By Jon B. Johansen
A number of years ago I was reading a book about the history of pilots on the East Coast of the United States and they mentioned the shipwreck of the packet MEXICO off Hempstead Beach, New York in January 1837. I headed to the Bangor Public Library and searched through issues of the “Bangor Whig & Courier,” for that month. There were several reports from the survivors, rescuers, but more importantly there was one from the pilots, who were blamed for the incident, explaining why they could not get out to the ships waiting to come into the Port of New York. Had the author taken the time to research this disaster in the local newspapers of the day he would have found, and could have written, a much more accurate account of the disaster.
The following is a very brief example of what can be found in old newspapers. This information was documented from the Hancock Gazette (Belfast) for 1827 and comprises more than 83 pages of maritime information when completed.
The first item you want to find is a column documenting the ships coming and going from that port and other ports around the country and world. This is usually termed Marine Diary, Marine Intelligence, Ship News or Shipping Intelligence. They will document a vessel’s arrival and departure, the date this occurred and the master. One problem is that usually only the last name of the master is listed and there can be numerous masters with the same last name. Sometimes a paper will include where the vessel hailed from, its cargo and the company involved. In later years the News also recorded launches, disasters, those spoken to at sea and notices to mariners.
Once in a while there are notes of new developments. In this paper the first I found was by Captain Thomas Brownell, of New York, who had devised a method for pumping ships at sea by using wind power. Later a small one line statement said, “A pleasure boat that will not sink, called a Life Boat, has been built at Providence.” You will quickly learn that sometimes you end up with more questions than you do answers.
People love to read about ship disasters and every year there were hundreds, coupled with a large number of lives lost in terrible tales of suffering. In mid-January news of the Camden schooner JANE, under the command of Capt. Horatio Eaton, had come ashore on Brier Island, dismasted and bottom up. The next week we learned that the Portland brig LIBERATOR, under the command of Capt. Pool, had been wrecked at Cuba in December. In February the schooner NANCY & HANNAH, of Frankfort, had sailed from Darien and in May she had not yet reported. This was her second voyage and her master was Capt. A. Child, of Frankfort. The Sedgwick fishing schooner LIBERTY, Capt. G. W. Cory, was returning when on 1 May they discovered a large brig showing a signal of distress. They attempted to launch their boat and lend assistance, but the conditions prevented any rescue attempt. At the end of April came the loss of the brig ROB ROY on a voyage from Belfast to Quebec on shoals of L’Islet. Two men, three women and 19 children lost their lives. In mid-May the schooner OLIVE BRANCH, Capt. Adams, of and from Bath, struck on the Devil’s Back. Capt. William Thomas of the brig WILLIAM of Portland, arrived in New York after surviving on a wreck for 29 days, the only survivor. Some stories are amazing, one being a man who fell overboard from a steamer on her way from Québec to Montréal. The steamer searched in vain and after a couple of hours continued on her way. When the boat arrived at her dock, the man was standing there, having swam ashore and traveling nine miles. It was reported that the schooner PROOF GLASS, of Boston, had gone on the rocks in the Marsh River, Frankfort mid-June. She bilged and had been raised by means of gondoloes and empty casks. In early October there was a report containing a number of disasters in the West Indies: from Maine was the brig BELUGA, Nason of Kennebunk, drove on a reef and was totally lost; and the schooner WARREN, Perkins of Kennebunk, was totally lost at Guazama, with the mate and all the crew. The schooner GARLAND, Capt. Welch, of Camden, was heading for St. John, New Brunswick, when she wrecked at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
Steamboats were in their infancy and had only been running along the coast of Maine for a few years. One of the steamboats running the Maine coast was PATENT, Capt. Cram. One of her stops was at Eastport, but a remark in May was humorous saying, “On her last trip to Eastport she came into the harbor but left without giving any notice of her arrival, leaving several passengers, who had been waiting two or three days for her arrival, at the Eagle Hotel. A little more attention on the part of the managers would be of service both to travelers and the steamboat line.” A month late there was mention of PATET having in tow a new steamboat just launched at Castine. The new vessel was heading to Boston to have her machinery installed. This is the 99-ton steamer HANCOCK, which survived only seven years. Another account tells of the first significant vessel on Moosehead Lake, named DESPATCH. She was launched at Haskeltown on 7 September. The article tells that she had been built by Isaac Cowan, Jr. of Sidney and was 36 feet on the keel with an 11 foot beam. What the article does not say was how she was powered.
Accounts of the sea serpent have captured the interest of many over the years. The first account was documented in June 1793 by Capt. Crabtree of Frenchman’s Bay. There were accounts of sea serpent sighting in 1827. One account came from Irish newspapers when QUÉBECK TRADE, off the South Islands of Arran, in February sent a boat to a drifting wreck when they saw a serpent lying coiled up on the deck. Capt. David Thurlow, Jr. of the schooner LYDIA of Deer Isle had an encounter with the sea serpent. They were off Mount Desert Rock when a serpent came up alongside his small boat. Thurlow had a harpoon on board and he struck the serpent with it.
