Saga of a Reluctant Whaler, Part 1

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West Granby United Methodist Church

West Granby, Conn. in 1850 was a quiet, well-ordered town. Most of the inhabitants were subsistence farmers. Small businesses were located on the west branch of Salmon Brook. Samuel Weed had a grist mill with three grindstones and also ran the general store. Sherman Fancher had a large wheel and carriage shop, employing nine men. The local shoemaker was Carlton Holcomb. Lucian Reed repaired and painted wagons. There were two district schools and a private academy for the education of the children. The town also had a doctor, a hotel and the West Granby Methodist Church.

Most of the sons and daughters of West Granby were content to live as their parents and grandparents had lived. But in some, the fire of adventure burned fiercely, and they looked beyond the tilled fields and wooded hills of West Granby and sought excitement and the unknown. Two young Holcomb men, both age 20, responded to the lure of an ocean they had never seen and decided to run away and sign on a whaling ship. However, Harris and Crayton Holcomb, had different motives for this adventure. 

Crayton was the son of Virgil and Betsey (Messenger) Holcomb, and a distant cousin to Harris. His father died in 1846 and his mother soon married again, to Timothy Dean. Crayton may have wanted to escape an unhappy home life with a stepfather, but he also wanted a life at sea.

Harris was the son of Anson Noadiah and Harriet (Street) Holcomb. There were five children in the family: Mary 23, Harris 20, Edward 12, Estelle 7 and Helen 4. The real goal of Harris was to jump ship and get to the gold fields of California. His letters to his family reveal how his plans were thwarted by a wily Captain, who never let his crew near a California port. The reluctant young sailor spent over three years on the whaler Braganza, out of New Bedford, Mass., from Sept. 1850 to April 1854.

The young men must have feared being dragged back to West Granby by their irate parents, so they both signed-up as crewmen using false names. Harris joined the crew as Robert Harris 20 of Granby, Conn. It is most likely that Crayton signed right below him as John J. Cushman, without listing his age or hometown.

Harris wrote several letters to his family about life “a-whaling.” His colorful descriptions offer a rare glimpse of a sailor’s life and his eloquent prose is a credit to the West Granby schools.

Ship Braganza at sea Sept. 30, 1850

“I take this opportunity to write a few lines to you and the rest of our folks. We have now been out three weeks and out of sight of land twenty days. I have been sick so I have not done any work at all for two weeks. It is not sea-sickness but I have had a fever. I am almost well now but quite weak. I was sea-sick for about one or two days only, but some of the hands were sick for a week or more and one is sick now.

There was nothing interesting happened until Sunday after we left New Bedford, and not much then, it being Sunday, and we not having much to do. After breakfast, the Captain called us all aft and read the ship’s articles to us. Then he brought out a lot of Testaments and gave each of us one and let us have two Bibles to be kept in the forecastle for all of us to use, besides a lot of tracts, pamphlets and newspapers for us to read. After that we went forward and I have read in mine every day. I have read over to the 12th chapter of Mark.

It being quite calm, we were sitting around when someone on the bows said there was a lot of fish there. So. Mr. Kelly (the third mate) and myself took some lines and hooks and caught about 25 in as many minutes. We got the cook to cook them for us and I guess you would have laughed or cried to have seen us catch them out of the frying pan and run eating them with our fingers.

After dinner we lowered all the boats and practiced rowing a little. I pull an oar in the Captain’s boat. We came aboard quite wet for it rained quite hard all the time. After we got the boats all hauled up, Mr. Kelly went forward, and then he called me to fetch my hooks and line to catch some dolphins with. So I did, and he caught seven or eight of them. They are the prettiest fish I ever saw. In the water they are quite blue, but after they are caught they turn twelve different colors and die almost white. They are about as large as codfish, so we had plenty of fresh fish for supper.

We don’t have any preaching or praying here but I wish we did, although I don’t pray myself as we have to keep quite steady. There is no ardent spirits or fighting or gambling aboard.

I will tell you how our time is divided. First into two watches, the first and second mate’s watches. The first comes on at seven o’clock in the morning and stays four hours, and then they are relieved by the second and have four hours to themselves. At three they are all on duty until seven in the evening. Then one watch goes below four hours and then the other. So we get eight hours sleep every other night, and four hours to ourselves every day.

We have had quite fair weather most of the time since we sailed, although we have had head winds and one or two hard blows, one in particular. I was up taking in sail when the wind blew and the old ship lay down on one side so that a man could hardly stand on deck. I would just as soon be up aloft as not, without coat, hat or boots.

You can see some wonders here as well as anywhere. The water is just the color of Ma’s pail of bluing water and very clear, but at night it is full of sparks that look like lightning bugs. After we had been out three or four days, we saw a great many Mother Cary’s chickens, a little bird about as big as an eave swallow and just about the color of a chimney swallow with a white ring just above its tail. They skim around the ship close to the water but you never see one light (land) anywhere.”

To be continued in following issues.