The Petrel (MA-CA, 1849)

Publication History:

Place of Publication:  “On board Ship Duxbury,” clipper out of Boston en route to the California gold fields)

Frequency:  Weekly; irregular; “published every Monday morning”

Volume and Issue Data:   Vol. 1, No. 1, March 26, 1849; Vol. 1, No. 2, April 2, 1849; Vol. 1, Nos. 3-7 and 9, no dates; Vol. 1, No. 8, lead article dated June 10, 1849; Vol. 1, No. 10, no date, but article on “Celebration of American Independence.”  The third number has no title or volume-number.  The term “petrel” apparently refers to various sea birds.

Size and Format:  8 x 10 in.; oil cloth-like paper; two columns; pen and ink; illustrated; 2-4 pp., variable

Editor/Publisher:  Unknown (“Smike, Jr.”?)

Title Changes and Continuation:  Continuation or contemporary of Shark (See Shark) published aboard the Duxbury on same voyage

General Description and Notes:

The Petrel (MA-CA, 1849)

The Petrel was published onboard the Duxbury apparently during the same voyage as produced the Shark.  The issue numbering suggests that both papers may have been published contemporaneously.

The Duxbury left Boston for the California gold fields in February, 1849 carrying the Old Harvard Company, one of the hundreds of New England joint-stock companies organized to capitalize on the gold of California.  One writer states that during 1849, 102 joint stock companies sailed from Massachusetts alone, the number of their members ranging from five to 180, the average being around 50, and their total exceeding 4,200.  Each member paid an equal sum into the common treasury.  Each had an equal voice in tis management and stood to reap an equal share of the profits.  Often there was also a board of directors, chosen from among the town’s leaders, older men who helped finance the expeditions but themselves remained at home. (Lewis, p. 22).

The first issue, published March 26, 1849, contained the following introduction:

 “Ourselves.”  We appear before our readers to-day, for the first time, with our weekly budget of fun, fact, and fancy, for the particular edification our amusement of the passengers on board of the Ship Duxbury now on her voyage from Boston to San Francisco.  We shall continue its publication as often as circumstances will admit, and should be pleased to receive well written communications upon any subject that may be thought interesting to the “crowd.”  All communications must be handed in as early as Friday morning.–Smike, Jr.

The Petrel (MA-CA, 1849)

One passenger observed that there was “too much praying on board.”  Each morning the Duxbury’s preacher, the Rev. Brierly, read a chapter from the Bible, offered a prayer, and delivered a brief sermon.  On Wednesdays he presided over a prayer meeting; on Sundays he preached “a full-length sermon” and followed this with a class discussion group; on Tuesdays and Fridays he conducted a lyceum.  This was during the early stages of the voyage; later this comprehensive program collapsed, as it did on so many other ships, and during the final weeks of the Duxbury’s company seems to have been without religious instruction of any kind.

Hard feelings developed between officers and passengers aboard the Duxbury on the first leg of its voyage.  The chief complaint was against the food and the manner of service.  The Duxbury, an ancient three-masted craft, so hard to maneuver that she was said to require all of Massachusetts Bay in which to turn, left Boston so loaded that the galley space was inadequate.  After a week of subsisting on two sparse meals a day, the passengers met and made known their grievances.  For a long time their protests were disregarded.  “Petition after petition was sent in to the captain without producing any other effect than the reply, ‘If it is not enough, go without.'”  The group continued on short rations–“we were allowed one-half pint of weak tea a day and three pounds of sugar a month’–until the Duxbury reached Rio.  There a committee of passengers related their troubles to the United States consul.  The result was that the capacity of the galley was ordered enlarged and the passengers thereafter fared rather better.

The Petrel (MA-CA, 1849)

Lewis notes that this and other shipboard newspapers (see, e.g., Barometer, The Emigrant, and The Petrel) “lacked the formality of print but more nearly approached conventional journalism” than the various travel journals and diaries kept during the voyages.

Greever reports that Easterners frequently chose to go to California via ship around Cape Horn.  “Between December 14, 1848, and January 18, 1849 [probably about the time the Duxbury embarked on its voyage], sixty-one ships with an average of fifty passengers each sailed for California from New York City, Boston, Salem, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Norfolk.  In the month of February, 1849, . . . seventy [ships sailed] from Boston  . . . .” (pp. 21-22)

“The trip around from the East Coast around the Horn and up to San Francisco often took more than six months; the average time was 168 days” (p. 23)

“If Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the Fourth of July occurred during the trip, there would be quite a celebration” (p. 22).

The two highlights of the journey around South America were stops in Rio and at Juan Ferdnandez island. The Petrel recorded the pleasures of shore leave and even illustrated the events in later issues (see The Petrel figures).

Captain DeCosta also imitated newspapers of the day with an entry that read:  “By telegraph–We have, says a New York paper, just received intelligence from a California-bound vessel, stating that they have a very rare animal on board, which was caught crossing the line . . . .”  While the story was a hoax, the joke could only have worked if the passengers were familiar with the “telegraph news” system of the day, and took the practice of ship-borne intelligence for granted.

Information Sources:

Bibliography:  See Oscar Lewis, Sea Routes to the Gold Fields:  The Migration by Water to Californiain 1849-1852 (New York:  A.A. Knopf, 1949), p. 89.  See also G.B. Worden letter to Ira Brown:  Rio de Janeiro, ALS 1849 April 23, University of  California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Manuscript Collection, Mss C-B 547:138; and William S. Greever, Bonanza West:  The Story of Western Mining Rushes,  1848-1900 (University of Idaho Press, 1963), pp. 21-23

Locations:  Eleven numbers:  Huntington Library, Manuscripts Division, San Marino, California; accompanying the journal of the Duxbury voyage, Boston-San Francisco, by William H. DeCosta, 1849, Feb.-June 23 (HM 234); 10 numbers:  University of California, Berkeley, Bancroft Library, Manuscript Collection, Mss C-F 147; three numbers: (no dates, circa Feb.-July, 1849) Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

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