Thomas Chatfield was a whaling captain, officer in the Union Navy during the Civil War, and then a mariner and sailmaker in the Cape Cod, Massachusetts village of Cotuit Port. He was born in 1831 and died in 1922. He wrote this memoir of his first thirty-four years in 1905 for his four daughters. He was my great-great grandfather and in 2006 I re-keyed his manuscript from one of the last remaining type-scripts as prepared by the secretary to the late Harvard president, Abbot Lawrence Lowell. . Printed copies are now available for sale on Amazon
Reminiscences of Captain Thomas Chatfield
Cotuit, Mass. Mch.13, 1904.
Children: You have asked me to jot down the principal incidents of my somewhat varied life, and something in the nature of a history of my ancestors. I am afraid it will be anything but satisfactory, either to you or myself. Most of it must be from memory – some, even, tradition – and with my limited school education, both spelling and grammatical construction faulty.
I was born at Riverhead, Kent, England, May 30th, 1831, of British yeoman stock, and am – probably – of pure Anglo-Saxon blood. My paternal grandfather, John Chatfield, held the lease of a farm called Harris Lodge – a part of a manorial estate near Riverhead, which lease had descended from father to son for (May 30, 1831) nearly two hundred years; and was – a few years ago – still held by his son Jesse. In addition to cultivating his farm he was also Bailiff of the estate, a manorial office, having in part the functions of both a superintendent and a county sheriff of the present day; that is, he had a general oversight of the estate, saw that the tenants managed their lands in accordance with their leases, settled minor disputes between tenants, and cited those to appear before the manorial grand jury who committed more serious offences. This, together with the fact that he brought up a family of twelve children, gave them all a fair English education, and left some property, would go to show that he was among the superior men of his class.
Of my grandfather’s numerous family, three – John the eldest, and Walter the youngest, and my father Nicholas – came to America during the period between 1830 and 1840. John and Walter located in Illinois, not far from Fort Dearborn, on the site of which Chicago now stands. Both died soon after arrival. Walter died childless. John left six sons – presumably the numerous Chatfield in the middle west are descended from those six sons.
My parents with their six sons came to America in 1834, and located in Cornwall, Orange County, New York, and spent the remainder of their lives in that place, dying, Mother in 1880, Father three years later. Both were eighty at their death, and both are buried in the Presbyterian cemetery at Cornwall-on-Hudson.
Of the children, Walter, John, William, Nicholas, Thomas and George, who were born in England, and Mary Elizabeth, Howard and Norman, born in America, seven are now living. Walter died as a result of an accident when thirteen years old; William some years ago somewhere between sixty-five and seventy; John is now not far from eighty; Norman sixty-two or sixty-three.
My mother’s maiden name was Susanah Nye. I know but little of her antecedents, except that she was one of a numerous family, and that her father cultivated a piece of land, and was called a market gardiner. He must have been a man of good standing, as he have his children a good English education, and that in an age when there were no public schools in England, and people were obliged to educated their children at their own expense. As an illustration of the longevity of our race, all four of my grandparents died at over eighty years of age, and two of them were over ninety at the time of their death.
As a boy, my earliest recollectio0ns are of picking stones, weeding the garden, getting brush wood from the clearings near home, and in assisting my mother in such ways as a boy may while Father was at work in the tanneries, at his trade, and also as chore boy among the farmers near our home. At the age of ten or twelve I went to work in the cotton factories, of which there were several small ones not far from our home one at Montana and two at Maadne [Moodna]. Previous to going to work in the factories I had attended the very inferior public schools of that day; in all about six months. I continued working in the factories until I was past sixteen, 1847, when, having become thoroughly disgusted with factory work, and everything connected with it, and seeing no prospect of ever getting away from it, I ran way, with three dollars which I had earned at overwork, and the suit I had on at the time. (And right here, children, let me say I had not at that time – and now an old man, looking back, I see no reason to complain of my parents. They had landed in America with a large family of young children, with very little means, had been caught in the financial depression of 1837, hard times followed, such as I hope you will never be called on to face. It was impossible for them to avoid getting behind. They were struggling to bring up their family in a respectable way, and to provide something for their own old age. All the children must assist in this, and factory work was probably the best paying work for a boy of my age.)
I walked to Newburgh, took the night steamer for Albany, for which I paid one of three dollars; took another name, to hide my identity, and found myself, the next forenoon, (Sunday) standing on the bridge spanning the canal basin, having had no supper, no breakfast, and no place to sleep the night before; and right here I had my first experience in facing the world alone. A boy much bigger than myself attempted to pick my pocket. He did not succeed. On the contrary he found himself a very badly thrashed boy in a very few minutes. That was one of the very few times when the lessons learned in our boys’ boxing club stood me in good stead.
