Modern history



By September 17, all the refugees from thirty-two whaleships had been taken aboard the fleet’s remaining seven vessels. Remarkably, there had not been a single loss of life, a testament to the extraordinary degree of seamanship shown by every man under the severest of tests.

They sailed for the Bering Strait, stopping for water and supplies at Plover Bay, at the southern end of the strait, then on to the Hawaiian Islands, reaching Honolulu by the end of October. From there, many of the captains and their families and crews sailed by scheduled passenger steamer to San Francisco, where, in early November, they boarded trains heading east. The Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroad companies had finished linking an unbroken transcontinental railway line less than two years earlier, in November 1869, often said to be the greatest engineering feat of the nineteenth century, the equivalent for its day of the moon landings a century later. The exhausted shipwrecked whalemen and their families, used to crossing oceans at six or seven miles per hour, tore across the continent, sometimes reaching speeds of sixty miles per hour. They marveled at the plunging California Sierras, the Rocky Mountains, the unending Great Plains (which reminded them of the vast featureless ocean, and ended after just a few days), and they experienced a profound alteration of their former perception of time and distance when they reached New York, a distance from San Francisco equivalent to an Atlantic crossing, in exactly seven days. The passage from New England to San Francisco by ship, which many of them had made, still took seven months by way of Cape Horn.

Nathaniel Ransom still carried with him the John Wells’s logbook and continued making regular daily entries, aboard ships and trains, beginning as always—the first instinct of a good seaman, and the first requirement of a logkeeper—with weather observations, until Tuesday, November 14, the day before he reached his home and “darling wife” in Mattapoisett:


Pleasant weather passed quite a number of towns & villages. . . . I have felt quite like myself again today [that is, after suffering from a toothache for quite some time].


Nice weather passed through Chicago in afternoon. . . .


Cloudy about noon arrived at Pittsburg. . . .

There would have been little visible weather to report from inside a train in the very early hours of a November morning, but Ransom’s arrival in New York on November 14 did involve a short passage by boat, since the Pennsylvania Railroad line terminated at Jersey City, on the western shore of the Hudson River. The passengers boarded ferries to a Manhattan riverside terminal and from there took trains to the Grand Central Depot—none of which he had time to note, because he temporarily lost his bags:


We arrived at NY this morning at 7Am in time to get to Mattapoisett tonight but on account of my baggage not being here at the depot had to wait till midday. . . . Shall have to weather it out one more night—I’ve got the toothache of course—

It’s no wonder his bags were misplaced. The recently completed Grand Central Depot (not the present structure, which was built between 1903 and 1913) had been open only a few weeks, and combined four lines, the New York Central, the Hudson River, the New York and Harlem, and the New Haven railroads, creating much chaos and confusion with luggage.

Ransom must have hurriedly written this last entry (above) in the John Wells’s logbook somewhere inside the depot—after sorting out his baggage problem, but before learning that he would in fact be out of New York and on his way to Massachusetts that afternoon. He was part of a large group from the shipwrecked fleet that was making its way from San Francisco to New Bedford together. Their progress was reported on November 16 by the Republican Standard of New Bedford, where many families eagerly awaited them:

The whole party of captains and officers from the shipwrecked fleet . . . came through together from San Francisco to New York by way of Omaha, Burlington, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Pittsburg, and the Pennsylvania Central route, making all connections and arriving in New York promptly on time, at 7 o’clock Tuesday morning, just one hour short of a week from the time they left San Francisco.

While the returning sons and husbands of New Bedford, Mattapoisett, Edgartown, New London, and elsewhere were welcomed and embraced by their families, second-guessers in whaling ports everywhere began to voice suggestions—just as the captains had anticipated—that the fleet had been abandoned too hastily. The Friend, the whaling community’s newspaper in Honolulu, quickly responded strongly to these critics:


In conversation with a very sensible and reliable first officer [probably William Earle] of one of the lost ships in the Arctic, we asked him this question: “Did you not quit your vessel too soon, ought you not to have waited a little longer?” He replied with much decision, “We left not one minute too soon.” This appears to be the unanimous opinion of all the masters, officers and seamen, with whom we have conversed.

