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Beehive series: From Our Collections

Women at Sea: Ann Johnson and Abbie Clifford

In 1849, the ship Lanerk sailed from Boston to California as part of the Gold Rush. On the ship was a clergyman named Truman Ripley Hawley, and the MHS recently acquired a transcript of his diary of the journey. It contains a lot of terrific detail, but one particular digression caught my eye. On 4 August 1849, off the west coast of South America, the Lanerk met the ship Christopher Mitchell, captained by Thomas Sullivan of New Jersey. Sullivan told Hawley about the following “amusing incident”:

He [Sullivan] sailed from Nantucket with his crew, shipped from different states in the union, only one of whom before the mast had ever been to sea before. On the voyage out all had done their duty, and all had been in the boats as usual. One of the crew was taken sick […] when one of the crew came aft […] and informed the captain that one of the crew in the forecastle who went by the name of George Johnson was a female! It very much surprised him, as well as all on board, and the man was told to go forward and send George into the cabin. He did so, and George made his appearance. The Capt. after interrogating her gave up a birth [sic] in his cabin for her and immediately put back to Peyta [Paita, Peru], gave her $100 and sent her home on board a vessel.

I learned from Eric Jay Dolin’s Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America (pp. 237-40), as well as other sources, that the woman was 19-year-old Ann Johnson of Rochester, N.Y. Her identity was discovered in July 1849 when (ahem) some of her clothes fell away in a feverish delirium. Why had Johnson dressed as a man and joined the crew of the Christopher Mitchell? Well, her story made the newspapers, but contemporary accounts varied widely, and historians haven’t been able to come to a consensus. Here’s Sullivan’s explanation:

She said in her story that she was decoyed away from home, Rochester, N.Y. by a man with whom she lived a few months when he left her, that she then went to her home but was forbid to enter by her father, that she then went and dressed in boy’s clothes, and went to ride horse on the canal, towing boats; that afterwards she went into a shipping office and asked for a birth [sic] on board a ship in the capacity of cabin boy, but finding no encouragement consented to ship as a youngster in a whaler. That she was sent to Nantucket and engaged by the owners of this vessel. Romantic truly!

I can’t say whether this version is definitive, but Hawley was hearing it from the captain himself only one month after it happened. Amazingly, Johnson had been able to maintain her disguise for seven months!

The story of Ann Johnson reminded me of another female sailor I learned about earlier this year when I cataloged the letters of Augustus Percival. Her name was Abbie Clifford, and she sailed with her husband, Captain Edwin Clifford, on a brig that bore her name. The Cliffords were from Maine. Percival served as their first mate in 1869 and mentioned them often in letters to his wife back in East Orleans, Mass.

The Abbie Clifford was engaged in the China trade, and in the fall of 1869, the ship was anchored at Shanghai waiting for a freight of tea. Percival occupied the cabin adjoining the Cliffords, and the three often ate and talked late into the evening on a variety of subjects, including religion. His letters reveal an unmistakable affection for the “free hearted” couple and an admiration, especially, for Mrs. Clifford.

Mrs Clifford is quite a Sailor, has been over 10 years with the Capt and I dont know as she has missed a voyage since he has been Master. She is a fine looking woman, and very pleasant, and quite a talker. [24 September 1869]

She lets me see all the things she buys on shore and I like her much, and we have all got along first rate so far, and hope we shall continue the same, but I know he is a very timid man & very nervous, but then he has much to worry him. [5 October 1869]

Every day brings us nearer a Charter, but he is almost discouraged at times, while She is always looking on the bright side, which is proper. [9 October 1869]

The end of November 1869 found the Abbie Clifford at Swatow (now called Shantou) chartering to take hundreds of “coolies” to Singapore. Percival’s intimacy with the Cliffords had only grown. He described the captain in fraternal terms and continued to praise Mrs. Clifford for her seafaring abilities, as well as her domestic qualities.

