Twenty years before the mast/Chapter I

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Twenty years before the mast  (1896) 
Charles Erskine

TWENTY YEARS BEFORE THE MAST.



CHAPTER I.




I was born in the first house on the east side of Roxbury Street, just over the Boston line, in the historic old town of Roxbury. The hip-roofed old mansion still stands, the front end facing the street. In the middle of the sidewalk rises a stately elm tree, in front

Roxbury-Boston boundary stone.png

of which is a stone post some three feet high, bearing on one side the inscription R., A. D. 1823, on the other, B., A. D. 1823[1]. This stone marks the boundary line between the towns of Boston and Roxbury.

As I was born in one of the first houses, I must belong to one of the first families. My father was of Scotch descent. My ancestors came over about the time Miles Standish did. Our family motto is, "We add honor to that of our ancestors." I never saw my father until I was over thirty years old, as the sequel will show. My mother was a Sturtevant, of Dutch descent. Ours was a very patriotic family, and fought both in the Revolution and the War of 1812. My mother’s brother, Major Thomas Sturtevant, with General Dearborn, Colonel Spooner, and Colonel Wyman, received President Monroe in 1817, and General Lafayette in 1824, on their arrival in the old stage-coach at Taft’s Tavern, near the toll-gate at Brush Hill Turnpike. On each occasion my mother served lunch on their arrival at the line, after which the latter, Lafayette, was escorted to the house of Governor Eustis, near the Dorchester line. I have in my possession four of six vases which President Monroe sent to my mother soon after his arrival in Washington.

I was christened in the old wooden meeting-house on the hill opposite the Norfolk House, by Dr. Eliphalet Porter, and was named for an old gray-headed negro who did chores for the folks about town, and went by the name of "Clever Charlie." My father was a well-to-do currier, and possessed some considerable property; but the drawing of a large prize in a lottery ruined him. He became addicted to drink, neglected his business, and finally left for parts unknown.

I was the youngest of five children. When I was quite small, my mother moved to Cambridge, and thence to Boston. She was not very well or strong, and worked hard to support her little family. I was sent to school, but very seldom went, — in fact, I "hooked Jack" nearly all the time. There were no truant officers or policemen in those days, and only seven constables in all Boston: old Reed, old Jones, old Clapp, the two old Browns, and the two old — I-forget-their-names. I used to run down the harbor in the old sloop Sal after paving-stones and sand, and sometimes at noon my feeble voice might have been heard at the head of State Street, crying out, "Here’s the Mail, Bee, and Times." I also tended dinner-table in old Hunt’s cellar on Commercial Street. John B. Gough tended bar there too, and roomed at my mother’s. If I was wanted at any other time, I could easily be found down at the wharves, in some ship’s jolly-boat, or up in one of her tops, scanning the harbor. How I enjoyed listening to the sailors spinning yarns about the foreign countries they had seen and the sunny islands of the Pacific! I caught the sea-fever badly. It struck to my brain, and I made up my mind to be a sailor anyway. I knew very well that I was not one of the best boys in Boston, though I had one of the very best of mothers. She was so good and loving that I could not harbor the thought of deserting her — I knew it would almost break her poor heart; but I kept coaxing and teasing, teasing and coaxing, until I had almost bothered the life out of her. At last I gained her consent, and was made one of the happiest boys in all Boston. Without emotion I could say:

"Farewell to the land of my childhood and youth,
 The land of the Bible, religion, and truth!

 Thou bright land of blessings in every form,
 I leave thee and fly to the billow and storm."


It was on a bright, sunny morning in the month of June that we sailed. Old "Sol" never shone brighter, as he shed his warm rays into the back windows of the old Spurr house on Commercial Street. Here mother hired several rooms on the second floor, and it was in one of these back rooms that I received her blessing. I shall never forget the time or the place. There was a fond embrace from a loving mother, a kiss on the forehead, and a "God bless you, my son! Be a good boy, obey your captain, and never forget to say your prayers." Kind reader, no earthly being can bless you as a loving mother can. As I looked up and saw the thin, pale face of my mother, I felt the hot tears roll down my young cheeks. I was almost choked. I could not look up again or utter a single word, but I thanked God that I had her consent to go, and that I was not running away to sea and leaving mother and home for

"A life on the ocean wave
 And a home on the rolling deep."

