W.E.L.L. in the late 80s when I was covering tech for Forbes and still going to lots of Grateful Dead shows. The W.E.L.L. felt like a small community of great minds and Barlow was one of its most enthusiastic voices, maintaining a certain humility but mensch-like sang froid in an ethereal world he dubbed “cyberspace.” His zeal for the online realm of words and thought carried through to the founding of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and he pulled no punches in declaring the online world to be free from the sovereign censorship of governments or corporations.
I laughed at him backstage at a Grateful Dead show at Stanford’s idyllic Frost Amphitheater one May in 1988 as he tried to hit on my wife Daphne who was oblivious to his leering glances. He wore a flamboyant cowboy hat with some sort of added feather-like flair and I repeated the old line about cowboy hats and hemorrhoids to him (sooner or later every asshole gets one) when I has a chance to introduce him to Daphne. I gave him a sober-up pep talk at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland before he went on stage at a Forbes CIO conference and told a baffled audience of corporate nerds in a rambling disquisition that they were a clueless pack of assholes determined to turn his beloved cyberspace into a cesspool of censorship. I begged off his offer to join the staff of the EFF but stayed in touch, seeking him out for some face time whenever I was in San Francisco or he was in NYC. As his health declined in a recent years we lost touch, but this morning, on the train to Boston, I took great comfort listening to playlist of his songs that will always live on.
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. “
I hate the phone. I hated it as a kid, I hate it even more not.
The old phone in Cotuit was on a party line shared with a few neighbors and as a child I was warned never to pick it up unless it made some distinctive ring, like a long/short/short sequence I could never remember. The phone was a wall phone, rotary dialed, and in those days one didn’t have to dial the entire prefix when dialing around Cotuit or even Osterville — a simple five digits were all that were needed.
When I was allowed to answer the thing I was expected to be some perfect Lord Fauntleroy of telephonic etiquette and say “Churbuck Residence” and never “Hello?” There was one, and only one phone in the entire house, and if the call was for a grown-up one was expected to haul ass screaming from room to room that there was a CALL!
Long distance calls were expensive. As I grew older and called summer friends at their winter homes out of loneliness my father would call me to task and confront me with $15 charges for daring to yak with my buddy Jeffrey in Philadelphia. I’d have to work the conversation off raking leaves or doing some grim chore until I was so paranoid I never dared use it again.
The lack of mobile phones meant children were truly out of sight and out of mind. No one could stalk us if we took off on our bikes — the only rule was to report in ASAP if the firehouse whistle blew two times, the signal for an ambulance which made every Cotuit mother a nervous wreck until her flock checked in.
Skip ahead to 2017 and I have an ADHD inducing supercomputer in my hand that chirps, rings, belches and vibrates every time someone posts a picture of their latest meal on Instagram, tweets their displeasure, shares a video on Facebook, decides its cool to call me with a robot offering me solar panels, or finds me on LinkedIn and cold calls me to hear their sales pitch for “dynamic social engagement metrics solutions.”
So I turn the thing off and people are pissed. I get it, the entire purpose of the little tyrant is to be reachable anywhere, anyplace, anytime, but if nine out of ten actual phone calls are from IRS scammers in India, if text messages consist of incomprehensible emojis of poop, guns, vomiting smiley faces, and the rest is just so much shitty noise in a life already driven to Adderall by email, Slack, instant messages, news alerts, and all appointment reminders; then who the hell wouldn’t set the thing to “no disturb” and learn to ignore it?
Don’t get me started on the asshats who stroll the sidewalks of Boston with their earphones plugged in and their eyes locked onto their screens, just begging for a Silver Line bus to put them out of their shoes and their misery while obliviously crossing Atlantic Avenue. Don’t get me started on the parking lot entropy caused by some dipshit with their hand held to their ear as they blab away while trying to take off the bumper of my car. Don’t get me started on the pissed off accusations of “DON’T YOU EVER ANSWER YOUR PHONE” when I go silent on friends and families.
In my retirement I think I’m going device free. Heck, the inner Amish in me might even go back to candlelight and kick electricity out of my life.
I met someone yesterday who has a summer home on Briant’s Neck on Santuit Pond in Mashpee. Of course I got all professorial on them and started babbling about the Trout Mound and the old Wampanoag meeting house that used to stand on the neck until it was moved to its present location by oxen in 1717 ……
Anyway, I dug around on this blog to find my posts from 2013 when I presented a paper to the Cotuit Historical Society on the history of Mashpee and the “Woodlot Revolt of 1833 and realized I didn’t have the full paper on the site.