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The Mystery of the Seaman's Journal

Updated: Dec 5, 2022

Front Piece of a Seaman's Journal

The Mystery of the Seaman's Journal

Recently rediscovered in the archives of the Storrs House Museum is a journal stored in a box labeled “Seaman’s Journey 1852-1853” by an earlier museum curator. The journal, 13¼ inches by 8¼ inches in size, dutifully records the wind, knot speed, and weather of three ocean voyages:

- Entries from May 21, 1852–October 17, 1852

- Entries from November 2, 1852–January 18, 1853 on a trip from San Francisco to Calcutta

- Entries from March 3, 1853–June 10, 1853 on a trip from Calcutta to Boston

Many of the pages are stained, possibly by ocean water during the voyage. Even more interesting than the notations in the journal, perhaps, is the information that the book does not contain – the identity of the author, the name of the ship that he traveled on, and how the journal came to be in the collection of the Longmeadow Historical Society. Board members of the Longmeadow Historical Society have been working together to try to answer these questions.

What ship was the author on?

There were several commercial vessels that sailed the Boston–San Francisco–Calcutta route in the 1850s. By comparing the dates recorded in the journal with ship lists documented by Massachusetts newspapers of the period, we determined that the author was sailing on the barque Kate Hastings.

The Kate Hastings left Boston for San Francisco on May 21, 1852 and was in San Francisco around October 17. It then left San Francisco on October 19, stopped in Singapore for repairs, and was in Calcutta on January 21, 1853. The Kate Hastings then left Calcutta around March 1 and returned to Boston June 28, 1853.

Daily Atlas, April 21, 1852

From the Journals of the Bostonian Society, we learned that the barque Kate Hastings was built in Newburyport in 1847 by W. & B.W. Picket. What is a “barque”? According to Webster, a barque is “a three-masted vessel, having her foremast and mainmast square-rigged, and her mizzenmast schooner-rigged.”

Barque sail plan, from Wikipedia

Who is the author of the journal?

Now that we knew the name of the vessel, we were perhaps able to narrow down our search for the name of the sailor. The author of the journal left a few breadcrumb clues as to his identity. In addition to the strict observances of weather and speed, the author often made notations in the journal that were directed to his mother, who he evidently anticipated reading the journal at some time in the future.

-Seventeen days into the first voyage, he mentioned that he had finally learned the name of the ropes. So, this was likely his first adventure at sea. “I have learned nearly all of the names of the ropes and hope to be able to say, that I have learned all by next Sunday.

June 6, 1852, Seaman's Journal

On July 4, 1852, he is thinking about the Springfield fireworks that he is missing. So, he was likely from the Springfield area. “Only think of it mother today is Independence day. And as I think of it I cannot help thinking what a difference there is between my situation now and what it would be ashore…I have been thinking most of the day of what will happen in Springfield tomorrow, of the boys with their fire crackers and cannon. Of the show and parade that will happen and of the fireworks in the evening in the Barnes lot, and a great many other things to numerous to mention.”

July 4, 1852, Seaman's Journal

On July 24, he mentions that he expects that “you” (his mother) will enjoy having George and Clara at home. So, he likely was related to George and Clara. “As I am standing my watch on deck at night, half frozen, with nothing to do but to keep warm, I very often cannot help comparing my present condition with what it was last year at this time. Then I will imagine what you are all doing, how, instead of being half frozen you are half melted, how you are enjoying having George and Clara at home together…”

July 24, 1852, Seaman's Journal

On July 5, 1852, he ruminates about “George and Jim Rumrill” probably being home from vacation. So, it was likely that he was close to Jim Rumrill. “In a little while now George and Jim Rumrill will be home for their summer vacation, and I think that I can imagine just how they feel…

July 5, 1852, Seaman's Journal

Following these breadcrumbs, we started researching. Diving into the vast resources available on the Internet, a Google search of the barque Kate Hastings brought up an abstract from the Online Archives of California for an 1873 charter party agreement made in San Francisco, California between the master (James S. Dwight) and the agent for owners of the American ship “Springfield” of Boston. The very thorough author of the abstract included this biographical information about the master: “In 1853 at the age of seventeen he went to sea, sailing from Boston in the barque ‘Kate Hastings’.” Was this our lad? Did his life include the clues left in the journal?

Research on James S. Dwight revealed that in 1850, he was a 14 year-old schoolboy, living in Springfield, Massachusetts with his parents, George and Mary, his sister Clara, and his brother George. The family lived in dwelling 1583, family 1731. On the previous page of the census at dwelling 1576, family 1723, lived 13 year-old James Rumrill, likely his close neighbor.

1850 U.S. Census, Springfield, Massachusetts

The 1855 Massachusetts Census listed 19-year old James Dwight’s occupation as sailor, further connecting him to our author. We felt confident that James S. Dwight wrote the entries in our seaman's journal.

1855 Massachusetts Census, Springfield, Massachusetts

How did James S. Dwight's journal enter the collections of the Longmeadow Historical Society?

It is likely that James S. Dwight’s journal of his voyages on the barque Kate Hastings traveled to Longmeadow through the sister, Clara Dwight.

James’s sister, Clara Dwight, married William Shurtleff, in 1857. They lived in Springfield until 1892 when they bought the Nathaniel Ely House at 674 Longmeadow Street and moved to Longmeadow. Sadly, William died four years later. His widow, Clara, and their daughter, Mary, remained in Longmeadow for a few years, boarding with John and Anna Hitchcock at 836 Longmeadow Street in 1900, as reflected in the 1900 U.S. Census. Clara moved back to Springfield in 1900 and she sold the Nathaniel Ely House in 1905.

1900 U.S. Census, Longmeadow, Massachusetts

It is likely that Clara Dwight Shurtleff inherited her brother’s journal from her mother and, if so, she would have brought the journal with her when she moved to Longmeadow. And she probably left it with her friend (and landlady) Mrs. Anna Hitchcock. Accession records for the Longmeadow Historical Society show that Mrs. Anna Chandler Hitchcock, a member of the newly formed Longmeadow Historical Society, donated an “Old Account Book” to the collection on October 17, 1916. We are fairly confident that this “Old Account Book” is the seaman’s journal.

Accession book, Archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society

We are fortunate to have this seafaring tale in our collection. Stay tuned for next week when we will explore contents of the journal, the challenges of sea life from the eyes of a young man, and what became of James S. Dwight.

Contributed by Beth Hoff, but ably assisted by Al McKee and Melissa Cybulski, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Members


Archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society

Daily Atlas, April 21, 1852

1850 U.S. Census

1855 Massachusetts Census

1900 U.S. Census

Linda Abrams, Seaman's Journal, The Town Crier Issue No. 24, May 2011

Charles W. Chapin, History of the “old high school” on School Street, Springfield, Massachusetts, from 128 to 1840, Springfield, 1890, p.121-2

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