Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Last week's History Note shared the detective work that went into identifying the author and origins of a Seaman's Journal found in our archives at the Longmeadow Historical Society. This edition follows up on what our intrepid History Detective, Beth Hoff, has learned about that sailor, including the unfortunate circumstance of his death at sea.
Have you ever wanted to have adventures by sailing the seas on a tall ship? James S. Dwight of Springfield, Massachusetts did. His father, George, a prominent merchant in Springfield who likely had connections to the shipping community in Boston, agreed and he apprenticed the 16-year old James to the barque Kate Hastings.
James kept a journal of his first thirteen months aboard the Kate Hastings. The journal, which is in the archives of the Storrs House Museum, documents three periods of time that the vessel was at sea:
- May 21, 1852 through October 17, 1852 traveling from Boston to San Francisco
- November 2, 1852 through January 18, 1852 traveling from San Francisco to Calcutta
- March 3, 1853 through June 10, 1853 traveling from Calcutta to Boston
In addition to the record of wind, weather, and speed which are standard in a seagoing journal, James wrote remarks in his journal. Many of the comments are addressed to his mother who he expected to read it when he returned. Reading through the journal provides a glimpse of life aboard a commercial sailing vessel through the eyes of a novice sailor.
As an apprentice, James learned to watch the weather, steer the ship, fly the sails, and keep a journal. On June 6, 1852, he wrote, “This is my third Sunday on the ocean. And as it is the commencement of a week I intend to commence making records of my own instead of copying them from the log. On Sunday we do no work except what is necessary for working ship. So far, I have not been sea sick and I am commence to think that I am to be one of the lucky ones. I have learned nearly all the names of the ropes and hope to be able to say, that I have learned all by next Sunday. I can take the weather wheel now, and when I have had a little more practice shall be able to take my regular turn.”
June 6, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
Most days at sea were mundane: “Today we have had the usual quantity of squaring and washing down decks and the other duties which make up the routine of duty aboard ship. I am afraid if you would see me all dirta I am that you would hardly know me.”
June 9, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
But others were filled with weather-related challenges: “Today we are having a decidedly wet day of it. It is nothing but one steady drenching rain all the while. Oil clothes are not of much use, especially such oil clothes as mine. All hands have taken off their shoes and are wading round the decks bare footed.”
June 11, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
The ship often encountered squalls which challenged him: “You have no idea what uncomfortable things these squall are. The first you see of them is a black cloud rising to windward, next it commences blowing so that the lighter sails are clewed up, then in commences raining, and how it rains, suffice it to say that in two minutes you are completely soaked through, and are obliged to remain so for the rest of your watch on deck.”
June 30, 1852, Seaman's Journal
James analyzed his shortcomings and sought to overcome them: “I find that my two greatest drawbacks against making a good sailor is carelessness and forgetfulness, and you have no idea what a quantity of trouble they cause me. But I am determined to conquer them both and I think I have already made some progress towards it.”
June 23, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
And he foresaw his future as a sailor: “I think if you could see all the dirty jobs I have every day you would be apt to wonder at my liking the sea. I being the smallest boy am nothing more than the ships scavenger. I think that my love for the sea is now steadily on the increase, and as I have overcome that heaviness of body that I complained of sometime ago I think that I stand something of a chance of making a sailor.”
June 22, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
He noted Sunday observances onboard the ship: “The day opened as all Sundays ought to, with a clear sky and a fair breeze. After the decks were washed down, the men changed their clothes and came out in their Sunday rig. After breakfast was over the men commenced smoking reading loafing minding etc. You would be surprised to see some of the sailors who are very profane come out of a Sunday morning and read their bibles with as much seriousness as a minister.”
June 20, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
Although he doubtlessly met with exciting and novel experiences and people during his time in San Francisco and Calcutta, he does not mention them in the journal. San Francisco would have been a rough and bustling town only three years after the discovery of gold in 1849 and Calcutta would have been full of new sights, smells, and sounds to a lad from Springfield. James also does not mention passengers on the ship, though we know that the Kate Hastings carried passengers.
The only entry which discusses non-shipmates occurred on Christmas day when the ship stopped in Singapore for repairs: “MHPM came to an anchor in the harbor of Singapore about two miles from the shore, furled the sails, coiled up the ropes, and turned in. Early the next morning the natives were along side in their canoes with all sorts of shells, coral, fruit, bread etc. for sale. In a little while the vessel was full of natives, and such a quantity of bargaining talking cheating and etc. I never saw. I bought nothing except fruit.”
December 25, 1852, Seaman’s Journal
On the last page of the journal, dated June 10, 1853, James expressed his hope that, while he was not yet at port, he would be home to celebrate Independence Day. The Kate Hastings arrived in Boston on June 28, 1853, so perhaps he got his wish.
Boston Daily Bee, June 29, 1853
What happened to James after his apprenticeship on the Kate Hastings? We know that he continued his career as a sailor, improving his skills and rising in his profession to captain. He never married and kept his home base in Springfield, appearing on the censuses as a resident of the city until his death.
A history by Charles W. Chapin provided the following biography of James: “In 1853 at the age of seventeen he went to sea, sailing from Boston in the barque ‘Kate Hastings’...Before he was twenty-five years of age he was master of a vessel. He took command of the ship ‘Cutwater,’ after the captain had been swept overboard during a heavy sea. He was master of the ships ‘Charger’ and ‘Springfield,’ the latter having been named in honor of his native town...His voyages were made principally to China, Australia, California, and European ports. Among the sons of Springfield who have gone forth to win fame and fortune, none had brighter prospects, or was more highly esteemed, than Captain Dwight. Accomplished and of noble bearing, he was the beau ideal of an American sailor.”
Sailing was a dangerous business and James S. Dwight had several close calls with death during his career, including one while he was aboard the Cutwater.
Springfield Republican, December 19, 1861
Unfortunately, his luck did not hold. When he was only 46, Capt. James S. Dwight came to a violent end when he was murdered by a crew member of his ship, the Freeman Clark, in 1882. According to the report of his death, the provocation for his murder was believed to have been his order forbidding some of the crew to smoke opium. The day before the murder, he had their room searched and the opium found in it thrown overboard. The crew retaliated by mutiny and by the murder of their captain.
We are thankful to have his journal in our archives as a chronicle of the earliest days of his remarkable career at sea. - Contributed by Beth Hoff, Board Member, Longmeadow Historical Society
Originally published August 11, 2022 Sources: Archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society Charles W. Chapin, History of the “old high school” on School Street, Springfield, Massachusetts, from 128 to 1840, Springfield, 1890 Boston Daily Bee, June 29, 1853 Springfield Republican, December 19, 1861 Boston Journal, June 19, 1882