Mrs. C. generally looks after his Books, and is very good in figures and is a very good Navigator also and works time for the Capt or did on the passage out. [4 December 1869] 

It seems good to live in such a friendly way, and as it seems good to have some one to confide in, I say many things to Mrs. that I do not to others, and she is very good to me, will sew on a Button, offered to mend my Socks, &c. [6 December 1869]

By December 1870, Percival had moved on to another ship. But events of 1872 proved his admiration for Abbie Clifford very well-founded.

That spring, off the coast of Pernambuco, Brazil, yellow fever ravaged the Abbie Clifford, killing at least five crew members, including the steward, first mate, and Captain Clifford. When Percival heard the news, he wrote to his wife about Mrs. Clifford: “I pity her, but trust she will bear up under her trials with Christian fortitude.”

That she did. After her husband’s death on 5 April 1872, Mrs. Clifford (according to some accounts, suffering from yellow fever herself) gamely took command of the ship and sailed the thousands of miles north to New York, with the help of those men well enough to work. On the way, the crew withstood a five-day gale above Cape Hatteras that destroyed several of the ship’s spars and sails. They arrived at their destination on 12 May 1872.

Abbie Clifford’s exploits were recounted in glowing terms in newspaper articles of the day, like this one from as far away as Australia:

And as early as 1883, she was profiled in books like Daughters of America; or, Women of the Century (pp. 716-7) alongside some of the greatest 18th- and 19th-century American women. The Illustrated History of Kennebec County, Maine (pp. 757-8), published in 1892, mentions Abbie Clifford’s second marriage in 1877 to George Brown and goes on to describe her like this:

Mrs. Brown is a lady of genial bearing, a broad, well disciplined mind, and rare courage. She made several sea voyages with Captain Clifford, who commanded vessels in the merchant service. While on these voyages she studied navigation as a pastime, and when the necessity came of putting her knowledge of chart and compass to the test, her courage was not wanting.

Abbie J. Longfellow, later Clifford, later Brown, was born in 1839, which would make her only 32 or 33 at the time of her triumphal return to New York at the helm of the Abbie Clifford. She died in 1901.


comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 16 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

Barbara Hillard Smith’s Diary, November 1918

Today we return to the 1918 diary of Newton teenager Barbara Hillard Smith. You may read our introduction to the diary, and Barbara’s previous entries, here:

January | February | March | April | May 

June | July | August | September | October

As regular readers of the Beehive know, we are following Barbara throughout 1918 with monthly blog posts that present Barbara’s daily life -- going to school, seeing friends, playing basketball, and caring for family members -- in the words she wrote a century ago.

 November was both a regular and not-so-regular month for Barbara as she balanced school and babycare and social outings with news of the Great War -- “Rumor peace was declared,” reads her entry on November 7th, sandwiched between “School” and “Senior Tea.” Then on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour ... “Peace declared. Parade. Babies. Hair up<.”

>Here is Barbara’s November, day by day.

* * *

School. Babies. Movies at Waltham

SAT. 2
Hung around all day.

SUN. 3
Sunday School. Mrs. R- sick. Cousin Alice here

MON. 4
School. Babies.


WED. 6
School. Babies

School. Rumor peace was declared. Senior Tea.

FRI. 8
School. Babies

SAT. 9
In town. Sailors dance with Ben

SUN. 10
Sunday School. Pete to Dinner

MON. 11
Peace declared. Parade. Babies. Hair up.

TUES. 12
No school. In town. Parade

WED. 13
School. Over to Pete’s

THUR. 14
School. Over to Peg’s

FRI. 15
School. Took care of Baby.

SAT. 16
Knitted madly. Spud took me to Sybil’s party.

SUN. 17
Church Sunday School. K. to dinner. Studied

MON. 18
School. Took care of baby

TUES. 19
School. Swimming

WED. 20
School. Took care of baby

THUR. 21
School. Swimming. Aunt Mabel came to see Grandmas

FRI. 22
School. Lecture with Mother. Wartime France. Babies.

