James Fenimore Cooper Society Website
This page is: http://www.oneonta.edu/external/cooper/articles/other/1997other-langley.html

Images of the Sailor in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper

Harold D. Langley*
(Smithsonian Institution and
Catholic University of America)

Placed on line at Cooper Society Website, June 2001

© 1997, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
and reproduced with its kind permission.
[may be downloaded and reproduced for personal or instructional use, or by libraries]

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 359-370)

Return to Other Articles | Articles & Papers

{359} James Fenimore Cooper has been hailed as the pioneer in the development of American sea fiction. More than a third of his novels focused on maritime life, but for most students of the American scene he is remembered mainly, if not solely, for his novels of the early pioneers on land. Those in our own time who have analyzed his fiction have criticized Cooper's tendency to editorialize and moralize about matters close to his heart. Critics have also pointed out that many of his characters are of one dimension. This is especially true of the female characters.1 In the realm of sea fiction Cooper provided his readers with vivid images of officers and sailors.

Cooper's shipboard officers are people who know their business. They may be narrowminded, petty, corrupt, or simply incompetent about many matters of ordinary life; however, they know how to handle a sailing vessel, and they can read and interpret the moods of the sea. If this is true of the main characters, who are officers, what can be said about the sailors? Their subordinate position on shipboard as well as on shore did not lend itself to much probing of individual characters. Aboard ship the men did as they were told. On shore all seamen tended to be regarded as alike, and especially by those who had only superficial acquaintance with them. As a boy of seventeen, Cooper signed on the merchant ship Stirling (or Sterling) in New York for a voyage to England and the Mediterranean in 1806-1807, so he knew what it was like to be a sailor. In 1808 he obtained a warrant as a midshipman and served in the US Navy in New York and Oswego, New York. Family problems resulting from the death of his father obliged him to request a furlough in May 1810, which led to his resignation on 6 May. This experience gave him an officer's perspective. Cooper's sea novels are presented from the point of view of officers. As a novelist, he was limited only by the power of his imagination and the depth of his experience. He was free to invent and to develop sailor characters as he saw fit, and few of his reader's were in a position to know how authentic the portraits were. Given these contexts, what can be said of his depiction of ordinary sailors?

To answer that question one must understand Cooper's basic goal: to celebrate and promulgate the idea of American maritime nationalism through fiction.2 In 1850, when writing a new preface to his novel The Red Rover, originally published in 1827, Cooper noted that there was very little in the nautical history of the country to help a writer. "The annals of America are surprisingly poor in such events; a circumstance that is doubtless owing to the staid character of the people, and especially that portion of them which is addicted to navigation." As a result, it was necessary for the author "to invent his legend without looking for the smallest aid from traditions or facts."3 He was apparently referring to the practical men of New England, New York and the mid-Atlantic states who made their living on the sea, but whose writings were confined to log books, business letters, and ledgers. They might recount some of their adventures to others who were engaged in trade, but they had neither the time nor inclination to share such tales with strangers or landlubbers. It is also {360} unlikely that they saw any romantic dimension to life at sea.

Over two hundred years of American seafaring experience were not readily accessible. Newspaper accounts or an occasional broadside or sermon briefly focused public attention on a specific wreck or other disaster, but normally these were not the result of first hand experiences. Cooper had to invent stories and characters to realize his goal. He could draw upon his own experiences to make the technical details of ship handling correct. To Cooper, the American seaman was a man cut off from the forms and values of the shore. The sea is his element, and perpetual contact with it ennobled him. The nature of the seaman's calling made him hardy, daring, energetic, resourceful and humble. He became a democratic ideal. Cooper believed that democracy improved the character of the lower classes, and contact with the sea made a man moral and noble.

As a youth, Cooper went through a rebellious stage, and as an adult he had firm opinions on many subjects that he did not hesitate to share with his readers, yet these characteristics are not reflected in his depictions of sailors. At sea, at least, they are always calm, confident and steadfast. When relating the reaction of a Royal Navy sailor at the wheel to the seizure of his ship, Cooper wrote: "He was a seaman, of course, and one of those quiet, orderly men who usually submit to the powers that be." In the same novel he has a master declare that not every man can become a seaman for it is a natural gift "like singing, or rope-dancing."4 When Cooper deals with the faults of sailors, such as an addiction to liquor or insubordinate or craven behavior, such men are often foreign. Most of his American seamen reflect high standards of conduct.