The schooner Highlander of Barnstable, Aaron Nickerson Master, and your great uncle, Roland T. Nickerson, Mate, was that morning lying not far from the bridge, ready to load for Boston and they have me permission to work my passage to that port. We anchored in Deep Hole; and the crew, as was usual, came ashore. Your uncle Roland took me home to your great-grandfather’s, Seth Nickerson, who – after spending an active life as master of Grand Bank sailing vessels – had retired from the sea, and was farming in a small way. He wished me to stay with him, help him with his fall work, spend the winter and attend the district school. Working at the work, such as getting out wood and preparing for use, feeding and milking the two cows, helping your grandmother about the house work, and at the same time getting the benefit of three months’ schooling, in addition to the six months I had previously received before I left my own home.
The next spring, 1848, I went in the schooner Highlander – your great uncle Horace master, and his brother Mate again – and continued in her – trading principally between Albany and Boston – until November, when I shipped for a voyage to the Pacific Ocean in the whaling ship Massachusetts of Nantucket. Your great uncle Seth Nickerson Jr. was Master and with him he had your aunt Rosilla and their three children Benjamin, Carlton, and Baby Ella, who died before we had been out from home a year.
We left Edgartown, where we fitted, the latter part of November, and proceeded direct for Cape Horn, looking for whales during the passage, but not stopping to cruise for them; neared stormy Cape Horn the latter part of January (midsummer in the southern hemisphere) under full sail with a fair wind – a very unusual thing – proceeded north, and made our first port at Callao, Peru, during the month of April, where, in the usual order, we should have filled our water casks, laid in a stock of vegetables, gave the crew three days’ liberty ashore, and proceeded to cruise for whales; but fate changed all that. To digress, it may seem strange to you – and to others at this time – but there was nothing strange about it to the seafaring men of that day: Scurvy was the seaman’s worst enemy. It being before the day of canned food, they were compelled to subsist on salted food; and a continuous diet of salted food produced scurvy within a limited time. So it was necessary to feed the men on fresh food, and give them a run ashore not less than twice a year.
At Callao we first heard of the discovery of gold in California, and found the foreign population of the port and city in a state of wild excitement. Practically the whole of them were as eager to get to the gold fields as our people were to get to the Klondike a few years ago. Among these foreigners were a hundred – I think one or two over a hundred who had left New York the previous fall, landed at Chagres, worked their way across the Isthmus to Panama; and finding it impossible to go north, had taken the English coasting steamer to Callao, (An English company maintained a line of small steamers between Panama and the South American ports at that time.) and there waited and watched for some ship that they could charter to take them to San Francisco.
Your Uncle Seth caught the fever (gold fever), abandoned the whaling voyage, chartered the ship to those men, and made a new contract with the crew by which they agreed to work the ship to San Francisco, then go to the mines and dig for gold, the terms being these: The ship to furnish tools and provisions at San Francisco; the cost of getting them to the mines to be paid first from the gold procured; then one-third of the remainder to be the ship’s part; and the balance (2/3) to be equally divided among the men, shipkeepers included, the division to take place once a fortnight. Whether this contract was legal or not I do not know. There were no courts in San Francisco, and it would have made little difference if there had been. One case grew out of it. The man was a minor whose parents lived in Woods Hole. The father sued for the boy’s (man’s) share of the catchings on the ground that the boy being a minor he could not make a contract that was binding. The court (Mass. Court) took the same view; and the ship’s owners were compelled to pay the same as if he had been aboard when the cargo was caught.
We cleared out the between decks, built rough bunks, got the crowd aboard, and left Callao not far from the first of May, and reached San Francisco during the month of June, 1849, and anchoring in Yerba Buena Cove, among a multitude of craft of all sorts, from a first class ship to a ship’s long boat, and nearly all abandoned where they lay, among them the then famous pirate Brig Marie Odell – and pirate she looked from the end of her jibboom to her tafrail. It was during this passage from Callao that Baby Ella died. We put the little lady in a tight box, scraped up rum enough from the passengers to fill it, put that in a cask, packed it with lime, and secured it on the tafrail. I watche3d with the little lady for two nights while they were getting the materials for preserving her. The ship was infested with rats, and they kept me busy driving them away from her. Occasionally Aunt Rose would come out her room, in her night clothes, look at her dead baby, put her arm around me and say “Oh, dear! What should be do if you were not here to help us.” Poor woman: how I pitied her, all alone along one hundred and forty menl only two (Reture [Rhotire?] Sturgis and myself – a boy -) that she knew anything about, and your uncle Seth, who was all broken up over their loss. All the men treated her with respect; but still she was one woman all alone. We dropped anchor late in the afternoon, too late to land passengers that night; and then pandemonium reigned until morning. There was no quarreling – it was just a hundred and odd men who had been under strain for several months reaching their destination and free from all home restraint letting themselves loose. There must have been considerable liquor drunk, and it was songs of all descriptions; cheers, yells, laughter and jollity of the roughest sort. Next morning we commenced landing passengers and their luggage, and then the fun began; fun for us who had no responsibility, but I imagine very little fun for Uncle Seth. We would load a boat with luggage and those it belonged to, and two of the crew would run them ashore. Sometimes both men would bring the boat for another load, oftener but one man, occasionally none. The boat would be set adrift and both men would wander away, and that would be the last seen of them. When all the passengers were landed, just nineteen out of as crew of thirty-two were left. The next day we sent down topgallant mast, moored the ship with both anchors, got tools and stores ready for an early start next morning, when we started for the mines, passing one night among the tulier and mosquitoes on the San Joaquim River, reaching Stockton (head of navigation) the following forenoon. Uncle Seth so far with us, there he engaged transportation for our stores – not for us, we walked – to the mines on the Macalame River sixty miles inland from Stockton. There werfe but two places on the direct route where water was to be had; one, a water hold nine miles from Stockton; the other at the crossing of the Colovaras River twenty-five miles further inland. The remaining twenty-five miles there was no water except by going some four miles for it – this to the Colovaras River, which ran parallel to the trail at that distance for some miles. The hind wheel of one of the wagons broke down some distance above the crossing, and the teamster had to go back to Stockton to get another, taking one of the pack mules to carry the wheel. That detained us for two days, and I tramped that four miles three times – foot sore as I was – for water while he was gone. Others tramped it too.
