NEWBURYPORT — The Custom House Maritime Museum is turning its focus to women this month with a new exhibit that looks at a 19th century wife and mother following her dream: going to sea.
Opening today, “One Woman’s World” re-creates the story of Newburyport native Elizabeth Bray, who in 1853 boarded a ship commanded by her husband, Capt. Stephen Bray, and embarked on a journey that took her halfway around the world.
The presentation is based on 140 pages of Bray’s handwritten journal recounting her first-hand experiences.
“Elizabeth is a gifted writer, and provides wonderful sketches of life at sea,” museum curator Michelle Hastings said.
Bray’s early words indicate her sense of hope and optimism: “Everything seems favorable to my taking this journey, which I have desired all my life, and now for the first time I have the opportunity.”
While it was not unheard of for a captain to take his wife to sea, museum curators say, it does appear unusual that Bray left her two juvenile sons on the dock as she sailed off for several years.
According to Hastings, Bray took her daughter, Fanny, who was about 5, but not her boys.
“Women on board, when it happened, were seen as a means of improving behavior of the crews,” Hastings said. “Little Fanny probably got a lot of attention from the sailors.”
The museum’s presentation is part of a strategy by the directors of the Custom House to offer story lines that make the past come alive.
“Newburyport has a remarkable maritime history and we want to bring attention to individual stories so those in the area can become involved in that history,” Michael Mroz, executive director of the Water Street museum, said.
“Having Elizabeth’s journal in her handwriting is a great resource, and tells us much about this remarkable woman — and the journeys that local ships embarked upon.”