A memorable seaman to whom we are introduced in Cooper's first sea novel, The Pilot, published in 1823, is Tom Coffin. He is an old-timer, a former whaler out of Nantucket. Now he is a coxswain in the Continental Navy, and he and his shipmates are involved in a raid on England during the American Revolution. While Coffin is ashore, he sees a dead whale in the water and feels very sad about it. In another place the whale would be a source of wealth for Tom, but here, in enemy country, he can do nothing about it. Thoughts of making money belong to another place and time.5

As the story progresses, we learn bits and pieces about Tom. To Katherine Plowden, the heroine of the story, he gives a bit of his proud Nantucket genealogy. He also tells her: "I'm old and I'm stiff, now, young madam, but, afore I {361} was nineteen, I stood at the head of the dance, at a ball on the capes and that with a partner almost as handsome as yourself." Here we run into a theme that recurs in several of Cooper's sea novels -- a fascination with aging seamen. Many of the subordinate characters are past their prime and they think about death. Looking at the waves breaking against the rocks on the English coast, Tom says to an Englishman: "These waves, to me, are what land is to you; I was born on them, and I have always meant that they should be my grave."6

Tom and his companions are captured, and when he realizes that confinement in a prison ship awaits him, he tells a British officer that "you may tell them that they can save the expense of one man's rations by hanging him, if they please, and that is old Tom Coffin." The British have no intention of doing that. Instead they ply Tom with liquor in order to get him drunk, and in that state they hope to get him to enlist as a soldier. But they underestimate Tom's capacity. When the proposal to enlist is put to him, he rejects it by reciting the sailor's code of loyalty: "A messmate before a shipmate; a shipmate before a stranger; a stranger before a dog -- but a dog before a soldier!"7 Later, the situation changes. Tom and the others escape and he dies at sea, as he wished.

Tom Coffin is such a finely etched character that he has intrigued various students of Cooper's fiction. In 1875, Samuel Adams Drake wrote that Midshipman Reuben Chase of John Paul Jones' ship, the Bon Homme Richard, was the model for Coffin. Later, in 1900, William B. Shubrick Clymer thought that a Mr. Irish, the first mate of the merchant ship Stirling in which Cooper first went to sea, was the inspiration for Coffin. Marcel Clavel writing in 1938 and John Henry Clagett in 1954 suggested other members of the Stirling's crew as more likely models.8 Identifying personal characteristics of eighteenth century seamen is a very difficult task. Existing memoirs and letters, whether from soldiers or sailors, tend to be painfully brief and matter-of-fact. The sentiments uttered by Tom Coffin, and the way he said them tend to be more nineteenth century than late eighteenth. Whatever the case may be, the character adds much to the story.

In an attempt to repeat the success of The Pilot, Cooper published his other historical romance The Red Rover in 1827. The two principal sailor characters are Dick Fid and his shipmate, a black sailor named Scipio Africa. "Both had passed the middle age; and both, in their appearances, furnished the strongest proofs {362} of long exposure to the severity of many climates, and to numberless tempests." Dick was "of a short, thickset, powerful frame, in which, by a happy ordering of nature...the strength was principally seated about the broad and brawny shoulders and sinewy arms.... His head was in proportion to the more immediate members; the forehead low, and nearly covered with hair; the eyes small, obstinate, sometimes fierce, and often dull; the nose snub, coarse, and vulgar; the mouth large and voracious; the teeth short, clean, and perfectly sound; and the chin broad, manly, and even expressive." Cooper says that Fid's black shipmate, Scipio, was a man of "subdued habits and inclinations." He was taller than Fid. "His features were more elevated than common; his eye was mild, easily excited to joy, and, like that of his companion, sometimes humorous. His head was beginning to be sprinkled with gray, his skin had lost the shining jet color which had distinguished it in its youth, and all his limbs and movements bespoke a man whose frame had been equally indurated and stiffened by toil." We find him seated in a bar tossing pebbles into the air and catching them. The sleeve of his jacket is rolled up to the elbow revealing "an arm that might have served as a model for the limb of Hercules."9

While the two are in a tavern in Newport, Rhode Island, Dick gets into an argument with Jack Nightingale, the boatswain of a slaver in the harbor. Nightingale is described as having a "stature which greatly exceeded six feet, enormous whiskers, that quite concealed a moiety of his grim countenance; a scar, which was the memorial of a badly-healed gash, that had once threatened to divide that moiety in quarters; limbs in proportion; the whole rendered striking by the dress of a seaman; a long, tarnished silver chain, and a little whistle of that same metal, served to render the individual in question sufficiently remarkable."10

