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Duxbury’s Women at Sea

The History

Between the late 18th and early 19th centuries, hundreds of ships were built in Duxbury, Massachusetts. The resulting economic boom resonated throughout the community and contributed to a rise in both employment and population. Duxbury became the home to many shipbuilding and maritime families, including dozens of master mariners and their wives.

Much is known about the major figures in this rich era of Duxbury’s history. Shipbuilders Ezra Weston and his son, Ezra Weston, Jr. each became known as “King Caesar.” Their firm produced over 100 vessels, and Ezra Weston, Jr. was arguably one of the largest shipbuilders in America during his lifetime. In 1842 the firm of E. Weston and Sons launched the largest merchant ship built in Massachusetts at that time, the Hope. Other firms owned by the Winsors, Spragues, Delanos and Sampsons, built ships known around the world as well. The sea captains also prospered and some, brought up on Duxbury vessels, went on to become renowned skippers of the famous clippers of the 19th century, including the Flying Cloud and Herald of the Morning.

For all the history that has been examined and celebrated, however, very little has been said of the women, other than to mention the obvious – that they were the mothers, wives and sisters of the male shipbuilders and sailors. This project puts them not only into the narrative, but directly on to the ships.

The Project

It has long been known that a few Duxbury women went to sea during the town’s maritime heyday. In 2018, DRHS Archivist & Historian, Carolyn Ravenscroft, embarked on a journey of her own, to find the names of other women who made voyages and to discover their stories. Although it is still a work in progress, to date, Ravenscroft has discovered 33 Duxbury women who sailed from 1809-1890. Many of these women came from Duxbury’s maritime families, and were related to each other as well.

Ravenscroft was also able, in many instances, to personalize their stories. Using the collections at the Drew Archival Library of the DRHS as well as vital records, census records, and various secondary sources, she was often able to include the names of ships and their destinations. She discovered nine children born at sea or in a foreign port, two marriages aboard ship and, tragically, five deaths, of both wives and children.

The findings of this project were presented at a 2018 temporary exhibit at the Bradford House Museum, Women at Sea, and in lectures and presentations by Carolyn Ravenscroft. A cemetery tour of those seafaring women buried at Mayflower Cemetery in Duxbury is also available through the DRHS.

You can also hear a presentation on Duxbury’s Women at Sea by Carolyn Ravenscroft at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPeaCcGZ2Gs&feature=youtu.be

Inquiries or questions may be directed to Carolyn Ravenscroft, cravenscroft@duxburyhistory.org or 781-934-1382.

© Duxbury Rural & Historical Society 2019. All rights reserved.

About Duxbury’s Women at Sea

When compiling the data, it was discovered that the majority of Duxbury women who sailed did not do so in the years of the town’s shipbuilding era. Although hundreds of ships were launched, for example, between 1790 and 1820, only one woman, Sally Drew Bradford, sailed during those decades. Similarly, between 1820-1850, the remaining years of the industry in Duxbury, only 15 voyages were made by women. The latter half of the 19th century, when Duxbury had virtually no shipbuilding and fewer mariners, the greatest number of voyages, 30, were taken.

There are explanations, both social and political, that account for this seeming anomaly. The early decades of the new American republic were fraught with dangers at sea. The Quasi War with France (1798-1801), the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815), Jefferson’s Embargo Act (1807) and the War of 1812 (1812-1815) all contributed to making maritime travel hazardous. Duxbury Captain Gamaliel Bradford, for example, fought off French privateers twice during the Quasi-War, one battle resulted in the loss of his leg by canon fire. Traveling during the Napoleonic Wars pitted Duxbury captains against both the French and English. Captain Gershom Bradford was boarded at sea by both the English and the French until his ship, Mercury, was ultimately detained for six months in 1807; the Weston ship, Gershom, under the command of Jacob Smith was captured by the French in 1810. Because wives who went to sea during this period had to face hazards beyond bad weather, it is not surprising that many stayed on shore.

There was a cultural reason that may have contributed to the low number as well. The woman marrying in the early decades of the 19th century had not been born into a maritime community. Duxbury was still primarily agricultural prior to the American Revolution. There was some small-scale boat building and coastal fishing, but the grand shipbuilding era did not commence until after the end of the Revolutionary War. For the first generation of mariner’s wives, there was no precedent or expectation that they would join their husbands at sea. While Sally Drew Bradford, setting sail on the Hercules in 1809, may not have been the only woman to go to sea during this period, she was definitely a forerunner.