We have heard an opposite opinion expressed by some who never saw the Arctic Ocean. It is an easy matter in Honolulu, with the thermometer at 80º, to criticise the actions of men who have faced danger and starvation under the shadow of icebergs, and while the icy barrier was momentarily pressing a fleet of ships on the barren shores of Siberia [sic]. We have no doubt that the owners and agents of whaleships and Insurance Companies in New Bedford, seated before a good coal fire, will express their deliberate opinion that the fleet was abandoned too soon. We have been permitted to read the private journal of one of the shipmasters, whose ship was saved, and it tells a story of anxiety that ought to silence all foolish censure of those shipmasters who were compelled to leave behind them their hard-earned wealth. The idea that thirty-three [sic] shipmasters and their crews abandoned their ice-bound vessels, except from stern and dire necessity is not to be entertained for one moment.

With so many lives at stake, the whaling captains had undoubtedly made the prudent decision. And yet, they may in fact have left too soon.

Thomas Williams had moved his family from Wethersfield, Connecticut, to the San Francisco Bay area after the Civil War, and on their return from Honolulu, Eliza and the younger children settled back into their home in Oakland. But Thomas immediately began making plans to return to the Arctic. With Samuel Merritt, the former mayor of Oakland, and others, he formed a salvage company. They bought and outfitted the whaleship Florence, and with a large crew that included his oldest son, Stancel, Williams sailed north again in May of 1872.

Others had the same idea, and a number of salvage ships joined the smaller but undeterred fleet of whaleships again trying to push through the ice in the Bering Strait in early summer. As they neared the whaling grounds, the whaleships and the salvors were met by Eskimos in their umiaks with great quantities of baleen for trade. They presumed these cargoes had been plundered from the abandoned whaleships.

Thomas Williams and his crew beat all the competing salvors to the fleet by traveling ahead inside the ice in whaleboats—a reversal of their escape. Near Wainwright Inlet they came upon the wrecks: ships lying on their sides in the shallows, their masts and spars broken, hulls crushed, timbers, rigging, barrels, boats, sea chests, and supplies littering the shore. Most of the ships were readily identifiable, even in their scattered pieces: Williams found parts of the Monticello’s bow and stern half a mile apart. A number of the ships, including the Howlands’ beautiful Concordia, had been burned.

Astonishingly, there was a witness to the aftermath of the fleet’s abandonment waiting to tell Williams and others what had happened after they had left. A boatsteerer from one of the ships had not gone with them in the whaleboats. He had stayed behind, planning to spend the winter inside one of the ships, to salvage what he could from them. His identity was not recorded, but what he told the men who met him on the shore in 1872 was soon known from Honolulu to New Bedford: two weeks after the whaleboats had escaped to the south, a heavy northeasterly gale—what everyone had been hoping and praying for—had sprung up and pushed out to sea most of the ice, freeing the ships. The greatest damage had then occurred from their being unmanned, smashing and grinding into each other and the leftover ice. The natives had subsequently looted what they could. Although many of the departing crews had smashed their liquor bottles so the Eskimos wouldn’t find them, they had not thought to destroy their medicine chests. These had been found and opened, and some of the Eskimos had died after drinking the contents of their medicine bottles. These ships the Eskimos had burned. The winter appeared to have been a mild one, for the whalers and salvors found only small scattered ice. But the boatsteerer, who had felt his life in danger from the Eskimos, said $150,000 would not tempt him to spend another winter in the Arctic.

Thomas Williams floated and secured two ships, the Minerva and the Seneca, and filled his own and these two vessels with barrels of salvaged oil and many tons of baleen. He put his crews aboard the two ships and sailed south, the Minerva sailing by herself, the Florence towing the Seneca. He was forced to cut the Seneca free during a gale, and the ship was lost, but the Florence and the Minerva returned to San Francisco with a cargo of oil and baleen worth $10,000—all that was realized from a potential catch, had all the ships returned to port with average cargoes, worth $1.5 million.

George Jr. and Matthew Howland had lost three of their ten ships, the Concordia, the Thomas Dickason, and the George Howland, and their cargoes, for which they had no insurance.

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