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Portrait of a Yankee Skipper

July 2024
17min read

From his great-grandfather’s papers a poet re-creates that hard-working man of many parts—sailor, farmer, merchant financier—the New England sea captain

The principal difference between history and life is that history is simpler. Things are themselves in history; in life they are generally something else. Take, for obvious example, the New England sea captain of the early 1800’s. In history he is a sea captain and nothing more: the master of magnificent brigs and ships on all the oceans, survivor of dreadful storms, proud and often successful adversary of the swiftest patrols the British or the French could send against him.

In life, however, if my great-grandfather, Captain Moses Hillard, was at all typical of his colleagues, he was a great deal more besides: he was a buyer and seller of goods of all kinds, from castor oil and cowitch through rum, coffee, and cotton to garden seeds of curious kinds and the best stockings and shawls to be purchased on the Paris market; he was a dealer in foreign exchange in a number of currencies, including, together with the Russian and the usual European varieties, the complicated coinages of the Spanish Main and those domestic American valuations which were expressed in such terms as “27½ Lawfl money is £13.2.6 or $43.75 cts.”

He was a sea lawyer skilled in the filling out of bills of lading in quadruplicate, one to he sworn to before consul or judge affirming United States ownership and three to be sent home, each one in a different vessel; he was a student of long-range and short-range markets in a number of Atlantic ports, a close observer of world affairs (particularly wars), a diplomat of sorts (especially at his own table), a master-rigger, a bit of a doctor, his own laborious secretary, a pleasant companion to his passengers, and a good bit of a man of the world wherever the world might be—in Demerara or New York or Paris.

And in addition to all this he was, or might be, a farmer. My great-grandfather was. How many Yankee sea captains had farms to which they returned between their months-long, often years-long, voyages, I have no means of knowing. The Atlantic coasts of Rhode Island and of eastern Massachusetts and Maine, where the hay mowings run down to salt water and half the pasture fences are tidal creeks, have a look which suggests that the combination may have been fairly common. Captain Hillard’s farm was none of these. It lay out of sound and smell of the sea, some ten miles, perhaps, from the head of navigation, in the little Connecticut town of Preston where the Captain was born in 1780, and where the journey home at the end of a voyage was a long one: by schooner from New York to New London and up the Thames to Norwich, and thence by horseback or cart across the bridge and through the country lanes to 130 acres of ungrateful land and a small unnainted house.

And yet, lor some inexplicable reason, that house was closer to the ocean than many built along its shore. Captain Hillard’s gravestone in the Long Society Burying Ground stands beside the stones of three of his brothers, no one of whom is buried in that ground. George Hillard’s body is somewhere on the island of Madeira, Captain Chester Hillard’s lies in a cemetery in Havana, and Benjamin Franklin Hillard was lost at sea off Spain in his nineteenth year.

It would be a mistake, however, to think of the Hillards, or any other sea captain’s family with a foot ashore, as farmer-sailors. The farm was all very well in its way—a place to return to and a place to leave one's wife and children—but a man’s life was the sea and his profession also. Jefferson’s embargo proved that, if any proof was necessary, to hundreds of landlocked sailors up and down the coast and to my great-grandfather neither least nor last. In a letter written in January, 1809, to a seafaring friend in New York, the relative values of land and sea in his universe are made pungently plain, as well as the politics and temper of the man himself:

“Of a Sunday morning and a Stormy Day that Deprives me of my Usual Sundays tour of going to meeting and with a handful of Sore fingers bruised getting wood for this cold weather and A heart worse bruised by the tyrannical Acts of our Government I sit down to Inform you of my and my family’s good health and to Enquire After yours and family’s who I hope are Enjoying everything that our present oppressed Situation will allow of your Enjoying. for my share I can assure you there is but little left for people of my profession to Rejoice in. however to keep off the blue Devils my brothers and myself are busying ourselves in Getting wood out of a Dismal Swamp, we have already 100 loads out heaped up so that of freezing we are in no Danger if tom Jefferson and his thundering Administration Starve us out we will go to hell with a fire...

“If I have Raved in my Expressions when you Consider me Compelled to Abandon my own profession and Knock about here in the woods with broken shins and jammed fingers growling like A bear with A Sore head I trust your goodness will Excuse me … for I am beating up Against wind and tide and dam hard work to hold my own Every now and then Splitting a Sail. Although Already on Soundings I shant Anchor in hopes that the Current of political influence will soon be changing as I Already See A Damd Strong Eddy Current not far from the Ship which may Set up Strong I hope Ere the Barkee is Ashore...”

