[Cape Cod, and other various locations. Primarily 1818-1860]. About 170 individual items, mainly a ledger, a letter book, a log book, manuscript letters, original photographs, and a portable writing desk, with some miscellaneous family papers. Various levels of wear to bound volumes, intermittent dampstaining to letters, front cover of portable writing desk detached. Overall good to very good condition. Item #WRCAM56336
A substantial archive of material from the seafaring life of Captain Benjamin Dyer of Massachusetts, documenting his naval activities over several decades. The letters and log books in this collection record Dyer's actions transporting American troops and supplies to Mexico during the Mexican- American War, voyages that took him to several American ports as well as to Australia and Europe, his observations on slavery and duelling in the American South, yellow fever in New York, and much more. The archive also includes scores of letters to Dyer from his family, giving insight into the life of family members at home, longing for the return of the family patriarch from his many voyages.
Benjamin Dyer (1793-1871) was a sea captain from Truro, Massachusetts, near the tip of Cape Cod. This substantial collection of his papers includes his logbook kept as master of the ship Eli Whitney in 1846 and 1847 (partly as a contractor in the Mexican-American War); his business letter book, 1841-48; his business ledger, 1841-53; a file of fifty- eight letters written by him to his family from across the globe, 1818-51 (with a detailed abstract of all letters prepared by a descendant); another file of ninety-four letters sent to Dyer by his family, 1832-60; his portable writing desk; articles of agreement signed by eleven crew members for the ship Olive Branch of Salem, dated Tuesday August 18, [likely 1846]; numerous family photographs; and more.
During the 1840s, the best-documented period of this collection, Captain Dyer was the master of the ships Olive Branch and Eli Whitney. His log book, covering 1846 and 1847, is of more than typical interest, having been kept during the Mexican-American War. On July 4, 1846 Dyer observed a group of British battleships headed "probably for the west coast of Ireland. Possibly Paddy may be having a scrimmage, and this ship is going to keep the peace." On July 17, 1846 he wrote, "I am not desirous to speak anyone this passage unless I am very certain he is not a Mexican privateer." While Dyer spent most of his career on merchant vessels, he took on two large cargoes of emigrant passengers from Europe to America, which he seemed to find interesting but exhausting. On July 13, 1846 en route from Havre to New York, he wrote, "The passengers having recovered from sea sickness appear in good health and spirits. This afternoon they tuned some old musical instruments and began to dance betwixt the main & mizzen masts, mostly waltzes around the after hatch, in which about 50 couples were engaged for the span of about four hours....I should think them a good mass of German emigrants, about 1/3 of them are probably Jews. I feel anxious to get them to their destination as soon as possible and have a quiet ship again."
Dyer records the death of at least three small children on this voyage. On Christmas Day 1846 en route from London to New Orleans, he writes that "We have music on the guitar and singing by a French young lady, a cabbin passage, but last evening they mustered the instruments among the steerage passengers and had a regular dance among them. They seemed to enter into it with heart and soul and contrived to polka until two bells....Several of the passengers pretty much excited if not drunk." On January 6, he describes the death of one adult passenger, and the disposition of the deceased: "Committed the body of Mr. Gatz to the deep, there to remain until the sea shall give up its dead."
Congressional records show that the Eli Whitney contracted in January 1847 to bring troops and supplies to the Gulf of Mexico to aid the country during the Mexican-American War. As part of this mission, Dyer arrived at Veracruz during the siege of that city. On March 23, 1847 he writes: "Proceeded up to the Island of Sacrifices. At 4 p.m. this day, the Americans open their fire from the trenches with bombs on the city of Veracruz, and kept up the firing through the night without cessation." Six days later, he writes with stirring patriotism: "The Mexican troops moved out of Veracruz and the Americans took possession of the city and castle. Saw the American flag when it first began to ascend the flagstaff on the Castle of St. John de Ula. Think the stars and stripes look beautiful waving over that fortress....Every American ship of war fired a salute at the same time, what a banging." The next day he toured the ruined occupied city, and seemed to have mixed emotions: "What few Mexicans were to be seen look on me with a sort of staring wondering you-have-no- business-here sort of a look....All of them looked sort of sad, which was not surprising as probably but few had some relations killed during the bombardment."
Dyer's letter book begins on June 17, 1841 in Liverpool and runs through October 12, 1848, also in Liverpool. The book contains retained copies of about fifty letters (including a few loose examples) sent from Dyer while captain of the Olive Branch and then the Eli Whitney over the course of seven years, from a variety of locations, including Baltimore, Savannah, Boston, Antwerp, Sydney, Australia, and Havre, France. The letters deal with shipment and cargo issues, the various costs of products and expenses involved in the seafaring trade, logistical movements between various ports of call, and more. The cargo mentioned by Dyer includes tobacco, coffee, salt, and with quite a few entries pertaining to cotton.
Dyer's business ledger, comprising 136pp., records regularly-noted expenditures for his three ships - first the Olive Branch (1841- 42), then the Eli Whitney (1844-50), and finally the John Bryant (1850-53). The line item costs include crew wages, customs fees, various food supplies, pilotage fees, portage fees, supplies, equipment, repairs, primage (or "hat money"), and a litany of additional products and services throughout the twelve years covered by this ledger. Dyer also occasionally records the names of tradesman or merchants with whom he deals, in various ports such as Boston, Bristol, Liverpool, Antwerp, and New Orleans. The various types of cargo include the usual mid-19th century merchandise, such as potatoes, salt, cotton, coffee, wood, and coal, among others. Several pages of the ledger from 1847 indicate the Eli Whitney was docked in New Orleans, due to their service in the Mexican- American War.
