Twenty years before the mast/Chapter XVIII

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I left New York the same evening for Boston. All glad to see me home once more. My brothers and sisters were much pleased with their little presents. Soon visited the National Theater and saw the officer, "Old Dexter." He gave me some good advice. A few days afterward, met with Father Taylor, who gave me one of the best lectures I ever listened to. He advised me to sail with a good Christian captain, so I next shipped in the bark Laura, Captain Leach, bound to New Orleans, thence to London, then to return to some port in the United States. This trip was put into a sailor’s ditty by one of the crew.

"From old Boston city we did set sail
In what appeared to be a fine craft, —
It was the Laura, a bark
Which looked neat and handy from forward to aft.

"Our captain’s name is Leach, by the way,
A moral man he’s thought to be;
But salt water has his conscience stretched
In a manner strange to see,

"As you’ll perceive, if you but hark
And listen to what I say;
For he had all hands trimming his bark
The first Sabbath at sea.

"He wished to get her by the head
That faster she might run;
And, as our noble captain said,
The thing it must be done.

"The wood we passed from aft to fore,
With ropes we did it bind;
The water casks lashed o’er and o’er
To please our captain’s mind.

"He is a man that’s hard to please,
He likes to keep us on the go;
He never seems to be at ease
When other folks are so.

"Our captain, he no seaman is,
And that we all can plainly see;
Yet he always likes to give orders,
And thinks no one knows more than he.

"And when at times there comes on a squall,
Our captain, he will frightened be;
He’ll stamp and shout and confuse us all,
So that we scarce can hear or see.

"Oft by the time the work is done
And sails well taken in,
Why, the wind it is all gone,
We must make sail again.

"He likes to show the passengers
He is a man both smart and bold,
Has been through perilous dangers
In storm, and heat, and cold.

"He often tells about Cape Horn,
The Mediterranean, too,
When he two years at sea was gone;
Heaven knows if it be true!

"Enough I’ve said of our captain bold,
Still this is no jest,
For there is much remains untold,
But you may guess the rest.

"It’s of the mate I next shall tell,
As being next in rank.
He’s a man we all like well,
He’s rude, but yet he’s frank.

"The mate, he’s an old Dutchman;
He’d please you, I am sure;
At any rate, with such a man
I never sailed before.

"He’s rough and rude, ’tis very true, —
And what old sea-dog’s not?
But surely he will well treat you,
If you’re one of the right sort.

"Our dikey, Mr. Greggs, we all can see
How with him is the case;
He very well would like to be
In Mr. Freeman’s place.

"And so, to please bold Captain Leach,
He tries to keep us on the go;
But having tried it with us each,
He finds it is no go.

"We are but six before the mast,
As good a six as ever met;
For ne’er before was my lot cast
With such a manly, jovial set.

"Our forecastle is dark and wet,
But still we don’t complain.
Our captain, he will never meet
With the likes of us again.

"We’ve plenty, such as ’tis, to eat;
A cook we need to make it good.
We don’t wish for half-cooked meat;
We are good men, we want good food.

"The steward, he’s a dirty critter,
And lazy, too, to hoot;
Oft while he’s mixing up our duff
His hands will be as black as soot.

"All hands are at work about the decks
All the live-long day;
For ‘watch and watch’ we can’t expect,
We should hardly earn our pay.

"Come, then, my lads, what say you all?
Shall we this stand a five months more?
Shall we stick by and weather the squalls,
Or shall we go ashore?

"She is a bark by rig,
At Boston she belongs.
I’ve all the crew for evidence,
And they’ll support my song.

"She now lies alongside the levee,
And soon will want a crew;
But if she receives her just deserts,
She surely will find but few."

The day after our arrival in New Orleans we heard that the captain had taken freight for Cronstadt, Russia. This was contrary to the original agreement, but we would have stuck to the ship if we had had decent usage. As it was, we were tired of the ship and the captain too, and, to a man, we packed our "duds." He was taken all aback when he saw that all hands were going ashore with their chests. He coaxed and pleaded with us to remain on board, told us that we were a good set of men and that we should have "watch and watch," and was even foolish enough to say that we should have plum duff twice a week. But we didn’t feel inclined to accept his flattering offers, and it was several months before he succeeded in shipping a new crew.