In less than an hour I was on board the good old schooner Longwharf Captain Cook of Provincetown, and standing down the Bay, bound to the Banks for a fishing cruise.

From this time, I made several trips cod-fishing and mackerel-catching, and also a number of voyages to the West Indies and some of the Southern ports. As so much has been written, however, about the slave-ships and the pirates of the West Indies, I will not go into the details of any of these short voyages, but, instead, will give you one of them in the form of a ditty:

A Sailor’s Ditty.

’Twas on the twenty-first of April, from Hampton Roads we sailed,
Kind heaven did protect us with a sweet and pleasant gale.
’Twas on board the Roving Betsy, — bold Daniels was his name, —
And we were bound down to Laugarra on the Spanish Main.
When to Laugarra we came, my boys, our orders they were so:
To land a part of our cargo and proceed to Curacoa.
When to Curacoa we came, my boys, our cargo for to unload,
’Twas "Get the Betsy in readiness for Port Laugarra Roads."
Our captain called all hands aft, and then to us did say,
"Here’s money for you all, my lads, for to-morrow we go to sea."
’Twas early the next morning all hands appeared on board,
And cheerfully got under way for Port Laugarra Roads.
’Twas early the next morning, just at the break of day,
When a man at our foretop-mast-head a sail he did espy.
All hands being called to quarters, our courage for to try, —
All hands being called to quarters, — our enemy draws nigh.
She mounted twelve six-pounders, and fought one hundred men.
And now the action’s just begun — it was just half-past ten.
We mounted four six-pounders, and our crew was twenty-two;
But in fifty minutes by the watch we whipped those Spaniards blue.
And now we repaired, brave boys, bound for Columbia’s shore,
And for the famous America and the city of Baltimore.
Now, to conclude my ditty (these lines this world may view),
Success attend brave Daniels and his jovial twenty-two.

Home again! "Home, home, sweet home, — be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home." Never were there truer words written. So far I have not found anything homelike, or any sunshine, in the dark, damp, dingy, dreary forecastle. It does seem sort of jolly, though, when you pass round the can, and some old weather-beaten man-of-war’s man or privateersman sings lustily:

"Then we'll sling the flowing bowl.
Fond hopes arise;
The girls we prize
Shall bless each jovial soul.
For the can, boys, bring:
We’ll dance and sing,
While the foaming billows roll," —

or "Jack, the Lad," "Black-eyed Susan," or the song Jack likes the best — "The Girl I Left Behind Me."

They were glad to see me home again, — mother, brothers, sisters, and friends, — and we had a jolly time together once more. The very next day, however, I took a cruise on the wharves and visited old Titcomb’s shipping office. He told me shipping was very dull and rates low, but offered me a boat steerer’s berth with a very high lay on board a whaler. This almost persuaded me to ship, but while on Constitution Wharf, my eye caught sight of a man-of-war brig lying at anchor in the stream off the Navy Yard, Charlestown. The following day I paid the Yard a visit. While viewing the brig, I saw the boatswain in a boat ahead of her, squaring the yards by the lifts and braces. She proved to be the ten-gun brig Porpoise. She sat like a duck on the water, and looked as trim and neat as a young lady in her Sunday rig. I must confess that I was fairly carried away with her and bewitched with her rakish looks. I was suddenly awakened from my dream by a gentle tap on the shoulder from an officer who proved to be Captain Ramsey, commander of the handsome brig.
Charles Erskine (young).png

CHARLIE ERSKINE,
Late Coxswain of the United States Brig "Porpoise."
From a Daguerreotype taken by Plumb, 75 Court St., Boston, in 1842.

He asked me how long I had been at sea, where I was born and brought up, whether I had a father and mother living, and how I would like to sail with him in that man-of-war brig. I told him that was just what I wanted. Calling in at an office near the gate, he wrote and gave me a paper, telling me that if I could get my mother to sign it, I could go. After a great deal of coaxing and many promises I persuaded her to sign the paper. I went on board the brig the next morning, and we sailed in the afternoon.

When a few days at sea, the purser ordered me to sign the ship’s articles. I refused. Then, being ordered to sign them by the captain, I made my mark, as I was unable to write at the time. We had on board Commodore Woolseley, Captain Shubrick, and Captain Stringham. We visited the West India Islands and touched at some of the southern ports. On our return we encountered a very heavy gale off Hatteras, and lost two of our bow guns overboard. As I was lashing a hen-coop forward, the brig shipped a heavy sea, and I was washed out overboard through one port, and back, by chance, through another.