With their friend, Harry Wilder, a Royal Navy officer on detached duty, Dick and Scipio sign on board the ship Dolphin, whose captain turns out to be the notorious pirate, the Red Rover. In the course of the story, the Red Rover transfers Wilder, Dick, Scipio and two captured women to a British naval vessel. Wilder tells the navy captain the true nature of the Red Rover, and the captain orders an attack on the pirate ship. During the engagement the navy captain is killed and Wilder, Dick and Scipio are captured. Scipio dies defending Wilder. The pirate crew wants to kill Wilder and Dick but a chaplain pleads for them and the Red Rover lets them go. The epilogue to the story takes place twenty years later during which time the American Revolution was fought and won. One day the Red Rover turns up in Newport, Rhode Island, and tells Wilder that during the war he fought on the side of the American colonists. Apparently he feels that by this action he has redeemed himself for his past conduct.

One of the curious elements in this story is the portrayal of a British naval officer with two close friends who are enlisted men. In this case, Wilder was rescued by the two seamen when he was a child, and he owes almost everything to them. For most of the novel, Dick and Scipio treat Wilder as they would any other officer, but the friendship is there and it endures.

Cooper explored the relationship between a white officer and a black seaman again in Afloat and Ashore and its sequel, Miles Wallingford, both published in 1844. In this case, Miles Wallingford, Jr., the son of a prosperous owner of an estate in Ulster County, New York, goes to sea after the death of his parents, and leaves his property in the custody of a clergyman. With him goes Rupert Hardinge, the son of the clergyman. Nebuchadnezzar Clawbonny or "Neb," a slave boy on the estate, takes them by boat to New York. Miles and Rupert sign on as green hands aboard a merchant ship. Neb stows away on the ship and on the third day out he is discovered and hauled up on deck. The first mate strikes Neb while questioning him. Miles goes to his defense and explains that Neb is his slave. The captain comes on the scene, and an agreement is reached whereby Neb can remain on board but will receive no pay. The close relationship between Miles and Neb is later the source of much joking on the ship at the expense of Miles. Neb later becomes a favorite with all on board. He is a zealous, hard-working {363} sailor.

When pirates threaten the ship off Sumatra, it is Neb who puts himself in front of Miles as they prepare to receive boarders. Miles praises Neb's courage to the captain. The three young sailors have some more excitement during the undeclared naval war with France, 1798-1801, before they get back to New York. At the end of the voyage, Rupert decides that he has had enough of the sea. This is fine with Miles, for his friendship with his neighbor diminished during the voyage when he found Rupert shirking his duty and putting an extra burden on Neb.

After a brief visit home, Miles and Neb are off to sea again. This time Neb is rated as an ordinary seaman and Miles becomes the third mate of a merchant ship. They voyage to the Pacific Northwest, to Hawaii, and the Pacific Ocean. In the course of it all, Miles becomes quite close to Captain Moses Marble. Neb becomes a very proficient sailor. Speaking of Neb, Miles says: "He was the oddest mixture of superstitious dread and lion-hearted courage that I ever met with in life."11 When they come back to New York, Neb has earned about $900 dollars in wages and prize money, and Miles wants to give him his freedom. Mr. Hardinge, who is still managing Miles' New York property, suggests that the emancipation be delayed until Neb is of age. Miles tells Neb that he intends to free him after their next voyage. Neb does not think too much about this promise for he enjoys going to sea with Miles. Although unstated, it seems that he also enjoys being treated as a very competent sailor and a valuable member of the crew.

The further adventures of these two are set forth in Miles Wallingford. The sequel is necessary, for Afloat and Ashore ends rather abruptly, leaving a number of questions unresolved. It almost seems that when the book reached a certain size, Cooper sent it off to the publisher.

Miles Wallingford takes place during the years 1803-1804. Miles continues to follow the sea and is captain of his own ship. Neb continues to serve with him. As the story progresses, we learn more about Neb, and what a splendid seaman he is. Cooper describes him as "a muscular, active black, who walked as if his legs were all springs." In another place, he is referred to as "that noble fellow, true as steel," and who "had a seaman's faculties in perfection." His delicate touch on the ship's wheel is noted admiringly. When Neb is washed overboard in a storm, Miles says that "his patient servitude, his virtues, his faults, his dauntless courage, his unbounded devotion to myself, had taken a strong hold on my heart, and his loss had greatly troubled me, {364} since the time it occurred."12 Fortunately, Neb is later rescued.