The following morning I shipped as a deck hand on board the big Sultanea, a Mississippi steamboat. While on this steamboat, I recollect that on one trip we ran alongside a large emigrant ship from Amsterdam, and took on board between six and seven hundred high and low Dutch emigrants. They were short, stout, and thickset, with round, full faces and rosy cheeks. They took deck passage to St. Louis. Their baggage consisted of chests, which were very heavy, being built of teak. The only bedding they brought with them was feather beds. They would lie down upon one of these and use the other for a covering. They drank the river water, ate green vegetables and other food which they purchased at the different landings. This unwholesome manner of living caused a great deal of sickness among them. I remained on this steamboat about six months, when I shipped in the brig Thomas Jefferson, for Boston, and received twelve dollars in payment for the run. We made the passage in eight days. As usual, my friends gave me a cordial welcome home. Shortly after my return I resumed work at painting, but soon abandoned it and shipped in the ship Charles Carrol, receiving eight dollars for the run to New Orleans. We lay in Boston outer bay for six days, in a nor’east snowstorm, and then weighed anchor and put to sea.

This ship, Carrol, was one of the old-timers, being sixty odd years old. She was built for strength, and had great breadth of beam and a bow as broad as the stern of an old Dutch galiot. She was also a very dry ship and "laid to like a duck in a gale of wind." Our captain was a perfect fac-similie of old Father Neptune, and treated Jack before the mast as though he was his own son. The ship Charles Carrol was, as all ships should be, a floating sailors’ home. Our crew were a good set of sailors, and nearly all Bostonians. We were thirty-two days on our passage from Boston Bay to the Balize, where we took steam and were towed up the river to New Orleans. Soon after the ship had been made fast alongside the levee, the captain told us to make our home aboard while the ship remained in port. While here, we heard the glad news that cotton was king, freights high, and that nearly every ship was taken up, and men very scarce.

The day after our arrival the crew formed themselves into two gangs and obtained employment at screwing cotton by the day. We accepted the captain’s offer to make the ship our home, and slept in the forecastle and ate our grub at the French market. As the lighter, freighted with cotton, came alongside the ship in which we were at work, we hoisted it on board and dumped it into the ship’s hold, then stowed it in tiers so snugly it would have been impossible to have found space enough left over to hold a copy of The Boston Herald. With the aid of a set of jack-screws and a ditty, we would stow away huge bales of cotton, singing all the while. The song enlivened the gang and seemed to make the work much easier. The foreman often sang this ditty, the rest of the gang joining in the chorus:

"Were you ever in Boston town,
Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie?
Yes, I’ve been in Boston town,
Where the ships sail up and down,
My bonnie Highland laddie, ho!

"Were you ever in Mobile Bay,
Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie?
Yes, I’ve been in Mobile Bay,
Screwing cotton by the day,
My bonnie Highland laddie, ho!

"Were you ever in Miramichi,
Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie?
Yes, I’ve been in Miramichi,
Where you make fast to a tree,
My bonnie Highland laddie, ho!

"Were you ever in Quebec,
Bonnie laddie, Highland laddie?
Yes, I have been in Quebec,
Stowing timber on the deck,
My bonnie Highland laddie, ho!"

At another time we would sing:

"Lift him up and carry him along,
Fire, maringo, fire away;
Put him down where he belongs,
Fire, maringo, fire away;
Ease him down and let him lay,
Fire, maringo, fire away;

Screw him, and there he’ll stay,
Fire, maringo, fire away;
Stow him in his hole below,
Fire, maringo, fire away;
Say he must, and then he’ll go,
Fire, maringo, fire away.
In New Orleans they say,
Fire, maringo, fire away,
That General Jackson’s gained the day,
Fire, maringo, fire away!"

I found stowing cotton in a ship’s hold to be the most exhausting labor I had ever performed. We wore nothing but trousers, with a bandana handkerchief tied over our heads. The hold was a damp, dark place. The thermometer stood at nearly one hundred, not a breath of air stirred, and our bodies were reeking with perspiration. This was more than my frail body could endure. When I was paid, Saturday evening, with eight silver Spanish dollars for my four days’ labor, I came to the conclusion that they were the hardest eight dollars I had ever earned, and that there would be no more screwing cotton by the day for me.

