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James S. Dwight’s Voyage on the Kate Hastings

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.”