Originally published in Historic Nantucket, Vol. 55, No. 1 (Winter 2006)
Young Sailor Is Revealed as "Anonymous" Keeper of Excellent Voyage Narrative
By Mary Malloy
Logbooks and journals, which describe day-to-day ^activities on shipboard, are indispensable tools for the maritime historian. Seldom compelling reading, they nonetheless contain essential details that allow us to reconstruct the past. On rare and wonderful occasions, a researcher will open the covers of a sailor's journal and find the voyage revealed in delightful detail, and that was my experience fifteen years ago when I first encountered the journal of the brig Rob Roy at the NHA.
the time I was writing a dissertation at Brown University
on the trade between New England and the Northwest
Coast of North America (the coastline of what is
now Washington State, British Columbia, and Alaska).
Ships from Boston and other nearby ports headed
around Cape Horn to the Northwest Coast to trade
with the local Indian tribes for sea otter pelts,
which were then carried on to Canton to trade for
Chinese tea, silks, and porcelain.
This trade had nothing to do with whaling and was never prosecuted from Nantucket; consequently, the discovery of the Rob Roy journal at the NHA was completely serendipitous. While working on an entirely different research project (on whaling, of course), I happened on the description of the Rob Roy manuscript in the NHA catalog: "Journal of a Voyage Round the World in the Brig Rob Roy in the years 1821, 1822, 1823, 1824 and 1825 by the Author." 1 knew that there had been a vessel of that name in the Northwest Coast trade, but when 1 asked to see the journal 1 had little expectation that this manuscript would be from that particular vessel, as Rob Roy was a common enough ship name in the decade following the 1818 publication of Walter Scott's popular novel.
To my great satisfaction, the Rob Roy journal was from the Northwest trade and it was filled with detail about the interaction between Americans and the native people on the Northwest Coast. Among more than eighty-five shipboard manuscripts that I examined in the course of writing a dissertation and three books on the maritime fur trade, it has remained my favorite. Filled with detail, humor, sarcasm, and clear and straightforward descriptions of people and places, it also has unflinching and insightful commentary on human behavior, especially during an extended period of cruising on the Northwest Coast between February 1822 and October 1824.
Over the next several years I found myself many times on the ferry, headed back to Nantucket to look again at this manuscript, and increasingly frustrated that I didn't know the name of the author, especially as I began to feel that I knew him pretty well from reading his diary There are numerous scribblings on the first page, including the names "D.M. & W. Bryant," "Wm. Bryant," "Jas. P. Sturgis & Co. Canton," and "Thomas Dier 1st Officer." On the title page, he identifies himself only as "the Author." Because he was obviously involved in the decision-making process on board, I assumed the author was the supercargo, but without a surviving crew list there was no way to attach a name to the position. He could not have been either the captain or the mate, as both are regularly mentioned by name in the daily entries (and not always in the most respectful terms!).
In the text of the journal the author gives two clues to his identity: at one point he mentions that he has "Bryant blood" in him, indicating a relationship to one of the vessel's managing owners, John Bryant; and in an entry for the period 21-30 December 1822 he writes, "During this time I have numbered 24 years of age."
The principal owners of the brig were John Bryant and William Sturgis, who controlled most of the ships involved in the Northwest Coast trade at the time. The Rob Roy was just one of nine vessels that they sent out in the business between 1818 and 1825. (When the sea otter population on the Northwest Coast collapsed in the 1830s, Bryant & Sturgis pioneered the California hide trade, and it was on one of their vessels, the brig Pilgrim, that Richard Henry Dana Jr. made his famous voyage, documented in Two Years Be/ore the Mast.)
The Rob Roy was brand new when she departed Boston for this voyage in August 1821. She reached the Hawaiian Islands just after Christmas, and proceeded from there to the Queen Charlotte Islands, off the coast of what is now British Columbia. Haida Indians rowed out to meet the vessel and the journal keeper found, to his mortification, that the cargo brought from Boston was not going to bring much profitable trade. "In the first place," he wrote, "we had but one kind of Muskets on board the Vessel (excepting Rifles) which in two weeks after our arrival were not worth a beaver skin each & not a half a dozen of them was sold for the first two seasons the locks of them were good for nothing."
