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19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

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Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. XXXII, No. 1 (Jul 1870)
pp. 50-54.

50 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



The inner harbor at Honolulu presented a lively scene at the close of the month of October, 185–. A hundred and fifty ships were crowded into that little basin, all moored head and stern, with flying jibbooms in, and yards pointed fore and aft to economize space. For nearly all the belated whalemen from the various Northern cruising-grounds had made their port, and were refitting; either for home, or for a "between-season" cruise, some in quest of spermaceti in the low latitudes, others among the "ripsacks" in the Californian lagoons.

      There was not, throughout the whole fleet, a more promising young man, professionally considered, than Frank Osborn, of Martha's Vineyard, our mate in the Senator. A man of decision and energy, with the courage of a lion; a Hercules in physical build, an Admirable Crichton in his knowledge of all matters pertaining to his calling.

      But, added to all these qualities, Mr. Osborn possessed a heart as tender as a girl's; and at the time of which I write, it was tortured with anxiety at the non-arrival of the Casco, in which ship his younger brother filled the station of boatsteerer. She had been whaling near us in the Arctic Sea, and we had last seen her off St. Lawrence Island at the close of the season. She was bound to Oahu, and, as she outsailed us, we had expected to find her snugly moored in advance of us.

      But a fortnight had now elapsed since we anchored; the last stragglers of the fleet were dropping in, one by one, and still no signs of the Casco. Day after day, the anxious brother, as he carried on the duty of the ship, cast wistful glances in the direction of Diamond Hill, hoping to see the well-known vessel heave in sight; at early dawn, and again with the last fading twilight, he swept the sea-horizon with his glass, becoming daily more moody and despondent.

      "She has made her port somewhere else, perhaps," said Captain Childs.

      "Not at these islands. I have overhauled the Hilo and Lahaina lists; and here's the little schooner, Keoni Ana, arrived this morning, direct from all the windward islands. Her name isn't in the list."

      "Hauled up for San Francisco, maybe," suggested the captain, as one who feels it necessary to suggest something, though he has no belief in it himself.

      "No chance of that, sir," replied Mr. Osborn, with a gloomy shake of the head. "Captain Taber told me himself he should make Honolulu as fast as canvas would drive him. He had two slight cases of the scurvy aboard when we saw him last. She should have been here, on a common chance, when we arrived."

      "That's true. She must have gone in somewhere before this time – if no accident has happened to her."

      "No sane man, who wished to keep his crew together, would put his ship's head inside of San Francisco, now. And I know that Taber wouldn't be hired to go in there," said the mate.

      "Have you heard from Atooi, to leeward, here? She may have touched there, you know."

      "No, she hasn't been heard from there – or hadn't two days ago. There is a bare chance that she may have fallen to leeward of the whole group. Though it's very unlikely that they should have had the trades so very different from what we did."

      So, clinging to that last hope, that she had fallen to leeward, and been obliged to keep on, to make a harbor somewhere further south, he dropped the subject for the time. There was no longer any chance of seeing his brother by waiting at Honolulu; and, the Senator being ready for sea, we sailed for a short cruise on the Line.

      We pushed our inquiries anxiously on board every vessel spoken during the cruise. We again visited the Sandwich Islands for our spring outfit, and letters from home, meeting there numerous vessels from the various Pacific cruising-grounds, but failed to obtain any tidings of the Casco. She had not been seen or heard from on the California coast, and was universally spoken of as a missing ship. She had gone to the Arctic last season – and had never returned.

      The Sea of Okhotsk was our destination in the Senator, and we arrived off the "fifty passage" very early, to find it so blocked with ice that we must necessarily spend a few

Frank Osborn's Brother. 51

days outside. The captain's health had been failing for several months, and he had been advised to give up the command of his vessel and remain at Honolulu for medical treatment. But he had made up his mind, he said, if he must die to die in harness. He hoped that the change to a colder climate might be beneficial; but it proved the reverse. He sank rapidly after entering the high latitudes, and on the second day after we tacked off-shore, Frank Osborn succeeded to the command, by Captain Child's death.

      He had said little about his lost brother since we had left our spring port. He seemed to have fully made up his mind that he should never again hear from John, and to have resigned himself to the inevitable. Something of his old gayety was gone; he was not as boisterous in his merry moods among his brother officers; but he was still Frank Osborn, a little sobered down.

      The remains of our late commander were launched into their ocean-grave with all due honor and respect. Services were read by Mr. Osborn himself, the ship lying hove to, with the ensign at half-mast, as usual on such occasions, and the cool Arctic air fanning our heads as we stood, uncovered, round the corpse on the main-deck. When all was over the crew were mustered at the mainmast, by order of the new captain.

