This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 issue of Historic Nantucket.
Charles Ramsdell is remembered in Nantucket history as one of the eight survivors of the 1820 whaleship Essex disaster. What happens to a man who lives through the horrors of such an ordeal? A fresh look at the writings of men and women who met Ramsdell after the disaster provides new insight into his mental state and significantly revises our understanding of what he elected to do next in his life.
For the last forty years, since the rediscovery of accounts and letters written by fellow survivor Thomas Nickerson, historians have believed that Charles Ramsdell and Nickerson, after arriving home in June 1821, turned right around five months later and sailed away again with Captain George Pollard on the whaleship Two Brothers—a voyage that also ended in disaster. But Ramsdell actually stayed behind, and sailed a year later on a completely different voyage.
Charles Ramsdell was born on Nantucket January 7, 1804, and grew into a 5-foot, 6-inch–tall teenager with brown hair. He was the middle son of John Ramsdell Jr. and Phebe (Marshall) Ramsdell. His father, a cabinetmaker, died when Charles was twelve, and, instead of following his father’s profession, Charles went to sea. The whaleship Essex, fitting out at the wharf in the summer of 1819, was called a lucky ship, and it was Ramsdell’s chance. Along with three teenage friends who were also fatherless—Thomas Nickerson, Barzillai Ray, and Owen Coffin—he signed on and set off toward the South Pacific on August 12.
A little over a year later, while the men hunted whales in the remote equatorial Pacific, a massive sperm whale almost the length of the Essex rammed the ship twice with chilling fury and vengeance. The Essex was wrecked, and the crew divided up into three small whaleboats for what became a gruesome and horrific journey back to land. Ramsdell was in Captain George Pollard Jr.’s boat with Barzillai Ray, Owen Coffin, and others, and the friends eventually lost sight of Thomas Nickerson in first mate Owen Chase’s boat. After three months of empty horizons and one brief stop at a desolate island, only eight of the twenty starving crewmen remained to be rescued. Some of the dead had become food for the others. Ramsdell and Nickerson lived because others had died.
According to Nickerson years later, it was Ramsdell who proposed in Captain Pollard’s boat that the men draw lots. Owen Coffin drew the lot to die and be eaten; Ramsdell drew the lot to kill him. Then, five days later, Barzillai Ray died, and Pollard and Ramsdell ate him, too. In the end, just Ramsdell and Pollard remained in their boat when picked up by the ship Dauphins and taken to Valparaiso, Chile, where they were reunited with
Nickerson, Chase, and Benjamin Lawrence, rescued from the one other surviving boat.
In 1980, Ann Finch of Hamden, Connecticut, discovered some manuscripts and letters by Thomas Nickerson that her husband had inherited. They included a sensational account of the Essex disaster, as well as another story titled “Loss of the Ship Two Brothers of Nantucket.” In this story and an accompanying poem, Nickerson recounted the remarkable story of the next chapter in Captain Pollard life: “The Ship Two Brothers
was placed in command of Capt. George Pollard on his arrival at Nantucket after the loss of the Essex. This ship was Subsequently lost on a reef of Rocks to the Southwest [sic] of the Sandwich Islands. . . . The following lines were Sketched and thrown into verse upon the voyage during which the writer formed one of his crew.” The poem then begins,
Scarce had this worthy Captain Reached the Strand,
When once again appointed to Command.
He joins his Ship, and with a Seaman’s eye,
Scans every part, around, beneath, on high.
And thus he mused, whilst pacing to and fro,
I’ll see those Lads, perchance they’ll with me go.
And then Should fortune Smile, and Skill prevail,
We’ll out once more to Sea in Search of whale.