Competition among the Boston vessels was fierce. During the more than two and a half years that the Rob Roy cruised the coast, she regularly encountered the Frederick, Griffin, Hamilton, Lascar, Lama, Lark, Litteler, Mentor, Owhyhee, and Volunteer, all from Boston, and all in the same business as themselves. Canny traders, Northwest Coast Indians worked one ship against another to get the highest prices for pelts. Both the Indians and the Americans recognized that the sea otter population was in precipitous decline after forty years of intensive harvesting for the Canton trade, and it lent an urgency to the enterprise. On several occasions, the Rob Ray journal describes -violent encounters between the Indians and the crews of American ships, but even those confrontations did not put a stop to trade.
In the Rob Roy journal we learn the names of Haida chiefs, "Lemor," "Altatsee," "Skid,a,ga,lu," "Cowell," "Carter Conner," "Skitagates," " Enors," and "old Eeaster Connor.. .the largest Indian on the coast." There are ethnographic descriptions of burial practices and systems of rank in the villages, and a detailed vocabulary of words in the Haida language "as it is spoken in conversation with Americans." Though the author obviously spent a great deal of time with Haida people, both ashore and with those individuals who traveled on the Rob Roy (sometimes for several months at a stretch), his vocabulary list concentrated on those words necessary for trade. Terms from the list are liberally sprinkled throughout the journal entries.
With his ear for language, the journal's author was able to collect historical information from the Indians. At one point he writes that the way the Indians learned there "was any inhabitants on the Globe except themselves was by a dead whale floating ashore with a harpoon in him."
The best descriptions are saved for "Nacoot, a grate drunkard but the cleverest Indian on the coast." This Haida chief spent almost six months on board the Rob Roy, providing local knowledge, sendees as a translator, and conducting his own private trade with both the ship's crew and with the native tribes they encountered.
The entries range from straightforward descriptions:
12 February 1823 [at Tongass, Alaska]: "today the Carpenter went ashore & in making a fire set the woods afire and it is running up the Mountain pretty rapidly"
To the poetic:
1 September 1823: "whether owing to the water or atmosphere I cannot tell but the water sparkeled more than I have ever seen it and the sea appeared all around like a lake of fire."
To the enigmatic:
18 September 1823: "a circumstance took place to day which I 'consider will put an end to nearly all discipline on board"
[Unfortunately, there are no further details!]
To those that illustrate the very great diversity of the author's jobs onboard:
8 November 1823: "day before yesterday I undertook to Blead a man, tried in bouth arms & feet but the Blood would not run it was so thick & Black"
The Rob Roy was not an entirely happy ship, and for this young man the voyage was interminable, the captain unappreciative of his talents, and the Indians troublesome. On New Years Day 1823, he wrote:
"The new year commences pleasant but cold. I suppose their will be as their generally is a good many remarks made at home on the commencement of the new year & I have this one to make, that I hope I shall not see the next one in this part of the world. To send a young man here (the coast) that is a poor drunken devil is perhaps well enough, for as the saying is it will either "kill or cure," but I am not one of that stamp; yet although if I remain here long I will not answer for it. The truth is a vessel on this coast is a perfect hell to any person that is any way peaceably inclined for the grumbling of crews (who ought to be that), quarrels between the officers, jealousy of others and an hundred other things make it bad worse than it really is...To submit to it tamely cannot be done. Advice is seldom well received or productive of any good." [punctuation added]
The Rob Roy left the Northwest Coast in October 1824, though the journal (and its keeper) stayed on, transferring to the Mentor; another Bryant & Sturgis vessel, to inventory the cargo. He proceeded on the Mentor to Hawaii in December 1825, went from there to Canton, and then moved to yet another Bryant & Sturgis vessel, the Lascar, for his passage home, arriving back
in Boston in August 1825, having been gone four years to the week.