Why he loved the sea as he did is a question no sea captain of that difficult time could have answered logically. Captain Hillard was one of the best on the North Atlantic—a man whose passengers wrote him letters of tribute to his “connaissances supérieures en marine” and his agreeable “manière d’agir envers tous les passagers”—but there was little in his career to recommend it to his softer descendants, or, at least, to this one.

His second voyage, when he was nineteen, ended in a French prison on Guadeloupe and he was constantly being searched at sea by arrogant British officers such as the captain of the Leander who, as Captain Hillard wrote his owner, Joseph Otis of New York, in 1804, boarded him, “Sandy Whook bearing WNW dist 219 Miles,” and treated him “in A most Rascally Manner Who Plundered us of A Number of Small articles and Left Us for a Parcle of Saucy Yankeys Assuring us he had taken A Number of our Countrymen and Were in hopes of taking More.”

Furthermore, the wages were not impressive, even when allowance is made for the depreciation of the currency. On his first voyage to Hamburg, Moses Hillard was paid $22 a month; on his second, to the West Indies, the rate was $17; and even when he became captain, as he did in 1803 at the age of 22, $40 or thereabouts was the average pay—though he carried, of course, small “adventures” for himself and seems to have shared, toward the end of his career, in the profits of his voyages. It must be added however—as a commentary on the economy of Preston if not on his own—that the Captain’s assessment for the Fifth School District, Second Society,∗ in October, 1820, was the highest on the list, in consequence of which he was made chairman of the committee to build and repair the schoolhouse and defray its expenses.

∗ A kind of parish under the Congregational Church, not disestablished in Connecticut until 1818.

And over and above all lhis there was, of course, the sea itself—or rather the sea in its relation to such ships as the time afforded: staunch, well-built Yankee vessels but small indeed by any modern standard. Captain Hillard’s first command was the brig Neptune of 123 tons and his two largest were the ship Amiable Matilda, 232 tons, and the ship Favorite, 274. Smaller craft by far have crossed the Atlantic, but rarely and with little pleasure in the waters which the Yankee skippers frequented and at the seasons which found them afloat. What happens to a vessel of 160 tons in the North Sea in December and January is recorded with restraint in Captain Hillard’s “minet” on a voyage of his brig, the Havana Packet, to Toningen with a cargo of logwood at the end of the year 1809.

From the Banks of Newfoundland on, they had “but little else than Constant and Severe Gales of wind generally from the westward till passing the Shetland Islands During Which time we had our head Rails and Quarter boards Washed Away by the Sea and our Crew were very Much Disabled from the fatigue of the passage. After Entering the North Sea which was on the 30th December had tolerable Moderate weather and Constant thick fog for most of the time till 15th January 1810 for the last ten Days of Which time were never more than Seventy or Eighty miles from Heiligoland nor had an Observation & on the 15th Jany Made the Island of Heiligoland at which time the wind was blowing a verry hard Gale and Excessive Cold which Gale Drave us past the Horn Reef to the Northward the vessel Much loaded with Ice and our Crew Mostly frozen and Disabled from the Severity of the Weather found it to be Impossible with Such Weather in our Disabled State to Remain Much longer at Sea. …”

This, one gathers, was a more or less routine voyage, worth no more than fifteen lines or so to the owner. The Havana Packet, “having no more than two well men on board,” made port eventually in Norway, her general destination. Nevertheless one may be permitted to feel, at this remove, that there are better, or at least easier, ways of earning $40 a month.

Not all voyages, moreover, turned out even as well as this. Any sea captain of the time who followed the sea long enough was likely to lose a ship and Captain Hillard was no exception. He lost the Oneida in a January storm in 1817 and very nearly lost his wife, Sally Pride, with her, for that adventurous lady was on her first trip to Paris at the time. Only the bare facts of the disaster are recorded in the “Protest” made by Captain Hillard, his chief mate, and a seaman, before Robert Monroe Harrison, consul of the United States for the island of St. Thomas, where half the ship’s company was eventually brought ashore, but something more can be guessed from the Captain’s letters and other sources. For one thing, the Oneida was apparently a famous ship in the North Atlantic, with a great reputation among passengers between Le Havre and New York; for another, if a stubborn but unverified tradition in the Hillard family is true, she was involved in one of the several plots for the escape of Napoleon after Waterloo; and finally she was her master’s favorite vessel.