When the two sailors return to their friends on the Hudson River, we learn of Neb's courtship of a slave girl also attached to Miles' estate. Eventually, Miles and Neb retire from the sea, marry and raise families on the old homestead.

Another black man who figures briefly in Miles Wallingford is Diogenes Billings, the cook in the merchant ship Dawn. At one point Diogenes and Neb are captured by a French ship and they become involved in a plot to recover their ship from the prize crew. The two contemplate the coming fight calmly. Diogenes says to Miles: "They's only French, we can handle 'em like children." At another point, when the ship is in a heavy storm, Diogenes sleeps through it. Miles notes that habit and education have given Diogenes confidence in the ship's officers.13

Cooper introduces two black seamen as minor characters in Rose Budd, first serialized in a magazine in 1846 and published in book form two years later as Jack Tier. On the merchantman Molly Squash we find Josh, a black cabin "boy" who is grey haired, wrinkled and nearly sixty years of age. He has sailed with Captain Stephen Spike for many years. He is not very intelligent, but he is faithful. His friend on the ship is the black cook, Simon. Near the end of the story, as his ship is about to go on the rocks, Spike makes preparations to save himself and a few others, leaving the rest of the crew to perish. When the ship strikes the rocks, the captain boards a yawl which is now overloaded with eighteen people. Carrying twice the rated weight, the yawl rides low in the water, and there is not enough room for the men to row. Waves menace the boat and two or three hands are engaged in constant bailing. Josh and Simon are seated side by side on one end of the thwart. At the other end are two old sailors with whom Spike had been in consultation a little earlier. Spike orders Josh to pull in a fender that is dragging alongside. When Josh leans his head and body over the side to look for the fender, the two old sailors push him overboard. Spike orders Simon to go to his rescue, and when the cook bends forward to obey, he is thrown overboard as well. A young white seaman moves to rescue Simon and is pitched from the boat. Spike and his collaborators thus reduced the weight in the yawl by five hundred pounds as a result of what appeared to be accidents to the unknowing. Spike gets rid of others in the boat, including two women. By this time, a cutter from a pursuing man-of-war overtakes the yawl and Spike is shot and killed.14

How does the use of blacks in the crews relate to historical evidence? prior to the Civil War, it is alleged that blacks constituted about one-twentieth of the crews of naval vessels. A regulation issued by the Navy Department in 1839 limited the number of blacks to five percent of the crew. Ira Dye's study of seamen's protection certificates issued by the port of Philadelphia for 1812-1815 indicates that 17.6 percent of those who received certificates were blacks engaged in seafaring. His analysis of the British prisoner of war records for the War of 1812 reveals that blacks and mulattoes made up 18.4 percent of the prisoners held in Dartmoor, 20.2 percent of those at Chatham, and 18.9 of those at Portsmouth. Of the 388 blacks and mulattoes in Dartmoor, almost a third were born in the slave states of the South. Dye believes that it is most likely "that free blacks went into seafaring in numbers greatly exceeding that which would be expected from their numbers in American society, attracted by the relatively nondiscriminatory conditions that they found in the society of seafarers."15 It is believed that in merchant ships there was a high percentage of blacks engaged in the coastal trade, so it is entirely possible that some merchant vessels had their equivalent of a Nebuchadnezzar Clawbonny, but it is doubtful that in real life many had a close relationship with their captains.

Another point that Cooper makes about the crew of the Molly Squash is their age:

A peculiar feature of this crew, however, was the circumstances that they were all middle-aged men, with the exception of the mate, and all thoroughbred seadogs.... If the crew wanted a little in the elasticity of youth, it possessed the steadiness and experience of their time in life, every man appearing to know exactly what to do, and when to do it.

Further on, we are told that Captain Spike had commanded the same crew for some time. They had been "picked up in various ports, from time to time, as the brig had wanted hands, they were of nearly as many different nations as there were persons."16 They remain as figures in the background, however, and the reader does not meet them as individual characters.