SAT. 23
Hung around. Mrs. Reed’s. Cousin M. to supper. Heard Dr. A- was detained.

SUN. 24
Put in teacher’s training class. Bob Hayes home. Spud to supper.

MON. 25
School. Took care of sonny.

TUES. 26
School. Sick? Hung around in afternoon. Got report cards. Safe I guess.

WED. 27
School. Got out at 12. Went to Babies. Sick in evening

THUR. 28
Went to Muriel’s. Thanksgiving dinner. Sailor’s dance.

FRI. 29
In town. Up to babies. Dinner and Dance at Spud’s. Bed at 1:20

SAT. 30
Slept until 11:20. Saw “Seventeen” [adapted from the novel Seventeen by Booth Tarkington]

If you are interested in viewing the diary in person in our library or have other questions about the collection, please visit the library or contact a member of the library staff for further assistance.

*Please note that the diary transcription is a rough-and-ready version, not an authoritative transcript. Researchers wishing to use the diary in the course of their own work should verify the version found here with the manuscript original. The catalog record for the Barbara Hillard Smith collection may be found here.

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

Work, Community, & the Cranberry Industry in Massachusetts

With Thanksgiving around right around the corner, I decided to explore the story of a fruit that appears in a sauce on many Thanksgiving plates: cranberries. More specifically, I looked through MHS resources to see what I could learn about the history of cranberries and cranberry growing in the state. While Massachusetts is home to a notable cranberry industry, I didn’t know too much about it beyond quick glimpses of bogs I see from the car when I go to Cape Cod. I ended up learning a bit about the practice of growing cranberries as well as the connection of the industry to immigration and the development of Cape Verdean communities in Massachusetts.

An 1891 broadside in the collection, Cranberry crop for 1891, sheds some light on the geographic scope of the cranberry industry in late 19th century Massachusetts, the means of transportation for harvested cranberries, and the general productivity of the crop over the course of the years 1889, 1890, and 1891. The broadside has statistics, put together by a Charles H. Nye, Esq., for barrels and boxes of cranberries shipped from various stations along the Cape Cod Division of the Old Colony Railroad, along with a briefer set of statistics for the Old Colony Railroad’s Central Division. Some stations, such as Tremont, Wareham, West Barnstable, Harwich, seem to have been quite busy during this time. 1891 in particular was a bustling year for cranberry shipments along the Cape Cod Division, as over 130,000 barrels were shipped that year, which “exceeded by over 45,000 bbls., the largest yield of any previous year, that of 1889.”

The Ropes family photographs at the MHS include four photographs of workers harvesting cranberries on Cape Cod, circa 1900-1910. The photographer is unknown, and the exact location does not seem to be clear, but the photos do provide snapshots of cranberry harvesting in Massachusetts at that time.

I read two essays in They Knew they were Pilgrims: Essays in Plymouth History, edited by L.D. Geller (New York: Poseidon Books, 1971), that provide insights into the cranberry industry of the early 20th century and the people who worked in it, from the perspectives of two authors with family connections to cranberry work. In “Life on a Cranberry Bog at the Turn of the Century,” Rose T. Briggs chronicles some of the changes that occurred in the industry in the early decades of the 20th century, drawn from her experience growing up in a cranberry-producing family. She discusses the technological changes that changed the work, the increase of immigrants from Cape Verde in the workforce, and, later, the increase in women working in cranberry bogs. In “Plymouth and Some Portuguese,” Rev. Peter J. Gomes discusses, from his perspective as the descendant of Cape Verdean immigrants, the development of Cape Verdean immigration to Massachusetts, the role Cape Verdean workers played in the cranberry industry after it became a major employer of immigrants from Cape Verde in the early 20th century, and some of the general experiences of Cape Verdean immigrants in southeastern Massachusetts. These essays offer glimpses into the nature of the work on cranberry bogs as well as the groups of people and communities who participated in this work.

