New England Women at Sea 1845-1871

Believe it or not, between 1840 and 1860, many women from Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York braved the status quo, threw caution to the wind and set sail with their husbands. As the master of sailing vessels, whaling captains expected to be away from homes and families for two or more years.  At the height of America’s whaling industry from approximately 1840-1860, whaling voyages traversed the seven seas for an average of three years.  The women stayed at ports throughout the world, sometimes for a few days, at others, for weeks or months at a time.  One of the favorite ports of New England whaling captains and their wives was the port of Lahaina, Maui of the Sandwich Islands (now called the Hawaiian Islands). 

You might wonder why a woman would freely choose to isolate herself from civilized society as the only woman aboard a vessel with twenty-eight to thirty-two men, tempt fate, and put herself in physical and mortal danger.  There are many reasons, but most women chose wifely devotion over the comforts of society, which inherently placed them at the sides of their seafaring husbands. As stated by Helen E. Brown, A Good Catch, page 12: “Samuel is all the world to me, and why should we live half the globe between us ……married ten years …. oceans and continents have separated us, and we have both decided that it shall be so no longer. From this time, where he goes I shall go; and my happiness will be making him a home wherever business calls him.”

Whaling wifeMary Louisa (Burtch) Brewster 23 was years old when she set sail with her husband, both from Stonington, CT aboard whaling vessel the Tiger in November 1845 (through May 1851).  Mary was nine years William’s junior. She and William never had children. Mary’s journal is thorough, with several entries every week and sometimes an entry for every day of a given week of her nearly six-year voyage. Interestingly, unlike most whaling wives, she closed many entries with the latitude (north and south of the equator which is 0 degrees latitude) and longitude (east and west of 0 degrees, which is now in Greenwich, England – Greenwich Mean Time) of the Tiger. From December 1845 through April 1846, the Tiger departed Stonington and headed for the Sandwich Islands (Hawaiian Islands). May through October of 1846 brought Mary and her husband to whale off the northwest coast of North America. From October 1846 through March 1847, they were at Magdalena Bay, near Baja, California at approximate latitude 24.34 [north] and longitude 112.0 [west]. March 1847 through September 1847, Mary remained behind at Lahaina, Maui while her husband whaled the northern portions of the Pacific, as well as the Bering Sea, and the Arctic (or Summer Whaling Grounds). 

 Martha Smith Brewer Brown whaled with her husband, Edwin, aboard the Lucy Ann from August 1847 – July 1849. They sailed from Orient, NY (Long Island).  Unlike Mary Lawrence, who brought her daughter with her, Martha left her young daughter Ella in New York with relatives. By April 1848, her husband left her at Oahu to await the birth of a son, born about 26th August 1848. Martha and her husband were not reunited until November 11th of that same year. His ship was 4-6 weeks overdue and disabled when it finally returned to Honolulu. Martha fearing the Lucy Ann had been lost at sea along with her captain and crew, celebrated Edwin’s return. Edwin met his son, William Henry when he was almost three months old. And as he wrote, “Oahu. I arrived and to my joy found my wife enjoying excellent health with as pretty a little son as eyes need to look upon. A perfect image of his father of course — blue eyes and light hair, prominent forehead and filled with expression.” 

Mary Chipman Lawrence (1827-1906), her husband, Samuel (1818-1892) and their daughter Minnie, voyaged the seven seas aboard the whaling vessel Addison from November 1856 – June 1860. They sailed from New Bedford, MA.  The picture to the left is of Mary and infant, Minnie, taken before Mary boarded a whaleship for a four-year voyage with her husband.  Minnie was five-years old before Mary went to sea with Samuel.  In 1856, Mary and Samuel set out for their joint adventure with a note of optimism, but it ended with disappointment.  By 1856 the whaling industry was still full of promise. By 1860, however, it began a steady rate of decline that gained momentum through the onset of the Civil War and continued until the last decades of the nineteenth century. 

Eliza Azelia (Griswold) Williams set sail with her husband Thomas W. Williams on 7th September 1858.  Eliza was born in December 1826 in Wethersfield, CT. Captain Thomas Williams was born in December 1820 in Wales. His family migrated to the United States in 1829 and settled in Wethersfield, CT. She and Thomas were married April 1851. Her first and second-born sons, Thomas Stancel, born 1852 and Henry, born 1855, did not go with their parents on this voyage. Instead they remained behind in the care of  an Aunt and Uncle.  When Eliza set sail from New Bedford in 1858, she was five months pregnant with her third son, William Fish. There is no mention of her pregnancy (not uncommon for the Victorian Era) on any pages in her journal. She gave birth to two children while at sea through 1861; her third son was born January 1859 and her daughter, Mary Watkins, arrived in February 1861. 

Clara Clifford Kingman Wheldon and her husband Alexander whaled aboard the John Howland between June 1864 – May 1871. They sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts.  During seven years and two voyages, Clara, like many whaling wives kept a journal and wrote hundreds of letters home to friends and family.  Her life, so full of adventure was not free of danger, although she rarely let friends and family know of troubles with unruly cooks and stewards, and frequent, frightening occurrences such as gales and storms at sea or strange behavior from Natives. Clara’s attitude of humor, like many wives who managed to remain at sea for years, wrote, “One grows calm, then contented, and finally happy.”


  1. A well-researched and thoughtful presentation of a historical topic most have never heard of. These ‘Sister Sailors’ were a true cut above the rest. Hats off to them for wanting to keep their familes together, and to you for helping to keep their story alive.

  2. Correction, sorry Salome Eldred Davis Davis

    • I would be glad to post something on Salome Eldred Davis Davis, if I had anything. Unfortunately I do not know who she is or if she even kept a private journal. A similar name does appear in a list of whaling wives in Joan Druett’s (Editor) “She Was a Sister Sailor (Mary Brewster); as Salome Davis or Mrs. Samuel F. Davis, aboard the “Desdemona” in 1869. However, I have no further information about her. I’m sorry. Good luck with your search.

  3. I am a Phd artist/researcher in London the title of my research is A Ship of One’s own. My research includes the my own voyages and those of Louise Arner Boyd. I was wondering if you had any knowledge of images of women on board ships? Anne

    • I’m not sure what additional knowledge,regarding women on ships that you would like. Could you be more specific?

      And no, unfortunately, I do not have a single image of any women on board ships during the 18th or 19th century….I’m not sure there are any images out there, and I have spent many hours looking.

      I’m sorry I couldn’t be of more help.

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