Tales of the sea often make reference to “Mother Carey’s Chickens,” tiny birds found far off-shore that would dart and flit about skimming the waves, fearless and indifferent even in the tempest of a roaring gale. The journals of whalers and merchant sailors comment on their antics, and many of the great novels of the sea give them their due. It is a beguiling and mysterious image, these little birds keeping the storm-tossed sailors company while continuing about their business flying within a spit of death above the frothing waves, while all the other larger, more powerful seabirds had fled the sea seeking shelter ashore. These were the storm petrels. I have always been fascinated by these tales, and very curious about how they came by their very unusual nickname.
Sailors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries started calling these little petrels “Mother Carey’s Chickens.”(2) The Storm Petrel is any one of about 20 different species of seabirds in the families Hydrobatidae or Oceanitidae. They are found widespread throughout the seas and found only on the open ocean far offshore (except, of course, during their breeding season). They are found in both hemispheres, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, but only Wilson’s Storm Petrels and White-Faced Storm Petrels are found in both. All of them are dark gray or brown, sometimes lighter below, often with a white rump, with relatively short wings and a medium to long tail that is variously square, forked, or wedge shaped. They range in size from about 5 1/2 to 10 inches in length and weigh slightly less than an ounce or so, about the same size as a House Martin.(1)
Despite their small size and seemingly weak flight, this bird is at home on the roughest of seas, flying in the troughs of the waves during gales. They swoop over the water like tiny terns, occasionally alighting on the surface. In southern oceans they patter over the water, “walking,” and pick up minute marine organisms.(3) Old literature on the sea is rife with sailor’s reports of seeing these tiny birds flitting about during the roughest of weather, often the only sea birds aloft at all. In the midst of a tempest, with rigging torn, spars splintered and no discernable line between wind and wave, sailors were amazed at seeing the little “stormies” flying about their business unconcerned. Rudyard Kipling described “Four or five Mother Carey’s chickens stormed round in circles, shrieking as they swept past the bows.”(4) Closer to home, they are mentioned in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.(5)
I have always been fascinated with why they were dubbed Mother Carey’s Chickens. Most dictionaries cite the phrase as being of unknown mid-eighteenth-century origin.(6)(7)(8) The first attested use of this strange name in print appears in an account by British Naval Commander Philip Carteret in 1773:
1767, April. Saturday 18: From the time of our clearing the Straight [of Magellan], and during our passage along this coast, we saw a great number of sea birds, particularly albatrosses, gannets, sheerwaters [sic], and a thick lumpish bird, about as big as a large pigeon, which the sailors call a Cape of Good Hope hen: they are of a dark brown or blackish colour, and are therefore sometimes called the black gull: we saw also a great many pintado birds, of nearly the same size, which are prettily spotted with black and white, and constantly on the wing, though they frequently appear as if they were walking upon the water, like the peterels [sic], to which sailors have given the name of Mother Carey’s chickens; and we saw also many of these.(2)
Why Mother Carey? One theory suggests that the name Mother Carey might be a mistranslation of the post-classical Latin Mater Cara or Italian Madre Cara, meaning Dear Mother and used as an epithet for the Virgin Mary (who was regarded as a patroness of sailors). First presented in 1889, this theory holds that the storm petrel was thought by sailors to be a harbinger of bad weather sent by the Virgin Mary.(9)(10) In some versions, the entourage of chicks was held to be the souls of sailors lost at sea. Although first posed in 1889, the idea does not seem to have been seriously considered until sometime rather recently and seems quite unlikely. The storm petrel was always about, a very common sight on the outer shelf, so in a way just appeared as an omen before the approach of a storm. My impression from reading sailor’s accounts is that the storm petrel was a comforting sight and gave reassurance and confidence to the mariner: if that little fellow was so unconcerned going about its business on the height of a storm, what need did the sailor have to fear? It is also a comical thought that the seafarers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were up on their Classical Latin. Nor was modern Italian a lingua franca among sailors: the blue water fleets were abundantly made up of Portuguese and Spaniards, Scandinavians, Brits, Yanks, and even the French… but the Italians… eh, not so much. They were pretty content in the Mediterranean, and even their favorite son Cristoforo Colombo had to seek patronage elsewhere to venture off-shore. Finally, the bird commonly identified as “l’oiseau de Notre Dame,” “avis Sanctae Maria,” and “ucello pescatora Santa Maria” was a kingfisher, and not a petrel at all.(9)
Another theory proposed is that a cruel sea witch, Mother Carey, was the personification of the harsh and unforgiving sea. Like any classic sea hag worth her salt, this Mother Carey was said to “wreak havoc on the ocean waves, conjuring up devastating storms that would destroy any vessel unlucky enough to be caught in her sights. The ship’s crew would be sent to their deaths so that Carey and her partner, Davy Jones, could feast upon their rotting bodies.”(11)
Here, the storm petrels were a portent not exactly of a storm, but rather the imminent arrival the witch herself. This theory is not really so much a possible explanation of the observed sailor’s folklore, but rather an alternative folklore altogether. In relating this tale, the author confessed to finding no evidence or trace of “why Mother Carey?”