The following Monday I went to work at painting ships and steamboats for an old Portuguese, by the name of Desimees, in Algiers, a town situated on the opposite side of the river. A party of five, one an old shipmate of mine, hired a small shanty and kept bachelor’s hall. We employed an old colored woman as housekeeper. On Saturdays we used to quit work early and go across the river to New Orleans and purchase our weekly supply of provisions. Although there was a United States mint in the city, there were at this time no cents in circulation. The smallest pieces of money were a five-cent piece, and a picayune, — six and a quarter cents, — and a Spanish coin called fourpence. It used to confuse Jack before the mast very much, that in Boston it was six shillings to the dollar, and in New York eight; that an eighth of a dollar, or twelve and a half cents, should be called ninepence in Boston, a shilling in New York, a long bit in New Orleans, and a levy in the Western States.

We got along splendidly keeping bachelor’s hall, but we poor mortals were unable to endure so much prosperity, and, after remaining five weeks, surrendered the shanty to Miss Dinah, our aged colored landlady. The old lady was almost broken-hearted and wept bitterly when we left, saying, "I done feels drefful sorry fo’ all my white chilens to go ’way and leave po’ Dinah all ’lone." A few days afterward I shipped on board the steamboat George Washington, bound for Cincinnati.

On our third trip up the Ohio, one day a deck hand stepped up to me and said:

"Where were you raised, Charlie?"

"Down east, in a little town near Boston, called Roxbury."

"Well, there is a man living in the town where I was raised whose name is the same as yours, and I’ll bet two to one he is your father. He’s got a family near Boston. He is now living in Spencer, Medina County, Ohio."

He then gave me directions as to how to find him.

After we had discharged the freight, I left the boat with all my earthly possessions, which were simply a change of clothing, in a bag hung over my shoulders, and a few shot in the locker (a little money). I followed my friend’s direction to keep straight on until I came to the end of old Smith’s road, which was eighty miles from Cincinnati, then turn to the left and inquire. He said that Spencer was about twenty miles toward the west. I had quite a pleasant walk across the State of Ohio. If I remember correctly, every team I saw on the road came from the opposite direction, so that I did not get a ride in the whole eighty miles. I was seven days in making the journey, and managed to put up at a tavern each evening. I enjoyed the walk much. I shall never forget one scene which occurred. It was on the fifth day, in the afternoon. Feeling somewhat weary, I sat down upon the brow of a hill, under a large, shady tree, nearly opposite which was an old farmhouse, the only one in sight. While resting here, I saw a tall, elderly man, with white hair reaching to his shoulders, leaning on a staff, come out of the house and go into a little cluster of bushes directly opposite where I was sitting. I saw him kneel, clasp his hands together, and look up toward heaven, then in hushed tones utter, "Our Father which art in heaven." I doffed my hat and bowed my head in reverence. It was a prayer of thanks — very brief, but one of the most fervent I have ever listened to. I have witnessed many touching scenes, but this one impressed itself upon my memory as the grandest of them all.

Arriving at the end of the road, which led into another that ran at right angles, I turned to the left, as directed, and soon came to a place called the "four corners," where there was a tavern, at which I remained over night. I arrived at the town of Spencer the following afternoon, and inquired if there was a gentleman living in that village by the name of Erskine. I was informed that there was, and that he boarded in a house about half a mile farther up the road, on the left. When I arrived at the house, I saw a very pleasant, elderly looking woman sitting at the window. I rapped on the door, and inquired if Mr. E— resided there, and was told that he did. After a brief conversation I informed her who I was, when she invited me in and proceeded to relate my father’s history from the date of his leaving Roxbury. Pointing to an old log-cabin on the opposite side of the road, she said I might find him at work there. I hesitated about calling there, and came very near turning back, but the good woman talked to me very kindly and advised me to go. On entering the cabin I saw two old men sitting on a bench near the door. I made a few remarks to them about the weather, and passed along to where another old man was busily at work, bending over a currier’s beam. It was some time before he looked up, but when he did, our eyes met and, for the first time in my life, I saw my father. I stepped up to him, saying,

"Haven’t you seen me somewhere before?"

"Very likely, very likely," he replied. "I’ve often visited that town."

"That’s the very place," I replied.

"Where?" said he.

"In the old town of Roxbury!" I exclaimed.

He was so overcome by this sudden disclosure he fell prostrate upon the floor. The two elderly men referred to, lifted him up and tenderly laid him on the bench. It was some time before he regained his consciousness, but when he did, he wept like a child. The other men were also so much overcome that they retired from the cabin. The scene that followed within the cabin during the next half-hour is better imagined than described.