The importance of age and experience in bringing about a successful conclusion to an enterprise is stressed again in Cooper's novel Sea Lions, published in 1849. This time it is Stephen Stimson, the boat steerer and the oldest member of the group of sailors from Oyster Pond, Long Island, who gives his captain the information on how to prepare the body to withstand cold temperatures to survive an Antarctic winter. It is not just age and experience that Cooper celebrates, but humility in the face of nature and faith in God. Stimson, the personification of religious and nautical authority, admonishes and debates with his companion, Roswell Gardiner, who is full of skepticism and doubt on matters of religion. Thomas Philbrick believed that Stimson was "the purest embodiment of Cooper's protean image of the seaman, that image which in some form enters into the composition of every portrait in the novelist's gallery of sailors, from Long Tom Coffin to Moses Marble. Unlike his predecessors, Stimson is unallayed by human failings: he never becomes angry, stubborn or vengeful; he never blunders, never swears, never drinks, never even chews tobacco."17 He is also zealous in his practice of religion and compares himself to the apostles. The result is that he becomes an insufferable bore.

The historical record does not provide evidence of a comparable collection of virtues in most seafarers, but there is data on the matter of age. A study of the Seamen's Protection Certificates issued in Philadelphia for the period 1812 to 1815 indicates that of the 790 protections issued, forty-three percent were for men aged twenty to twenty-three. Only six percent were for those over forty. Boys between the ages of ten and sixteen constituted 5.5 percent of the "seamen" of the group.18 So middle-aged men were definitely a minority. Why did Cooper use such atypical representations? We do not know, but one wonders if the author, who was sixty years of age when he published the Sea Lions, liked to think of himself as still young and able to do the things he did as a youth despite his advancing years.

Seafaring men had to live by their wits as well as their strength, and none more so than those engaged in illegal trade. We meet the most skillful of the illegal traders of the early eighteenth century in The Water-Witch, published in 1830. The novel's title is the name of a ship engaged in contraband commerce, under the command of Master Seadrift. When the Water-Witch makes a visit to New York, the captain of a British warship and an alderman go on board her. They are impressed by her neatness and order. The visitors notice the crew, who are described as "fifteen or twenty grave-looking seamen, who were silently lounging with folded arms, about the vessel...whose appearance did not suggest any love of violence." Cooper tells us: "They were, without an exception, men who had reached middle age, of weather-worn and thoughtful countenances, many of them even showing heads that had begun to be grizzled more by time than even by exposure." Later, when the Water-Witch is being pursued by the British warship Coquette, a British officer admires the speed with which the crew changed sail: "the rascals are nimble as pickpockets in a crowd!," says the officer.19 Despite the larger number of hands in the warship, they cannot gain on the smuggler.

We are given only bits of information about Master Seadrift of the Water-Witch, but the character of one of his trusted men is established early. A sailor with a booming voice hails a flat-bottomed, canoe-like craft called a periagua which serves as a ferry boat in the Hudson River. His name is Thomas Tiller, and:

He was of a firmly knit and active frame, standing exactly six feel in his {366} stockings. The shoulders though square were compact, the chest full and high, the limbs round, neat and muscular the whole indicating a form in which strength and activity were apportioned with the greatest accuracy.
A small bullet head was set firmly on its broad foundation, and it was thickly covered with a mass of brown hair that was already a little grizzled. The face was that of a man of thirty, and it was worthy of the frame, being manly, bold, decided and rather handsome; though it expressed little more than high daring, perfect coolness, some obstinacy, and a certain degree of contempt for others, that its owner did not always take trouble to conceal. The color was a rich, deep, and uniform red, such as much exposure is apt to give to men whose complexions are by nature light and florid.20

Cooper also tells us that the black workers on shore were very impressed by the manner of this sailor. "There was, in truth, something in the reckless air, the decision, and the manly attitudes of so fine a specimen of a seaman, that might have attracted notice from those who were more practiced in the world than the little crowd of admirers he left behind."21

Once on the ferry, Tiller makes his presence felt, to the displeasure of some of the male passengers. He goes on board the British warship and talks to the skipper, Captain Ludlow, about signing on. Ludlow, who is used to being treated with deference by the sailors, is shocked by the "audacious eye and calm mien of the mariner" before him. Nevertheless, he controls himself, and learns that Tom Tiller wishes to sign on to the ship. "I have met men of your humor before, my friend," says Ludlow, "and I have not now to learn, that a thorough man-of-war's man is as impudent on shore as he is obedient afloat." Tom tells the captain that he wants to come aboard, meet his future messmates, judge their characters, and to see if he likes the ship. Later, if he finds it convenient, he will quit the ship. Although Ludlow is stunned by this impudence, he agrees to the terms. Subsequently Tom Tiller induces the captain to go ashore with him, where Ludlow is disarmed and taken prisoner by the men of the Water-Witch.22