      "Boys," said he, in tones which indicated no hesitation or diffidence in view of his new position, "you understand, of course, that I command the ship. The voyage will be followed up the same as if Captain Childs had lived, and I trust to you all to do your duty and help me to make it a successful one. But I shall change our course, so far as this season's work is concerned. I shall make the cruise somewhere outside, instead of going into the Okhotsk. Brace full, Mr. Hudson, and down tacks!" And, leaving the sterile bluffs of Marikan Island with the ice-bound strait on our quarter, we bounded on our north-easterly course up the Sea of Kamtskatka.

      Little cared we, in the forecastle, about this change of programme. The chance of success was as good, for aught we knew, on one ground as the other, and we had no fear that our young chief would neglect the interests of the voyage. But we did not fail, as we canvassed the subject that night in full conclave, to attribute his course to a lingering hope of learning something about the fate of the Casco and his young brother.

      "I tell you, lads," said old Sam Decker, "the old man has never been able to give the boy up yet."

      The commanding officer would have been spoken of as "the old man" even though he had been but a child in years. As in this case he was, comparatively speaking; for Decker was quite old enough to have been his father.

      "Not that I think he'll go on any wildgoose chase after him," he continued. "He'll attend to his business, trying to fill the ship. But I think he has a kind of wild idea that the Casco may be making a kind of Flying Dutchman of herself somewhere between the Arctic and the Fox Islands."

      "That's far enough to veer and haul upon," growled Jobson, the shipkeeper. "No good'll ever come of chasing phant'm-ships. It's bad enough to have 'em come in sight of ye when ye can't help it."

      "Oh, dry up with your phantoms! that's all my eye and moonshine!" put in Dave Greely, a matter-of-fact Yankee from down east. "There's no more Flying Dutchmen racing round this sea, or any other sea, than there is bog-trotting Irishmen. A ship's always a ship."

      "Ay, lad, but a phant'm isn't," was the dogmatical retort.

      Greely muttered something about "yarns for marines," only the last word being overheard by the shipkeeper.

      "Marines, eh?" he burst out, indignantly. "You'd ought to know better than to use the word to an old shipmate. Hows'ever, you can't expect much manners from a chap with only one voyage exper'ence. You're giving your 'pinion about 'this sea, or any other sea' – you've never doubled Good Hope, I take it, have you?"

      "No," answered Dave. "I can't say that I have, yet."

      "I thought not," answered the other, dryly, seeming to indicate that that clinched the whole argument. "Hows'ever," he resumed, after an oracular pause, "Mr. Osborn – I beg his pardon, the old man – is a whole-souled fellow, and a rare seaman for his years. And that goes a great ways. We ought to be quite willing to follow where he leads."

      Thus Jobson took credit to himself for magnanimity, while simply making a virtue of necessity. For the young captain was not likely to be much influenced by his opinion or that of any other subordinate. He had taken entire command of the ship.

52 Frank Osborn's Brother.

      We made the snowy crags of Behring's Island, and stood in so near that we thought we were going to land. But suddenly the captain appeared to have changed his mind, as if he thought it only a waste of time. Again we swung her off and ran to the eastward across Behring's Sea, till we fell in with right-whales in vast numbers and went to work with a will.

      We had pretty good luck in taking oil, though we had much fog, and not a little rugged weather to contend with. But I noticed that the ship was always kept on the southern tack whenever it was possible to do so; so that we gradually worked towards the land. For we were on the ground that lies directly north of the Aleutian Chain, or as we usually called them, Fox Islands. Still we found the whales plenty and made the most of clear weather. Captain Osborn was much preoccupied in mind, and appeared anxious to run in still nearer the land. But he never neglected his duty to his owners, and no lance in our light flotilla of boats did more execution than his own.

      We had lain, wrapped in fog for three days, without seeing so much as a patch of blue sky, though we did not mind it much, as we were busily employed in securing the spoils we had captured during the last open weather. We had got into thirty fathoms of water, with whirling eddies or tide-rips about us, when the fog partially cleared, and we found ourselves within two miles of the land, a rugged pile of volcanic upheavings, looking dreary and barren enough.

      "Younaska!" exclaimed Captain Osborn, at the first glance. "See! here's the passage we went through, bound in from the Arctic last fall." Then he added, in a lower tone, while a shade went across his fine face, "It's just about where the Casco would have come through, too, as she must have had the same winds."

      As there was but little wind stirring, and the currents were uncertain and treacherous, the anchors were made ready for letting go. We knew not how soon the fog might shut down again; in which case we could be guided only by the depth of water, and by our sense of hearing if near breakers.

      This chain of islands forms a dangerous barricade across the North Pacific, extending more than half the distance between the two continents. The passages through the chain are numerous, and comparatively safe in clear weather. But ships are often under the necessity of running blind, uncertain as to what particular channel they may be navigating.

