December 19, 1919

By: Henry T. Claus
Transcribed and edited by Jane Estabrooks

A Democracy Afloat

Others perhaps had a large share in making history in those history-making days, but in the light of today no vessel reaches quite the picturesque heights attained by the Roanoke, 99 tons, built in 1842 at Barstow’s Lower Yards. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to see truly epic qualities in her story.  The Roanoke, be it known, had hardly had time to demonstrate her seagoing ability before she saw the country caught in the gold fever and herself purchased by a group of twenty-three men who were determined to use her to carry them to the mining fields of California.

These men came from all parts of New England and as far as can be learned they had just one interest in common – a desire to get to California with a modicum of safety and at the earliest possible moment. Other ships were fitting out in Boston to carry other men, but none looked qualified to stand the test of violent storm and seething seas. So, they contributed $300 apiece, bought the Roanoke for $7,500, loaded her with pipes, rum and machinery, and set sail on the long and tedious journey.

The elements of comedy contained in the situation are not overlooked in Dr. Briggs’ story of the trip. On board the Roanoke was real democracy. To begin with, the ship was manned not only by men who had been to sea before, but by many greenhorns. All, however, had equal rights. The captain was elected by ballot and kept his office as long as he could command a majority of votes. Several times when some of the men thought the captain ought to have acted otherwise, there was a referendum, it being stipulated that if the vote was against the captain, he should give up his post. It is a rare tribute to either the sailing genius or political sagacity of William N. Shelly that, despite many elections, he kept his place as captain from beginning to end.

An Election Every Day

As far as it is possible to determine at this late day, the twenty-three men aboard spent most of their time voting. But the question whether they should be seasick was not decided in this way. Some subtler and more potent influence settled the matter for them so effectively that two “sailors,” unable to get out and walk did the next best thing and paid $150 each for the privilege of becoming passengers. As the vessel neared the Equator, there was a vote on the advisability of “seeing the line.” The answer of the ballots being in the affirmative, a bucket of lather was prepared out of slush and tar and as they passed the line on Aug. 20 a man named Gallup was shaved with an iron hoop. The next election took place just this side of Rio Janeiro and it was decided to enter the Brazilian port. But when an account of stock was taken it was found that there wasn’t enough money forthcoming to pay the harbor charges, so the Roanoke kept on her course until she put into a little village in the bay of Ila Grande. Here the captain was told that he should not be allowed to stay and that if he did not get out soon the governor would probably send to Rio for a revenue cutter. “Things were looking pretty bad,” says Dr. Briggs in his book, “when a boat came out, and in it they recognized an American. He had been cast away while on a whaler, many years before and married a native woman. He had spoken their language so long that his English was quite broken but good enough for all purposes, so he was employed at two dollars per day as an interpreter. He told them that if they invited the governor off, and gave him a good dinner, everything would be all right. They accordingly invited the governor off that night and gave him the best the vessel afforded. So well did they treat him that at midnight they were obliged to carry him ashore. He had a glorious time, and during his short visit signed a permit allowing them to stay in port ten days; and to properly account to his supervisor at Rio Janeiro the cause of a vessel being in port he sent word that a vessel had put in there in distress.”

A Bargain That Wasn’t a Bargain

The ten days over, orders were received from Rio Janeiro and the Ronaoke sailed away. But the sailors true Yankees that they were in spying a bargain, bought 10,000 oranges at $1.00 a thousand. It was with some difficulty that room was found for this new cargo, and it was with greater dismay that the men discovered only few days out that they had purchased only fully ripe fruit which was fast decaying. But the hundreds of spoiled oranges ere not wasted. Donning oil skins and clearing the deck for action, the crew would choose sides daily, arm themselves with uneatable fruit and have an old-fashioned snowball fight. These battles were repeated until the supply of oranges ran out.

Nothing of moment occurred until the ship neared Cape Horn, where the opportunity for another vote presented itself. Should they go around the Cape or through the Straits of Magellan? Through the Straits it was, and they entered Oct. 12. The first half of the trip they made in forty-eight hours, the last half in twenty-eight days. When they reached the last harbor in the Straits the storm was still heavy and fog still thick. An experienced mariner probably would not have ventured out but the men voted to go ahead, and ahead they went, although not without misgivings. Fairly good time was made up the western coast, and it was well that such was the case, else the crew would have missed the enviable distinction of being enrolled amount the real “Forty Niners.” As it was, they reached San Francisco after dark on the 31st day of December. A few more hours and they would have been “fiftiers.”

At Gold Field at Last

Safely near the gold fields the company was forthwith dissolved. Thus, did a pure democracy come to an end. The ship was sold for something more than $10,000 and each of the twenty-one survivors of the trip received $525.

Although the men had left Boston with no other purpose than to win a fortune out of the California ground, most of them changed their minds when they landed on the scene. One of them went to work as a carpenter at $16 a day, another was a shopkeeper and some kept stores. But none of the available records indicate that any of the Roanoke’s crew became inordinately wealthy as a result of the long and perilous journey.

And so, the story runs its seaward way. It’s a story of ships and yet other ships, of craftsmen and yet other craftsmen, or sturdy sailors and yet other sturdy sailors. It is the story in essence of that whole historic district which had the good sense to lay the foundations of its prosperity on a river bed that a kind Nature provided. Small wonder that those living in the region and the descendants of those who long ago lived there and gave to it its greatest glory are anxious that the casual passerby shall know of the kind of country he is in. These ten tablets and the others undoubtedly later to come will stand as memorials to the South Shore’s famous men and their achievements.

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