Presentation Notes: 2004-2005

Sail-Away Ladies of Cape Cod and Their Genealogical Connections

Presented by James Coogan

Presentation Notes by Jeanne M. Carley

James Coogan, history teacher and author of several books on Cape Cod history, spoke on "Women who Sailed with Their Sea Captains Husbands in the 18th and 19th Centuries" at the CCGS June luncheon.

A resident of Brewster since age four, Coogan's love of Cape Cod history is reflected in his teaching, lecturing, and writing. He has received awards from the DAR for "outstanding historian" and from the Mariner's Society for literature.

While writing a column for the Cape Cod Times and his books, he often uses genealogical resources at the Sturgis and Brooks libraries, as well as cemetery records and other historical reports needed to back up facts. He cited an example where Joshua Sears was named as the man who rescued the survivors of the ship Aressa, shipwrecked at Nauset Bay in 1857. This was a mistake repeated in three different accounts, including a newspaper story and the Linnell genealogy. Finally he discovered it was actually Capt. Cyrus Sears, a cousin of Joshua Sears, who rescued the passengers. Coogan, whose son is the family genealogist, believes strongly in never repeating an error in writing.

For his book on Cape women who sailed the seas, the Cape historian researched the maritime journals at the Peabody Salem Museum to learn about these remarkable women.

It all started with the whaling wives whose husbands left for years resulting in lonely lives. When they joined the ships, it was called a "hen frigate" he said, and if they didn't get any whales, the sailors blamed it on the wives.

Aboard ship, the women had to be careful because of the social structure. One common custom practiced was a nautical system for getting women together for "gamming", a whaling term for talking. Usually a flag indicated a woman was aboard, so when another ship approached with women, the ships got together and swung a woman over in a barrellike device so they could chat.

Most of the time, the women were either bored or terrorized by storms at sea. Many of the women wrote about the storms during the 1890s in their travel diaries - Georgina Dyer who was shipwrecked, Eula Harding en route to Cuba who took her cat with her in an open boat. It was described as a "wild scene" with a "howling wind". But during one bad storm, an Allen wife made tea for her husband and lemonade for the crew, then withdrew to her room to embroider while the ocean rocked them about. They were all particularly wary of sailing around Cape Horn called the "dreaded place". Ann Hawlett Bangs and Sylvia Taylor Park were among those who became seasick and wrote about their travails. Otherwise, these courageous ladies went about their usual routine of washing clothes and caring for their children, some having been born at sea.

Women wrote about their experiences of life at sea and their emotions and those of others - the squabbles between the crew and even between their spouses and themselves. When a boy or sailor was lost overboard, they revealed the sense of loss unlike their captain spouses. In a tragic tale, a woman aboard Capt Harding's vessel, The Turk, saw her son washed overboard when the ship rolled near offshore Chatham. Ann Kammet Burgess wrote in 1852 when her little boy died, she"pickled" him and brought him back home to bury in the Pocasset family plot. In one story, a child lived only 21 days after birth. Another scene recalls the vivid rescue of a 17 year-old young man and how all aboard realized the value of life.

Coogan quoted an interesting view from a bridegroom, Elisha Sears, about his wife Bethia Mayo, 19, withstanding the rigors of a honeymoon at sea on the Essex. They were headed to the West Indies out of Boston. He notes in his wife's journal that she got along better than expected, only vomiting four times, getting plump and sunburned while headed toward Brazil. She wrote about episodes when her infected tooth was pulled out by pincers and how she dealt with rats at night. They had taken their wedding cake aboard and ate some each month, but finally finished it because of mold.

This happened on a typical voyage around Cape Horn to San Francisco, and then to Calcutta where they found other Brewster captains. They saw Bengal tigers at the zoo, were distressed at burning bodies, and then sailed for China both becoming ill, probably with cholera. There was delirious fever and dysentery, according to Bethia's journal, and entries were skipped. She was becoming weaker and weaker. On September 16, she was miserable at times and didn't know what to take for a cure. On September 23, Elisha wrote in plaintive words: "Died. Made a coffin for Bethia". Her gravestone in Orleans reads, "age 20".

Some of these stories share the zest of life, according to Coogan, and are uplifting, but mostly they struck him as sad. He also recommends reading Petticoat Whalers by Joan Druett to learn more about what part women played in the 19th century maritime industry.

See the Presentation Notes Index for summaries of other presentations given at the Society's monthly meetings.