Births, Marriage and Died
It may seem to be beyond the scope of a maritime researcher, but one will find people who have maritime ties. During 1827 under the heading of “Married” we find Capt. Paul R. Hazeltine and Miss Caroline Longfellow and Capt. James Young and Miss Sarah Jane McCrillis tying the knot.
Under “Died” there are numerous maritime connections. During the year we note the loss of Captain Nathaniel Eells, Capt. Zebedee Eells, Capt. John B. Perkins, Capt. Calvin Waterman, Capt. Eben Perkins, and Capt. Calvin Curtis. Then there are seamen lost or dying at sea. On board the schooner SUSSEX, it was learned that Asa Ficket jumped overboard. At the Magdalin Islands, Capt. Francis Antone and Mr. Thomas M’Daniel from the schooner RANGER of Lubec were drowned. Later in the year the passing of Aaron Goodwin of Parsonfield, who had served on board the BON HOMME RICHARD during her battle with the SERAPIS was listed.
Our Navy was still evolving in 1827. Many naval commanders had made a name for themselves during the War of 1812 and there were others working their way up through the ranks. One of these officers was Capt. John Percival of West Barnstable, MA, better known as “Mad Jack.” Early in January news reached readers of an outrage committed by the crew of the U. S. Naval schooner DOLPHIN, under the command of Lieut. Percival in the Sandwich Islands. Later Lieut. Percival was tried in the Circuit Court of the United States and acquitted.
The United States Navy was also cruising the Pacific Ocean protecting the country’s whaling fleet. The Sloop-of-War PEACOCK was cruising the islands, and this cruise was detailed in a letter. Returning from the Pacific was the frigate UNITED STATES, Commodore Isaac Hull., after more than three years at sea. She brought home the two only survivors from the mutiny on board the whale ship GLOBE of Nantucket.
There was a major conflict underway in the Mediterranean between Austria, Egypt, Greece and Turkey and trying to quell the issue were the British, French and Russians. The American people had heard about the suffering of the Greeks and had collected provisions, which were sent to them in a number of vessels. The British admiral, Lord Cochrane, who is said to be the person who influenced the fictional character Horatio Hornblower, was assisting the Greeks. In October a major engagement was fought with the complete destruction of the Egyptian and Turkish fleet by the British, French and Russian fleets under the command of Vice Admiral Codrington at Navarino. Of the 66 Turkish vessels only eight were still afloat at the end of the engagement and they had lost upwards of 3,000 men.
Crimes on the high seas during this period of time were common. The first reference to pirates came in January with the announcement of the up-coming execution of Merchant and Colson in Boston.
The schooner AMERICA, Capt. Darius Dickey, had left Cohasset, MA for Northport when on 22 July an attack and taken place on board the vessel. Crew member James Newcomb had gone forward to take down the foresail when he was attacked by John McDonnell with an ax. The captain was at the helm at the time and heard three very heavy thuds. He walked forward to see what it was and he was hit in the head with an ax. The captain got a hold of McDonnell’s legs and knocked him to the deck and tied him up. The vessel later arrived at Northport and the captain’s wounds were treated, but he did not think Newcomb would recover.
The major crime for this year was committed on board the brigantine CRAWFORD under the command of Captain Henry Brightman, on a voyage from Matanzas to New York. Among the eight passengers on board were four men who on 1 June attacked the crew and the other passengers. In the end only three men were left, the cook, a passenger and the mate. The mate was allowed to live so he could assist the mutineers in navigating the vessel to their destination in Europe. First they needed provisions and sailed for the Capes of Virginia where they were boarded by a pilot. The mate was ordered to put the boat over and as soon as she hit the water he sculled for shore. Once on shore he told officials what had happened on board the vessel and they headed out to CRAWFORD. As they neared the vessel they were informed that the ringleader Tardy had cut his throat. The three other mutineers, all Spanish, had made their way to shore, but were apprehended soon after. These men were tried, convicted and executed in Richmond, VA.
One of the major industries of the coast of Maine is its fisheries. Within the Marine List there are times when the vessels were listed as one a fishing voyage as well as how much they caught.
There were a number of other fishing references. In June a 50-foot whale was spotted off the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard and after a pursuit of several hours was captured. A Col. Decatur said that he thought this was the sea serpent.
There was a reference in one issue saying that since 1819 fifteen cargoes of seal skins from the Antarctic region had arrived at Stonington, Connecticut. This is an interesting story and if you would like to read more about it get the book “Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer,” by John Spears. At the age of 19 Capt. Palmer sailed in a sloop from Stonington to the southern Atlantic Ocean and while looking for sealing grounds discovered islands just north of Antarctica. In fact, part of Antarctica is named for Palmer, who made several voyages there.
Do not forget to look through the advertisements as they might contain information not found elsewhere. Usually you will find advertisements for voyages, vessels for sale, marine services and auctions. One thing is usually the full name, or at least the first initial, of the master of a vessel, is used and that can be helpful.
When reading through these newspapers, most will be amazed at the amount of information they contain. The above just scratches the details found. However, there is no question there can be problems associated with newspaper articles. The most important would be that journalists at times were not known for their accuracy. Articles were put together quickly and sometimes they used unreliable sources. Fortunately, most errors are corrected in later issues or in another paper. Despite these the problems newspapers are an extremely valuable resource for the maritime historian.