Tag Archives: Arctic disaster of 1871

The ship Lagoda: The Maritime History of an American Icon, 1826-1890

Detail illustration showing the Jonathan Bourne, Jr. house flag. This flag would have flown from the mainmast of his ships to identify ownership. It was taken from the New Bedford and Fairhaven Signal Book (New Bedford, 1842) the yar after he bought the Lagoda.

Detail illustration showing the Jonathan Bourne, Jr. house flag. This flag would have flown from the mainmast of his ships to identify their ownership. It was taken from the New Bedford and Fairhaven Signal Book (New Bedford, 1842) the year after he bought the Lagoda.

We catch our first glimpse of the ship Lagoda from the deck of the Bryant & Sturgis brig Pilgrim of Boston, anchored off Ballast Point, San Diego, California, trading cow hides and tallow in 1835: “The third was a large ship, with top-gallant masts housed, and sails unbent, and as rusty and worn as two years hide-droghing” could make her.[1] The Lagoda was just under ten years old when Richard Henry Dana, Jr. immortalized the Scituate- built merchant ship as a hard working cow-hide freighter in his classic maritime narrative Two Years before the Mast. It’s funny how some ships are simply destined for greatness and others languish forgotten forever. The Lagoda, oddly enough, was one of the former class. Built for the carrying trades in 1826, she was sold into the whale fishery in 1841, and so served out the rest of her days. She was 64 years old and had sailed to every ocean of the world and most of the seas as well when she was finally condemned at Yokohama, Japan in 1890.

At the time, Dana described her as a large ship, and at 340 tons, she was the largest ship that the Duxbury, Massachusetts merchant Ezra Weston had built to date. Ezra Weston II (1772-1842) known as “King Caesar of Duxbury,” and the firm of Ezra Weston & Son, built 85 sloops, schooners, brigs and ships between 1800-1856 and over twenty more in the 18th century. Weston was among the most successful Massachusetts maritime merchants whose ships traded throughout the Mediterranean, the West Indies, the Baltic, South America and particularly, the New Orleans cotton trade.

Probably built of local Massachusetts white oak and pine, spruce and hackmatack from Maine, there was nothing particularly special about the Lagoda apart from her mistaken name. A 340 ton American merchant ship really stands out very little in maritime history; hundreds of them were built from Maine to South Carolina. The only thing that brings the Lagoda to the world’s immediate attention really is her name, and by and by, her success in the whale fishery.  Long the subject of conjecture by curious people, the name “Lagoda” was evidently simply a mistake, a typo as it were, made by the painter who put the name of the ship on the stern at the shipyard.

According to Frederick Sawyer, author of the 1841 guide to commercial shipping regulations, The Merchant’s and Shipmaster’s Guide, “the name of every registered ship, and the port to which she belongs, must be painted on her stern, on a black ground, in white letters of not less than three inches in length, under the penalty of $50.00.” Further, although there was no law specifically addressing the name of a ship, or changing the name of a ship, In Merchant Sail the maritime historian and naval architect, William Armstrong Fairburn specifically noted: “For centuries it had been considered unlucky to change the name of a ship unless there was a change of ownership, when it might be deemed permissible, or unless, coupled with a change of flag and foreign registry, a change of name might become obligatory.”[2] He went on to note that very few American vessels had their names changed in the 19th century.

What’s really interesting is how the naming of the Lagoda came about in the first place. Ships were sometimes named for their intended business, where they were trading or what they were intended to do. The Levant, for instance, was intended for trade in the eastern Mediterranean, the Cossack for whaling in the Sea of Okhotsk, the Arab for whaling in the Indian Ocean, and the Alaska was intended to be a Behring Strait whaler. One classic example is the ship Ann Alexander, built at Dartmouth, MA in 1805 to the order of George Howland, Sr., merchant of New Bedford and named by him for Ann Tuke Alexander (1767-1849) a Quaker proselytizer.

The Lagoda has an interesting back story. While significant iron production was taking place in North America, much of the bog ore relied upon by early Massachusetts shipbuilders was insufficient in both quantity and quality for the growing needs of the industry. New England shipbuilding merchants traded for Russian hemp, duck sailcloth and high-quality bar iron from Sweden and Finland at St. Petersburg, Russia, specifically, from the western shore of Lake Ladoga.

This detail from Mount and Page, The English Pilot... Northern Navigation (London, 1785) shows the approaches to St. Petersburg.