The story of the plot is as vague as it is intriguing. What it comes down to is the Captain’s assertion to his son, Elias Brewster Hillard, my grandfather, who was not born until ten years after the battle, that friends of the Emperor had approached the Oneida’s master in Paris after Waterloo to attempt to arrange for passage through the blockading British fleet. The Captain, who had no love for British men-of-war either alone or in combination, was willing enough and went so far as to build a false bottom in a water butt, but though he lay on and off at the point agreed for the better part of a night no Bonaparte appeared. It is a tale one has heard before. I can say only this for its probability: that Captain Hillard had a reputation for truthfulness.

Of the Captain’s passion for the Oneida, however, there can be no question. She was, in a very particular sense, his ship, for the Talcotts bought her, apparently on his advice, in his own home port of Norwich where she lay under attachment, “her top Masts and yards aloft and all her Standing Rigging hanging overhead in the weather.” She was a sad sight and in the slowly recovering ship industry, shaken by the Embargo and brought close to ruin by the war, it was difficult work getting her calked and rigged and painted, but the job was eventually done. There are five letters from captain to owners in the month of March, 1815, telling the whole story in a detail which would delight a sailor even now, and before the month was out he had brought her over the Norwich bar “with as light a draft of water as possible”—seven feet nine inches—a northwest gale having lowered the tides in the Thames for some days past.

It was a four-day gale from the same quarter which prepared the destruction of the Oneida two years later. Bound for Le Havre, she had passed the east end of Long Island at three in the morning of January 20 when the wind began, driving her without rest or intermission until the night of the twenty-fourth when, as the “Protest” recounts, the wind suddenly “veered around to South East and blew a Perfect Hurricane, when laying too at 11 PM the Ship was struck by a Sea and thrown on her beam ends with the lee Combings of the Hatches in the water which Obliged them to get up their axes in Readiness to cut away the masts when the wind suddenly shifted to N.W. blowing a gale at which time the Ship Righted and it was Discovered that She had opened a Dangerous leak. …”

For the next seventeen days passengers and crew, Captain and wile, held precariously to a miserable, frozen hope. First, the crew being exhausted with the intense cold and only two of them “capable of Doing Duty … the Passengers were prevailed upon to go to the Pumps.” Then, the leak still increasing, they encountered “another Dreadful gale” and the ship’s upper works threatening, under the strain, to separate from the bottom, they “commenced heaving overboard the spare spars Cables and everything that could be got at and stove the water casks but Retaind the long boat for the purpose of saving their lives. …” By this time “the Passengers were compelled to work at the Pumps without intermission.”

By the first of February, after the anchor had been hove and as much of the cargo—ashes, flour, beeswax—as they could get at, and after the small boat had been “stove over the stern,” the passengers and crew were “falling at the Pumps in Despair” but the gale still continued and her upper works were now “so loose that it was expected every roll that they would seperate from her bottom.” Finally, on the ninth of February, after they had begun to put a raft together, “a sail passed to windward but took no Notice of our Signals of Distress.” The next day, however, there was a second sail which bore down and proved to be the schooner Mars of Newport, George W. Carr, master, bound from New York to Surinam.

Captain Carr was prevailed upon “to Receive them on board 24 in number with a part of their baggage and a small Quantity of Provisions” and the Oneida was abandoned “in Latd 33″ 20 North and Longd 59″ 00 she having then 4 feet water in the hold and the Pumps Stopped. …” Two weeks later the overcrowded little Mars fell in with the Bremen ship Dido, bound for the Virgin Islands, and fourteen of the 24 were transferred, including Captain Hillard and his wife. They reached St. Thomas on the fifth of March, a season when the trade wind is steady in those parts, the sun hot, and the sea unusually blue.

I never fly over that lovely port now on my easy, safe, and comfortable way to the Leewards without seeing it, or trying to, as it must have looked to my great-grandfather in March of 1817. Disasters at sea are the common lot of sailors, but few are called upon to live through as long, persistent, and relentless a trial as the ship’s company of the Oneida. As one thinks of the frostbitten, helpless crew and the despairing passengers at the pumps, and the Captain’s wife in whatever shelter that wracked and leaking wreck afforded, one can imagine how much rest Moses Hillard found in those twenty days.

