The Diary of Betsey Alexander: Part 1

In the spring of 2001, just after my former elementary school teacher, Doris Parsons, (A Note From the Teacher) wrote to me of her grandparents, Charles Frederick (1838-1907) and Josephine (Alexander) Owen (1845-1879), another Alexander descendent, Arlene Bradbury, mailed me a reproduction of the 1856-1858 shipboard diary of Betsey (Merriman) Alexander (1817-1895). Betsey was a great-grandmother of both Doris Parsons and Arlene Bradbury.

Diary of Betsey AlexanderThe next four blogs will include transcribed excerpts from the diary as written by Betsey, with my clarifying notes in brackets [].

Betsey Merriman was born in Harpswell, Maine, the daughter of Walter and Isabel (Alexander) Merriman. She married Thomas Alexander in Brunswick, in 1840. Together they would have six children, including Mrs. Parson’s grandmother, Josephine, and Mrs. Bradbury’s grandmother, Catherine.

Betsey wrote the diary while she, son Eli, and husband, Capt. Thomas, were at sea aboard the Scioto, one of many ships built by the Skolfield family in Brunswick. During the almost two-year-long journey, daughters Josephine and Betsey Ann remained behind.

Why would Betsey leave two of her children and travel the seas for such a long time? Though it might seem strange to us, it was not unusual for a captain’s wife and children to go to sea. And at age nine, Eli was the perfect age for adventure and exposure to the family business, dangerous though it often proved to be. Perhaps the voyage was business as usual.

Thomas Martin Alexander (1849-1849) and Thomas Martin Alexander (1854-1856)

Thomas Martin Alexander (1849-1849) and Thomas Martin Alexander (1854-1856)

Or perhaps Betsey looked at leaving her home on the River Road in Brunswick as a respite from her own grief. On January 2nd, 1856, her own brother, Capt. Thomas Merriman, was lost at sea from the bark Ben Adams when the ship was a mere 15 hours out of the port of Boston, bound for New Orleans. Just two months later the Alexanders’ two-year-old son Thomas died. Whatever the reason, by September that same year, Betsey, Eli, and the Capt. were in Portland, Maine, some thirty miles south of Brunswick, preparing to ship out.

The diary begins:

  • Portland Thursday Sep the 25 1856
    Days Journall
    Portland Sept the 25 1856
    First Day Layer to the Senteral [Central] Wharf getting ready for Sea
  • Friday 26 Took Steam & towed out the harbor  Wind to the South And pleasant wether.
  • Saturday 27 Wind South East
  • Sunday 28 Wind to the North  Beat in to St. John  Moord Ship

While at port in St. John, New Brunswick, they weathered a gale, loaded cargo to take to Liverpool, hired a crew, and entertained:

  • Wensday Oct the 1 Wind ESE blowing a gale and raining & vary unpleasant wether.
  • Friday 3 Wind South towd in Moord Ship and commenced Loading
  • Saturday 4 Wind S & Pleasant
  • Sunday 5 Wind SW & Pleasant Company on board to Dine
  • Sunday 12 Wind to NW and Pleasant Dined on board of the Ship Esmeralda Capt McM
  • Monday 13 Wind to SW Cloudy Stevedore to work day & night lading Ship & getting ready for sea
  • Tuesday 14 Wind N finish loading  Sailors came on board the Ship
  • Wednesday 15 Wind NW Sailed from St John for Liverpool [sailed] AM

As the Scioto commenced crossing the Atlantic Ocean, mother and son both became seasick:

  • Friday 17 Wind S [illegible letter]at nigh fresh breezes  Myself & El seasick in the Berth
  • Saturday 18 Wind SE hals SW Eli and I Sick as before past eating, no provision lost today
  • Tuesday 21 Wind NW & raining  Poll blows heavy  took in the forsail and close reefed the Topsails  Eli and I both Sick
  • Wensday 22 Wind NEW up and to work  Eli on deck