Peter J. Gomes, “Plymouth and Some Portuguese” 

“But what was it that made people leave the old country for the New World? One obvious reason was the lust for adventure and the hope for a better life. The islands were overpopulated and one’s future pretty well determined at birth. The New World offered better economic opportunity. Another reason, not so talked about, was escape from military service.” (181).

“Immigration was also prompted by relatives already established in America” (181).

“From New Bedford they spread over the Cape and southeast coastal region, shipping out and tending to agriculture and odd jobs between voyages. As the whaling industry declined during the last two decades of the century, the Portuguese, like his quondam employer, the shipmaster, had to seek out other means of livelihood. “He found it in the cranberry industry.” (182).

“The life of the Portuguese on the bogs was harsh. It was bitter and grueling work for starvation wages. Cheap labor was needed and they were it. Uninitiated into the ways of collective bargaining . . . they were easy marks for the speculators and exploiters who were rife.” (183)

Rose T. Briggs, “Life on a Cranberry Bog at the Turn of the Century”

“Those were the days of hand-picking. We used a six-quart tin that had a lovely reverberation when the first berries were dropped into it, but took so long for a child to fill. Then you proudly lugged your tin up to the tally keeper, called out your number, emptied it (another satisfying sound) and returned to begin another. The bog was laid off in rows with section-line, so each picker or family had its own row, and no one could hog the best picking. The man in charge of the gang had an eagle eye for dropped underberries, and for thin spots neglected, and the tally-keeper rejected measures that were not properly full, or had vines stuffed into the middle!” (190)

“In 1900 snap machines were beginning to come in. They took some skill to operate, and of course were much faster than hand-picking. The men that operated them were paid by the hour, not the measure. In 1903 it was twenty-five cents an hour. Scoops were also coming in, and with them the Cape Verde Portuguese, who soon were the characteristic labor force on the bogs.” (190).

“When immigration was put on a quota basis, all this commuting to the Islands came to an end, and settled Portuguese communities grew up in this country. They too came picking.

“During World War II energetic women, Portuguese and others, operated a scoopers which had always been considered strictly a man’s job. The type of picking machine now in use is often operated by women. The big gangs of scoopers have gone. What strikes one now in looking at a picking crew, is the small number of people involved. Sometimes the tenders outnumber the pickers.” (191).

“Where the grower’s team once carted his berries to the railroad, huge trucks now come from outside to transport the crop.” (191)

“Cranberry growing is still a colorful business, but the days of self-sufficiency are over” (191).

If these materials interest you, feel free to visit the MHS library, which is open six days a week!

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 9 November, 2018, 8:43 AM

"Ffriends and Neighbors" : Intelligence and allegiance in early Plymouth

Not long after I started working here in the library at the MHS I took an interest in 17th-century topics with the hope that I could better serve those researchers studying the time period by pointing them to specific collections relevant to their search. A specific collection that comes up time and again is the Winslow family papers II*, a small but very fascinating collection for its documentation of the late 17th century in and around Plymouth County, primarily from the vantage point of a family central to the history of that locale and including two of the early governors of the county, Edward and Josiah Winslow. For this post, I look at a single document from that collection which dates to 1675 at the outset of Metacom's, or King Philip's, War. This document came to my attention during a class visit in which it was used as a show & tell item by a colleague, and I have since used it myself. Until now, though, I was ignorant of its contents.

The letter displayed in various class visits, written by Plymouth governor Josiah Winslow to "Weetamoo and Ben her husband," is only half the story, it turns out. Looking more closely, I found that there is an earlier letter contained on the same paper. The first letter is from a man named John Brown, writing to Gov. Winslow from Swansey to inform him about the movements of the local natives and the unrest that is taking hold. The second part is a draft of a letter that Winslow wrote to Weetamoo (Weetamoe, Weetamo), the female sachem of the Pocasset Wampanoag, encouraging her to remain friends of the Plymouth settlers and not be lured into alliance with Philip, her brother-in-law.