This detail from Mount and Page, The English Pilot… Northern Navigation (London, 1785) shows the approaches to St. Petersburg.

A detail from and 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of the brig Benezet to New Bedford from St. Petersburg. Note the large quantities of iron, hemp and sail cloth.

A detail from and 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of the brig Benezet to New Bedford from St. Petersburg. Note the large quantities of iron, hemp and sail cloth.

 

A detail from an 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of Russian iron onboard the ship Ladoga of New Bedford.

A detail from an 1816 entry in the New Bedford Custom House impost book showing the cargo of Russian iron onboard the ship Ladoga of New Bedford.

Iron from the Ladoga Mines went into many an American ship and, according to historian Samuel Eliot Morison, was the preferred material for harpoons.[3] I’ve never actually seen such a reference myself, but a great deal of Swedish iron was imported directly into New Bedford, so it makes perfect sense. Naming ships for their general trading destination was a common practice. In fact, one ship called the Ladoga had already been built at New Bedford to the order of William Rotch, Jr. in 1816, destined specifically for the Baltic trade.

William Rotch, Jr. wrote in 1796 concerning the St. Petersburg trade:

“It has been my intention for some time to employ a Ship in the Russia Trade from this Port, but the high price of American ships at the present time has prevented my purchasing this year but being desirous of making an experiment and having had your house recommended to me for punctuality and attention to business, I have taken the liberty to request my friends Thomas Dickason & Co of London to give you Credit on them for my behalf for 4 or 5000£ Stg and to Charter A small Ship to go as early as possible to St. Petersburg for a Cargo to bring to this Port…go to St Petersburg as early as the Cargo can be ready of about 150 Tons which if a profitable Ship to load, I suppose will take 70 Tons of Hemp & 130 Tons Iron, I need not remind you of the necessity of a Strong light Ship for such a Cargo. you will please also see the Ship is well found and well manned with a good Careful Master…” [4]

Unlike most of “King Caesar’s” ships, the Lagoda was built, not on the Bluefish River in Duxbury, but on the North River at Scituate, a few miles up the coast, on the site of the old Edward Wanton Yard owned by Seth and Samuel Foster. Wanton was a 17th century Quaker convert, a witness to the hanging of Mary Dyer, who left Boston and settled in Scituate where he built sloops and topsail schooners.[5] The Foster family took over the shipyard and Elisha Foster was building ships there as early as 1811.

Weston managed the Lagoda for seven years, primarily in the European trade, before the Dorchester merchant William Oliver purchased her. Oliver was a successful Boston merchant, at least according to his numerous obituary references, although his primary mercantile interests are not easily identified. He sat on the board of the Suffolk Insurance Company in 1836 even after his retirement and in 1840 was Vice-President of the Boston Horticultural Society and donated large sums of money to a variety of benevolent societies. In 1833, however, he, along with a large number of other Boston merchants invested in a hide-trading voyage to California. The firm of John Bryant and William Sturgis had taken the lead in the California hide and tallow trade after earlier Boston merchants had identified its potential, but William Oliver and his company of investors also participated for at least the one voyage.

It appears that the Lagoda made but one voyage to California before being sold to Jonathan Cushing and Nathaniel F. Ames, dry goods merchants of Boston. Cushing and Ames owned the Lagoda for four voyages between 1835 until 1839. Newspaper records indicate that the Lagoda was engaged in the carrying trade from England to ports in the U.S. including Richmond, Baltimore and New Orleans.[6]

As far as the impetus for Jonathan Bourne to purchase the Lagoda, Morison again makes a tantalizing observation that: “Fishermen and other small vessels were constructed in Plymouth Bay at this period; and at Wareham and Mattapoisett on Buzzards Bay were more children of North River, building 300 ton whalers for Nantucket, and neutral traders for New Bedford.” With a complete lack of primary source material to support it, a hypothesis may be crafted based on patterns of genealogy that transcend coincidence, suggesting that when the ship came up for sale, Bourne evidently heard of her qualities from Captain James Townsend.

Anonymous portrait of Captain James Tonsend, circa 1830. 2001.100.4357.

Anonymous portrait of Captain James Tonsend, circa 1830. 2001.100.4357.