Arrogance may be seen as an admirable quality in this instance and a reflection of Cooper's democratic beliefs. He was disgusted by those of his fellow countrymen who were impressed by titles and nobility, and who fawned over well-born Englishmen ten to fifteen years after the American Revolution. When characters in the Water-Witch display an arrogance toward British authority figures in the early eighteenth century, they seem like prophets of the American Revolution.

Cooper's interest in egalitarian attitudes and a disregard of differences in rank and social position were expressed in his novel, The Two Admirals, published in 1842. Set in the heavily class-conscious England of 1745, he has Vice-Admiral Sir Gervaise Oakes of the Royal Navy saying to his shore-bound friend and baronet, Sir Wycherly Wychecombe, that:

...an admiral is not disgraced by keeping company with a boatswain, if the latter is an honest man. It is true we have our customs, and what we call our quarter- deck forward officers; which is court end and city, on board ship; but a master belongs to the first, [or court end] and the master of the Plantagenet, Sandy McYarn, dines with me once a month, as regularly as he enters a new work at the top of his log book.23

In this way, the admiral tells the baronet that it is all right to have a master, who was a warrant officer, dine with him. Shore-bound readers probably did not know that a master was appointed by a warrant issued by the Navy Board, as distinct from an officer who received his commission from the Admiralty.

Another indication of Cooper's interest in minimizing the differences between people at sea or associated with seamen appears in relation to {367} his characterization of women. Cooper, like a few authors including Shakespeare, was intrigued by the idea of women disguising themselves as men. Katherine Plowden in The Pilot was the first character in Cooper's sea fiction to impersonate a male. In The Red Rover, the cabin "boy" turns out to be a girl in disguise. ?`he idea is carried to its most implausible extreme in Jack Tier, when the wife of the captain dresses up as a seaman and follows him to sea. When the captain signs on this new hand he does not recognize his wife or her voice. We are told that she maintained her successful deception for twenty years!

In the Continental Army and in the Civil War, there are instances of women disguising themselves as men and fighting alongside other male soldiers. Likewise, there is a documented case where a woman disguised herself as a sailor and set off with a contingent for Sacket's Harbor on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. In that instance, she was discovered early in the journey and discharged. There may have been other women who managed to enlist in the US Navy, but they have not come to light. There are stories about women who served in foreign merchant ships, and a few instances where women were reported in the US merchant service. There is no evidence of anything similar in the US Navy during the antebellum years. It has been suggested that Cooper may have been influenced by Shakespeare in the use of the disguise ploy. Perhaps so. It is also possible that the device was used to involve female readers more in the development of the story. One can only speculate. In any case, the historical evidence for such activity on the American scene is very meager.24

The way in which the reading public perceived the sailor began to change when sailors themselves published accounts of their experiences. The earliest seems to have been Nathaniel Ames, the son of a Massachusetts congressman, who went to sea after he was expelled from Harvard. Fifteen years later, in 1830, he published A Mariner's Sketches, and followed this two years later with Nautical Reminiscences. Ames had read The Pilot, and he was extremely critical of the depiction of Tom Coffin, which he regarded as a caricature. He also seems to have been jealous of Cooper and his own hastily written contributions to nautical lore did not have a wide audience.25

Another early work was by William McNally, an ex-navy gunner, who published Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service, Exposed;... in 1839. McNally drew upon his own experience and on that of some other men to {368} bring to the public's attention what really happened to those who had to earn their living as sailors. He also offered specific remedies for eliminating abuses and improving the living and working environment. McNally published the book at his own expense, and apparently it did not have a wide readership. Nevertheless, it is of interest to note that he also read some of Cooper's novels and that he did not share the sentiments of Ames. McNally observed:

Often has fancy pictured to me some follower of the Red Rover, in the rough weather-beaten countenance of an old quarter gunner or boatswain's mate; I could conjure the quarter master on the poop, into a second edition of 'long Tom Coffin,' of glorious memory....26