One can imagine also with what conflicting emotions he saw the harbor of St. Thomas. He had saved his passengers and crew. His wife was alive, though the voyage, as he wrote the Talcotts, had been “almost too much for her”—one can well believe it. But he had lost his cargo and, above all, he had lost his ship.

I suppose a sailor in those troubled years, like a sailor in any generation, balanced the bad off against the good and then refrained from striking a balance. The bad, in Moses Hillard’s computations, would have included, along with the wreck of the Oneida, the loss of the brig Caroline, and the failure of a voyage in the Amiable Matilda, but neither disaster would have been chargeable to the sea. The French sank the Caroline somewhere north of St. Lucia on his second voyage in 1800, and a British man-of-war, combined with the French Army, cost him the voyage in 1808. This second misadventure is reported in a letter from the Mediterranean to the Captain’s owners, William and Samuel Craig of New York. A “British cruizer,” he wrote them, had forced him into Gibraltar Roads and endorsed his register forbidding him to enter any port from which the British flag was excluded. This act, combined with the occupation of Barcelona by the French, “Blasts all our hopes of A voyage” and left him with no choice but to “Return Direct to NewYork as the best possible thing that I Can Do for your Interest in this Dreadful Dilemma. I shall sail with the first Ship of force that goes through the Gut for a Convoy and make the best of my way home.”

The loss of the brig Caroline is recorded in quite another form. From his first voyage (“July 2nd 1799 took my Departure from my father’s house in Preston and Sailed from Norwich for NewYork got to New-London and Set off from there in a light westerly wind”) Moses Hillard had kept a diary of sorts in a little, homemade journal covered with a rag of sailcloth which is now in the library at Yale. The last pages record the voyage of the Caroline which began at New London on May 8, 1800. St. Lucia, in the Windwards, was reached on June 13 and thereafter the journal entries are in lead pencil and now all but illegible:

Monday June. 23 sailed from St. Lucia for America with a fan’ wind.

Tuesday June 24 at 8 A.M. was taken by a French Privateer of 4 guns and fifty men and robbed of most of our clothes and adventures [i.e. goods for sale on adventure] and scuttled the brig after taking us all on board the privateer.

Wednesday June 25 took an American ship and put us all in irons.

Thursday June 26 this day kept close confined and under water most of the time.

Friday June 27 after having had several skirmishes [?] arrived in Basse-Terre not a/lowed to leave our irons on any emergency .

Saturday June 28 This day was put on shore and turned to prison after being robbed of our money one and all and most of our cloathes thus we are set naked and helpless ashore in a foreign country.

It was a mean business. The prisoners were allowed “two or three ounces of pork poor stuft and bread in proportion” and lived “toughing it out in the usual way half starved.” Some, including the Captain of the Caroline, were sent off in a cartel within a few days, but it was not until the twenty-eighth of July that Moses Hillard, having spent half his time in prison and the rest “working out” on the fitting of French sloops or prizes “to keep alive,” found himself in a cartel headed for St. Kitts.

On the other side of the mariner’s balance would stand, in Captain Hillard’s case, the voyage of the Thomas from Archangel to London to New York in 1812–13, which earned him his footnote in the history of the Republic. N. and D. Talcott of New York, the owners for whom the Captain most frequently sailed, had sent the Thomas to Archangel in the previous year, where the Russians had detained her on suspicion, real or pretended, as to her neutrality. Her captain and most of her crew had deserted her, her equipment had been tampered with, bills amounting to three or four thousand rubles were outstanding against her, and the situation generally was one to worry the American consul almost as much as it pained the owners.

Furthermore the War of 1812 was in the offing and the future handling of the ship, even if she could be cleared from Archangel, presented uncommonly difficult problems, in these circumstances—and it was a tribute to the regard in which he was held in the profession-Captain Hillard was asked to get together a skeleton crew of five or six able seamen and make his way to Archangel to take whatever action was possible. A credit for £4,000 was opened in his name, he was given full power of attorney to act for the owners, and the decision whether to sell the ship, freight her, or load her was left entirely to his discretion.

The mission, so far as the Thomas was concerned, was successfully completed. The Captain was able to get possession of his ship, man her and equip her and take her out. Financially, however, the owners sulfered. Agents, apparently British, so managed the exchange of funds in Archangel as to absorb a considerable part of the sterling credit, and Moses Hillard always felt that, had he understood Russian currency a little better, he might have saved the money loss as well as the ship itself. But it was not the finances of the voyage which gave it its importance but the news the Thomas brought home with her.

