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Sunday, June 11, 2023



On August 28, 1851, Zebedee Devoll (born in New Bedford 18 November 1817) married his first cousin, Sarah W. Howland, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts. He was 35, she was just 16 (born 17 January 1835), and it was a first marriage for both. In July 1852 they had a daughter, Sarah jr., and in 1856 a son, named Augustus, followed by another daughter, Ida, who was born in Honolulu 24 November 1858, during the voyage of the Roman. Sarah had taken a servant with her, an Irish girl named Abby Noonan, who married a widowed whaling master, Frederick Coggeshall, on 29 November 1859. It was a Roman Catholic wedding, which made quite a stir in that staunchly Protestant community.

 The Roman, which had been doing well in the Okhotsk Sea, arrived in Honolulu four days after the birth, on November 28, 1858 — evidently in time to witness the Coggeshall marriage, as well. They sailed away on December 29, Devoll declaring that he would cruise and then head home. On February 18, 1859, the ship was reported off French Rock, bound for the Bay of Islands ‘on account of the sickness of Mrs Devoll’. (Pacific Commercial Advertiser April 28, 1859) The ship was reported in Russell on February 20, 1859, but Sarah (or her baby) must have recovered, as Devoll’s only report was that he had shipped most of his oil in Honolulu, to make room in the casks for any whales he might capture on the way back to New England.

The ship arrived home June 9, 1859, and in August 1860 Captain Devoll sailed again, in command of the Lagoda.  Sarah and the children were not with him, as Elizabeth Marble, wife of the captain of the Awashonks, made plain in a December 31, 1860 sea-letter. Their ship had gammed with Captain Devoll, ‘the one that bought Capt. Topham’s place and it was his wife the Capt. Cogshalls wife went out survant with ...’ and she certainly would have mentioned the family if they had been there.

Captain Zebedee Devoll died at sea of ‘Java fever’ (possibly dengue) in September 1861. The crew carried on with the voyage, arriving back in New Bedford on 18 April 1864, but of course the news of his death preceded that. On 2 May 1862, Sarah ensured that debtors could not seize her inheritance, by applying for guardianship of family and property. She also went to the owners for her widow’s share of her husband’s last voyage, receiving $2619.92, a good sum at that time.  (findagrave; Old Dartmouth Historical Sketches, 1903)

This remarkable woman then set about her own career.  In 1872 she graduated from the New England Female Medical College, Boston, and went on to practise medicine in Portland, Maine, as there was nowhere in Boston that would employ female doctors. Portland was a good choice, as a branch of the Female Medical Education Society of New England was there, and Sarah made her mark by being the first woman in history to join the Maine Medical Association.  

In the 1880 census she is listed as widowed, living in Portland, Maine, and working as a physician, while the daughter who had been born in Honolulu was a medical student. She authored many papers -- ‘Dress Reform’ and ‘Hygienic Value of Labor’ and the need for women in the treatment of the insane. She featured on the boards of charities, and was involved in the Women’s Rights movement.  From 1888 Sarah was the government physician for the Sioux Indians at Stnanding Rock Agency, Fort Yates, the territory of Dakota. She died 30 October 1922 in Boston of pneumonia, aged eighty-seven. Unusually for her time, too, she was cremated.

A most remarkable whaling wife.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Women like Sarah, who do not fit convenient and conventional descriptions of wives of their time, were more plentiful than we imagine. Thanks for bringing yet another interesting woman to light. Such real life women were the inspiration for the fictional Patricia MacPherson Nautical Adventures.