J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, August 10, 2018

A Stormy Voyage from Fiction to Biography

Susanna Rowson died in 1824, having spent the last half of her life writing and teaching in greater Boston. Her novel Charlotte Temple was still selling, and her sequel Charlotte’s Daughter, or The Three Orphans came out posthumously in 1828.

In 1870 the Rev. Elias Nason wrote a biography of Rowson. He took up her invitation to read passages from Rebecca as first-hand accounts of her own experiences. Thus, Nason described the author’s passage to America this way, citing the novel:
The voyage was long and perilous. The brig encountered the fearful storms and contrary winds of that inclement season, and the provisions failing, each passenger was finally put upon an allowance of a single biscuit, and a half a pint of water per day. Mrs. Rowson often spoke in after life of the intense thirst she then experienced, and of her bitter disappointment, when her father, with a tearful eye, presented her a cup of wine instead of water. Her faithful nurse subsisted many days on half of her own scanty allowance, affectionately reserving the other portion for her beloved Susanna, should they be reduced to a more terrible necessity.

Having thus been driven to and fro by wintry storms for many weeks, and having endured the pangs of famine to the last extremity, their hearts were overwhelmed with joy when the sweet cry of “Land ahead!” was heard late in the afternoon of the 28th of January, 1767. They were approaching Boston harbor, and anticipating quick relief from their protracted sufferings; but a severer trial yet awaited them. The wind rose suddenly; the night fell darkling over the ill-fated vessel; the sleet encased the ropes in ice; the sailors were benumbed with cold; the brig became unmanageable; and to add to their dismay, they lost sight of the beacon at the entrance of the harbor, and were drifting hopelessly in amongst the rocks and breakers.

At ten o’clock that dreadful night, their fears were realized. Suddenly the vessel struck a rock. It proved to be upon that long, low point running out north-westwardly from Lovell’s island, opposite Ram’s head, in Boston harbor. The floods came beating violently over deck, and there, all through that long, cold, dreary, stormy night, the little weather-beaten company remained in agony, anticipating instant death.

But the good brig held together; and when the tide receded in the morning, the kind people of the island wading into the sea and placing a ladder against the side of the vessel, received the passengers and conducted them safely to the land; the rounds of the ladder, however, being soon covered with ice, Lieut. [William] Haswell did not dare to risk his little daughter on them; and so, fastening a strong cord round her waist, he swung her out over the bulwarks of the brig into the arms of a stout old sailor, standing up to his waist in the water to receive her.
Nason recognized that not every detail in the novel applied to little Susanna Haswell. The young girl in the novel was seven years old; Susanna was only five. The girl traveled with two older brothers as well as her widowed father; Susanna’s only family at this time was her father, a retired naval lieutenant.

In other details, however, Nason was too quick to accept the novel’s details. Rebecca describes the girl traveling with a “nurse,” and that word also appears in the biography. But in Boston’s records of who came ashore, the Haswells are listed as bringing a “Maid,” which isn’t quite so genteel.

Most significant, Mason adopted the date that appeared in Rebecca. The novel stated that its heroine reached mainland Boston on “the thirtieth of January, 1767.” Nason therefore calculated that the crew had sighted land “late in the afternoon of the 28th of January, 1767.” But both dates were off.

TOMORROW: When the Haswells really arrived.

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