I remained at my father’s boarding-house three days, during which time I learned from the good woman of the house more facts concerning the history of my father’s life since he had left his home. She told me she had heard him say that about a year after his departure, while at work in Hartford, Conn., he drew nine thousand dollars in a lottery. He then stopped drinking, and fully resolved to return to his family and live a sober life the remainder of his days. For seven weeks he refrained from the use of intoxicating drinks. Then, receiving the money, he started for home, but thought he would just call at the tavern and take a parting glass with the boys. That glass aroused the old appetite. "More, more," cried the demon within him, drowning all nobler resolves. So resistless was this thirst that he spent a year in drunkenness, at the end of which time his money was gone. He did not return to his home as he really longed to do when he made that resolve, nor did he send a dollar to his family.

The third morning, after breakfast, I bade my father and the family in the house good-bye, and started for home, traveling a part of the way by the Erie Canal. When I arrived in Boston I found the family well, and astonished them by the story of my adventures in Ohio.

My father ultimately found his way back to Boston, but it was ten years after this time, and forty-two years and a half from the time he first left the town. While walking out from the Albany depot not a single building or landmark did he recognize until he reached the old Roxbury line. There, with bitter remorse, he

The house where Charles Erskine was born.png


stood in front of the old mansion which had once been his happy and comfortable home.

A few days after my return I learned that able seamen were wanted for the navy, and thought quite strongly of shipping in it again, thinking I might possibly obtain a petty officer’s berth. Calling one day at Jack Wright’s boarding-house on Ann Street I found a number of old sailors who were discussing the brig Somer's tragedy, which had occurred a short time previous. One would have thought from the conversation that they were talking about bullies, tyrants, and brutes, instead of American naval officers.

"Why!" growled out one old man-of-war’s man, who had served in the navy over twenty years, "instead of making spread-eagles of us — tyin’ the men up to the riggin’ by their wrists with their arms extended — and lashin’ ’em with the cats on their bare backs, now they’ll put ’em in stocks, straight-jackets, or in double irons and gag ’em, and —"

"Jest look at the cowardly hangin’ from the yard-arm o’ them three young men on board o’ the brig Somers, ’thout givin’ ’em a chance to write a line to their fathers and mothers, or even say their prayers," interrupted another old weather-beaten sailor.

"Yes," spoke out a third, excitedly, "if you happen to cross an officer, let him be drunk or sober, you are counted a mutineer, and are strung up to the yard-arm or knocked down with a handspike or a belaying-pin; and what are you going to do about it? They seem to have forgotten the cowardly actions of the Portuguese boatswain’s mate and other foreigners on board the unfortunate frigate Chesapeake, and keep right on promoting foreigners to petty officers’ berths; and I can’t get promoted even to a Jimmy Duck’s berth, or a captain of the afterguard. No more navy for me, shipmates."

The last speaker was a young American sailor who had just returned from a three years’ cruise on board the frigate Potomac.

I felt convinced that all these yarns were but too true, and said to myself, "No more navy for me, either." Thus ended my bright vision of procuring a petty officer’s berth on board a man-of-war.

A few days after this I returned to my first love, and shipped in a fore-and-after for Mobile. The schooner’s crew consisted of the captain and his father, — a very old sailor, — a young man, myself, and a small boy. The captain’s wife and two daughters were also on board. We all bunked and messed in the cabin. The young ladies were very agreeable company.

The fifth day out, the captain’s father — familiarly known as "Old Neptune" — died very suddenly just at daybreak. It was a bright, beautiful day. About four o’clock in the afternoon we placed the dead body on a plank, one end of which rested on the lee rail of the schooner, the other on the head of a barrel. The remains were covered with a very old flag. The boy stood at the tiller, my shipmate and myself stood on either side of the foot of the plank, while the captain, his wife, and two daughters were grouped together near the head of the body. The captain held a Bible in his hands, but was so overcome with grief he could neither read nor utter a word. He wept bitterly. His good wife and daughters made ineffectual efforts to comfort him in his bereavement. It was a sad funeral. Not a word was spoken, not even a whisper. Nothing broke the solemn silence but the sobs of the dead man’s son, the rippling of the water under the schooner’s bows, or the flapping of a sail. After lingering some time the captain’s wife gave the signal, when we raised the end of the plank and "Old Neptune’s" body was consigned to a watery grave.

