, Newburyport, MA

Local News

October 13, 2012

Inside the journal of a 19th century sea captain's wife

Inside the journal of a 19th-century seaman's wife


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.”

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