by Jim Marquardt
Sam McCorkle, 29-year old captain of the whaleship Columbia, sailed out of Sag Harbor on August 1, 1859, on the hunt for whales in the South Atlantic. McCorkle was a close friend of Charles Henry Halsey of Southampton, and the two corresponded regularly, McCorkle putting his letters aboard homeward bound vessels that he came across at sea or in foreign ports. Charles Henry’s sister, Libby Halsey Fowler, had three sons. The eldest, named Charles F. Fowler, joined the crew of Columbia on what turned out to be a fatal voyage.
We tend to glamorize Sag Harbor’s whaling heritage, and indeed the men who sailed all over the world were courageous, but constant dangers accompanied their adventures. In 1941, family descendant Helen Halsey collected some of the correspondence between Captain Sam and C.H. Halsey, and published them under the title Incident on the bark Columbia. One letter in particular describes the perils encountered in the cruel business, and gives us a glimpse of whaling life, as McCorkle wrote it.
“Samuel McCorkle to C.H. Halsey. Barque Columbia at sea October 25,1861.
Dear Friend Charley, I feel it is my painful duty to inform you and your dearest friends as early as possible of a melancoly accident that occurd to us on the 6th of this month October, trusting you will know best how to break the sad intelligence to those whome it most nearly concerns, altho it will be as painful for you to do so, as it is for me to write. your Cousin (actually nephew) Charles F. Fowler is no more, he fel from the foretop Gallant mast head to the deck and was almost instantly killed by the fall…thair was a number of us up a loft at the time of the Accident looking for a ded whale we lost the night before…October 5th about 3 o’clock in the afternoon we raised Sperm whales, large ones. I went on to twice, the last one got well fast too and soon killed him, got him to the ship just at night, weather quite rough, was bothered about getting the chain on him, finely the flook rope parted. I made sail on the ship sent two boats in search of the whale but it was so dark and rough, could not find them…next morning weather tolerable good, set most of the light sails, doublemaned the mastheads and had hopes of soon finding the whale…I thought to myself, well thairs Carpenter or Charles, its his bounty for he raised the whale the day before, so hes anxious of course. While thinking thus, and hopeing soon to find the whale, I heard an exclamation of horror. I looked up but Charles was gon from his place. I looked down and saw him in the Bow Boat. How I got down to the deck I hardly know. I told them all to come down and was down myself very quick but I saw enough before I got to him to convince me thair was no hope for him to live. When we picked him up he spoak and said, handle me carefull. After we got him aft he said, raise me up two or three times. We did so and made him as easy as we could. He seamed to be conscious for about ten minutes but made no answers to my questions. We did all we could for him, but he soon died in our arms, and we buried him about five oclock, same day, 6th October, after the usual maner of burial at sea. Almost the first thing that came to my mind after the accident was his poor mother and have thought a great deal about her since. it will be a hard blow for her. tel her for me that I feel sympathy for her and all her family to the depth of my heart. The poor Boy hardly expected to be called away from us so soon… I have lost three of my best men by death since we left hom, may God spare us from any more sad accidents, if it so pleases him, but I say his will be done not ours.”
In a preface to the letters, Helen Halsey wrote that Libby Halsey Fowler also lost her two younger sons, Edward and William, who went to sea in 1866 and were never heard from again. A daughter said her mother never gave the sons up “she would wake up in the night and imagine they were at the door.”
Jim Marquardt alerts us to a new exhibit “The World of Whales” at the Museum of Natural History in NYC.