Mrs. Percival’s Diary
Reproduced, with permission, from Treasury of Cohasset History,
ed. J. M. Dormitzer (Town of Cohasset, Mass., 2005), pp, 89-91.
A Cohasset housewife began to keep a diary of a unique voyage on Wednesday,
October 7, 1857. The writer was Drusilla Snow Percival, wife of Captain
John Peter Turner Percival. The Percivals lived on South Main Street.
Captain Percival's command was the bark Vesta, a Cohasset vessel owned
by local merchant John Bates.
Mrs. Percival's diary begins with the words: "Left home, my husband,
myself and two children for Boston, went on bark 'Vesta' bound for Constantinople.
A number of our friends came down to see us before we left. The wind
which was fair when we left home came round east and prevented our sailing
On the following day Mrs. Percival wrote, "A very pleasant morning,
wind fair for sailing, the children up and dressed, out on deck before
breakfast . . . Pilot Mr. Hunt came on board to take us out . . . Dr.
Lothrop was on board."
With this, Vesta and its Cohasset family left Boston for a wintry transatlantic
crossing. By October 10 Vesta had encountered poor weather, and Drusilla
Percival duly reported: "We are all sick this morning . . . it
is so rough we cannot get about, we are in the Gulf Stream, a very heavy
swell with a head wind."
On the following day the weather had cleared and she wrote, "A
very pleasant morning, but an east wind—it seems to be an easterly
gale, it is very rough . . . the children are better." With this
description there begins a fascinating story of a sailing voyage across
the stormy Atlantic on a small nineteenth-century ship. Vesta was a
typical vessel of its day, neither as large nor as fast as the famous
clipper ships which plied the ocean routes under clouds of canvas. It
was pursuing its usual occupation of carrying cargo from Boston to the
great seaports of Europe and the Middle East.
Continuing her chronicle of Vesta's progress, Mrs. Percival noted
on October 18, "We are halfway between Boston and the Western Islands
(Azores) in Latitude 40.31, Longitude 50.02, we are making some progress
in our passage, if we could have a westerly wind a little while, it
would help us very much."
During the long voyage, the Percival children, Mary Snow, aged ten,
and Priscilla Lothrop, aged seven, recited their daily lessons and in
good weather played on the ship's deck. The following day, Drusilla
reported: "A very stormy day, wind from the North East, took in
sail at 5 o'clock in the morning . . . wind increasing, reefed (the
sails) at 8 o'clock."
Then on October 22, the captain's wife noted, "Our Latitude is
39.44, Longitude 46.20, a fortnight today since we left Boston. A head
wind again, it requires a person to have a good stock of patience to
go to sea for they have much to contend with, for it seems to be our
misfortune to have a gale or a calm, or a heavy swell, but it is of
no use to fret, what can't be cured must be endured." Good advice
written by a Cohasset seafaring wife.
By the 31st of October, Vesta was passing by the Western Islands without
stopping, leaving them visible low on the southern horizon. The vessel
now was headed for the Straits of Gibraltar, still hundreds of miles
On Sunday, November 1, Mrs. Percival observed, "A Sabbath at sea
is a day of rest as much as on shore, there is no labor required of
the crew or officers, only to keep a watch on deck and to steer the
vessel . . . all is quiet—we are going at seven miles an hour,
we are opposite Pico (the Azores), the children are reading, we are
On the 10th of November, Drusilla noted, "The children are teasing
their father to let them come on deck." But head winds continued
to slow Vesta’s eastward crossing, and on the following day the
vessel tacked toward the coast of Africa, but could not gain much toward
Gibraltar. They now were a week behind schedule.
Not until November 14 was the first harbinger of approaching land sighted.
"The children were excited, a visitor from the Spanish coast—or
African, in the shape of a large owl, he perched on the topgallant yard,
the Mate tried to catch him, but he was off in a hurry." Finally
on Monday, November 16, Vesta’s lookouts spotted land ahead, Cape
Trafalgar on the Spanish coast, and the Cohasset bark soon entered the
Straits of Gibraltar.
But by November 23, the ship had turned about and was fleeing westward
while struggling in the grips of a tumultuously violent easterly storm.
Gibraltar now was miles away to the east, and Mrs. Percival tersely
wrote, "We did not know our position." Despite damage, Vesta
weathered the storm, and on the night of the 24th sailed past Gibraltar,
leaving that famous rock disappearing astern as the morning sun rose.
Vesta’s passengers and crew celebrated Thanksgiving on November
26 with a dinner of turkey, mutton, green peas, and duff pudding. That
was somewhat of a change from the usual mutton and beans.
From Boston to Gibraltar the trip had taken forty-seven days. "It
seemed sometimes as though we would never reach the Straits," wrote
the captain's wife. Vesta’s voyage from there across the Mediterranean
to the island of Malta, where the ship abruptly was sold to new owners,
leaving passengers and crew to find their own way home, is another story—for
it was not until Sunday, July 3, 1858, that the Percival family finally
found its way back to Boston.
Drusilla Snow Percival’s account of that voyage in its original
handwriting can be found in the archives of the Cohasset Historical
Society. It is only one of the fascinating stories of nineteenth-century
Cohasset seafarers that are still preserved for modern twentieth-century
From David Wadsworth, “Looking Back: The Voyage of the Vesta,”
Cohasset Mariner, January 5, 1983. Reprinted by permission
of the author.