Identifying the ship Eliza of Nantucket

Many Nantucket vessels made sealing voyages to the southeastern and southwestern coasts of South America between 1793 and 1821, with the majority concentrated between about 1800 and 1812. Often these voyages were combined with a trading stop at Canton before heading back to the United States. Complicating matters, different Nantucket vessels made whaling voyages to these same waters during the same time period.

We recently learned that one of these Nantucket vessels, the ship Eliza under Captain Joseph W. Plasket, wrecked off the coast of Chile in 1809. Could we find out anything about the Eliza?

It will come as no surprise to students of early New England seafaring that there were many American vessels named Eliza in 1809, including multiple ones operating from Nantucket. It is exceedingly difficult to discern which are which from the fragmentary records. One ship Eliza of Nantucket, Captain Hussey, made regular trading voyages to Europe at this time. Another Eliza of Nantucket, sometimes identified as a brig and sometimes as a ship, made three or maybe four whaling or sealing voyages to Patagonia and Brazil between 1804 and 1809. There is a clear record that a ship Eliza of Nantucket made a sealing voyage “to the South Seas” under a Captain Bunker from 1802 to 1804.[1] Another ship Eliza of Nantucket is recorded arriving in New York on May 24, 1808, from Canton via the Cape of Good Hope. Commanded by Captain Chase, it carried Chinese teas, nankeens, silks, and other cargo consigned to the merchant Jacob Barker and to the firm of Minturn & Champlin. It sailed from New York for home at Nantucket 11 days later.[2] Is the Eliza that returned from Canton in 1808 the same Eliza that was sealing in the South Seas in 1802–04? The evidence is insufficient to say for certain, but it could be.

On April 1, 1809, the ship Eliza of Nantucket, Captain Joseph W. Plasket, wrecked at Isla Santa María, Chile, while on a sealing voyage. Is this Eliza the same as either, or both, of the Elizas commanded by Captains Bunker and Chase? It could be, but we do not know for certain. What we do know from newspaper reports is that after the wreck, Captain Plasket and several of his crew were able to make their way back to the United States, arriving in Providence, Rhode Island, in September 1809 aboard the ship Isis, Captain Donnison, from Batavia. The Isis made a stop at St. Helena during its homeward voyage, and it seems probable Plasket and his men first took passage in another vessel from Chile to St. Helena, then travelled home on the Isis from there.[3]

Ship Lady Adamas [Adams] of Nantucket, 1807
Nicolas Cammillieri
Watercolor and ink on paper, 18 x 25″
Gift of Harriet R. Easton, 1895.3.1
Adding to the Eliza confusion, the first American vessel to hunt seals at Más Afuera off the Chilean coast was the ship Eliza of New York, Captain Palmer (later Captain W. R. Stewart, later Captain Delano), but this is not the Eliza later commanded by Joseph W. Plasket. This Eliza of New York was condemned at Port Louis, Isle of France (Mauritius), in 1794 on its homeward passage to New York.[4]

The ship Eliza of Nantucket, wrecked on the Chilean coast in 1809, may have been similar to the 231-ton, Falmouth-built ship Lady Adams of Nantucket, which also made sealing and trading voyages to Chile and  Canton between 1802 and 1805.


[1] A. Howard Clark, “The Antarctic Fur-Seal and Sea-Elephant Industries,” in G. Brown Goode, ed., The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1887), II:445.

[2] “Shipping News,” Baltimore North American and Mercantile Daily Advertiser, May 12, 1808, 3; “Shipping News,” New York Gazette, May 24, 1808, 3; “Shipping News,” New York Gazette, June 4, 1808, 3.

[3] “Shipping News,” Boston Repertory, Sept. 8, 1809, 3; “Shipping News,” Providence American, Sept. 5, 1809, 3.

[4] A. Howard Clark, “The Antarctic Fur-Seal and Sea-Elephant Industries,” in G. Brown Goode, ed., The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1887), II:441; Baltimore Daily Intelligencer, Mar. 12, 1794, 2.

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