We got started again, and reached our destination two days later – five days from Stockton. We unloaded at the top of the hill overlooking the famous Macalame Bar; at least two thousand feet below, and at a grade of about forty-five degrees. From there we got to the grade to the bottom of the hill as best we could during the day; set up our tent, and got ready to look up a claim and commence mining operations. There must have been a hundred or more men at work on that bar at the time; and the next day being Sunday many came to our tent to make our acquaintance; and sturdy, straightforward fellows mostly, nearly or quite middle-aged; and, as we afterwards found out, most of them with families which they had left at home while they had come to the gold fields in hopes to gather a few thousand dollars to make it easier for those they had left at home. But among these honest fellows were another element, smaller in number but not so safe to live among. Men of generally loose morals, gamblers, and a few who might be called desperate characters. So the better, and more numerous, element had decided to organize a local government by electing an alcalde and sheriff; and the election was to be held that afternoon. There were two candidates for alcalde – Mr Binney, an American, (a quiet, hard working miner, the candidate of the better element) who did not want the office; the other, a German. They called him Dr, and claimed that as an educated man he wasthe better fitted for the position. He did not appear to have much to do; spent most of his time in the liquor saloon, smoking his big Dutch pipe, and associating with that sort. Ben Stahl, candidate for sheriff, was a small, determined looking man, proprietor of the saloon, and reputed to be not a bad fellow, as the world views it. The right to vote did not depend on length of residence. The fact that our tent was up and we were prepared to go to work was all sufficient. So the twelve of us, all that were left of our company, were declared voters. Mr Binney was elected Alcalde; and Stahl, as a matter of course, Sheriffl and so the government was organized; and a very efficient government it was I assure you, not troubled by statutes, precedents, or red tape of any kind; but just governed by Common law; common sense law, or French leave whichever you will, but backed by the best sentiment of the community. Sufficient, amply sufficient, to keep the disorderly element in subjection. The process was very simple. I was present at two trials. Court was held under a spreading oak tree. Mr Binney would leave his work, call four or six of the nearest miners, and go to the tree. The sheriff would be there with the accused and the accuser. Each would state his case, such witnesses as they had would testify. Mr Binney would ask a few questions – very pertinent questions they were, and then give the case to the jury – no particular number was necessary – and they would decide as to the question of guilt or innocence. If he was not guilty the accused man was told to go – sometimes admonished to be more careful in future. If the verdict was guilty, Mr Binney would announce what he considered a just penalty, and ask the jury to give their opinions. I believe they always agreed with him. Then Sheriff Stahl would proceed to execute the penalty. Only three penalties were possible: hanging, flogging or banishment; quite often both flogging and banishment. The first one I witnessed was that of a mean-looking little Mexican. He was accused of robbing a tent while its owner was absent. The case seemed to be clear; and Sheriff Stahl immediately threw his lariat over the limbs of the tree, enclosed both wrists in the loop, then two of the jury tautened it so as to take a portion of his weight, but not lifting him from the ground – just enough to render him helpless, then the sheriff dropped his pants, rolled up his shirt, and with the other end of the lariat gave him twenty-one lashes, then dropped, unrolled his shirt, adjusted his pants, cast off his wrists, and to him to git and to git quick. The fellow wabbled off, looking very sick. The other was a big fellow – Irish, I think – quarrelsome and ready to use his fists on the slightest provocation, or no provocation at all. He had just given a much smaller man a terrible beating. A dozen or more of the miners took him there, and then notified Sheriff Stahl: someone Mr Binney; and a pretty big crowd collected under the tree. The same proceedings gone through with, the verdict was banishment. I think the miners anticipated the verdict; for, as the sheriff took the trail with his prisoner, twenty (perhaps, thirty) men surrounded them, armed with tin pans, and any other thing that would make a noise, and they marched him out of camp to a tune as discordant as you ever heard or can imagine. Then he was told to git and git quick, which he did, sure that if he ever returned to that camp while any considerable number of the same men were there he would be shot at sight, and no fuss about it.
