By Georgen Gilliam Charnes
“Tuesday June the 16th [Day] 482. Commences with moderate trades, course S at 4 PM Long. by Chro. 137.37.15, Course SSW, middle the same, at daylight course SW. Latter pleasant. Saw a Ship ahead. So Ends, Lat by Obs 8.38S” George Coffin, master and keeper of log aboard the ship Harvest, 1844-1848″
Wind, course, weather, and ships: such is a typical entry in a typical ship’s log – this one created in 1844. A “log” is a ship’s official record of a voyage, kept by the captain or by someone assigned to the task by him, frequently the first mate. A “journal,” is a more informal record, kept by a crewmember or even a passenger. Many logs and journals are dry reading, consisting of repetitious observations. Still, even in an official log, you’ll turn a page and find an accomplished sketch of a whale, or read a rare passage in which the writer comments on life at sea – whether monotonous or sensational. Captain Robert McCleave of the ship Robert Mitchell, for example, after duly noting the wind and weather, expressed his feelings about the loss of six crewmen a few days before: “I can hardly become reconciled to it. To think so many of our number should be taken so suddenly from us but God’s will be done, and may our loss be their Infinite Gain. There were six young men in the enjoyment of health snatched away from this world without a moment’s warning.” (5/30/50)
Journals are often much more personal than logs. Susan Veeder, wife of the captain of the whaling vessel Nauticon, sailing with her husband and at least two of her sons, offers us a rare view of the challenges of seafaring life. The Veeder journal is particularly special because of the lovely illustrations that accompany the text – watercolors of the Pacific islands visited by the Nauticon. A wife sailing with her captain husband was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. Many welcomed the adventure, or at least preferred the deprivations of being at sea to being without the companionship of their husbands for several years (the length of an average whaling voyage). Veeder’s experience included the birth of a child, watching her grow on board ship, and then the loss of the child to illness at eleven months of age. They brought the body home to Nantucket in a lead coffin: “[W]e must take her with us away… we have had the remains of our little one taken on board and we are ready for sea.” The child, her mother, and father now lie in the Newtown cemetery on Sparks Avenue.
The NHA Research Library has 378 volumes of logs or journals, many of which contain records of several voyages. As a preservation measure, much of the collection has been microfilmed. Volunteers, including Les Ottinger and Barbara Thomas, who patiently learn to read each journal keeper’s handwriting and keep meticulous track of details of voyages and interesting events, have created detailed descriptions of several logs and journals. The descriptions are entered into our database, allowing researchers access to the contents. In fact, the access the NHA offers researchers to our collections are far superior to other, more prominent, repositories.
The collection of ships’ logs and journals at the NHA Research Library is an important collection of historical materials that we are always interested in augmenting. If you have your great-grandfather’s ship’s log, in a drawer or your attic, please consider donating it to the NHA. It would be stored in a state-of-the-art climate-controlled facility and used by researchers for years to come.
Originally published in the “Keeping History” column of the Inquirer & Mirror, summer of 2004.