This letter was written by 18 year-old Franklin Bache Meigs (1829-1881), the son of Dr. Charles Delucena Meigs (1792-1869), a Philadelphian surgeon and medical editor, and his wife Mary Montgomery (1794-1865). Frank’s more famous brother was Montgomery Cunningham Meigs (1816-1892) who served as Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
We learn from this letter that Frank Meigs is sailing as a member of the crew aboard the heavily loaded Barque Candace in regular trade with Canton [China]. At the helm of the Candace was Capt. Edward C. Gardner of Connecticut. She is reported to have left New York on 16 November 1846 for Canton. She left Canton for the return voyage to New York six months later on 25 April 1847. This barque should not be confused with a whaling ship of the same name that sailed out of New London, captained by Henry Bolles.
Addressed to Charles Smith, Care of Dr. C. D. Meigs, Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania USA.
Barque Candace at Sea
Lat. 24°20′ Long 99°30′ [near the Tropic of Capricorn @ 900 miles off the coast of Western Australia)
Sunday, Feb 1 1847
We have very little wind today, but are getting along slowly towards Anjier, Java, and if we ever reach there I will send this letter from there. We intend to feast there on coconuts, pineapples, bananas, yams, oranges, shaddocks, chickens and all kinds of good things. We are very poorly off, there are only two or three chickens on board & they are sick. Our pigs, sheep, ducks and all the livestock gave up the ghost when we first started. We are living at present on salt meat & the most horrible potatoes. The salt meat, or as the sailors call it, Old Horse, is so hard that a knife will scarcely cut it. As for pork, I suppose, you have better taste than to like it. It is the worst kind, however, which is saying a good deal.
We started on the 16th November at 11 AM, sailed down the [New York] Bay with a fine breeze. There were about a dozen ships ahead of us, but we slipped past them and took the lead of all but one — the Liverpool Packet Waterloo.¹ He held on for some time, but I think that he would have walked away from us, if he had been on the same course, but he was much closer on the wind than we were, which makes good deal of difference.
We lost sight at 4 PM, made the steamer Great Western at 4½ [PM].² She was running N.W.W. two or three miles to windward of us. Our Capt. behaved rather scurvily, I think, for they dipped their flag to us, but he would not answer it — but he is a Yankee. Wind freshened, shortened sail.
The next morning I went on deck at 7 bells, that is 7½ o’clock. The bells are struck every half hour. At 8 o’clock it is 8 bells and then it begins again. At 8½ it is 1 bell again, when it runs on until 12, which is 8 bells again, so that the hours are even numbers always. We made a sail ahead at 2 bells, 9 o’clock, and over hauled her rapidly. When we were close to her, we found she was the Helen Fiedler.³ She sailed the morning we started, but a good deal earlier than our ship. Our mate says that he spoke to the mate of the Fiedler in New York, and of course each one bragged of the sailing of his own ship. The mate of the Fiedler wished they might meet at sea, and try their sailing. I guess he was satisfied, or ought to have been. There was no one in sight on board of her, but the man at the wheel. We soon dropped her astern.
We then had a pretty good breeze, and ran through the Gulf Stream with a horrible head sea. They were perfectly huge & made us pitch horridly. The next day, 19th, we reefed topsails, blowing a heavy gale. 20th. Blowing very heavily. Two sail in sight. We had a very uncomfortable dinner today, as the dishes all tried to reach the floor. One chicken succeeded in flying from the table, plenty of tumbles; upset of course. The gale increased. We are scudding under close reefed topsails & reefed foresail. I went on deck and was well soaked by a sea, which are continually boarding us on the quarter. The ship is very wet in such a sea as today, as she is so very low. The next day, 21st, wind was pretty decent, and aft. Our ship is so very heavily sparred that she rolls horribly when before the wind and does not sail fast. She sails better close hauled than any other way.