Against the words, “I’ll see those Lads,” Nickerson added a footnote: “The writer and Charles Ramsdell of the crew of the Essex.” This footnote appears to suggest that both
Nickerson and Ramsdell signed on with Pollard in the Two Brothers—a truly remarkable vote of confidence after such a disaster—and historians since the rediscovery of Nickerson’s manuscripts have taken it to mean exactly that. But Nickerson’s next stanza, heavy with the metaphor of drawing lots, suggests an alternative reading:
Mine was the lot, to plough with him [Pollard]
To Sail o’er raging Seas, with him again.
His was the care, but mine the common lot,
To Strive once more to gain, and find it not.
What if Pollard asked both Ramsdell and Nickerson to accompany him, but only Nickerson took up the offer? “Mine was the lot” suggests this interpretation, and this, in fact, is exactly what happened. Remarkably, we have more than just the interpretation of this poem to prove it.
We know Ramsdell was not aboard the Two Brothers because a year later, on November 19, 1822, he was instead aboard the ship Thames as it departed New Haven,
Connecticut, bound for the Pacific. Clearly written in the crew list preserved in the U.S. Custom Service records at the National Archives is the name Charles Ramsdell of Nantucket, “Boat Steerer,” 18 years of age (but then overwritten to say 19), 5-foot, 6-inches tall, light complexion, and brown hair. The only other Nantucket man aboard was the captain, Reuben Clasby.
Shared trauma creates an especially strong bond, and after a year of torment and confusion ashore, did Ramsdell come to realize that he not only missed the sea but
wanted to catch up with his close friend Nickerson? While Nickerson was cruising under Captain Pollard in the Pacific in the Two Brothers, Ramsdell, promoted to boatsteerer, was at Tomlinson’s Wharf in New Haven, waiting for, of all things, missionaries to cut short the hymn Blest by the Tie that Binds and board.
The Thames, 101 feet long and 350 tons, was a former packet ship that had recently been fitted out by the New Haven Whaling Company for a voyage to the Pacific. Cleared to sail in early October 1822, the ship was delayed many weeks by the illness of the first mate, who was finally replaced by a different man in November. During this time, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, a Protestant missionary society, was seeking a ship to carry missionaries from New England to Honolulu. The American Board’s agent discovered the Thames and secured passage on the ship for its missionaries.
Aboard the Thames, Captain Reuben Clasby declared that swearing was forbidden, and in its place the sound of hymns was heard floating up from deck to rigging as the missionaries practiced for their monthly shipboard concert. Having given up everything to convert the Native people of the Pacific to Christianity, the determined missionaries decided that working on the sailors would be a good start, as we know from their surviving journals.
Missionary Levi Chamberlain was in charge of secular affairs such as business and missionary records and his accounts are accurate and detailed. He wrote about
many of the crew, and their names and positions exactly match the Thames crew list. Through Chamberlain, we learn that on December 22 the sighting of sperm whales “was the occasion of much excitement,” but the pursuit was abandoned when they proved to be finback whales. Later in the day the crew caught and tried out the blubber of two blackfish. On Monday, December 30, we see Ramsdell pull a harpoon from a thrashing shark on deck. Chamberlain wrote, “A shark was caught this afternoon. . . . Mr. Manter [third mate] & Mr. Ramsdell stood on the spars which were extended over the stern with each a harpoon his hand . . . when [the shark] was decoyed up a second time they lodged them both in him. . . . The sailors took the skin from the tail part & prepared the flesh for their supper.”
Young missionary teacher Betsey Stockton, a formerly enslaved Black woman who had educated herself from the books in her former master’s library, was not given a berth like the other missionaries but had a makeshift bed above the windows at the rear of the ship. From this vantage point she wrote that she “was much interested in witnessing the harpooning of a large shark. It was taken at the stern of the ship, about 6 yards from the cabin window, from which I had a clear view of it. It was struck by two harpoons at the same time. The fish . . . was so angry that he endeavoured to bite the men after he was on deck.”
