Table of Contents
Inventory of the William Gilkerson Papers
In the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library
William Gilkerson (1936 – 2015) was a noted American and Canadian maritime painter, scrimshaw artist, nautical historian, and writer of both fiction and non-fiction. Born in Chicago on July 25, 1936, Gilkerson was a lifelong sailor and adventurer who traveled widely and had careers as a journalist, folk musician, artist, and maritime historian. After serving in the United States Marine Corps as a teenager, Gilkerson attended an art program at Washington University during the early 1960s. Gilkerson began his writing career with the publication of Gilkerson on War in 1964 and The Scrimshander in 1975. In between the publication of his first two books, Gilkerson served as editor of the St. Louis Magazine in 1964 and held multiple positions from 1964 to 1970 for the San Francisco Chronicle. Gilkerson resumed his writing career in 1981 and published a total of seven works from 1980 through 1999. In the 2000s, Gilkerson started writing a book about pirate history titled Pirate's Passage. Although Gilkerson's intended reading audience was adults, his publisher released the novel as a children's book in 2006 and would win the 2006 Governor General's Award for English-language children's literature later that year. Four years later, he was nominated for the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and Norma Fleck Award for his 2010 book A Thousand Years of Pirates.
Outside of literature, Gilkerson was an artist who worked in Nova Scotia from 1987 to 2015. As a watercolor painter, his John Paul Jones works were displayed at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in 1987. In 1998, over forty of his paintings were shown at the Independence Seaport Museum. Gilkerson died in Martin’s River (Nova Scotia) on November 29, 2015.
Scope and Content Note
Materials in this collection reflect William Gilkerson’s career as a maritime painter, scrimshaw artist, nautical historian, and writer. A considerable portion of this collection consists of Gilkerson’s correspondence between the years 1975 – 2011. The majority of his correspondence consists of requests from a multitude of people for Gilkerson to do artwork, notably scrimshaw carvings and paintings. Gilkerson also shared correspondence with several institutions regarding exhibitions for his pieces in addition to executing commissioned artwork for several maritime organizations. Special projects in which Gilkerson took part that are represented in the collection include illustrations and ship plans for the R/V Westward of the Sea Education Association (SEA) in Falmouth (Massachusetts), the ship Picton Castle captained by Dan Moreland, and the ship Kalmar Nyckel. Gilkerson also collected a set of materials in 1982 related to thera ships of Egypt and shared correspondence during the years 1993 – 1999 concerning a television documentary on pirates.
During the years 1977 – 1979, Gilkerson exchanged correspondence with the Hon. Paul Vardeman regarding a bone formerly in possession of Charles Ramsdale of the Essex (Ship) that allegedly came from Owen Coffin’s femur before being rescued by the Dauphin. The edited original copies of this correspondence in addition to the transcript for a lecture Gilkerson delivered at the Kendall Whaling Museum on the subject are included in the collection along with photographs of a related scrimshaw tooth and a letter written to Charles Ramsdale in 1844 from Seth Weeks. Another notable set of correspondence in the collection spans the years 2008 to 2011 and documents Gilkerson’s negotiations with the Kendall Whaling Museum regarding the purchase of his collection. Most of the correspondence is between Gilkerson and Sal Battinelli, Gilkerson’s legal consul at this time, but there are also letters from representatives of the Kendall Whaling Museum in addition to a letter from antiquarian book dealer Llewellyn Howland III to John Kendall in 2008 written in support of the Kendall’s Gilkerson acquisition. The remainder of Gilkerson’s personal papers consist of biographical information on Gilkerson in addition to promotional material related to his work. There is also a set of Gilkerson’s notes related to accordions, his artistic mock-ups, a sonnet he wrote about the bark California, and information related to the USS Constitution in addition to other ship plans he collected over the years for his artwork. Also included is a letter from wife Kerstin Gilkerson to the Kendall family following Gilkerson’s death in 2015.
Legal documents related to Gilkerson span the years 1975 – 2012. While the bulk of these materials relate to the Kendall Whaling Museum and include purchase and sales agreements during the years 2007 – 2012, the collection also contains insurance certificates, appraisals, and loan agreements related to exhibitions that featured Gilkerson’s artwork. In addition to legal documentation, the collection also contains several of Gilkerson’s personal journals he kept while sailing during the years 1961 – 1982 on the sloops Cutlass and Elly. The collection also contains an undated sketchbook titled “Log ‘Dandy’” with ship drawings only on the first few pages.
Gilkerson’s keen interest in scrimshaw is strongly reflected in the collection. Materials related to scrimshaw include Gilkerson’s ledger book containing his scrimshaw notes and professional contacts for the years 1968 – 1973. In addition to his record book, Gilkerson compiled a myriad of materials related to scrimshaw regulations, and the collection contains a fair amount of items from 1973 – 1979 in the form of correspondence and notes in addition to federal documentation on scrimshaw regulations, elephant ivory regulations, and Endangered Species Acts of the 1970s. Gilkerson also received and retained notices and correspondence during the years 1979 – 1981 regarding scrimshaw that had been stolen, and this information is represented in the collection. Other materials of note include correspondence and notes regarding the authentication of scrimshaw compiled during the years 1975 – 1982 in addition to several printed articles and other collected references spanning the years 1952 – 2005 documenting various scrimshaw pieces, scrimshaw collections, and scrimshaw artwork.