Townsend, a relation (father, perhaps, or uncle) of Mary C. Townsend who married into the Ames family when she married shipwright Nathaniel F. Ames of Mattapoisett in 1842 was master and part owner of the ship General Pike of New Bedford in 1837, the first whaler that Bourne invested in. The tentative relationship between Cushing & Ames in Boston and the Cushing and Ames families of Mattapoisett seems far beyond mere coincidence, especially when discussing the qualities of a North River-built ship with a thorough local history. Ames may well have recommended the stout, seasoned Lagoda for her new job in the whale fishery to Townsend, who in turn relayed that information to Bourne. At the very least, the ship had a local reputation.

Among Jonathan Bourne's first whaling investments was the 1835 voyage of the ship South Carolina of New Bedford on a right whaling voyage to the South Atlantic Ocean. Second mate William W. Taylor painted this watercolor scene of right whaling in the southern Indian Ocean while on that voyage. KWM #411

Among Jonathan Bourne’s first whaling investments was the 1835 voyage of the ship South Carolina of New Bedford on a right whaling voyage to the South Atlantic Ocean. Second mate William W. Taylor painted this watercolor scene of right whaling in the southern Indian Ocean while on that voyage. KWM #411

Jonathan Bourne, like many other New Bedford whaling agents, used the right whale fishery to great advantage. While all of Bourne’s ship returned sperm oil, over all they returned a great deal more whale oil. Bourne operated under the maxim that “brown oil is better than no oil.” So, the Lagoda, for instance, returned over three times as much whale oil over her career than sperm. The same can be said for every other one of the twenty-four ships owned by Bourne over the course of his career except for the Draco, the Adeline Gibbs, the Alaska and the Napoleon.  In the case of every one of these vessels except the Draco, their sperm oil returns came either during or after the Civil War when sperm oil reached its highest prices in history, over $2.00 per gallon.

In 1860, after Bourne sold a cargo of sperm oil at a good profit he wrote to a correspondent, “I think whaling is looking decidedly better, particularly the sperm whaling. Did you think I should be in the market buying whalers? You see I am not so badly scared at the business.”[7] Curiously, the Lagoda’s three most profitable voyages, 1850-1853, under Asa S. Tobey; 1860-1864 under Zebedee A. Devoll who died of Java Fever eight months out from home; 1864-1868 under Charles W. Fisher, were all right whaling voyages when the price of whalebone had reached over $1.00 per pound.

Bourne also hired the most experienced masters to command his ships and he put up with no nonsense. He wrote to the master of one of his ships in 1860, concerning another: “I don’t intend to have a drunken man to squander my property.”[8] He was in the habit of making diligent inquiries into the qualities of his masters and officers as can be readily seen in the below letter:

Capt James M Witherell, No Falmouth

Dear Sir. Since you left I have made some further enquiries about Mr Robinson who was mate of the “Zone” of Fairhaven

The owners give him the name of being a first rate sperm whaleman his right whaling they know nothing of but think he has been right whaling

You had better make some enquiries about him. Today I was [sic] Charles Kempton would go, who was mate of the Lagoda when you went your first voyage. Of him I need not speak as you was there and know all about his disposition, whaling qualities, habits & c. I understand he is as good as then, but of course no better. I take it his age is the only objection if there is any.

Let me hear from you what you think about him. One of the young Kelly’s who was in the “Reindeer” is here, and if you was here before he went home, I have but little doubt you would get them both. I cannot say anything to them as Mr. Howland would think I was interring with him.[9]

Of the twelve masters who commanded the Lagoda, only two, Charles W. Fisher and John D. Willard sailed the Lagoda as their first command and Willard was second mate on the Lagoda on her 1850 voyage under Asa Tobey. Fisher, who had Bourne’s complete confidence (as demonstrated through their correspondence) shipped as second mate on Bourne’s ship Stephania , 1860-1864, before being appointed master of the Lagoda in 1864.

During her career as a whaler, the Lagoda made two of Bourne’s most profitable voyages. Both came after the rig was changed from a ship to a bark. On her 1856 voyage, she sailed from New Bedford with a complement of 31 crew members, whereas when she sailed in 1860 as a bark, she had fewer men, 26. Fewer men meant fewer lays to pay, and her outfitting costs were considerably less as well. Almost every voyage thereafter made more money as a bark than when she was rigged as a ship.  The 8th voyage of the Lagoda, under command of Charles Fisher, 1864-1868 was a right whaling voyage to the North Pacific. It placed tenth on Bourne’s most-profitable list returning the owners 219% on their investment. On this voyage the Lagoda twice made port at Yokohama, Japan, quite an interesting shift in U.S.-Japan relations brought about largely through the expanding influence of Yankee whalers in the Pacific. The voyage lasted 46 months. The 7th voyage of the Lagoda, under the command of Zebedee Devoll placed fifth on the list of the ten most profitable voyages lasting 44 months and returning 363% on the initial investment.[10]

While the Lagoda is often credited with being Bourne’s “most profitable” ship, that honor could actually fall to the bark Hunter built to Bourne’s specifications by Elbridge G. Pierce at Gardner, Maine in 1851. The Hunter made 13 voyages, surpassing the Lgoda in total sales of catch but at the end of the accounting, when all of the profits were added up, the Lagoda overall made Bourne the most money. The other two most profitable ships in the Bourne fleet were the Draco and the Northern Light.