Chamberlain writes on January 23, “Several whales were seen but as the wind blew fresh & it was late in the day the captain though it best not to pursue them.” Reverend Charles Samuel Stewart was tall, fit, charismatic, and in love with God and his pregnant wife, Harriet, whom he referred to as H— in his Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands. He mentions a sailor R—, and with no other crewman aboard the ship with that
initial save the Black cook we may reasonably guess he is writing about Ramsdell. On January 25, 1823, Reverend Stewart wrote, “In the dusk of the evening, while leaning, alone, against the railing of the quarter-deck . . . my arm was gently touched by someone, on the spars behind: it was R—, one of the hardiest of our crew. Perceiving me alone, he had stolen from his station forward, to say that his spirit, like the troubled
sea, could find no rest. . . . His words were few, but his look, while he trembled under his guilt as a sinner . . . spoke volumes. . . . [H]e had scarcely eaten or slept during the whole week.”
Scarcely eaten. It nearly the second anniversary of Owen Coffin’s murder in Captain Pollard’s boat. Pollard is said to have locked himself in his room to fast in honor of his
lost crewmen on this anniversary later in his life.
On Wednesday, February 5, Levi Chamberlain wrote, “Held a short conversation with Charles Ramsdell, found him disposed to hear religious conversation, & ready to admit the importance of religion.” Not a week later, on February 11, Thomas Nickerson was
about 6,900 nautical miles away in a small whaleboat in the northwest of the Hawaiian Islands chain, the Two Brothers having wrecked on a coral reef. Nickerson wrote that “Surrounded with breakers apparently mountains high . . . Captain Pollard seemed to stand amazed at the scene before him.”
Deep lost in thought, his reasoning powers
He cared for others’ Safety, not his own.
And when the boats prepared, he lingered yet,
And Seemed his own Salvation, to forget.
In a footnote, Nickerson stressed, “The Capt. when called upon, could scarcely be prevailed on to embark.” In opportunity’s last second, first mate Eben Gardner pulled the captain into a whaleboat before they rowed away from the sinking ship. He and Pollard were once again in a boat on the open ocean with no food or water:
Tis Past, the dangers of the night are o’er,
And we’ve escaped the raging breakers roar.
But here again, new terrors on us seize.
We have no food, our hunger to appease,
And thirst steals o’er our parched lips in vain,
Pale Death’s Stern visage threatens now again.
But their terror faded by daybreak; having spent a dismal night rowing around the reef and breakers, Pollard, Nickerson, and all their shipmates shouted as their companion ship Martha came into sight and rescued them.
Meanwhile, Ramsdell and the Thames passed Cape Horn with its many potential dangers. Levi Chamberlain wrote, “Wednesday Feby 12th. W. Ramsdell begins to be serious, reads his Bible & other religious books.”
The Thames spent three weeks rounding the southern tip of South America. “Not one of the officers or crew have had dry clothes during the whole of the time,” wrote Reverend Stewart on March 1. A few days later, he wrote, “My interviews with R—, since the gale off the Rio de la Plata, have been frequent. He continues greatly interested for his own salvation. On two nights, recently, I have spent a part of his watch on deck with him, and at both times, by the sight of a waning moon, have seen tears roll in torrents down his hardy cheeks, while he has spoken of the things that relate to his eternal peace. To some of his shipmates he has become an object of ridicule, while others seem to be like-minded with himself.”
On March 6, Stewart, with whom Ramsdell now had a friendly rapport, wrote, “A short time since, R— was in great despondency, and said to me, ‘I know not what to do! I have read my Bible, and have prayed; I have tried for weeks, and for months, to be religious, but I cannot; I have no true repentance, no real faith, and God will not hear my prayers; what can I do? I feel that my soul will live for ever; and without the grace of God, I know it must eternally perish.’ But to-night I met him, with his Bible in his hand, and his very heart in his face, and his first words were, ‘O Mr. S—, I have found the right way to believe; it was the righteousness of Jesus Christ I needed. Now the whole Bible is not against me, as it used to be, but every word is for me, because I see and feel how God can be just, and yet justify an ungodly sinner.’ ”
Ramsdell was struggling. The next day Chamberlain wrote, “Conversed with Charles Ramsdell about his soul. Religion, he thinks to be a good thing; but when urged to attend to it, says he finds in himself an unwillingness to renounce his companions, who are opposed to religion.” Give up your companions? Friends were everything. Like Owen Coffin and Barzillai Ray, who had died that he might live.