Gilkerson’s research notes are also well-represented among the collection, notably his research on John Paul Jones, captain of the USS Bonhomme Richard (formerly named the Duc de Deras) during the American Revolution, and his work on the HMS Nimrod and her recovered carronades by the Kendall Whaling Museum. The bulk of Gilkerson’s John Paul Jones research contains correspondence shared between the years of 1983 and 2000 with Jean Boudriot, a noted French naval architect and historian of weaponry and naval engineering. The collection even includes transcripts and notes for articles about Boudriot for Wooden Boat magazine in 1985 and 2000. Beyond his correspondence with Boudriot, Gilkerson also compiled a substantial amount of material related to John Paul Jones, the Bonhomme Richard, and the Ranger along with the French vessels Serapis and Vengeur in the form of notes, articles, drawings, diagrams, and other reference publications. Gilkerson also compiled several photocopied documents dated 1765 – 1779 of the Bonhomme Richard, correspondence of John Paul Jones, and weather data for several ports in England.
Gilkerson’s research notes related to the HMS Nimrod span the years 1999 – 2003 and include his correspondence and articles collected for reference along with correspondence of Daniel Cullity of Cullity Restoration who looked at the Nimrod carronade during the years 1999 – 2003 and was actively involved in the project. In addition to Gilkerson’s notes, the collection also contains material compiled by David Schloerb during the years 1974 – 2002. Schloerb’s research material contains primarily correspondence related to the Nimrod and her carronades, notes compiled during diving expeditions, his diving log for said expeditions, and an undated article titled “Search for the Lost Cannons of the Nimrod.” Schloerb’s research notes also contain photocopies of several 1814 documents including correspondence of Oliver H. Perry, court case transcripts of U.S. v. Miller and Bumpus, Royal Navy documents, and New Bedford newspaper accounts.
A large portion of the collection includes publication materials compiled during the years 1975 – 2009 for works that Gilkerson wrote during his prolific career as an author. Items related to publications include promotional materials, drafts, book images, proofs, agreements, and edition notes. Two of his earlier books, The Scrimshander (San Francisco: Troubador Press., 1975) and American Whalers in the Western Arctic (Fairhaven, Mass.: Edward J. Lefkowicz, Inc., 1983) are represented in this collection in the form of correspondence related to the publication, legal agreements, and promotional materials. His later works of The Ships of John Paul Jones (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1987), Ultimate Voyage (Boston: Shambhala, 1998), Pirate’s Passage (Boston: Trumpeter, 2006), and A Thousand Years of Pirates (Toronto: Tundra Books, 2009) are represented in the collection in the form of layouts, drafts, illustrations, proofs, agreements, designed versions, Gilkerson’s notes, and author’s copies. Also included in this collection is a draft from Chapter 5 of an unpublished manuscript titled “Random Teachers” that he sent to John and Nancy Kendall, circa 2006. The chapter is titled “Learning to Sail in the North Sea with Paul Erling Johnson” and is inscribed to John and Nancy by Gilkerson. In addition to published books, Gilkerson also wrote several articles during his career. This collection also contains the correspondence, notes, and drafts related to a series of articles he wrote for Wooden Boat Magazine from 2002 – 2003 for their “Replicas” series.
Researchers should note that this collection also contains several photographs and photo albums reflective of Gilkerson’s work and research projects, especially regarding the Nimrod carronade and several ships that Gilkerson depicted in his artwork. Those photographs have been removed to the Museum’s Photo Archive.
Arrangement of Collection
Information for Researchers
Access to Collections
Unrestricted. Consult librarian for an appointment.
New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library Mss 180, [sub-group, series, sub-series, folder/volume as appropriate], [item]
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This institution reserves the right to refuse to accept a copying order if fulfillment of the order is judged in violation of copyright or federal or state privacy law. This institution also places restrictions on the use of cameras, photocopiers, and scanners in the research room.
Materials in this collection were purchased by the New Bedford Whaling Museum from William Gilkerson in 2007 (2007.48) and were donated by the Archives of the Norfolk Charitable Trust (2019.9). The content of Series A and Series D consist of the 2007.48 accession, while the content of Series B, Series C, Series E, Series F, and Series G consist of the 2019.9 materials. This collection also contains more than just the library and archival materials represented in this finding aid. Researchers should note that a substantial amount of prints, objects, sketchbooks, and other materials have been cataloged in the Museum’s object database in addition to a sizable amount of photographs that have been removed to the Photo Archives.
Processed by: Mark Procknik, 2020
Encoded by: Kristi Mukk, 22 October 2020
Accordion in art
Endangered species--Law and legislation--United States
Gilkerson, William. A thousand years of pirates
Gilkerson, William. American whalers in the Western Arctic
Gilkerson, William. Pirate's passage
Gilkerson, William. The scrimshander
Gilkerson, William. The ships of John Paul Jones
Gilkerson, William. Ultimate voyage: a book of five mariners
Johnson, Paul Erling
Jones, John Paul, 1747-1792
Kendall Whaling Museum
North Sea--Description and travel
Schloerb, David W.
Theft of relics
United States--History--Revolution, 1775-1783--Naval operations
United States--History--War of 1812
Vardeman, Paul E.
Bon Homme Richard (Ship)--Drawings
Kalmar Nyckel (Ship)
Picton Castle (Ship)
Westward (Schooner : 1961)