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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
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.