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Mrs Percival's Diary

David Wadsworth

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 that day.”

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 distant.

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 all well."

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 readers.

From David Wadsworth, “Looking Back: The Voyage of the Vesta,” Cohasset Mariner, January 5, 1983. Reprinted by permission of the author.