New York had not heard of Napoleon’s defeat in Russia until “the elegant corvette-built ship Thomas, Hillard, 48 days from London in ballast to N and D Talcott” came up the bay on the sixth of January, 1813, and even then some New Yorkers, including the editor of the Post, refused to believe it. Only after reflection did the Post announce to its readers that the “auspicious and glorious” report of the defeat of Murat and the flight of Bonaparte was “entitled to full faith and credit.” “The boasted conqueror of the north has been compelled already to quit Moscow in disgrace.…”

The principal significance of the voyage of the Thomas to men of our time, however, is the light it throws on the character of the sea captain’s profession as it was practiced at the beginning of the last century. Seamanship was undoubtedly the first requirement but only the first. Judgment, commercial and political as well as nautical, was demanded, and coolness (the Thomas was boarded on Georges Bank by a British squadron in pursuit of Commodore Rogers) was as necessary as courage. In addition a knowledge of commercial law and international banking was clearly desirable, as well as an ability to deal with bureaucrats and functionaries of many habits and traditions. A letter from Joseph Otis, owner of the brig Sussex, which Captain Hillard commanded at the age of 25, gives a succinct idea of what was expected of the master of a vessel in 1805. He was no mere carrier of cargoes bought and sold by others but a merchant—a sort of glorified Yankee peddler—as well:

New York 12 Oct. 1805—

Capt. Moses Hillard


The Brig Sussex under your Command, being now Loaded & ready for Sea, you will proceed with all possible Dispatch for La Guira and there dispose of your Cargo on the best Terms the market will admit and invest the proceeds in such Articles as you may Judge most for Our Interest & return direct for this Place— In Case you are not permitted an Entry at La Guira, You will if You think it advisable try one Other Port on the main, and also St. Thomas if it becomes necessary.

Your Cargo is valuable and the Articles comprising the same are of the first Qualities and will warrant recommending with Safety. We therefore trust you will obtain the highest Prices, be very Careful in Purchasing Your return Cargo, & see that every thing is free of damage, and of Good Qualities—be extremely Cautious in all your Dealings, do nothing that Shall in the Least endanger the Property under your Care. You will write every opportunity & communicate every Particular relative to your Situation, Prospects & Destination.

Your Vessel & Cargo being Insured, you will in Case of any Accident procure the requisite Papers to enable to recover of the Underwriters. We are allowed by the Charterparty, thirty Lay Days in the West-Indies from the Time of Entry at the Custom House, beyond that Time we must pay a heavy Demurage. It therefore becomes necessary that every Exertion be used to facilitate Your Business. At foot you have the present prices of a few Articles for your Government. Wishing you a Safe & pleasant Voyage—

Your Obt Servant Joseph Otis

Coffee 27 to 30 Cents

Cocoa 35 to 38 Dols for 112

Hides 11 to 12 cents

Indigo 1¾ to 2¼ Dols

A few years later, when the Captain was a bit older and when his reputation was firmly established, his owner’s instructions would have been less peremptory, but the responsibilities they defined would have been the same or greater. The master of a Yankee ship 150 years ago was, in addition to everything else, the executive head of a wholesale house which happened to be afloat.

One other preconception would also correct itself, I think, in the mind of any careful reader of Captain Hillard’s papers. Ever since Mencken began his babbitization of American history it has been standard doctrine that the New England Protestants of the great New England period were repressed and blue-nosed characters whose influence on the country has been harmful if not actually disastrous. Captain Hillard, as his letters demonstrate, was a church-going man with at least enough religious fervor to have produced one clergyman among his sons, but there was nothing even remotely puritanical about life on his ships.

A conscientious passenger, an Englishman named Matthew Carter, writes him at Le Havre to apologize because Mr. Carter had left the ship in such haste he had been “unable to arrange for the payment of the little amounts toward the dinner at Justins and the losses at Cards which were to be appropriated to the Cost of the dinner.” And numerous exchanges with French friends in Paris make it quite clear that the Captain knew that city as well as he knew Le Havre. Indeed, to perform his duties as buyer and seller as well as sailor, he would have had to walk its streets and sit over long meals in its restaurants much as other Americans have walked and sat in later generations.

I suspect it was something more than the thought of crossing the sea which induced Sally Pride Hillard to sail with her husband on the last voyage of the Oneida. I suspect he had told her tales of a Paris which those imaginary Puritans were not supposed to know.

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