N.B. : These are only rough transcriptions. I did my best to retain the original spelling and punctuation (or lack of). Brackets [ ] indicate a best-guess; blank spots filled with underscoring _____ indicate missing text.


Swansey June 11: 1675

Sir  some lines of mine I understand came to your hand Unexpected to you and not intended by me the hast & Rudenes whereof I did intend to excuse to the person to whom I did direct it. the matter where of I still beleve for they have bin and are in arms to this day as appears by the witness of Inglish of Credit    yea this day there is above 60 double armed ^men  and they stand upon ther gard on reson is say they is because they heare you intend to send for phillip but they  have sent there wifes to Narrogansent all or some and an Indian told me this day That he saw 20 men came to phillip from Coweset side and they flock to him from Narroganset Coweset pocasset showomet Assowomset from whence ther Came 3 men ye Last nigh well armed after there Coming to phillips town & ower within night they gave us an Alarm by 2 guns & 1 in ye morning before day and ye continued warninge of ye drum and the above said Indian told me that he heard that ye passages betwixt tanton & us were garded by Indians and yt ye younger sort were much set Againts ye Inglish and this day one Indian this day Leift both work and wages saying he wase sent for to fight with ye Inglish within 2 dayes  the truth is they are in a posture of war  there has bin sene above 150 [togeathere at once]  how many in private there be we [kow not   but for] further intelligence ye bearer is able to informe  Sir I reit onely this by my Commision I have not power to set [awash] ye Lawes are unserten  ye providence of god hath prevented me from Weighting uppoun you for inlargement here in . theres not appointed a councell of your war in our town I thought good th to aquaint you^  here with I am in hast And Reit  your and my …  youres to serve

                                                                John Brown


On the back side of the folio – or the “back cover” of Brown’s missive is a small note that provides some geographic clarifications:


Cowesett between ye Narragansett Country (properly so called) and Pawcatuck River

Pocasset – Tiverton

Shawomet – Barrington Warwick 

Assawomsett - Middleboro


Inside the folio we have the letter that Winslow addressed to the Pocasset leader based upon the intelligence he received from Brown a few days earlier.


To Weetamoo, and Ben her husband

Satchems of pocasset

Ffriends and Neighbors

I am informed yt phillip ye sachem of Mount hope contrary to his many promises and ingagements; and yt upon no ground provocation nor unfairness in the least from us, but meerly from his owne base groundles feare is Creating new trobles to himself & us; And hath [indeavored] to ingage you & your people with him, by intimations of notoriouse falshoods as if wee were secretly designeing mischeef to him, and you, such unmanly treacherouse practices as wee abhor to thinke of, and yt hee hath also _________________against you if you shall deny to help him; I am _____________[hath] prevayled very little [with] you, except it bee to some few of your giddy inconsiderate young men; if it bee fact, as I am willing to believe it may; you shall finde us allwayes redy to acknowledge & incourage your faith fullness, and protect you also so farr as in us lyeth from his pride & tirany; And if you Contynew faithfull, you shall assuredly reape ye fruite of it to your Comfort, when hee by his pride & treachery hath wrought his owne ruine. As a testimony of your contynued friendship I desire you will give us what intelligence you may have, or shall gather up, yt is of concernment, and you shall not finde mee ungratefull, who am and desire to contynew

your reall ffreind

Jos: Winslow


June 15 ∙ 75


Again, there is some additional information on the facing page. First, is a block of text that serves as delivery instructions for Brown’s letter:

These ffor the Honnered Josiah Winslow Esquie Govenor of his Magtis Colony of New plymouth  These with speed at Marshfeild or plimouth


Another bit, written to the right of and perpendicular to this, reads:

Mr. Brown to Gove Winslow & the Gove to Weetamo 15th June 1675


A last piece of text, apparently added by Winslow, identifies his writing as a draft:

Swansey. June 11 ∙ 75

From Lieut. Jno Browne.