From whence came this legend? We have no less than the great British poet laureate John Masefield himself to thank, at least for keeping it alive. When Masefield wasn’t pining for a tall ship and a star to steer her by, (13) he told of Mother Carey:
Mother Carey? She’s the mother o’ the witches
‘N’ all them sort o’ rips;
She’s a fine gell to look at, but the hitch is,
She’s a sight too fond of ships;
She lives upon an iceberg to the norred,
‘N’ her man he’s Davy Jones,
‘N’ she combs the weeds upon her forred
With pore drowned sailors’ bones.
She’s the mother o’ the wrecks, ‘n’ the mother
Of all big winds as blows;
She’s up to some deviltry or other
When it storms, or sleets or snows;
The noise of the wind’s her screamin’
‘I’m arter a plump, young, fine,
Brass-buttoned, beefy-ribbed yound seam’n
So as me ‘n’ my mate kin dine(14).
It is likely that Masefield drew upon a local tale for his poem, as had the artist J.G. Keulemans, who was a particular fancier of the petrel family. Perhaps Masefield looked no further than the latter’s wonderfully evocative lithograph of Ma Carey on her broomstick. It is interesting to note that the illustration does not depict an early witch at all, but just a typical English spinster; the distinctive hat and garb did not become the iconic image of a witch until much later than the dawn of Mother Carey.
There is however another explanation of Mother Carey’s Chickens, one that is almost entirely unknown, backed by evidence, and is grounded firmly in Nantucket. Carey (sometimes spelled Cary) is an old island name, dating back at least to Edward Carey (1738–1812), who married Lydia Hussey (1746–1814) and resided at 117 Main Street. Their daughter Lydia married ship owner James Athearn (who had built the whale ship Edward Cary, which is the subject of an interactive display at the NHA Whaling Museum).(15) Their son James Carey (1777–1812) was master of the ship Rose and Nantucket’s most successful captain in the China Trade.(16) James married Elizabeth Swain, the daughter of whaling captain Uriah Swain, and when he died on a voyage at the age of 35, he left his wife, Betsey, a widow on Nantucket with two young children, Betsey Junior and James Junior.(16) It is with Betsey that our chickens come home to roost.
Elizabeth “Betsey” (Swain) Carey (1778–1862) was a native of Nantucket, the daughter of Uriah Swain (1754–1810) and Elizabeth Pinkham (1759–1810). Her sister Lydia (1791–1828) married her brother-in-law Charles Carey (1789–1829). Left a widow to make her own way in the world, Betsey ran the Washington House hotel on Main Street (whose lodging book from 1816 through 1829 is in the collection of the NHA). Struggling financially, she sold the hotel to her brother-in-law James Athearn in 1831, who left its operation to Elisha Starbuck, the town sheriff.(16)(17)
Not long after she sold the Washington House, former President John Quincy Adams stayed at that hotel in 1835, and less than a year later, it suffered a catastrophic fire when a chimney blaze broke out 10 May 1836, and the hotel and several neighboring buildings burned to the ground in the island’s first great conflagration. Oddly, Elisha Starbuck began operating a new hotel on Main Street very near his former establishment…a decade later, a hat shop in the exact same location was the source of Nantucket’s Great Fire of 1846.(17)
Betsey went on to run a humble shop and public house in her home in Siasconset,(16) one of the ancient fishing shacks enlarged into a dwelling. Named Shanunga after a ship’s sternboard attached to the house, Carey’s cottage along with nearby Auld Lang Syne are thought to be the two oldest houses on Nantucket (pre-dating the Jethro Coffin “Horseshoe House” built in 1686).(17) While President Adams had not been impressed with the “very indifferent” Washington House (as noted in his son’s diary), they went on to stay at Betsey’s new establishment in ‘Sconset and found it much more pleasing: his son noted, “We returned to the neat inn where we had ordered dinner, and found Mr. Paine, Dr. Morton, the collector of the place, Mr. Burnall, a Dr. Webb, and Mr. Athearn who joined our party. The dinner was neat and composed of Nantucket dishes – chicken chowder, pumpkins dressed in the shell and corn puddings. Fish could not be procured in time. The neatness of everything was remarkable.”(17)
Unfortunately, Betsey continued to struggle financially and her situation declined. Harper’s Weekly writer and illustrator David Hunter Strother visited Sconset in 1860 and presented a very unflattering portrayal “Mother Cary” and her shop on Broadway, where she carried dried codfish, bottled beer, sugar-candy, fishing lines and hooks, eggs, whiskey, ginger-cakes, opodeldoc (liniment), pork, cigars, cheese, Radway’s Ready Relief, tobacco, ship biscuit, Pain Killer, jack-knives, lucifer-matches, and jewelry. She outfitted Strothers and his companion for a day of bluefishing, and they returned afterwards at her inn for several rounds of her finest whiskey. Strothers, under his pseudonym Porte Crayon depicted the 82 year old Mother Carey with a whiskey bottle in each hand.