      But we were not driven to the necessity of anchoring, for a breeze sprang up which dispersed the mist, and gave us a view of the other island forming the west side of the passage. We stretched across towards it, and approaching within a mile of the shore, coasted it along with a leading wind.

      "If we had three or four more whales, now," said Mr. Hudson, "our voyage would be made; and what a time this would be to run through! We shall never have a better one – what's that, sir? A flagstaff?"

      He was pointing, as he spoke, to the top of a crag, apparently inaccessible to any living thing but a goat or a sea-bird.

      "'Tis a pole of some sort, and something flying from it," said the second officer. "Human hands must have raised it there. Most likely some Russians that come here sealing."

      Captain Osborn had as yet said nothing, but was surveying it intently through an opera spy-glass, a short, double affair, very convenient for use at the mast-head or in rugged weather. He spoke at last, with a new light in his countenance, such as had not been seen there for months.

      "No Russian planted that! There's a piece of an American flag flying. Let her come to, Mr. Hudson, head off-shore, and lower away my boat!"

      So impatient was he that we were clear of the ship and pulling with all our might, ere she had fairly stopped her headway. We made directly for the spot that looked most favorable for landing; and having succeeded in doing so, had still a tiresome jaunt before us, climbing over rocks which looked as if an army of Titans had been employed to throw them into heaps. There were no traces to indicate the recent presence of man on the shelf where we had landed. A few bleached bones of seals and other still larger amphibia were found, which might have belonged to animals slaughtered the year before. By advancing inland a little, we found it possible to ascend the cliff which had shown us nothing but a precipitous wall on its sea-face. And after a toilsome struggle, we stood, fatigued and blown, upon the summit of the pinnacle, with the strips of bunting flying over our heads – tattered remnants of our own country's ensign.

      The staff, which had, beyond question, done duty as a whale-boat's mast, was planted

Frank Osborn's Brother. 53

in a crevice between two great boulders of rock, and further secured upright by lashing. It was the most conspicuous spot on the island for raising a signal, to attract the notice of passing vessels.

      Wedged firmly in a crevice, edgewise, was a piece of board, such as every whaler has, for repairing boats. The captain jerked it eagerly up to the light, and revealed an inscription in black paint:

      "Ship Casco, of New Bedford, wrecked Sept. 27, 185–. 14 men saved. Seek the crew at the foot of the cliffs on the south side of the island."

      He turned his face to the southward, and looked over the waste of volcanic rock, pile beyond pile, stretching away inland. To cross the island by that route would be a formidable undertaking, if indeed it could be done at all. Beside, we could be of little service when we arrived there, unless the ship were placed in communication with us.

      "Back! Back to the boat!" he cried, leaping from crag to crag in mad haste, as he led the way, down the dizzy descent.

      Inspired by his example, we were not long regaining our ship. The impatient brother could not think of waiting for another day to commence operation. The weather, for once, was clear; the nights were short in that latitude; and darkness settled down upon the Senator, heading boldly into the passage . No one left the deck that night until our anchor was let go, at two hours after midnight, when the broad Pacific lay open before us to the southward. No more could be done until daylight.

      As soon as the outlines of the land became once more distinct, we were again under sail, running down the southern coast. The scene of the winter-residence of the castaways opened to view within an hour afterwards.

      A rude shanty, framed with wreck-lumber, and covered with skins of seals and sea-lions, stood near the beach, sheltered from the icy north winds by a precipitous cliff which rose behind it. The site was just sufficiently removed from this sheltering wall to avoid the dangers and inconveniences that might arise from heavy snowdrifts.

      Another staff, with no vestige of a flag remaining, stood close by the house, and several casks were standing or lying, here and there, by the water side. But no human being appeared to welcome us; and, on landing, we found the place deserted. Over the door of the shanty was another piece of board fastened up, on which we read:

      "Five survivors of the crew of ship Casco, wrecked in September last, left this spot, which has been our winter-quarters, June 9th in a leaky whale-boat. The graves of nine of our shipmates, who have died during the winter will be found behind the house at the foot of the cliff. We shall try to reach Onalashka, hoping to find human beings there, or meet with some vessel – Aaron West, 1st officer – Daniel Mills – John Osborn – Richard Burns – Manuel De Souza."

      June 9th, only two weeks ago! And the captain's brother was alive! Of course he did not give us much time to linger here, after learning this. Our observations were but hurried ones. No record of their proceedings was found; if any existed, they had taken it with them. The story of their terrible winter's experience was, most likely, unwritten. But each reflective mind could supply, in its own way, the dreadful details.

      We hurried on board, leaving all as we had found it, and lost no time in resuming the prosecution of our search, which had now, at least, a definite object. The captain was still further stimulated to exertion by the certainty that his brother was so recently alive. He reasoned that the castaways would keep on the south side of the island, as most likely to fall in with human habitations by so doing; and the ship's course was shaped accordingly.