On the 23, it was blowing a gale again from the S and ship hove to under storm staysail & reefed spanker. It blew great guns part of the night, but moderated at 4 AM and we started again. So far as we have had rather rough weather and as cold as Greenland, as we have no stove in the cabin. I eat and read or eat with my sack coat, and two others on and cold at that. But we soon ran into warm weather. On the 30th, we saw the first flying fish. They were pretty thick and fly very fast to get out of the ship’s way. Tuesday Dec 8th. Caught 6 dolphins. They are a most beautiful fish a[nd] pretty large, some of them. One day I was trying my best to catch some dolphin, and just as they seemed inclined to bite, we got among a quantity of flying fish. Away they went, Mr. Dolphin hot foot after them. One of the dolphin ran out of water two or three times in his hurry. He made some beautiful jumps, but I was cheated of my fish, for they did not come back again.
Dec 21st. Made the Island Fernando de Noronha. It is a barren, rocky mass and is used as a prison by Brazil. † We were a long way from it, and had not a very good view of it. We had a pretty good dinner on Christmas. The cabin was hung round with flags from the ceiling to floor, and to add to the effect, the barometer was crowned with a smoking cap for a Liberty Cap. We had both mates below to dinner at 4 and had quite a grand turnout. The sailmaker had charge of the deck, but he was a little dizzy, as the crew had some brandy with their dinner, and for dinner they had a sea pie, which was composed of mutton, flour, potatoes, onions and some pork to make it a little more greasy. There was a nice mix for you. But to make it still better it was in a large tin pan, and each one had a spoon with which he helped himself. There were mostly two eating out of the same pan. We had a merry time of it. Supper at 9, when Mr. Sails was not fit to take charge [illegible] so that one of the crew had it.
We spoke a whaler on the 28th and sent letters homeward. His ship was horribly dirty and had been 29 months NW Sea. Had 4,500 barrels of oil on board. His crew were a rascally looking set. We hoped to stop at Tristan D’a Cunha, but reached there at night so were disappointed. We then trusted to stopping at St. Paul’s [South Indian Ocean], but were disappointed there also. The Capt. did not try to make it. I was much amused a day or two after. When we were reefing topsails, we had a head wind & the Capt. was sulky. He is a very small fellow with very large whiskers and thin face. He did not like the reef after it was finished and sent the men up again to reef it over, promising with an oath to walk through the ship’s company if a single man came from the yard before it was hauled taught to windward, and well reefed. The men went up, of course, while the little fellow paced the deck like an angry monkey in his cage. The men had a good laugh at him when they went below.
I want you to remember and write to me. Send a letter to our house and they will send it with theirs by some ship. If you would like to read what journal I have sent, you can ask one of the boys for it, but you will find it very stupid, I think, as I can never find anything to write about. I shall expect a letter from you very soon after I arrive in China.
We had fine fun catching albatross. We take a line with a large, strong hook, bait it with a piece of pork, and tie a piece of wood to the line to let it float. And when it is calm, throw this overboard and let it float astern. The albatross have to settle and swim up to it. They then bite [and] the hook catches in their hard bills and then [we] pull them on board. We caught 8 one day, and 9 another. They were ten to 11 feet from [wing] tip to tip, which is a good sized bird. ‡ Be sure & write.
Yours truly, — Frank Meigs
¹ The Waterloo and the West Point were among the fastest ships on the North Atlantic Route between London and New York in the late 1840s.
² The Great Western steamer, Capt. Matthews, was enroute to New York Harbor. She arrived there the evening of November 16, 1846, after a voyage of a little over two weeks from Liverpool. The steamship was nearly twenty years old when sighted by Frank Meigs and nearing the end of her trans-Atlantic service between Liverpool and New York. The following year she was sold to the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company and used on the West Indies run. She was taken out of service in 1856.
³ The barque Helen M. Fiedler, Capt. Willis at the helm, sailed from New York Harbor on 16 November 1846, bound for Antwerp.
† The island was covered in forest until the 19th century, when it was cleared to prevent prisoners on the island from building rafts.
‡ There is a widespread myth that sailors believe it disastrous to shoot or harm an albatross; in truth, sailors regularly killed and ate them. On the other hand, it has been reported that sailors caught the birds, but supposedly let them free again; the possible reason is that albatrosses were often regarded as the souls of lost sailors, so that killing them was supposedly viewed as bringing bad luck. The head of an albatross being caught with a hook is used as the emblem of the Cape Horners, i.e. sailors who have rounded Cape Horn on freighters under sail; captains of such ships even received themselves the title “albatrosses” in the Cape Horners’ organization. [Source: Wikipedia]