Now, children, don’t get the idea that these honest fellows enjoyed this sort of thing. On the contrary they dreaded it. They were forced to leave their work to attend to it. There was always the chance of their making a mistake, and there was always the possibility of some desperado creating a case which would make it necessary to hang, which they dreaded beyond measure. But men must protect themselves wherever they be; that is a law of nature. I think I am right in saying that no hanging ever took place on Macalame Bar, and very few anywhere at that period. The twelve of us that kept together until we reached the mines took up a claim and got to work the day after the election, and kept at it steady for the next two weeks. Then we made the first dividend, which proved to be the last. Mr Sturgis first weighed out an amount sufficient to pay the cost of transportation; then the one-third belonging to the ship, and the balance, into twelve equal parts, of which each of us had one: as I remember, about eighty dollars each: not a large sum considering the cost of living; but as the ship furnished food the cost of food did not concern us. The following Monday morning only seven reported for work, five had disappeared, and we never saw any more of them. Thursday morning five reported, two more had gone. I and one other went to the claim and commenced work expecting the others to follow, which they did not do. We two worked perhaps two hours, then went back to the tent to see what was up. Mr Sturgis and the two men sat there. Evidently they had been talking. He got up and said: “Well, boys, the jig is up, each one must shift for himself.” And walked out of the tent, and I did not see him again for a week, and none of the rest at all. A week later Mr Sturgis, passed me on the trail to Stockton; he was on a horse, I on foot. I looked around for a couple of days, and then having reached the conclusion that places mining for gold meant very hard work and very poor pay, and that the wear and tear on humanity was entirely out of proportion to the profit,
so I packed my kit (blanket and one change) tool a little food, a Dutch gin bottle of water, and took the trail for Stockton on the way to San Francisco and the ship. I have a very clear remembrance of that tramp. It was a good two hours job to climb the hill to the place where we had unloaded the teams, three weeks before, and tired and leg weary I was when I reached it: but I kept going on what I supposed was the trail to the Colovaras Crossing; but there were lots of trails besides, and I got into the wrong one, which led away to the left. I must have tramped some four or five miles before I realized I was lost. What was more, I knew that there was no certainty of finding my way back if I tried; but as it was a well beaten trail I was sure it led to some place of importance. So I kept on. Night overtook me, but I kept going. I saw a camp fire a few hundred yards to the right, which I reconnoitered, hoping to find it to be a party of Americans; but it was a party of Mexicans; about a dozen, all armed with lassos tethered. I did not like their looks (It was dangerous walking into a strange camp at night. One never could tell what his reception would be), so I kept on. Either I lost the trail or else it ran into a dry gulch, full of rocks and stones – bad walking at night – so I gave it up, rolled myself in my blanket intending to wait for daylight. Perhaps I dropped asleep. I don’t know. The coyotes were howling in all directions and it was rather lonesome. It must have been about ten o’clock, perhaps later, when I was startled by hearing a horse leaping up the gulch. It was risky hailing a man under the circumstances, but I was anxious to find out where I was, so concluded to take the risk. He pulled up short when I hailed. I asked if there was an American ranch near. He answered, in a scared voice, “ranch Americans?” I said Yes, and he pointed the way he had comel and, as near as I caught his words, said “A keke a melice” and before the words were out was off up the gulch full gallop. I think he was glad to be quit of me. I gathered up my blanket, and after tramping a short half mile turned a sherd of the hill and there, a few hundred yards off, was a bonfire, with men around it, plainly Americans; a good sized building, and a corral for animals. It was a halting station called the Double Springs. I walked up to the fire, told the men who I was, where I came from, and where I was going. They made me welcome, invited me to share their supper, which was just then ready (at 12 o’clock night), and to bunk in with them; but did not enlighten me as to who they were or what their business was. I have always thought they might have been vigilantes, on the trail of some desperado, as they were all well armed and mounted. There were eight in the party. I have sometimes wondered if it was the party of Mexicans whose camp I had reconnoitered earlier in the evening that they were after. They were off and away as soon as it was light enough to see a trail. I learned that the Double Springs was about twenty miles from my starting point, and that the Colovaras Crossing was some twelve miles distant. So my deviation had only increased my tramp by about two miles. So far my route has been through woods, and over timber, rough and hilly, with a descending slope.
