Portrait Of A Yankee Skipper


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.