By 1820 the seas were safer, making a voyage much more palatable. The women who began joining their husbands at this point were often immersed in the maritime culture of Duxbury. They had grown up celebrating the launching of ships and watching not only their fathers and uncles, but now their brothers and cousins, leave Duxbury’s shores for a career at sea. It is not surprising that women who married in the 1820s and beyond began taking “honeymoon” cruises with their new spouses. They allowed themselves the opportunity to see how their husbands earned their living as well as visit foreign ports for the first time. For some of these wives, one voyage was enough. For others, their early voyage whet their appetite for more. During the 1820-1845 period, Duxbury mariners were beginning to venture further afield than the Atlantic and Mediterranean trading routes, and these longer voyages were an inducement for women to join their husbands.

Beulah Wadsworth on board the “Seth Sprague” with son Frank and husband, Capt. Alexander Wadsworth. Original painting in the collection of the DRHS, Gift of the Gifford Estate, 1998.2.22.
Ship Coriolanus of Boston, Jul 1831, with depiction of a woman (likely Elizabeth Winsor Sampson) onboard. Original painting in DRHS collection, 2009.045.001.

Although there were far fewer men going to sea from Duxbury in the latter half of the 19th century than there had been in the early decades, those that did go often brought their wives and, sometimes, children. The master mariners during this period were sailing on much larger ships, many on clippers. Their voyages took them around the world and could last multiple years. It is during this period mariners’ wives fully transferred their domestic lives onto ships. Some families did not own a home on shore, merely boarding when not at sea. Staterooms and cabins were filled with libraries, potted plants, various pets and, in the case of Jane Bradford, a piano lashed to the cabin floor. Children received their school lessons from their mothers, ensuring they could take their place among classmates when they returned to Duxbury. It is not surprising that, during these long voyages, the majority of the births, marriages and deaths took place.

Duxbury Women By Ship

Name Year Ship
Sarah Drew Bradford 1809 Hercules
Catherine Wadsworth Drew

Jane Winsor Winsor

1825

1827

Draco

Amulet

Elizabeth Winsor Sampson 1831, 1845 Coriolanus, Narraganset
Marcia Packard Welch 1837 Eliza Warwick
Mary Bassett Drew c. 1840 Unknown
Marinda Wadsworth Drew 1843 Manteo
Welthea Partridge Howes 1843 George Hallett
Nancy Freeman Soule 1843-1845 Hope
Lydia Bates Dawes 1845 Unknown
Beulah Holmes Wadsworth 1845, 1853 Seth Sprague and others
Maria Phenie Baker

Abby Chandler Dawes

1847
c. 1848
Deucalian
Unknown
Mary Holmes Baker 1851, 1863 Manlius, Herald of the Morning
Clara Drew Smith 1852 Sea Bird
Louise Sampson Peterson 1853-1857 Levanter
Jane McLaughlin Bradford 1853-1871 William Sturgis, Garnet, Frederic Tudor
Mary Ann F. Weston Winsor 1853, 1871 Bonita, Continental
Frances Norton Harlow 1854 Telegraph
Eliza T Clarke Freeman 1858 Reynard
Sally Freeman Dawes 1861-1871 Valetta,  Annie W. Weston
Hannah Ford Peterson 1859-1862 Almena and Norseman
Jane Bolde Peterson 1864 Unknown
Mary Jane Bonney Baker 1868 Waldo
Lydia Sampson Dawes 1857, 1870 Sicilian, Matchless
Minnie Winsor Bradford 1871-1881 Marcy and USCS vessels
Louise Hayes Winsor 1872 Unknown
Bessie H. Stetson Josselyn 1874 -1882 Coringa, John D. Brewer
Sophia Walker Smalley 1875 Fred Eugene
Lucy Bradford Nickerson 1879 Nereid
Lucy B. Nickerson Morris

Helen May Peterson Bailey

1879

1880-1887

Nereid

Nehemiah Gibson and others

Mary Frances Sampson Beadle

Hannah Weston Sampson

1890

1849

Pactolus

Peter Marcy