On our arrival at Norfolk we were transferred on board the receiving-ship Java. The frigate Brandywine was being fitted out for the Mediterranean station, and we were told that we must re-enter the service and go on board of her, or be discharged. All hands took their discharge. Mine read as follows: "This is to certify that Charlie Erskine, coxswain, is regularly discharged from the sea service of the United States and from the U. S. ship Java." [Signed] E. B. Boutwell, Lieutenant, March, 1837.

In taking my discharge, I was told by. Lieutenant Boutwell that my wages amounted to one hundred and sixty-nine dollars, but I was paid only one dollar and seventy-one cents. The lieutenant said that the rest of my wages had been paid to Captain Ramsey three days before, and that he had gone to Washington. Instead of coxswain, I should have been rated on the ship’s books as a first-class boy, at eight dollars per month. The duty of the coxswain is to have charge of the captain’s gig. It is a petty officer’s berth, and belongs to an able-bodied seaman.

The next day I set out for Washington in company with another boy about my age by the name of Martin. He also was rated as a petty officer, and the captain had taken his wages. On arriving in Washington, we soon found the captain’s house. He put us at menial service for a time, and then hired us out to work on the Georgetown aqueduct. In the evenings, my chum and I used to visit the Capitol. I remember seeing there John C. Calhoun, R. M. Johnson, John Tyler, Colonel Washington, Judge Bibb, James Bell, James K. Polk, General Cass, Judge Woodbury, Edward Everett, Daniel Webster, John Davies, Colonel Benton, Otis, Hayne, Ticknor, Judge Story, Sumner, General Scott, John Q. Adams, Henry Clay, and other distinguished men. I was very much impressed with their noble looks, and shall never forget them. Most of them had round and very large heads. Calhoun’s was long; Clay’s was long, but smaller. General Cass had a wart on the side of his nose. Such an array of talent and intellect I have never seen since, although I have visited Washington several times in later years. It was a grand sight to look upon these great men.

One afternoon the captain paid us a visit, in order to get hold of our wages. I do not know what he thought of us, for we felt and looked like two drowned rats. We were smeared all over with mud, and were wet through and through to the skin. We told him that this slinging mud was not sailor’s duty. He told us to seek a better lay. The next day we went down to Alexandria and shipped in the brig Joseph, bound to Philadelphia. At Philadelphia, while we lay alongside a wharf at the foot of South Street, a fine-looking man came along and gave each man on board a tract. He spoke very kindly, offering some good advice. Luckily, he proved to be an uncle of mine, and, getting permission from the captain, I went home with him. Philadelphia is, I believe, called the "City of Brotherly Love." I found my cousins the pleasantest people I had ever seen. Philadelphia is, in fact, the most homelike city I was ever in, excepting Boston — of course there is no place like the "Hub" to me. My cousins lived on either

"Market, Arch, Race, or Vine,
 Chestnut, Walnut, Spruce, or Pine"

Street, I do not remember which.

I arrived in Boston after a fifteen-days’ passage, all right, and found all glad to see me back home again.

