Much of New England maritime lore focuses on hard-driving ship captains setting course and giving orders — kind of a 19th-century “Mad Men” goes to sea.
But a team at the Custom House Maritime Museum on the Newburyport waterfront is currently transcribing a journal written by a local woman who sailed thousands of miles, and her observations about the ports here and abroad provide unique perspectives on the shipping world of many years ago.
The author is Elizabeth Bray, who was married to ship Capt. Stephen Bray of Newburyport. The family lived in this busy seaport, which reached its peak in the shipping and shipbuilding trades in the mid-19th century.
Elizabeth Bray joined her husband on several of his trips, including one in 1854 that she writes about in her journal. At that time, she left her two boys, ages 10 and 11, on shore to stay with relatives.
“She was a remarkable woman,” said Michael Mroz, executive director of the maritime museum. “She had great curiosity and a real sense of adventure.
“Many Newburyport ships went around the world in the 1850s, and men from this city often encountered friends in ports thousands of miles away. We feel fortunate to make public a journal of a woman of that era.”
The maritime museum received the journal after it was found among the belongings of the old Newburyport Marine Society. Bray’s journal was left to the Marine Society by her daughter, Fanny (1849-1935), who herself traveled overseas with her parents when she was just 5.
The Marine Society folded in 1905, and many of its possessions went to the Historical Society of Old Newbury. In 1975, when the Custom House Marine Museum was created, the historical society “gifted” many journals, including Bray’s, as well as ship logs to the maritime museum.
In 2011, local researcher Kate Gilbert discovered Bray’s journal among the collection, and the maritime museum launched plans to make it public.
Elizabeth Bray was about 39 when she left on one journey aboard the Volant that she recorded.
On Sept. 25, 1854, she wrote, “Left home and all endearments to accompany my husband on a voyage by sea. ... The day is fine, the family in good health, the boys will be provided for, everything seems favorable to my taking this journey, which I have desired all my life, and now for the first time have the opportunity.
Michelle Hastings, a graduate student at Boston University and a former businesswoman here, is supervising the project. Whitney Huff, a student at Endicott College in Beverly, is responsible for transcribing the faint, but legible handwriting in the 140-page journal.
“We are learning so much,” said Hastings, who is a mother herself. “(Bray) got to see many cities, including New York and New Orleans, as the early pages indicate.
“But life wasn’t perfect. She writes of getting seasick and taking to her room.”
Hastings added that when the ship was in foreign ports, captains would see other captains and officers from New England; women met wives who were traveling with husbands or who were married to merchants in a given city.
Many ship owners approved of the captains’ wives traveling with them, in part to have a moderating effect on the behavior of crews, according to Kevin MacDonald, curator at the maritime museum.
Bray sometimes wrote about the lives of the crew, including one mention of solemn services for a deceased sailor who was buried at sea.
Bray also commented on life on shore, including this remark on New York City: “Arrived at about 11 o’clock at the United States Hotel, after crossing Sound; had a pleasant run until near morning when it became very foggy, which detained us for some hours.
“My first appearance in New York City, and am not at all prepared in its favor; the streets through we have passed neither look or smell sweet — may our stay here be short.”
The project to transcribe and annotate Bray’s words is a work in progress. Museum officials, for instance, are seeking pictures of the Brays and the Volant.
More of Bray’s dispatches are added each week, and they may be viewed at www.elizabethbraytravels.wordpress.com.
Mroz said that maritime museum officials hope that the project can be completed by March 2013, which is Women in Maritime History Month at the institution. Officials are also considering publishing a hard copy of the text for members and history lovers.