The remainder of the way would be across the Selana plain with a slight dip of only a few feet near the city of Stockton forty-two miles, with only one, possibly two, places where water was to be had. The Colovarus Crossing thirty, and the water hole nine miles from Stockton respectively. I got some breakfast, filled my Dutch gin bottle (substitute for canteen) and started. The route was perfectly level and shackles, and the dust light, powdery, red stuff. Walk as easily as possible, it would rise in a thick cloud to above the waist; and a misstep would send it overhead and fill the mouth and nostrils at every breath. Not a breath of air, and the heat in the neighborhood at ninety – this the whole way to the water hole near Stockton thirty-three miles. I reached the Colovarus Crossing soon after noon. This was an important station. Everyone from Stockton went by the single trail to that point, then spread out by different routes to the interior. The building was large, and capable of accommodating at least about fifty. No beds. Everybody slept on the floor in a blanket during the rainy season, and under the trees in the dry season. (There was a narrow fringe of trees on the banks of the river.) There were two corrals: one about 200 feet square, for horses and pack mules; the other some two or three acres, for the rounding up of cattle. The people consisted on the proprietor, cook, a couple of helpers, and some six cattle men (Vaqueros) mostly Mexicans. I remained the rest of the day, and the night. I was tired and foot-sore. First I went to the river close by; stript, shook my clothes thoroughly to rid of as much of the dust as possible, took a bath, then went and lay under the trees the rest of the day (and night). There were three or four men not belonging to the ranch, and evidently traders, halted like myself – one appeared to be a naturalist. He had several specimens, big spiders, ugly-looking fellows, I think he called them tarantulas; several of the friendly little lizards that used to run over us in our sleep; and others of a similar sort. He caught a horned toad that afternoon: an ugly looking thing with a circular body, a vicious looking head set on a neck at two inches long, which he held erect, and slim legs not less than three inches in length. They said that his bite was poisonous. He put him in a jar and poured alcohol over him. All his specimens were in alcohol. I got an early breakfast, filled my bottle, and started. (The river at that time – the last of July – was only as large as the Little River in this village.) Then we crossed it, going up, the volume of water was equal to twice that in the Marstons River. The ranchman told me that it never failed entirely and that in the rainy season it was quite often full to the banks, some ten or twelve feet above its bed.
A short distance – say two miles – from the river I met with what under the circumstances was a rather serious disaster. I stumbled, dropped my bottle, broke it and lost my water, with a twenty mile tramp to the water hole; the only place where it was possible to get a drink short of Stockton, thirty (nearly) miles away, and the heat and dust as bad – well, I won’t try to describe it. I reached the water hole late in the afternoon, only to find it a bed of baked clay; but someone had dug a circular hole a few inches in diameter at the lowest point, but swarming above it was a perfect cloud of insects, bees, wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and many other kinds that I cannot name. But I was sure there was water in that hole else the insects would not be there; and it seemed as though I must have some of it. So, at the risk of getting stung, but in order to avoid disturbing the bees as much as possible I lay down, and drew myself to the hole. And sure enough there was water, thick with clay, like a cup of cocoa, a few inches below. First I attempted to dip some in my hand, but the motion irritated the bees. So I very gently put my head into the hole until my shoulders rested on the rim, and so could just reach the water with my mouth. Two or three swallows of the stuff were enough, it also ran into my nostrils, and that set me coughing, which set the bees in a roar. I got stung a few times, but on the whole got off pretty well. Bad as the water was it refreshed me considerably, and from this point there were a few trees and not much dust. I reached Stockton some time after dark – say ten o’clock – went straight to the river and drank – I should say – at least a half gallon of water. I was hungry too, having eaten only a cake of hard bread and a little jerked beef since morning; but I was much more inclined to roll myself in my blanket and lie down than to hunt up a supper. A few yards off was a small camp fire with four men sitting around it. So, feeling lonesome, I went where they were, hoping for a welcome. There were fully armed and evidently under some excitement. They looked at me sharply, asked who I was and what I was doing there; and then, I suppose seeing I was only a boy, took no further notice of me. Soon after three of them rolled in their blankets, the other keeping watch. Shortly before daylight tramping of horses and jingling of spurs woke me. The three men jumped up, and all four joined a party of horsemen that had halted a few yards off. There were about a dozen in all. They had dismounted: and in their midst was a short, sturdy man securely bound. This I plainly saw by the light of a torch which one of the party held. They talked together a short time, then backed a cart under one of the big trees that grew on the river bank, hoisted the bound man into it, adjusted the lariat – which one had thrown over a limb – around his neck. [2.7.06]
. He made no resistance, and said nothing. I had seen enough. I walked off a short distance and sat down, keeping my eyes in another direction. In the course of twenty minutes, perhaps half an hour, I heard them ride away, and I went back. Nothing but the cart was left, and day was breaking. I was told during the day that the man the vigilantes had made an end of was called Dublin Jack, a notorious robber, who was known to have committed one murder, and was suspected of having committed several more. Lynch law – but what would you do? They were honest men forced to protect themselves against the dangerous element, with no courts, no jails, or any means of confinement; so they acted under the police power which is an inherent right; protected themselves, and did as little injustice as possible under the circumstances. After all, I have never been able to understand why men such as juries are composed of could not adjudicate a case to the full as well, with the evidence before them, in simple form, as the same men could in a jury room after listening for several hours to the hair splitting questions and special pleading of a lot of barristers, each only concerned in gaining a verdict to enhance his own reputation as a successful lawyer.