McNally's enthusiasm for Cooper's novels, and other literature and history, may have been transmitted to some of his shipmates, for he says that: "When I had these books I used to go on the forecastle, or between two guns, and read aloud to a knot of perhaps twenty or thirty, who would gather round and listen."27

The biggest audience for a sailor's account of a voyage was won by Richard Henry Dana with Two Years Before the Mast, first published in 1840. Dana sailed to California and back in the brig Pilgrim, then wrote a book about the experience based on his shipboard journal. His reason for publishing the book was "to present the life of a common sailor at sea as it really is, the light and the dark together." He carefully avoided any mention of his impressions of events until the final chapter of the book. The opinions recorded at the end of the work were the result of later reflections on the experience. He hoped to "call more attention to the welfare of seamen," to provide information on their real condition, "to promote in any measure their religious and moral improvement, and diminish the hardships of their daily life...."28

The commercial success of Dana's book inspired other sailors to present their own accounts of life at sea. Landlubbers no longer needed Cooper to present a fictional view of American sailors. Cooper himself was influenced by Dana and by his own experience in writing a History of the Navy of the United States of America, published in 1839.29 The most accurate portrayal of an actual sailor by Cooper is in Ned Myers, a non-fictional account published in 1843. This work came about as a result of an 1843 letter to Cooper written by Edward R. Myers, an old shipmate of the novelist which led to a meeting in New York, and to Myers' five month stay at Cooperstown, New York. During that time, Cooper wrote a small volume that is basically an edited account of Myers' experiences in the merchant service and the Navy. It is one of the finest memoirs of a seaman during the first half of the nineteenth century, but it did not enjoy a wide circulation and was soon out of print. Within a few years of its publication, the volume was difficult to find. It was not reprinted until 1989.30

Whatever their shortcomings as fiction, Cooper's sea novels are a marvelous source of information and insights into nineteenth century seafaring. They also supply some useful vignettes which, when used with other evidence, help us to get a clearer conception of the realities of the sailor's life, and perhaps a more human portrait as well. In the last analysis, we can reflect upon what Cooper himself said in the preface to Afloat and Ashore: "All that is necessary is, that the pictures be true to nature, if not absolutely drawn from living sitters."

* Harold D. Langley is Curator of Naval History Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and an Adjunct Professor of History at the Catholic University of America in Washington. DC. His most recent work is Medicine in the Early U.S. Navy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).


1. The assistance of Professor Timothy J. Runyan of East Carolina University is gratefully acknowledged. Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1961); Thomas R. Lounsbury, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1882; reprint (Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1968), 278-281; Stephen Railton, Fenimore Cooper: A Study of His Life and Imagination (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1978), 52-53.

2. Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper, 44-45; Paul David Nelson, "James Fenimore Cooper's Maritime Nationalism, 1820-1850," Military Affairs 61:3 (October, 1977), 129-132.

3. Cooper, The Red Rover. Darley edition (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), preface, 7.

4. James Fenimore Cooper, Miles Wallingford. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 229, 40

5. James Fenimore Cooper, The Pilot. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 229.

6. Ibid., 290.

7. Ibid., 317, 280-281.

8. Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper, 299n; Samuel Adams Drake, Nooks and Corners of the New England Coast (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1975; William B. Shubrick Clymer, James Fenimore Cooper (Boston: Small, Maynard, 1900); Marcel Clavel, Fenimore Cooper and His Critics: American, British, and French Criticisms of the Novelist's Early Works (Aix-en-Provence: Imprimerie universitaire de Provence, E. Fourcine, 1938); John Henry Claggett, "Cooper and the Sea: Naval Life and Naval History in the Writings of James Fenimore Cooper," (unpublished doctoral dissertation, 2 vols. Yale University, 1954).

9. Cooper, The Red Rover, 31-32.

10. Ibid., 46.

11. James Fenimore Cooper, Afloat and Ashore. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 359.

12. James Fenimore Cooper, Miles Wallingford, 109, 315, 244, 324.

13. Ibid., 248, 313.

14. James Fenimore Cooper, Jack Tier. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 18, 416-419.

15. Harold D. Langley, "The Negro in the Navy and Merchant Service, 1789-1860," The Journal of Negro History 62:3 (July, 1967): 275-280; Ira Dye, "Seafarers of 1812: A Profile," Prologue 5:1 (Spring, 1973): 3-14.

16. Cooper, Jack Tier. 18, 467.

17. James Fenimore Cooper, The Sea Lions. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), passim; Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, 239.