On March 11, Chamberlain spoke again with Ramsdell and noted that “He says he has fully resolved to attend to religion and possess it, if it is attainable.” Stewart, more than two weeks later, reported, “R— is one of the happiest of creatures. All he says, is worth twice its real value, from the manner in which it is communicated. . . . [He said,] ‘I did not know what faith was, or how to obtain it; but I know now what it is, and believe I possess it. But I do not know that I can tell you what it is, or how to get it. I can tell you what it is not: it is not knocking off swearing, and drinking, and such like; and it is not reading the Bible, nor praying, nor being good; it is none of these; for, even if they would answer for the time to come, there is the old score still, and how are you to get clear of that? It is not anything you have done or can do; it is only believing, and trusting to what Christ has done; it is forsaking your sins, and looking for their pardon and the salvation of your soul, because he died and shed his blood for sin; and it is nothing else.’ ” Ramsdell seems to have found a new outlook on life.
Levi Chamberlain, March 30: “At sunrise sperm whales were descried some distance off the windward. We were then going pretty much before the wind. As soon as the captain was informed of it, he gave orders to put about ship and to pursue them. After a chase of two hours, finding that the effort to come up with them was vain the pursuit was given over and orders given by the captain to put about again and square the yards.”
Stewart, on April 8: “Often during the evening I saw tears of joy glistening in the bright eye of R—.” Chamberlain, on April 13: “Conversed with Ramsdell in the evening—he appears well.”
Twenty-nine-year-old missionary Clarissa Lyman Richards’s letters home described things of interest as they unfolded, and by April Ramsdell’s survival of the Essex disaster and the progress of his soul was something to write home about. The missionaries’ full knowledge of the grisly details is reflected in her misspelling of “Ramsdale,” matching the way it appears in Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-ship Essex of Nantucket, written by first mate Owen Chase and published in 1821, a year before the Thames sailed. On April 20, Richards wrote, “There has been considerable opposition among a few of the seamen to the good work, and they have employed all the arts of which they were capable, to defeat the benevolent designs of those who would save their souls. The Boatswain, of whom I have before spoken, appears to stand firm and immovable in the midst of the scoffs and jeers of his associates. Ramsdale, another interesting character, appears to be a sincere enquirer. You may possibly have heard the fate of the ship Essex, which was stove by a whale two or three years since. He was one of the few that were almost miraculously preserved.”
According to psychiatrist Dr. Dominic Maxwell, the survivors of the Essex almost certainly had significant post-traumatic stress and likely complex survivor guilt as well. The conversations with Ramsdell that the missionaries describe in their journals were essentially talk therapy, a mode of healing that psychiatrists use today. In 1822, there was far less understanding of psychological conditions and symptoms, but Charles Ramsdell experienced an uncommon opportunity to talk about his mental struggles. He had a rare chance to reach a sense of relief and healing.
Owen Chase suffered terrible headaches and nightmares and hoarded food before he died insane in 1869. Pollard reportedly hung a net of food above his bed so that any time he awoke, he could reach out and take something to eat. In 1879, the Kalamazoo Gazette printed that “Captain Nickerson does not like to talk of this fearful passage in his life, and the horrors of it have left a permanent impression on his mind.”
Perhaps for Ramsdell hope was rising. In about a month the Thames would reach the Hawaiian Islands, where he would hear news of his fellow islanders on the Two Brothers. Levi Chamberlain: “157th [day at sea]. Sabbath April 27th. At 12 o’clock before morning Woahoo was in full view by moonlight.” The Thames had raised Oahu. At daylight, “we bore away & stood in for the harbor. . . . The ship was very soon visited by the officers of several whaling ships . . . .”