A Sea Dirge.

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them, — Ding, dong, bell.


We made the passage to Mobile in seven days. The captain, who owned two-thirds of the schooner, finding freights very dull, and wishing to lessen his expenses, discharged the young man, the boy, and myself. The boy was, indeed, "a stranger in a strange land." We all felt much sympathy for him.

Soon after leaving the schooner, I visited my uncle, Major Thomas Sturtevant, at Spring Hill, about six miles out from the city. The few weeks that I remained with him I enjoyed much, the plantation hands giving me a great deal of amusement.

After leaving my uncle’s home I passed over Lake Pontchartrain to New Orleans. While there I fell in with an old shipmate by the name of Charlie Rugg, who was working at ship-painting in Algiers, opposite New Orleans. I assisted him about painting the spars of the ship Nathaniel Kimball. While at work on the foreyard the foot rope parted, and I fell into the fore-rigging, which broke my fall, and thence onto the wharf, where I was taken up unconscious. Orders were at once given to carry me to Gritney Hospital. While on my way there I regained my consciousness, and, as soon as I understood the situation, told my friends to about-ship and leave me at John Gannoes’, in New Orleans. After arriving there I lay on my beam-ends for over two months, during which time I had also a severe attack of cholera. The weather was very hot and the epidemic raged frightfully. After remaining quiet several weeks I felt improved, and gained considerable strength. While convalescing, I received the following lines:

Dear Charlie.

He kissed me and then he said farewell
While the tears rolled down his cheeks,
It seemed to me like his funeral knell
And robbed my love of all its sweets.

Oh! Charlie, dear Charlie, return to thy home,
Thy Jennie is weeping, is weeping and lone.

O’er the ocean he’s gone his fortune to seek,
Oh! may he his fortune acquire;
Then hie to his home, where fond love shall complete
His Jennie’s most ardent desire.

Oh! Charlie, dear Charlie, etc.

But if for dear Charlie no fortune is there,
If strangers are heartless and cold.
Oh, may he return to his Jennie and share
That love which is dearer than gold.

Oh! Charlie, dear Charlie, etc.

And whether dear Charlie gains fortune or no,
May lore for his Jennie impart
A wish to return to his home and bestow
Sweet peace to her wearisome heart.

These lines came from my bonnie lassie, my sweetheart Jennie. They took me between wind and water, and I at once made up my mind to return to Boston.

One of my former steamboat friends, Mr. Lane, mate of the George Washington, generously offered me a passage on his boat up the river to Cincinnati, which I accepted. When we arrived at Cincinnati I thanked my friend for his kindness, and took the steamer Yorktown for Wheeling, Va. From there I took a seat alongside the driver on a stage-coach over the Alleghany Mountains to Harrisburg, Pa. It was inconceivable to me how the driver managed to steer his four-in-hand clear of so many obstructions while his horses were going at full speed. The stage-coach keeled over many times where the road was steeper on one side than the other, and each time I thought surely we should be capsized. I enjoyed the ride intensely. The dense woods, the steep hills, the frequent villages, were indeed a novel scene. The whole trip, so full of variety, and so picturesque, greatly refreshed me. I think I must have been several pounds heavier when we arrived at Harrisburg than when I commenced the journey.

From Harrisburg I took the steam cars for Philadelphia. Arriving there I went directly to Chestnut Street, where my cousins resided. They gave me a very cordial welcome, and during my stay were untiring in their efforts to make my visit agreeable. I remained with them two weeks, then shipped in a full-rigged brig for Boston.

This craft reminded me much of one of my former sea-homes — the brig Porpoise. We left with the tide about four o’clock in the afternoon. While dropping down the Delaware we caught a large sturgeon, which proved to be delicious eating.

We had an extraordinarily long passage, not reaching Boston Light until early on the morning of the seventh day. By eight o’clock the brig was alongside of and made fast to Long Wharf. Bidding my shipmates adieu, I made sail for home. Soon after doubling the north-west corner of Canton Street, I fell in with and spoke "the girl I left behind me." One week later, at two bells, — seven o’clock in the evening, — we got under way, made all sail, and steered a direct course for North Bennett Street. Arriving directly off No. — we hove to, and hailed that godly man, Father Streeter, who tied the true lover’s or matrimonial knot. Then, receiving his blessing and our clearance papers, we started off on the voyage of married life.