At Stockton I found a small schooner, of about fifty tons carrying capacity, just finished unloading and about ready to leave for San Francisco. She was formerly a pilot boat belonging to New Bedford. Her name was the Favorite. She had been brought out by a former whaling captain, Wheldon by name. (He had commanded the ship Washington, of New Bedford, and your uncle Horace was mate with him.) There was a story in circulation concerning Captain Wheldon: A big merchant sighted the Favorite on the passage, and ran to her to see what manner of craft that was out there in the broad ocean. Finding that the little craft was able to take care of herself, the big ship’s captain, as is usual, asked what the longitude was. Getting the correct answer, he asked Wheldon where he kept, and got the quick reply: “In the seat of my pants” and so they parted. But when they both arrived at San Francisco the big ship captain found himself abandoned by his whole crew; and, finally, in his utter helplessness, abandoned the ship himself, while the little Favorite was in active demand as a river freighter, and was a bonanza in herself. This is the story as I heard it at the time. It sounded just like Wheldon. Captain Wheldon agreed to give me a passage to San Francisco, and put me aboard the Massachusetts for the sum of twenty dollars; and two other men came soon after, paying the same; and two days after I jumped aboard the good ship Massachusetts, glad to get back to what was then my home. I found aboard Aunt Rosilla and her two children Benjamin and Carlton, Mr. Gardner the Mate, Jordan the black cook, and one man – a boy about my own age – who had remained as ship-keeper when the rest of us went to the mines. Mr. Gardner appeared to have grown morose, and apparently took no interest in anything about the ship. I think he had been drinking. Uncle Seth either had an inkling that all was not right with the gang, or had become suspicious and had gone to the mines to look after the ship’s interests. That he found was that Mr. Sturgis had been to Stockton, invested all the funds of the ship-keepers and ships in goods, and set up a trading store – for his own account – at a mining camp not from Macalame Bar. That he did was to stick close to that store for some days until the larger part of the goods were sold, take what money he could get out of Mr. Sturgis, not all, as I remember, and return. I think Uncle Seth and Mr. Gardner quarreled, for Mr. Gardner went ashore, and did not come aboard again until we were ready to leave port. The man – a boy – left also; but one of the mining gang, Dempsey, drifted back a few days later. So, that phase of the voyage ended, the next thing was to save the ship, if possible, by getting away from San Francisco, and down to the Sandwich Islands. Uncle Seth was ashore every day for about three weeks looking for men who would ship for the islands. In the meantime I, with the help of Dempsey, and an occasional lift from Jordan and two men whom Uncle hired, sent up the topgallantmasts, crossed the yards, bent sails and in other ways got the ship ready for sea. By that time Uncle Seth had succeeded in getting three men – half crippled, sick-looking fellows they were – who had become played out in the mines, and were glad to get back to the islandsl and they, with Mr. Gardner, who came aboard again, made eight. We couldn’t get the anchors out of the mud with that crew; but the crew of a Genoese ship, which had anchored near us the day before, came aboard and hove them up for us. Then we made some sail, and Uncle steered while the rest of us got the anchors on the bow. We made a fairly quick passage, anchoring at Lahaina, the second principal port, in not much over a fortnight after leaving the Golden Gate. Mr. Gardner, Dempsey, and the three half-cripples, left the next day for good and all. Uncle Seth, Aunt Rose and the two children went ashore to live while we were in port. Jordan and myself were left to keep ship. We lay here waiting for the Artic fleet to arrive, which would not be so many days – during October, when we expected to obtain a crew and resume our whaling voyage. Uncle Seth shipped three native sailors, and sent them on board. With them I painted the spars from truck to deck, and also the bends, and did other small work. About forty of the fleet came to Lahaina among them the ship Menkar of New Bedford, Captain Norton. He and his officers Joseph Bearse, Sumner Warner and James Snow: first, second, and third mates, had got at variance with each other: and all three left the Menkar and shipped with us. The ship Richmond of Cold Spring, Long Island, had been wrecked in the Artic that season, and part of her crew. Among them were her four boat steerers and the cooper. They all shipped with us, so we had in all some twenty-two men. Then several deserters got on board, and hid themselves in the hold. Of course we knew they were on board, and how many there were of them, but it was not through the correct thing to harbor deserters. So they kept out of sight of the officers. I had been rated fourth mate, so was one of the officers. We filled our water casks, got a stock of potatoes, and were ready for our cruise. Seth said I must go with him, and get Aunt Rose and the children aboard, and on the way told me that he had shipped all the men that had appeared themselves, and asked me if I thought I could find enough to make up our complement – thirty-two – which I told him I certainly could do. So we brought Aunt Rose and the children aboard. We got underway, and stood off between the islands in the direction of Honolulu. Then the stowaways came out, and instead of only thirty-two we mustered thirty-five. The next day we landed the three extra men at Honolulu, and then proceeded on our cruise. We cruised down toward the Equator looking for sperm whales, and in a westerly direction, using up the time until it was time to go north for the Artic whaling season in May. We lay of several islands, trading with the natives chickens, hogs, cocoanuts, bananas, oranges, and any kind of fruits – this to feed the men on fresh food as long as possible to ward off scurvy: for while north it would be all salt food. We lay one day off Ocean Island. This island is small – say six or eight miles long by half as broad; being so small the people form one community; consequently there are no tribal wars; there is no anchorage; but it is just a lump of land, a couple of hundred feet high, set in the fathomless ocean, and no other land within from two to three hundred miles. There are no large trees fit for making big canoes. The small ones which they use are made up of thin slabs of wood, not much bigger than a sheet of letter paper, sewn together with some sort of fibre, and so neatly as to be practically water tight. They were small, of course, but of good model, buoyant and capable of keeping the sea in very rough weather. The showed good mechanical ingenuity, and were evidence of a high order of native intelligence. Perhaps in consequence of there being no war among them, the natives were a very gentle people; but because of their isolation there was always the danger of the island becoming overpopulated. This was avoided by a custom which I believe was peculiar to that island alone. At least I never heard of it at any other. When the population had reached a certain number, the reigning chief – king we called him – established the Tabu; and then no woman was permitted to bear more than two children until the people had been reduced to a certain number, when the Tabu was taken off. This to prevent famine. This I learned from a white man – an American, perhaps English – an educated man who had evidently failed of a career at home, and had cast his lot among the natives of Ocean Island.