After working a short time in a hook and eye factory, and stubbing my toes against the pavements, I shipped in the navy for the African station. In a few days, however, I was transferred from the receiving-ship Columbus to my old brig Porpoise, Captain Charles Wilkes, commander, on the coast survey. After surveying Georges Banks and Nantucket Shoals, we returned to Boston. The day after our arrival at the Navy Yard I was sent over to the city to the office of Mr. Bowditch, author of the "American Navigator," on State Street. He said that our charts were the neatest he had ever seen. He seemed to take quite an interest in me, and gave me some good advice in a fatherly way, which came just in time, for I had made up my mind that I would disappoint every one, and be somebody. From here I went to the office of the navy agent, where I received a number of letters, which I put into my hat — in those days sailors wore tarpaulin hats. I had been told by the captain to hurry and be quick, and had obeyed orders in good shape so far; but I could not go by my home a second time without stopping to see my mother. She was very glad to see me, and I shall never forget her fond embrace, and the "God bless you, my darling boy!" when I left her. As I crossed the bridge there was a schooner going through the draw, and while I was waiting, my hat was knocked overboard. I immediately jumped into the schooner’s boat and recovered it, but, of course, the letters were wet. I met the captain near the dry dock, explained my adventure, and told him how the letters got wet. He gave me a look as dark as a thunder-cloud, and ordered me on board. I went straight to the landing where the boat was, and the crew told me that the captain was as "mad as a hornet." As I passed over the gangway, Lieutenant Boyle ordered the boatswain to "introduce me to the gunner’s daughter." I was seized and placed over the breech of a sixty-two-pound Paxon gun, and whipped with the colt so severely that I could not sit down with any comfort for several weeks. The colt is a piece of rope about three feet long and half an inch thick. The boatswain and his mates always carry one in their hats for immediate use I worked my right hand behind me and received several very painful cuts over the knuckles. All this time we were lying not more than a quarter of a mile in a straight line from where my mother lived, and if she had been at an open window at the front of the house she could have heard my piercing cries. On being released, I went forward, and one of the old sailors set me on a bucket of water and put my hand into another. He said that would take out the soreness. It was in the fall of the year, and not very warm. I had on a white under-flannel, — that is, it was white once, — a blue flannel shirt, and blue dungaree trousers. When I went below and took off my clothes, I found that my trousers had been cut through, and threads from them were sticking to my bruised flesh. When I shipped this time I had made up my mind to try to be somebody and to get ahead in the world; but now my hopes were blasted. My ambition was gone, yes, whipped out of me, — and for nothing. This has been the case with many a sailor. Among the letters which I had received at the agent’s were the sailing orders, which the captain expected, and this was the reason why he was so anxious for my return. We sailed the next day for the south.

After surveying Charleston Harbor, and those of Darien, Brunswick, and Savannah, we sailed for New York. Our captain had left us at Savannah, having been ordered to Washington. On our arrival at New York we were transferred on board the receiving-ship Fulton and in a few days the brig’s crew were discharged.

After exploring the "Hook" and "Five Points," I returned to Boston, and found all at home well. My oldest brother and his friend Gough were supernumeraries at the Lyon Theatre, where there was a circus. I shipped in the circus. For a week I was put through a regular course of training in riding and tumbling. In trying to turn a double back somerset I came near breaking my neck. I rather thought that I had better quit the circus before I did break it. The ringmaster — his name, I think, was Stickney — wanted me to stay, and so did the old clown; but after thinking it all over, I gave up the idea of being a rider and tumbler, and left the circus.

My brother Thomas, who was a little older than I, lived on a farm in old Concord. I visited him for a few days, and had a very lively time, but have always regretted one thing — that I influenced him to run away. I planned the whole thing, set the time, and thought he would run away that night, but he said no, he wanted to go over to Carlisle the next day. Now I do not think any one could guess why he wished to go over to Carlisle. It seems he had heard that there was an Irishman in that town, and, as he had never seen one, thought he would improve the opportunity, for he would probably see nothing of the kind in Boston. No one in those days was spoken of as an Irishman, a Frenchman, a Norwegian, or an Italian, but simply as "a foreigner." Almost every one who wore whiskers wore a pair, one on each side of the face, or a full beard all around. The mustache, imperial, and goatee are foreign importations. A young Boston dandy who wanted to appear outlandish raised a mustache. When next he visited a country village, a good farmer’s wife laid her hands carefully on his clothes to see if they were homespun. Finding that they were not, she asked him if he was a "furriner." He told her that he was no foreigner, but a Boston boy. "What on airth do you wear that bunch of hair on your upper lip for?" inquired the good woman.

In those days we burned whale oil in our lamps, and built fires in good old-fashioned open fireplaces. There were no stoves or coal oil. We made our own matches, and struck fire with flint and steel in the old- fashioned tinder-box. A familiar byword was, "A smoking chimney, a scolding wife, and green wood to burn." Most men wore leather straps to keep their trousers down, and leather stocks to keep their dickies up. The women used to wear moccasin hoods and calashes. Almost every man wore boots, up to the time of the Rebellion; now nearly all wear shoes. In the good old days gone by, when people paid their grocery bills a glass of black strap was given to the old man, a couple of nutmegs to the old lady, and a stick of peppermint candy was added for the baby.


  1. In the year 1822 the town of Boston, having twenty-five thousand inhabitants, was incorporated a city.