The whaling era is a Vineyard story. Martha’s Vineyard whaling captains and their crew traveled the globe. They went to New Zealand, to Japan, north into the frigid seas of the Arctic, and as far south as the ice-filled waters of Antarctica.
Winter’s armchair mariners gathered to hear about three of those Vineyard whaling captains last Thursday night when author Marc Songini gave a fireside talk at the Black Dog Tavern. With the launch his book The Lost Fleet last year, Mr. Sonjini brought closure to an eight-year quest for whaling stories that took him along the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. But his talk gave many more details about Vineyard whalemen than were mentioned in the book, making the evening even more precious than his Island readers might have expected.
The Lost Fleet is a 432-page book that recounts the hardships of whalemen as they pursued oil. Greater harm came to them from ice of the north and south than from the Confederate army during the Civil War. But both ice and war did much to ruin the lives of Yankee whalemen, their families and their communities.
Mr. Songini’s tales centered on the Island’s ancient mariners, Capt. Abraham Osborn Jr.; Capt. Nathaniel Jernegan and Capt. George Fred Tilton.
Captain Osborn’s claim to fame wasn’t about success but loss. During the Civil War his Edgartown-based whaleship Ocmulgee was the first Yankee ship to be captured and burned by the Confederate enemy’s prize cruiser, Alabama. The story of the encounter between the two ships 146 years ago, and its final outcome, is well covered in Mr. Songini’s book.
In September of 1862, the Ocmulgee was off the English coast. The crew was in the midst of rendering a large whale when a mysterious ship named the Alabama arrived alongside. Only 11 days prior, the Alabama had been christened where she was built in Birkenhead, England.
The Ocmulgee crew was removed from the whaling ship and taken aboard the Alabama. The next day the whale ship was set ablaze.
The Ocmulgee was the first of a dozen Yankee whale ships destroyed by the Alabama over two years. The captain of the Alabama, Raphael Semmes had visited Edgartown years before on a matter concerning lighthouses and at the time was a friend to Vineyarders. But upon the outbreak of the Civil war, Captain Semmes became the enemy; he and his ship burned, sank or took over 66 Yankee ships.
During a question and answer period at the end of Mr. Sonjini’s talk, Phil Reynolds of Edgartown asked the author about the Alabama Claims, a legal effort taken after the war to recover the great losses incurred during the Civil War.
Mr. Reynolds is a descendant, through his mother, of the old Osborn family. He told Mr. Songini that his family was never compensated for the loss of the Ocmulgee.
Mr. Songini reported that the transcripts of the trial proceedings are alive and well and held in boxes at the New Bedford Public Library; a whole new story shared that wasn’t in Mr. Songini’s book.
Next was a tale from 1864. That was the year Capt. Nathaniel Jernegan of the Vineyard earned his place in Mr. Songini’s book for hopping over three whaleboats in one day in pursuit of one huge whale. Whaleboats are about 30 feet in length. The first whale boat he was on got smashed by the angry sperm whale. The captain then stepped into a second whale boat which then suffered the same fate. It was only after pursuing the same whale in a third boat that the captain was able to kill it.
“By April that year Jernegan, a lucky man, had exited his whaleboat five times and lived to tell the tale,” the author wrote.
The third Vineyard whaling captain discussed was one of the most famous whaling captains of New England. George Fred Tilton of Chilmark is only briefly mentioned in Mr. Songini’s book. However, Captain Tilton is well known for having chased whales across the Pacific to Hawaii and north all the way up to the Chukchi Sea, the northernmost waterway, north of Alaska. His brother Zeb Tilton was the captain of the coastal schooner Alice S. Wentworth.
In 1898 his ship and others were caught and damaged in the freezing ice floes, on the northernmost spot above Alaska. To get help for the crew of the troubled ships, the Captain walked south along the frozen shoreline of Alaska to get help. The trip was more than 1,000 miles by foot. The tale of his walk is retold by the captain in Cap’n George Fred, Himself, with the help of Vineyard Gazette reporter Joseph Chase Allen. That book was published in 1928.
Mr. Songini finished his evening of stories by recounting the tale of the old Chilmark whaling captain. Captain Tilton went on to be the Charles W. Morgan’s last whaling captain, before she was taken to Mystic Seaport in Connecticut.
Mr. Songini received loud applause after his nearly two-hour talk.
He said later that by profession he is a journalist and writes for a computer technology publication; he also had worked early in his career as a newspaper journalist. He said The Lost Fleet took seven years to write and he visited libraries and considered historic collections from San Diego to Seattle, from Florida to New England. He said the big break in his project came through gaining whaling records from an old Connecticut family. The Lost Voyage is his fourth book, the third on history.
His program was the last in a series of maritime-flavored talks sponsored by Sail Martha’s Vineyard, an Island nonprofit organization committed to promoting safe boating for the young and old. Last month Senior chief Stephen Barr of the U.S. Coast Guard station at Menemsha talked about his profession at a fireside dinner. Likewise Thursday’s hot meal included the Black Dog’s traditional chowder and dinner fixings. There was a social hour and plenty of good cheer, though the weather outside was coastal cold.
Mr. Songini’s talk concluded the series of four winter talks, three of which were served with a meal at the Black Dog Tavern. Hope Callen, of Sail Martha’s Vineyard, said afterwards: “It was a successful series of programs. The speakers were interesting and we all got a great feeling of companionship.”
Mrs. Callen said her organization is looking at the option of offering more such programs next winter.