Among the more significant highlights in the Lagoda’s career were her involvement in the opening of American-Japan relations and the rescue of the 1200 seamen from the 32 wrecked whalers in the Arctic disaster of 1871.

While the ship had made port in Yokohama on her 1864 voyage, that was already six years after Commodore Perry had negotiated a treaty of amity and commerce and American ships were welcome in Japanese ports. The really important event, and one that scholars have long argued pushed the impetus for Perry’s later visit, was on her 1846 voyage under the command of James Finch, when 15 crew members took three whaleboats and deserted the Lagoda on the coast of Japan.  The Lagoda was cruising in the Sea of Japan in June of 1848 at the time and the men made landfall at Matsumae in the extreme southwest of Hokkaido. Here they were captured, imprisoned and by several accounts beaten and tortured. They were feared by the Japanese authorities to be spies, suspected of being Christians, and known for a fact to be illegal interlopers. The men were later taken to Nagasaki and held there for almost a year. There was a Dutch consul in Nagasaki, the Dutch being the only Westerners permitted to trade on the Japanese mainland. By several accounts, the deserters were treated harshly and deaths were reported, however the stories differ between the predictably bad behavior of American seamen who had deserted their ship and the stringent Japanese reactions to lawbreakers. In any event, one of the deserters, a Hawaiian Islander did hang himself, and at least one other prisoner died, allegedly killed while trying to escape.

Their treatment sparked an international incident as Dutch authorities notified the American sloop-of-war Preble, James Glynn, master, who in April of 1849 successfully negotiated their release. In a dispatch from Commodore David Geisinger commander of the U.S. East India Squadron, dated Canton January 25, 1849, it was reported that the Lagoda had run aground and been wrecked and that the crew members were shipwreck survivors. In a demonstration of just exactly how well-informed Jonathan Bourne actually was, a letter that he wrote to the wife of a crew member requesting an advance on her husband’’s pay, confirms that he had already heard from the Lagoda after the alleged date of her shipwreck. In this instance, Bourne was better informed of the whereabouts of his ship than the U.S. Navy.

New Bedford 4 mo 10 1849

Mrs. Weston A Briggs

Your letter of the 3rd Inst came to hand, & contents noticed. Inclosed please find Twenty Dollars. You may hear, or see in some of the news papers, the Loss of the Ship Lagoda, at one of the Japan Islands, but give yourself no uneasiness whatever, as it is entirely false. The Ship I know was at the Sandwich Islands Nov 20 1849, and was not then ready for Sea. Consequently could not be in the Japan Sea at the time of the reported loss. It originated from the three Boats crews who deserted her when she was there the last season. Should you have any letters from Mr Briggs, please inform me of it.[11]

The Arctic disaster of 1871 also featured the Lagoda. In this event, as we all know, 30 New England whalers along with and one from Hawaii and one from San Francisco whalers stayed a little too long on the North Slope of Alaska chasing whales in conditions that led to the ice pack moving rapidly toward shore. Several ships were outside of the ice, and the New Bedford ships Midas, Progress and Daniel Webster, owned by William O. Brownell, Jonathan Bourne’s Lagoda and Samuel Osborne’s Europa of Edgartown were able to take the shipwrecked crews onboard and deliver them to Honolulu safely. After the fleet was almost completely destroyed in the crushing ice, 1200 crewmen in whaleboats made their way south in whaleboats and were taken onboard the five waiting ships and returned to San Francisco and Honolulu. 170 of the men were taken onboard the Lagoda. The U.S. Treasury immediately granted a bounty of $35.00 gold currency per man to each to the owners of each vessel for their services and these amounts were awarded in 1872. The really interesting part of this story is that Brownell, Bourne and Osborn petitioned the U.S. Government for additional reimbursement due to lost whaling time in rescuing the shipwrecked crews. They submitted a memorial to the Committee on Claims of the U.S. House of Representatives.[12]

Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 1871/ Pl. 3. By Benjamin Russell, lithograph by J.H. Bufford, Boston, 1872. Russell supplemented his earnings as a print-maker and painter of ship portraits by generating exact, detailed and authoritative illustrations of events in support of insurance claims. He produced the series of five prints documenting the events of 1871 in the Arctic to support the claims of New Bedford whaling agents to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Abandonment of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean Sept. 1871/ Pl. 3. By Benjamin Russell, lithograph by J.H. Bufford, Boston, 1872. Russell supplemented his earnings as a print-maker and painter of ship portraits by generating exact, detailed and authoritative illustrations of events in support of insurance claims. He produced the series of five prints documenting the events of 1871 in the Arctic to support the claims of New Bedford whaling agents to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In preparation for that memorial, it appears that the New Bedford artist Benjamin Russell prepared a series of drawings to serve as exhibition documentation of the event. In 1872 these drawings were later made into the famous series of prints “Abandonment of the whalers in the Arctic.” Interpretive reference drawings of events leading to insurance claims seem to have been relatively common and Russell’s prints of the Arctic disaster, as good as they are, definitely fall into the category of documentation rather than art.

Jonathan Bourne sold the Lagoda to William Lewis in 1886, and Lewis transferred the bark to San Francisco, the new center of the American whaling trade. Whalebone was driving the whaling industry in the late 19th century and Lewis had invested in a number of steamers as well as old whalers like the California , the Horatio and the Lagoda. The Lagoda made her final voyage in 1889, a cruise to Japan and the Sea of Okhotsk. She was condemned as unseaworthy at Yokahama in 1890. What happened was that in 1867, the ship had struck on a reef approaching Yokohama Harbor and needed to be repaired. All of the bolt heads had stripped off her false keel and damage was done to the hull. In 1889, before sailing, she had been put in dry dock while full of 1000 gallons of fresh water in casks and the weight started the old repairs. When she put to sea the strain had weakened the hull to the point where the ship was leaking at 33,000 strokes every 24 hours. With the crew refusing duty, the Lagoda actually put back in to Yokohama, the same place where the damage had occurred in the first place.[13] Here she was finally condemned and put to work as a collier.

Bark Lagoda at wharfside, circa 1880s. 200.100.787

Bark Lagoda at wharfside, circa 1880s. 200.100.787

In many ways the story of the Lagoda is absolutely worthy of our perpetual preservation. Jonathan Bourne in his business decisions, and later his daughter Emily in her understanding and discretion of her father’s legacy, made an excellent choice with the Lagoda . What stories better represent the maritime culture of Massachusetts than that of the Lagoda? Built in the era when the U.S.A. was finally free to trade on the high seas the world round, built of native timbers to the order of a major American merchant, a ship destined for the California trade she was on the coast before California entered the Union in 1850, the Russian trade, the Liverpool trade and finally the whale fishery, she began her life at a time when American ship portraits were rare and ended her days in New Bedford with a photograph at the wharves. She was instrumental in the opening of Japan, the annexation of Alaska and traded on both coasts of Russia, from St. Petersburg to Vladivostok. She made her owners a lot of money and today serves as a cornerstone in the educational programs of the museum introducing generations to the significance of Massachusetts and the U.S.A. to the maritime history of the world.

[1] Richard Henry Dana, Jr. Two Years Before the Mast (New York, 1840), p.

[2] William A. Fairrburn, Merchant Sail Vol. IV (Center Lovell, Maine, 1945-1955), pp. 2645-2658.

[3] Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts (Boston, 1921), p. 294.

[4] ODHS MSS 2 Rotch Family Papers

[5] Historic and Cultural Resources Survey of Norwell (Norwell, Massachusetts June 2007).

[6] Richmond Enquirer, September 17, 1839.

[7] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne Papers, Letter book, 1860-181, “New Bedford Augt 6 1860

[8] ibid.

[9] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne Letter Book, 1860-1861

[10] For a complete assessment of Jonathan Bourne’s whaling interests, see: ODHS Bake Papers, Vol. 2, “Whaling Statistics.”

[11] ODHS MSS 18, Jonathan Bourne, Jr. Letter book, 1849.

[12] United States. Congress. House. Committee on Claims. Owners and crews of certain American whaling vessels : July 28, 1890. ODHS #BI-411.

[13] Daily Alta California, Volume 83, Number 80, 18 September 1890

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