1849: Oliver Spear Robbins to Isaac C. Robbins

This letter was written by 24 year-old Oliver Spear Robbins (1824-1898), the son of Isaac C. Robbins (1795-1870) and Sally Spear (1797-1848) of Thomaston, Maine. He married Eliza S. Bishop (1825-1880) in Boston in October 1850.

Notice of shipwreck in period papers
Notice of shipwreck in period papers

From the letter, and from an article in the 10 March 1849 edition of the Commercial Adveriser, we learn that Oliver S. Robbins served as First Mate on the Brig. Susan Ingraham as she sailed out of Thomaston, Maine, on a voyage for New Orleans carrying a load of lime. While sailing at night through the waters northeast of the Bahamas, she struck the Man-of-War Key at Abaco, causing the ship to catch fire and sink so rapidly that little was saved from the cabin or below except what the captain and crew were wearing. The ship’s chronometer, all the papers, and of course the cargo of lime was lost. Lime was a commodity in high demand in the 1840s. Not only was it useful for construction, it was widely used as a means for checking the spread of diseases. It was somewhat dangerous to transport in the holds of wooden ships, however.

The captain of the vessel was Master Mariner William John Blackenton (1798-Aft1870), the son of John and Eleanor (Paine) Blackenton, of Thomaston, Maine. Blackenton may have been a relative of the Spears.

Ironically, the New York newspaper Spectator published an article on 22 February 1849 calling attention to mariners to be wary of the currents in the vicinity of the northeastern Bahamas. It was suggested that pressure be brought to bear on British government to erect a lighthouse on Man-of-War Key so as to warm ships of the presence of the dangerous reefs. “The subject has been discussed even by the authorities at Nassau — but as the inhabitants if the various keys depend principally upon wrecking for a support, and as it is principally on Elbow Reef that their richest harvests are reaped, it is to be doubted whether they would give to the undertaking cordial support.”

1849 Letter
1849 Letter

Addressed to I. C. Robbins, Esq., East Thomaston, Maine
Postmarked New Orleans, La.

Nassau, Bahama Islands
February 13th 1849

Dear Father,

I improve this opportunity to write you a few lines by Capt. [John] Blackenton as it may be the only chance I shall have. You will hear all about the loss of the Brig from him and I shall say but little about it. We struck [a reef] about 10 P.M. and at 11 do. we left her and went to sea in the boat. Then the brig was on fire and full of water and the steam from the lime was so hot that we could not stay on deck. We were steering S by W when we struck. The chronometer was out of the way at 8 P.M. The chronometer gave her 47 miles to the east of the NE point of Abaco and 20 miles to the northward.

I saved nothing but my watch. I will tell you the suit I had on, one flannel shirt, and that old striped one, them old tarry pants — the black ones you know stoking, and a pair of boot feet, that cock up cape, [and] my watch — that’s all. I hauled my trunk out and thought I would kick it open but I got belated. It was too hot to go aft and I thought we should have to swim for it or I should put on a coat.

The Captain stood the same as me with the addition of a vest. We pulled out to sea until we judged ourselves 10 miles. At day light, or 6 A.M., we were about 3 miles out, saw a sail or a light at first, kept away for it, but found it was another vessel on shore. Tacked ship and pulled to sea again. About 7 o’clock, pulled in again. The sea breaking high over the bar, they motioned for us to come in and we let her go in and came safe into a small wrecking craft and found the crew of Brig Sea Maid. They had been taken off that morning. She went on shore at the same time she was in company with us the day before and steering the same course. She was lumber loaded from Prospect bound to Cuba. They saved all their clothes. The wreckers went down to our brig but found her under water and the sea making a clean sweep over her. We went on shore on Man-of-War Key, the other brig on Elbow Key.

They took us up to the town which is called Great Harbor. We board with the deputy counsel where Healy & wife boarded when he lost The Teaser. They are very kind, obliging people. After staying here about a week, we were sent to this place where the American Counsel found us some clothes and a boarding house and yesterday I shipped on board the Bark George Henry of Boston to go on board as Chief Mate. Now I have $2 per day until the rest of the crew are sent home because the counsel pays my board till then and so I board myself now and when I go, the counsel will give me my passage money. Weekly is $10. He has given me $12 worth of clothes. The Capt. of the bark’s name is Bradford.

This is a very pleasant country — all kinds of fruit in abundance such as oranges, coconuts, limes, figs, tamarinds, and such fruits as grow in hot climates. I doubt if you have so warm a day at home. Today I have been in swimming. This morning it is very warm indeed. I should love to hear from home but I shall be here perhaps two months yet and then we shall go to Boson or New York, I don’t know which. But I want you to write to Boston and tell Eliza [Bishop] that I have not the first thing that belonged to her. I went to kick my trunk open and take the miniature and the ring that mother gave me, but when I tried to get to it, it was too hot for me.

I can’t write much more this time for it is most dinner time and that is ten o’clock — quality hours you will see by that. The mate and the 2d mate of the Sea Maid are making lemonade. I shall take the 2d mate with me in the bark. The captain told me to ship who I liked for a 2d mate. We had a miserable crew but made out to get along and very bad weather carried away our main boom four days from Thomaston and  carried away our topsail peril the day before we went on shore. O, they done up one quadrants but they are good for nothing. The Ivory is all out of them and one flannel shirt and one pair of thin pants of mine and about the same for Blackenton. He got his chest but could not find mine. I found my trunk or some pieces of it but nothing that was in it so you see I have no dunnage to look after.

I think I shall travel when I get to the States. It will cost me nothing to have my things. I can take them all on my back. Give my love to all my friends and tell Adelia to write [to Eliza] to Boston. No more at present. From your affectionate son, — O. S. Robbins

P. S. Tell John not to sell the gray horse and I hope my black mare is well by this time. Tell ___ to save some corn to pass and tell Lane that I shall not hurt her carpet soon, I don’t believe. And tell Ruf if Hit gets so fat that he can’t get her clothes off, that I will send him home som,e lard to grease her with. And tell D. Brown to look out for the puppy, I give my respects to Miss Mansfield and Clara. Tell her I would come home and churn but it is a little to far. — O. S. R.

[in a different hand]

Dear Eliza [Bishop],

Father received this letter from Oliver & as you will see, there is a request for me to write to you, & as I thought you would much rather see this letter than one of mine, so I asked Father to let me put a wrapper on it & send it to you as you would then know just what he wrote. Perhaps you have had a letter from him yourself before now but I thought if he wrote you might not get it and if so, you would be glad to see this. Oliver seems to be in fine spirits and I am glad he is. It is much better than being down-hearted. O, I am so happy to think his life was preserved that I don’t think anything about his losing his clothes although it was quite a loss to him for he had all his best ones with him with the exception of those shirts you made him. I haven’t room to write any more so you must write to me very soon all the particulars, won’t you?

From Adelia

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