This journal is not the only extraordinary thing to survive from the voyage of the Rob Roy. In 1827 Captain Daniel Cross donated a remarkable Haida mask to the museum of the East India Marine Society in Salem (now the Peabody Essex Museum). A portrait of a high-ranking Haida woman wearing a large wooden labret in her lower lip, this mask is a masterpiece of Haida carving and painting. Though it is never mentioned in the journal, it may well have come into the hands of Captain Cross from the Haida chief Nacoot, with whom Cross and his men had such a close relationship. It is one of a number of important masks carved by the same artist, and William Sturgis, one of the ship's owners, borrowed it from the museum to illustrate a lecture he gave in Boston in 1848.
The mask has been the central artifact of my research on the Northwest Coast fur trade for almost twenty years. The Rob Roy journal, both because of its inherent charm and because of its relationship to the mask, became the central document. Late last year, in another moment of serendipitous research, I discovered the identity of its author.
Doing historical research is not unlike other kinds of labor. Bits of information are ferreted out of documents or artifacts and built up, like bricks in a wall, to create the edifice of what you know. The larger contexts of American History, or Northwest Coast Indian Anthropology, or whatever the subject is in which you are working, are the mortar you use to hold it all together. What makes history such a grand occupation, however, are the rare and glorious moments when discoveries are made when you turn a page and your eye catches that word or phrase that brings the picture into focus. Then the past reaches out of the document and touches you.
And so it was that day as I scrolled through page after page of Bryant & Sturgis correspondence, sitting at a microfilm reader in the Baker Library at Harvard. I had glanced through this correspondence years earlier, but was back looking for a different sort of information, having been hired by the Council of the Haida Nation to write a report about the perceptions that Americans had of Haida people prior to 1846, when the British Crown claimed their territory.
There, in a letter of instructions to Captain Daniel Cross from the owners of the Rob Roy, was the answer to the mystery of the authorship of the journal. It was dated 14 August 1821, at Boston, and included the following passage:
"Alcho' we address these instructions to you alone, yet we wish you to consider them as intended both for yourself & Mr. William Bryant who goes with you, & who has our full confidence in every aspect. He will act with you in all cases, &r we wish you always to consult him in the most confidential manner. In case any accident deprives us of your services, he is to take charge of the cargo & the trading part of the voyage, & Mr. Dyer of the vessel. Should any difference of opinion prevail between you & Mr. Bryant respecting the voyage, your decision is to govern, but we trust & hope that as the object of you both is to promote the interest of the voyage, you will never have occasion to exercise this power."
Thereafter, all correspondence sent to the Rob Roy was addressed to both "Capt. Daniel Cross and Mr. William Bryant."
The letter was signed "Your Friends and owners, [James] Bryant and [William] Sturgis. James Bryant was the eldest, and William the youngest, of the ten children born to Captain James Bryant and his second wife, Hannah. The brothers were nineteen years apart in age, so the fact that Jim took Willy under his wing and arranged to teach him the business in his own company is not strange. Their business relationship continued after the conclusion of the Rob Roy voyage; within a year of his return to Boston, William Bryant departed again for the Northwest Coast, this time as captain of the Bryant & Sturgis ship Triton.
The Rob Roy was lost on the California coast in 1830; Captain Daniel Cross died at sea in 1850. The last vestiges to this voyage are the mask that he presented to the East India Marine Society and this journal. No documentation can currently be found to explain why the journal came to Nantucket. When NHA staff recently searched for information they found that the catalog information associated with the accession number on the cover described "a red trunk." In a way, this is a perfect end to the story because the interpretation of history is never complete. Solving one small mystery leads inevitably to a chain of others; the joy of discovery is always balanced by the questions still unanswered.
Captain William Bryant died at home in his bed in Springfield, Massachusetts, on 22 August 1857, thirty-two years and two days after he returned from his first voyage to the Pacific Ocean on the Rob Roy. *
MARY MALLOY teaches Maritime Studies at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole and Museum Studies at Harvard University She is the author of "Boston Men" on the Northwest Coast: The American Maritime Fur Trade, and Souvenirs of the Fur Trade: Northwest Coast Indian Art and Artifacts Collected by American Mariners
Letter of Instruction to Capt. Daniel Cross, August 14, 1821. Bryant & Sturgis Papers, Baker Library Harvard University Ms. 766, 1811-72,$ 9/5, p. 219.