Shortly afterwards we made Pleasant Island, at daylight. We were becalmed some four miles off the north shore; and we raised a school of sperm whales going to the eastward, lowered our boats and gave chase. We followed them until the ship was hull down, and more than hull down. When finding that we could not overtake them, pulled leisurely toward the ship. It was hot enough, and we tired enough to want to pull leisurely, you may be sure. When near enough we found that the ship was surrounded by a large number of canoes; and then how we did pull to reach her; but, as it turned out, it was not necessary. No one of the islanders was aboard except a big, brawny negro – American probably – who, judging by the authority he exercised, was an attaché of some big chief. When he came on board Aunt Rose had gone directly to him and told him she wished he would not let any of the natives come aboard until the boats had returned; and he ordered such as were already there into their canoes, and to lay off from the ship. Brave, gentle Aunt Rose. Instead of hiding herself in her stateroom she remained on deck with only eight of the ship’s company, and strange negro aboard, and a hundred natives within a stone’s throw. Pleasant Island is large, not less than twenty miles long, perhaps more, and was inhabited by two tribes who were hereditary enemies, and constant war between them. Consequently they were not considered so safe as the natives of some of the other islands; being accustomed to plundering each other, they might easily be tempted to capture and plunder a ship in as helpless a condition as the Massachusetts was while the boats were away. I had quite a talk with the negro during the day, and the impression he left on my mind was that of a big, brawny gentleman in a black skin. We bought all the natives had to sell, and a breeze springing up filled away on our cruise.
Later we lay off Stranger Island. This island is large, somewhat mountainous, and evidently of volcanic origin. It had two good harbors, and capable of accommodating a limited number of ships, and under different conditions would have been frequently visited by them. As it was, only a few ventured to enter the northern harbor, and seldom or never the one on the opposite side of the island. The conditions were: the northern was narrow, especially at the entrance, and lay nearly or quite due north and south. Consequently the trade wind – northeast trade wind – blew more inward than outward, so it was easy to enter; but it was only when the trades varied to the east that a ship could get out; for there was not room enough to tack. The southern harbor was, for the same reason, difficult to enter but easy to leave. In addition to this the island had a bad name. It was believed more than one missing ship had been plundered, burnt, and the crew made away with at Stranger Island. It stood entirely alone, was not one of a group.
