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Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Nancy Bolles of New London, Connecticut


BOLLES, Nancy Chapman (Mrs. John):

Captain John Bolles of New London, Connecticut, was a career whaling master. At the age of 25 he married Nancy Chapman (aged 20) on 26 March 1845, just weeks before he sailed off on his first command, Candace, leaving June 2, 1845. He got home to New London on April 26, 1847. Then just three months later, on July 21, 1847, he took over the North America, arriving back March 21, 1849, for a rare spell at home before taking over the command of the Alert on June 18, 1850.

This time Nancy sailed, taking her baby daughter Isabel and her son John jr., who had been born on 26 January 1848, so was not quite two and a half years old. A letter written by Nancy to her ‘dear sisters’ from ‘Mowee’ and dated 25 March 1851, describes her passage down the Atlantic, calling at Fayal (which she thought very beautiful) and Juan Fernandez Island, before cruising the Pacific. She was terribly seasick at first, so badly that she could not sit up for four weeks, and vomited blood, meaning that her husband had to take over the care of the two little children.  

The weather was often very stormy. The ship was once struck with lightning, and another time the galley (the ship kitchen) was smashed and a great deal washed overboard, in the way of cooking pots and utensils.  Luckily, there were more pots in the hold and the iron stove was still there (though broken), but it was both ominous and scary. Also, their luck with whaling was so bad that, as she mediated, ‘if we of stayed at home until September we should have been just as well off.’

An interesting break was a two-day stop at Pitcairn Island, where Nancy enjoyed the tropical fruit, and met a whaling wife who had been there seven months, having been set ashore to have her baby. It was now ‘3 weeks old and [she] was expecting her husband every day.’ This was Nancy Grant, who’d had very gloomy company. ‘[T]here was another Captain [George Palmer] who left his wife at the same time, she died two months ago with the consumption, she had it when she left home, they was both from Nantucket.’  

On board the ship, the officers were fine men, if only they would leave liquor alone, but the crew was a miserable lot. The steward could cook, but told terrible lies, and the cook was so dirty that his galley was bound to go overboard again.  One seaman was eternally sick, but not so sick that he could not ‘fight with almost every man in the forecastle’ and at least two were demonstrably mad. One threatened constantly to commit suicide, and then caused a sensation by jumping overboard. Then, when the ship was hauled aback and a rescue boat lowered, ‘he swimed toward the boat like a good fellow till the boat got most to him and then he turned and went the other way and told them to let him drown’d, I do not think there is one aboard the ship but would be glad to get rid of him’ but he was rescued nonetheless. 

As for the children, John jr. was in his element, grown into a ‘great stout boy … he is harpooning and lancing whales and pulling ropes all the time.’ Isobel, the baby, had done remarkably well too, considering ‘that I have not had scarcely any milk. On the whole, Nancy decided that she liked whaling life. Despite this, Nancy and the children were put on shore at Lahaina, where they boarded in a house kept by Alford Bush and his sister, both from New London: ‘she came to Calafornia with her husband’ but then moved to Maui to be with her brother, expecting her husband to join her in a few months ... 

‘I do not like the idear of staying here much, I had rather go to the northwest [whaling ground] but I have ben sick so much that I think as well as John that it will be for the best for me not to go so I shall try to content myself as well as I can here.’  (All sic, MSM, vfm 16.55 mc 92.27.)

Nancy did not lack for social company. A Rev. Dwight Baldwin letter, May 8, 1851, recorded that his wife visited Mrs. Bolles, the wife of Captain Bolles, at Lahainawaena. (HMHM)  Two more children were born there, too — Alice, in 1851, and Lizzie, in 1853. They were back in New London in time for the birth of Walter in 1854, and there Nancy stayed, while Captain John Bolles continued whaling until the day he died, February 20, 1871, just seven months after arriving home from a voyage in command of the Trinity.  Nancy died in 1910, and they are both buried in New London.

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