In Two Years Before The Mast, Richard Henry Dana wrote how impatient his crewmates were to go ashore, but they had to wait for the captain’s permission. Ramsdell was still aboard the Thames when the officers of other whaling ships came aboard to exchange greetings and news. “How long from New Haven, Clasby?” “How many barrels of oil?” “Did you hear of the wreck of the Two Brothers of Nantucket?” At that news Ramsdell
could only have been stunned, then horrified. And then to his great relief: All crew are here on shore. The Martha had delivered Pollard, Nickerson, and the rest to Oahu on February 29, almost two months before Ramsdell arrived. “We arrived Safely at the Island of Wahoo,” Nickerson wrote, “after a Somewhat Stormy passage and all the crew of the Two Brothers were Safely landed and as the whaling fleet were at the time in that
Port, each took their own course and joined separate Ships as Chances offered.”
What ship did Nickerson join to take his own course home? We do not know. Captain Pollard left Hawaii aboard the Pearl on March 21. Was Nickerson still in Honolulu when Ramsdell arrived? Probably. According to the May 31 report of John Coffin Jones Jr., U.S. agent for commerce and seamen in Honolulu, “The harbour is now filled with whale ships, not less than eighteen, provisions consequently scarce and dear, we have also
here on shore all the crews of two whale ships lately wrecked the Lion and the Two Brothers of Nantucket.” The Thames left Honolulu on May 12, so Ramsdell had plenty of time to find Nickerson first.
As reported in the Connecticut Herald, the Thames arrived back in New Haven November 4, 1825, then shortly afterward sailed for New York to sell its cargo of 1,900 barrels of whale oil. After a successful voyage as boatsteerer, Ramsdell returned to Nantucket the kind of man a pretty girl might say yes to; four months later, he married Mercy Fisher on Nantucket on March 11, 1826. They went on to have four children. The cabinetmaker’s son rose to command the ship Lydia of Salem on two successful voyages from 1835 to 1840. Widowed twenty years later, he married Eliza Lamb in 1846, and
they brought two more children into the world. He died in 1866.
The fate of the Essex could have crippled and haunted Charles Ramsdell for the rest of his life, but Providence guided him back to the Pacific on a ship filled with missionaries,
who helped him find a way to pick his life back up again. A new start, a second chance, and goodness and mercy sailed on the second voyage of Charles Ramsdell.
New Haven Crew Lists, Records of the U.S. Custom Service, RG36, National Archives and Records Administration.
Hawaiian Mission Houses Digital Archive, https://hmha.missionhouses.org/
Levi Chamberlain Journals, vol. 1 (Nov. 11, 1822–Aug. 4, 1823)
Sandwich Island Mission Journal (1819–1825)
Clarissa Lyman Richards Journal (1822–23)
Thomas E. French. The Missionary Whaleship. New York: Vantage Press, 1961.
Richard A. Greer. Along the Old Honolulu Waterfront. Honolulu: Hawaiian Historical Society, 1998.
Kalamazoo Gazette, Oct. 24, 1879, 2.
James Montgomery, ed. Journals of Voyages and Travels by the Rev. Daniel Tyerman and George Bennet, Esq. London: Frederick Westley and A. H. Davis, 1831.
Samuel Eliot Morison. Boston Traders in Hawaiian Islands, 1789–1823. Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1920.
Thomas Nickerson Manuscripts, NHA Ms. 106.
Nathaniel Philbrick. In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. New York: Viking, 2000.
Charles S. Stewart. Journal of a Residence in the Sandwich Islands. London: H. Fisher, Son, and Jackson, 1828.
Dominic Maxwell, MD, Medical Director and Consulting Psychiatrist, Fairwinds Counseling Center, Nantucket, Mass.