18. Ira Dye, "American Seafarers and Impressment: Some Insights on the Early American Seaman and His World," unpublished paper presented in Washington, DC, March 1974. I am grateful to Ira Dye for a copy of this paper. An examination of American prisoner of war records at the Dartmoor depot in Great Britain during the War of 1812 showed that out of 6,537 records, the average age of seafarers of all ranks was 27.12 years and the median age was twenty-five. There were 2,900 seamen in the twenty-one to twenty-nine age group who constituted 86 percent of the total. There were 1,400+ in the thirty to thirty-nine age group, of which 14% were officers or petty officers; 1,160 were seamen. There were 314 seamen in the forty to forty-nine age group, 128 in the fifty to fifty-nine bracket, and sixteen seamen over sixty years of age. Ira Dye, "Physical and Social Profiles of Early American Seafarers, 1812-1815," Colin Howell and Richard J. Twomey , eds., Jack Tar in History: Essays in the History of Maritime Life and Labour (Fredericton, New Brunswick: Acadiensis Press, 1991), 221-222.

19. Cooper, The Water-Witch, 172, 268.

20. Ibid., 39; Robert Crerard, "Periaguas in the Hudson River," American Neptune 54:4(Fall, 1994): 278-279.

21. Cooper, The Water-Witch, 71.

22. Ibid., 66-69, 75-76. When Cooper's old friend Captain William Branford Shubrick, USN, wrote to him that he liked the sea portions of The Water-Witch, the author replied that it was "a book rather for sailors than landsmen...." Cooper to Shubrick, 31 May 1831 in James Franklin Beard, ed., The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper. 6 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960-1968), 2:79.

23. James Fenimore Cooper, The Two Admirals. Darley edition. (New York: D. Appleton, 1892), 42.

24. Julie Wheelwright, Amazons and Military Maids: Women Who Dressed as Men in Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Happiness. Paperback edition. (London: Pandora Press, 1990), 52, 93, 123-125, 132-141; Suzanne J. Stark, Female Tars: Women Aboard Ship in the Age of Sail (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1996), especially chapter 3 which deals with women in disguise in naval crews; Margaret Creighton and Lisa Norling, eds., Iron Men, Wooden Women: Gender and Seafaring in the Atlantic World, 1700-1920 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Dianne Dugaw, Dangerous Examples; Warrior Women and Popular Balladry, 1600-1850 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); Linda Grant De Pauw, Seafaring Women (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982). Most of the examples cited by De Pauw in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries are in the British service or in the merchant and whaling enterprises. Elizabeth Little, "The Female Sailor on the Christopher Mitchell: Fact and Fantasy," American Neptune 54:4 (Fall, 1994): 252-258; Daniel Cohen, "'The Female Marine' in the Era of Good Feelings: Cross Dressing and the 'Genius' of Nathaniel Coverly, Jr." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society (October 1993): 103:359-396; Diary of Usher Parsons, 28 September 1812, Rhode Island Historical Society; W. B. Gates, "Cooper's Indebtedness to Shakespeare," Publications of the Modern Language Association, 67:5 (1952), 716-731.

25. Nathaniel Ames, A Mariner's Sketches (Providence: Cory, Marshall and Hammond, 1830), 238-239; Nautical Reminiscences (Providence: Marshall, 1832); Philbrick, Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, 114, 305 n.

26. William McNally, Evils and Abuses in the Naval and Merchant Service, Exposed; With Proposals for Their Remedy and Redress (Boston: Cassady and March, 1839), 192.

27. Ibid., 160.

28. Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1840), 4-5.

29. James Fenimore Cooper, History of the Navy of the United States of America. 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard, 1839); Philbrick, Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction, 124-127. Cooper's History of the Navy appeared in a London and two Paris editions the same year it was issued in the United States. A second and third edition were published in Philadelphia in 1840 and 1843. Another Philadelphia publisher reprinted the volumes in 1846 and 1847, as did a New York press in 1851. One volume editions appeared in Philadelphia in 1841 and in New York in 1853. Enlarged editions with additional material were published in New York in 1856 and 1864.

30. James Fenimore Cooper, Ned Myers: or, A Life Before the Mast, with an introduction and notes by William S. Dudley (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989). The 1843 edition was published in Philadelphia by Lea and Blanchard.

Transcriber's Note: A few typographical errors in names have been silently corrected.

Return to Top of Page