The government of Stranger Island – as I learned it – resembled the government of England during the earlier feudal ages. That is, several chiefs more or less powerful, had jurisdiction over certain portions of the island; while King George – as he was called – in addition to his local chieftainship, was overlord of the whole. Just how much authority he exercised I did not learn. He was a kindly man, and friendly to strangers, living as he did on the shore of the northern harbor, he liked to have ships enter it. The next most powerful chief, Kau-ka – ruled over that part of the island in which the southern harbor was. He was represented to be a morose, suspicious man, much given to raiding the territory of his neighbor chief, and entirely capable of plundering a ship, but also of destroying both her and her crew to obliterate all evidence. It was this chief Kau-ka who some six or eight years before had tried to capture the ship Washington of New Bedford. (The Captain Wheldon whom I alluded to as master of the Pilot Boat Favorite, which took me from Stockton to San Francisco, being at that time master, and your Uncle Horace mate) while she was lying in the northern harbor. It would seem that some sort of political upheaval was in progress at the time, for Chief Kau-ka was able to bring a number of his followers into King George’s territory and besiege that ship for a week, using every means in his power to capture her; but he didn’t succeed in harming her. Captain Wheldon was a resourceful man, and understanding that the ship was in an unsafe position laid his plans. He hoisted his boats to the end of the davits, then surrounded the ship with large, empty casks, which he slung outside, and level with the ship’s rail. The strings being tuggled in the bung holes were out of reach from the outside. These casks presented a smooth, round surface to the natives, so that it was impossible for them to board the ship with the armed crew ready to repel them. So Kau-ka, being no fool, did not attempt to board her. What he did was to take possession of a hill, and spatter the deck with bullets at long musket range. At the end of the week he either became disgusted, or else King George was able to drive him off. He gave it up, and retired to his own dominions. Still, King George was anxious to get that ship out of the harbor; and what he did was to send a body of natives into the mountains, where they cut a tree as huge as they could handle, with forked branches, to act as grapnels, and of wood heavy enough to sink of itself. To this they attached line enough to reach out of the mouth of the harbor and into deep water, where they sank it. Then they came on board. The crew hove up the anchor, and then the natives double banked themselves, seizing the line, passing up the opposite side in an endless chain, warped the ship out through the entrance and up to the sunken tree, keeping up her headway until it was reached, when King George cut the line. In the meantime the crew had loosed the topsails, leaving a single man at each of the bunt gaskets: and when the line was cut, the sails were sheeted home and hoisted all three at the same time; and within two minutes the ship was standing off shore in safety. King George immediately ordered the natives into their canoes, shook Captain Wheldon’s hand, jumped into his own canoe, and then they gave the ship God-speed with cheer after cheer in their native language. This I learned from your Uncle Horace more than once during the voyage I sailed with him.
There two ships in this harbor, as we could see when off the mouth; and Uncle Seth concluded to go in with a boat, with a view to deciding whether to make our spring port at that place or further west. After talking with the captains of the ships he decided not to do so; but we went ashore to pay our respects to King George; but found that he was not at home. We did pay our respects to his queen, however; a little, sweet-faced, native lady, every inch the queen as she was. She received us sitting under a tree surrounded by her maids of honor, tried to entertain us with her very few words of English; and when she realized that she had failed to make us understand her eyes sparkled, and her quiet little laugh was pleasant to see. In about ten minutes she dismissed us very graciously; stood up, and waited in that position until we had entered our boat, when she turned, and in company with her maids disappeared among the trees.
We had taken three small sperm whales since leaving Lahaina, and it was time to prepare for our season in the Artic. So as soon as we got on board we steered away for the island of Ascuncion, one of the Marianas group, where we made our spring port, filled our water casks, got a stock of wood, game and fruit, and gave the men their usual three days’ liberty. The island of Ascuncion is large, fertile, and mountainous – in a sense – but clothed with verdure to its highest point; and was at that time inhabited by a kindly disposed, intelligent race of native brown men. Just what they may be now, after a number of years of first Spanish, and latterly German, rule, I should not like to say. We made our port in a harbor on the eastern side. A narrow strip of deep water between the land and the broad coral reef which protected it on the ocean side (about five hundred feet wide – and a short mile long – good harborage for four to six ships at a time, but being so narrow must moor, that is with anchors close to the reef, and a hawser from stern to shore) where they could lay in security, and in perfectly smooth waterl and, as the trade wind blew directly across, easy to enter and leave. This harbor was – is – maintained by a small river which discharges a volume somewhat exceeded that of the Marstons Mills River, freshening the water sufficiently to prevent the coral insect from working that width. This stream also furnished excellent water, a great consideration. We lay here perhaps three weeks before proceeding north. The landing where our hawser was secured, was a strip of land only a few feet above sea level – perhaps an acre in extent – and back of it an abrupt clay cliff, with several paths running diagonally up its face. On the landing was one large, substantially built boat house. In it were six finely moulded war canoes, each capable of carrying some forty men. (The island was inhabited by three sovereign tribes, who were not seldom at war with each other.) On the brow of the cliff were about a dozen native houses, in one of which lived the local chief; and scattered about in the rear a number of other houses.
4 thoughts on “Capt. Thomas Chatfield”
I enjoyed reading (part 1) of Capt Chatfield, especially with the rich references to family history. Cornwall is in Orange County (NY) and I hope you’ll consider sending a hardcopy of this to the Orange County Genealogy Society (Goshen, NY). Although we have a modest library of published research, we have a significant collection of “family research” folders. These folders contain donated and “found” information and are used by those doing genealogy research.
Your information is especially of interest because there are other Chatfield families in Orange County that predate the family of Capt Chatfield. This information could be a valuable resource in genealogy research.
I hope you’ll consider donating a copy… first hand accounts such as these are rare finds…
Fantastic story David…what great adventures. I could see a lovely small book…or a sweeping epic. I keep reading. Loved the account of hearing about gold in Chile, the details of the bay and abandoning ship and the hard scrabble Mokolumne Bar digs and justice, then the lynching, and the whaling. Wow. Great firsthand history.
Thanks David. I am not a direct relative, but my husband is a direct descendant of Thomas and I’ve shown our copy of the autobiography to our kids. Its a great and interesting story!
Copies for sale now on Amazon by “forgotten books” — $13.57