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.