Dyer's letters to his family, mostly to his wife, range widely in content, with much of interest to the historical record, and his writing style is lively and erudite. From Ransgate, England, he writes about the dangers of the English Channel on March 21, 1818: "Never were such destructive shipwrecks known as have been in this channel. The shores are lined with wrecks and dead bodies, and I have great reason to thank the ruler of the universe that I have not shared the same fate."
Dyer got caught up in a yellow fever epidemic in New York, writing on September 13, 1822: "The fever does not yet abate in New York. All the west part of the city is deserted, and a watch appointed to prevent any person from entering what is termed the infected district." He again writes of disease, this time about smallpox and vaccinations from Boston on January 19, 1924: "You may recollect considerable excitement was occasioned by the existence of small pox in Orleans or Eastham when I was at home and I then concluded I would be vaccinated again but after consulting medical authors and men of information on the subject no doubt now remains in my mind but if a person has once had the Cowpock he will forever after be proof against the small pox and as I am certain I once had it shall not be at the trouble of vaccinating again but if you doubt whether you and Elizabeth have had it or not should advise to repeat the operation as soon as possible."
In Savannah, Georgia on March 22, 1824, he describes watching a duel being fought: "They fought 8 paces distance and both fired together and one was badly wounded in the arm. If the ball had missed his arm, death must have been inevitable." A couple of months later, also in Savannah, on May 30, 1824, he describes at length a woman instructing her slaves in religion. Dyer writes:
"I went to what she termed the chapel accompanied with two or three other ladies but which was a room in the same house but what was my astonishment at seeing about 25 little male and female slaves rise and run to shake her friendly hand. They all appeared to be between the age of 4 and 12 years. The little negroes all formed a circle around her, her own two children at the head. She then questioned them and instructed them in the doctrine and antics of religion for about an hour, sung a hymn, prayed with and dismissed them....To see their little black eyes raised and moist with gratitude to God and their benefactress produced feelings in me not easy to be described. After the little ones had retired the older ones came. She read some portion of Scripture prayed sung and then an old negro whose wool was white as snow dismissed the assembly. They all parted with the greatest marks of friendship and esteem. She told me she enjoyed herself nowhere better than when conversing with and instructing her negroes on religious subjects and said no doubt the souls of her slaves would be required at her hands if she did not afford them the means of Grace."
In February of 1829, Dyer burned his hands and hair badly while fighting a fire that broke out on his ship while docked in Savannah. The accident cost his ship almost three weeks worth of repairs, and he wrote to his wife that "my hands are so much burned that I write with difficulty." He wrote next on February 8, reporting that his burns had healed, "as indeed they were but trifling at first particularly on my face."
Dyer's letters continue with a combination of reports of his professional seafaring activities and personal news from him and reactions from him to news from home. For example, on May 7, 1847, Dyer writes from the Southwest Pass of the Mississippi River that he is waiting to "get over the bar but as the ship is pretty deep perhaps it may not be for some days yet." He then comments on the activities of his children, namely Benjamin and Dinah, the latter of whom he praises for her teaching ability. He ends the letter by reporting to his wife that he is owed $764.57 by the owners of the Eli Whitney, "so you will know how my accounts stand in case of accident."
The archive also includes a healthy amount of correspondence written to Dyer from his family. These letters begin in early 1832 and continue to May 1860, and are written by Dyer's wife, brother, daughters, and his son. Most of the letters are written from the family's home base in Truro, with an occasional postmark from Boston. The content of the letters is typical of members in a seafaring family - news from home, including various activities of family members, births, deaths, illnesses, school reports, the activities of friends and other world events, and more, but also passages expressing longing or uncertainty as to Dyer's location in the world. In the March 4, 1851 letter from Dyer's daughter Catharine and his wife, the two express concern for a recent accident aboard Dyer's ship; again, Dyer found himself fighting a shipboard fire. In a letter dated in June of the next year, Dyer's daughter Dinah writes to him saying that:
"We have allowed about forty days for you to make your passage in and hope it may be even less. Mother has I think more anxiety about you than she used to have and I do so dislike to see the worryings in her face as one of the boys used to say. I think the accidents you have met with since you have been in the J[ohn] B[ryant] have had a tendency to make us all feel a little more anxious."
The photographs are largely later family pictures from the 20th century, but do include several 19th-century portraits. These include large oval salt prints of Captain Dyer and his wife, along with a couple of additional portraits of each of them, including later prints made from a daguerreotype of Dyer; their children Azubah and Elizabeth; and later family members such as Anne Evelyn Boardman, Bertha Chapman, Edward Everett Boardman, Sarah Dyer, and others. The associated family papers emanate from the 19th century to well into the 20th century, and include letters, diaries, and more.
This substantial archive, including a large collection of the letters, log and account books, photographs, and more (including the portable wooden writing desk on which Captain Dyer likely composed most of his letters during his numerous travels around the world) is rich with research potential on the life, voyages, and family of a notable Massachusetts sea captain active in the first half of the 19th century.