& a copie of mine to Weetamoo


Stay tuned for future posts here on the Beehive where I hope to provide more information about the characters involved with this correspondence. In the meantime, you can search our online catalog, ABIGAIL, to see what else we have about the early colonies, and then consider Visiting the Library to do some research!

*The Winslow family papers II, along with many other documents from the MHS Collection, is available digitally from the database "Frontier Life: Borderlands, Settlement & Colonial Encounters" created by the UK-based company Adam Matthew Digital, accessible at the MHS and other participating libraries.

comments: 2 | permalink | Published: Wednesday, 7 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

“I like your Letters much, they are so much like you.”: Abigail and John Adams II

He was mischievous and fond of pranks, long walks through the Massachusetts countryside, and nights full of dancing. He was uncommonly handsome, had a mess of brown curls on top of his head, and was exceedingly popular with the young women of Quincy. Abigail often found herself daydreaming of his “rosy cheeks” and “Sparkling Eyes.” His name was John Adams.

No, not the John Adams who signed the Declaration of Independence—his grandson and namesake, John Adams II. If one could handcraft the ideal grandson for Abigail Adams, one could scarcely do better. He shared his grandmother’s passionate enthusiasm for his native land, especially Massachusetts, shared his grandfather’s name, and was even born on the Fourth of July. When he was very young, he thought all the festivities were to celebrate his birthday—to the great amusement of his grandmother. Even by his twelfth birthday, Abigail was not ready to let the joke go. “You notice Your Birth day, and say you are twelve years old. I do assure you Sir, it was celebrated here, not withstanding Your absence as usual; with the ringing of Bells public orations, military parade and Social festivals.”

Abigail and John’s extant correspondence amounts to twenty letters. It is clear from internal references to other letters that they exchanged many more. The richest portion of their correspondence took place between 1815 and 1817, while John was living in Ealing (west London) with his parents, John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams. His younger brother, Charles Francis, had spent six of his eight years traveling Europe with their parents, and his older brother, George, appeared to John to be adjusting well. John Adams II, who had only lived with his parents full time for the first two years of his life before they left him in Quincy in the name of public duty, struggled terribly to adjust, as his letters to his grandmother reveal.

If anyone in his family understood what it meant to be stranded in London and longing for Massachusetts, it was his grandmother. There is a striking resemblance between the letters Abigail wrote home during her husband’s tenure as the first American minister to the Court of St. James and the letters she received from her homesick twelve-year-old grandson. Just as Abigail frequently requested local gossip and updates on all her friends and relations when she was abroad, she supplied John with stories and trivialities: “The young Masters and misses had a fine Ball at Hingham, and wanted you, who love dancing so well,” she once reported. 

John gloomily replied, “I do not like England near so well as America nor do I think I should like any country so well as my native Country. Oh how I wish I was in America with my Parents at Quincy with you . . . I should have been very glad to have been at the Ball at Hingham with my old acquaintances.” 

Abigail obviously missed him just as much, writing, “I love the Chamber where you used to play your pranks, Study Your lessons and take Your repose.” She told him that she had preserved the room exactly as he had left it, as if he could walk back into the room at any moment. “The cain You used to take Your walks with from Hingham, I have placed in my closset . . . your military accourtrements are Still preserved as they were.” 


Poignantly, Abigail often closed her letters to her grandson with concern that, considering her age and health, she would never see him in person again. In 1817, John Quincy Adams was recalled from England to serve as President James Monroe’s secretary of state. Now fourteen, John Adams II, his two brothers, and his parents returned home to Quincy, where they spent the summer living at the Old House with John and Abigail. “Be assured,” John Quincy’s father had written to him before their voyage to America, “it will be the most joyful part of my Life to receive and enjoy you all with open Arms.”In 1818, the final year of Abigail’s life, her beloved grandson was never farther away from her than the eight-mile carriage ride to Boston Latin School. Whether eight miles or 3,300 miles, Abigail reminded John that, “You know not . . . how very near my heart you are.”

comments: 0 | permalink | Published: Friday, 2 November, 2018, 1:00 AM

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