      Three days had elapsed, and, again fogbound, we lay under short canvas, finding ourselves within a few miles of Onalashka. The captain walked his narrow limits, chafing at the fatality which seemed to attend his efforts, for he was powerless, as to making any further search, until a change of weather.

      Suddenly, the ship, forging slowly through the water, met something on the bluff of her bow with a slight shock. There could be no floating ice here at that season; and, astonished, we all ran to the side, to behold a boat sunk level with the water; only the stern and stern-post rising above the surface. She was vibrating and dancing about from the effect of the blow, which had merely pushed her aside, out of our path.

      She was soon secured and hauled alongside, when it was found that she had sunk in consequence of a lap having started off, in one of her lower streaks, from the nails rusting out. There were no oars, no loose matters – everything had floated away; but under the stern

54 Frank Osborn's Brother.

was a magazine of provisions, in the shape of pieces of seal's flesh, closely packed; and the name "Casco" was branded in the loggerhead, putting her identity beyond question.

      Here, then, was an end to the hopes which had, until now, buoyed the captain up. Their boat, shattered and "nail-crazy," had sunk from under them, and they had miserably perished. There could be no other conclusion from what we saw before us.

      We took the wreck on board, and with sad hearts, returned to our cruising ground. Our old success was continued to us, and we turned our faces southward in September, with a full ship. But the captain never mentioned his brother, or in any way referred to the subject. It seemed even to have passed out of his thoughts, and to have become a part of the dead past.

      We had traversed more than a hundred degrees of latitude on our homeward route, and were nearing Cape Horn with a cracking breeze and all sails set, when a ship, outward bound, was reported in sight, almost directly in our track. As we neared her, we recognized her as the Congaree. She was struggling gallantly under double-reefed topsails, but with little prospect of rounding the cape without a change of wind.

      Up went her ensign when we had approached within a mile; as if they had just made us out, and wished to communicate.

      "I can't stop to speak to him now," said the captain. "If he has letters for us I should like to get them; but I can't shorten sail to lose the breeze. If it holds, we shall be in the Atlantic to night."

      The ensign of the outward bounder was run down – then up, and down again – as if there were some special reason for wishing to speak with us.

      "What in the world can he want?" the captain muttered, in a fretful, impatient tone. "His business must be very urgent, to want to make me heave to now."

      Down went the flag, as if they had given up their point entirely. But as we were nearly astern of her it was hoisted again – union down! Such an appeal was not to be resisted by any seaman with a heart in his bosom – certainly not by Frank Osborn. In came our studding-sails; but we had run too far on our course to speak her, and were obliged to round to in the lee position.

      "He's coming to us, sir," said Mr. Hudson, as our maintopsail swung in aback, the light sails slatting in the stiff breeze, for we had had no time, as yet, to furl them. "There's his boat, lowering away."

      "Captain Monroe! What does your flag of distress mean? What can I do for you?" inquired our commander, who had recognized the other while he was climbing the man-ropes.

      "Oh, I only set that to make you heave to," was the answer. "You'll forgive me for it, I know. Let me introduce my second officer – Mr. Osborn."

      "Frank!" cried the young man, who had followed his captain up the side, and now leaped into his brother's outstretched arms.


      I know of no sight more affecting than a strong man in tears. Our captain was not a man to be ashamed of his emotion; and, as he strained the younger seaman to his heart, many bronzed cheeks among the lookers-on were wet from sympathy. It soon found vent in the orthodox way, as understood among seamen and soldiers.

      "Three cheers for the old man and his brother!" said old Sam Decker, huskily, with a big tear standing in each eye.

      The mystery of John Osborn's apparent resurrection was soon explained. The five survivors of the Casco, after several days of suffering, exhausted with the constant labor necessary to keep their frail craft afloat, were rescued by a party of Aleutians, who were out from Onalashka in a baydar, or skin canoe. Their shattered boat was on the point of sinking when they were taken from her. Though the land was in sight, they were many miles from it, and it was hardly possible they could have lived to reach it.

      But they had fallen into good hands, and, after recruiting their strength for a few days, took passage in a small Russian vessel for Sitka, whence they soon reached San Francisco. John fell in with old acquaintances there, who supplied him with the means for a quick passage home by the Isthmus route.

      Nothing daunted by his perils, he was again embarked on a similar voyage. A happy hour was spent by the brothers, and they parted, perhaps not to meet again for many years. But that was looked upon as a mere matter of course by the seamen of the Vineyard and Nantucket. Where several sons of one family pursue the same adventurous calling, a separation of ten, fifteen, or even twenty years is nothing uncommon – broken, perhaps, once or twice, by a casual encounter on the great ocean highway.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Frank Osborn's Brother.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 32, No. 1 (Jul 1870)
Pages: 50-54