Though he would be sick off and on, when Eli rallied he learned sailors’ knots:

  • Friday 31 Wind SW and raining all sails set  Eli tying Sheep Shanks & Tom fool nots [knots] & acting Sails

That November Capt. Thomas had his own trials:

  • Friday 7 SE & fresh breezes & cloudy  Thomas cross as a bare

In November, they arrived at St. George’s Channel between Ireland and Wales, then put in at Liverpool, England, where they socialized with other ship captains and their wives, some of them like Capt. Skolfield sailing in ships from the Alexanders’ hometown of Brunswick, Maine.

  • Saturday 15 towed into the Dock & raining and blowing  Pilot left & Capt. Skolfield was on board Ship
  • Sunday 16 we went on board of The Rising Sun and Took Dinner with Capt Skolfield
  • Monday 17 Mr Mcarvy Mr Wood & Mr Decoss came on board
  • Tuesday 18 Capt Mcmannas on board and others
  • Wensday 19 Capt Skolfield & Wife Capt Stover & Wife took a Walk & we went with them

Diary PagesThe women shopped:

  • Thursday 20 Mrs. Skolfield & I went Shoping
  • Thursday 27 on board all day  in the evening we went Shoping
  • Friday 28 had a Dress Maker to work
  • Saturday 29 Dress Maker the same
  • Monday Dec the 1 went Shoping  came home in a Snow storm and sewed the remainder the day
  • Fryday 19 in the morning a new steward & Stewardess came on board in the afternoon Mr Moony & Wife Mr Desilva & Wife Capt Mitchell on board to tea and spent evening
  • Saturday 20 on board Ship all day  Capt Merriman on board & spent the evening
  • Sunday 21 took a walk in the afternoon on board the Ship Aruba Capt Merriman
  • Tuesday 23 this morning Mr. Decoss Capt Merriman & Capt Lincon on board  Capt on Shore
  • Wensday 24 thick wether  Mr Decoss Mr Baker on board shop & all Men on board fixing stove etc
  • Thursday 25 Christmas spent the Afternoon & evening to Mr Feeny

The New Year of 1857 passed pleasantly. One week later the ship left Liverpool:

  • Thursday January 1 company on board to dine and writing home
  • Monday 5 on board all day  Joseph on board and styed all night [Joseph is probably Thomas’s brother, Capt. Joseph Alexander.]
  • Thursday 8 nine oclock in the Morning left Liverpool  Wind SE and Pleasant wether left Joseph on the Pier
  • Friday 9 thick wether & Eli and I both sick
  • Saturday 17 Wind NE and pleasant  Ei on deck  myself sewing all day

Betsey writes about onboard livestock as well as ocean-going creatures encountered as they headed past the coasts of Portugal and North Africa:

  • Sunday 18 Wind NE and pleasant sun shining  Eli & I on deck often feding his Rabits & hens
  • Monday 19 Wind NE & Cloudy Thomas overhaling his papers  in PM Eli & I watching Porpoises
  • Tuesday 20 Wind NE and pleasant  sewing all day  Thomas looking for a porpoise  Eli much interested in the sport
  • Wensday 21 at 6 AM made the Maderer [Madeira, Portugal, off the coast of Morocco] Islands Wind N fine Breez
  • Sunday February 1 commences with rain in the Morning  caught 3 Dolphins in the afternoon  caught a Shark  all took a look at it and then committed it to the deep

World Map 1Barely three months into the voyage, as they headed to the cold southern Atlantic Ocean and Cape Horn, things started to go wrong:

  • Wensday 4 Wind SSE and clear  lost Maine Topmast
  • Thursday 5 Wind SE and Clear  all hands to work making a new topmast  Eli and his dog looking on
  • Wensday 18 no wind  warm and Sultry  I was sewing all day
  • Thursday 19 Wind NE and clear  vary warm  saw a Ship
  • Tuesday 24 Light breeze NE  PM lost our Chantalier [chanticleer/rooster] over board Eli almost cried for his loss
  • Sunday March 1 Wind SSE in the Morning foggy and cool  Caught an Albertoss  the mate skinned him  PM Pleasant and Clear  saw a Whale Thomas & Mr. Richerson fired at it but it had no effect
  • Monday 9 Wind W clear and cool  stewardess sick. The Pig got hungry and killed a hen
  • Thursday 12 Wind SW and cold and heavy sea carried away fore yard
  • Fryday 13 Wind S split main top mast stay sail blowing a gale and heavy sea. And vary cold
  • Saturday 14 Wind SW blowing heavy  Ship pitching and roling so that We could neither set nor stand  I fell against the Door and got a black eye  this is going round the cap horn [Cape Horn, Chile, South America] in high life
  • Monday 16 Wind W Clear and cold  the Ship still so that I can sew and finished a Shirt
  • Tuesday 17 Wind SW sent up fore yard and bent topsail cloudy and cold
  • Wensday 18 NE AM raining with thunder and lightning and hail as large as pease PM cold with frequent squalls vary uncomfortable
  • Thursday 19 Wind S cold and squaly  Ship roling so that I cannot work  laid in my birth part of the Day  hail and snow plenty of it
  • Friday 20 Wind N a fine breeze Ship  going 9 not [knots]  I sewd all day to keep myself warm  Eli heating planks to keep warm feet  PM Cloudy  saw a Ship homeward bound
  • Saturday 21 Wind NW cold and raining  homesick wether  Eli trying to ketch Cape Pigeons  PM Spoke the Barque Clarrisa of New Bedford [Massachusetts] and from Talcahanna [Talcchuano, Chile] and bound for New Bedford a Whaler
  • Wensday 25 Wind WSW  Saw two Ships homeward bound  home Sweet home
  • Thursday 26 Variable winds vary cold. In company with a Frensh Ship and Brig all day
  • Friday 27 Wind W and squally  in company with the Brig  lost sight of the Ship. The mate Sick
  • Saturday 28 calm in the Morning and raining, afternoon blowing Wind SW  nothing but cold
  • Sunday 29 Wind SW  I went to bed to pass away the time and think of home and wish myself there with my family

Finally, the weather improved, the mate got well, and the topgallant sail was set at last:

  • Monday 30 Wind SE with pasing clouds  the mate got well and able to do Duty  still vary cold  this day passed without a squall  Thomas told me there was a stranger on Deck  I did not know what he ment  he said the Topgalantsail [topgallant sail] was set the first time for three weeks

Homesick Betsey summed up the stressful month of March thusly:

  • Tuesday 31 Calm and clear PM Cloudy and cold  nothing goes right

Next blog in one week: Diary of Betsey Alexander, Part 2: Goin’ for Guano


  • United States Federal Census Records, Brunswick, Cumberland, Maine.
  • Vital Records of Brunswick, Maine 1740-1860 and The Forsaith Book. Compiled by Joseph Crook Anderson II, CG, FASG. Picton Press, Rockport, Maine, 2004
  • The Diary of Betsey Alexander: September 25, 1856, to January 17, 1858. Arlene L. Bradbury, Village Press, before 2001
  • Deeds. Cumberland County Registry of Deeds
  • World Map with Continents Template.
  • “A Singleness of Purpose” The Skolfields and Their Ships. Reynolds, Ermini S, and Kenneth R. Martin, Maine Maritime Museum, Bath, 1987
  • Walter Merryman of Harpswell, Maine: And His Descendants. Charles Nelson Sinnett, Rumford Printing Company, 1905
  • History of Brunswick, Topsham, and Harpswell, Maine. Wheeler, George Augustus Wheeler, MD. And Henry Warren Wheeler, Alfred Mudge & Son, Printers, Boston, Mass., 1878

About Barbara Desmarais

Writer and amateur historian
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