Mother Carey is mentioned elsewhere in Nantucket literature. Retired Rear Admiral Daniel Ammen wrote in his memoirs of visiting Nantucket, where Mother Carey in Siasconset had a collection of whaleship models in tanks with which she entertained guests and used them as illustrations in telling them about whaling (18). One presumes the reference to ships in tanks refers to ships in bottles. Ida Coffin, in her novel The Oldest House on Nantucket Island, makes reference to “Mother Carey”, and has characters buying eggs from Aunt Nabby Carey (19). Between chicken chowder and selling eggs, there is a recurring association with Carey and chickens…
Most importantly, hiding in one of the old books on my shelf of Nantucket history and lore, there is the story told of a very poor and down-on-her-luck Mother Carey running her inn in Sconset, and providing room and board at a very modest rate, in fact so cheap as to lure poor sailors to settle for her meager fare. It goes on to say that Mother Carey was in fact infamous for serving the scrawniest little chickens and the meanest portions. It further tells of the sailors at sea jokingly calling Storm Petrels “Mother Carey’s Chickens” because they were as tiny and scrawny as the chickens served by Mother Carey in Sconset!
A great story…but there has to be more still untold. Betsey Carey was serving her chickens in Sconset after 1835, and yet Commander Carteret knew the nickname in 1767. Did Betsey inherit her sobriquet from an earlier and equally frugal Mother Carey on Nantucket? Or did Nantucket whalers encounter the nickname from other sailors, probably in England or Ireland where the name Carey abounds, and readily adopt it as one of Nantucket’s own?
- Carteret, Philip, Esquire, Commander of his Majesty’s Sloop the Swallow, as edited by John Hawkesworth. 1773. An Account of a Voyage Round the World, in the Years MDCCLXVI, MDCCLXVII, MDCCLXVIII, and MDCCLXIX. London.
- Kipling, Rudyard. 1897. Captains Courageous. Doubleday Doran, NY.
- Poe, Edgar Allen. 1838. The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Harper Publishers, New York.
- Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Edition. 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
- Collins Dictionary, 3rd Edition. 2005. Penguin Random House LLC and HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
- Anon. American Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers. Etc. Vol III May to October 1889. The Westminster Publishing Co, Philadelphia. 1889.
- Tipp, Cheryl. 16 May 2019. Mother Carey’s Chickens. Blogs.bl.uk>sound-and-vision>2019/05
- Rowley, George Dawson (ed.). 1877. Ornithological Miscellany, Volume II, part VI.
- Masefield, John. 1902. Sea Fever. In: Salt Water Ballards. Grant Richards Publishers, London.
- Masefield, John. 1902. Mother Carey (as told me by the bo’sun). In: Salt Water Ballards. Grant Richards Publishers, London.
- Filbert, Pamela Athearn. 10 November 2017. American History, Family StoriesFamily stories, Object Lessons, U.S. Presidents – Mother Carey. https://vitabrevis.americanancestors.org/2017/11/mother-cary/
- Ammen, Daniel. Rear Admiral U.S.N. 1891. The Old Navy and the New. J.B. Lippincott Company. Philadelphia.
- Coffin, Ida Gardner. 1905. The Oldest House on Nantucket Island. Charles Francis Press. New York