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Portrait Of A Yankee Skipper
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
December 1956 | Volume 8, Issue 1
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.