Photo taken in 1897 of the Newport at Pitt Point, Alaska
Accession #2000.100.863

Every piece in the Library has its own unique story to tell, and we invite you to look at a few of the thousands of materials and hear their tales through the Museum's From the Vault, a new digital exhibit featuring different treasures from the Library.

Portrait of Captain Bodfish taken twelve years before his voyage aboard the barkentine Newport.
Accession #2000.100.202.29

In 1978, Mr. and Mrs. George Bodfish donated to the Research Library a collection of manuscripts and photographs relating to Hartson Hartlett Bodfish (1862 – 1945), a captain of thirteen Western Arctic whaling voyages during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  This donation also came with several logbooks and journals penned by Bodfish himself that document his whaling exploits.  One of these journals contains a partial account of the Newport’s 1892 – 1898 whaling voyage. The journal begins on August 21, 1893 and represents an important chapter of American whaling history.

In 1848, the bark Superior of Sag Harbor, NY crossed the Bering Strait and entered the Western Arctic Ocean.  Captain Thomas Roys and his crew encountered the bowhead whale, a previously unexploited species with baleen plates up to thirteen feet long.  The Superior’s timing was impeccable, for the baleen market spiked shortly thereafter, as this flexible, plastic-like substance was used to manufacture women’s hoop skirts and corsets.  As a result, the Western Arctic soon became the whaling destination of choice, and bowheads quickly became the prize catch for American whalers.

According to Bodfish in his 1936 biography Chasing the Bowhead, the 1892 voyage of the Newport bore special significance due to the fact that it “marked the real beginning of the intensive whaling in the north and of the wintering of fleets in the ice, where the crews formed a colony through the winter that was larger than the population of many a town in the United States.”  Bodfish also states that various innovations were introduced on this voyage in order to lighten the work load and make life more pleasant.  This voyage also bears significance in Bodfish’s personal life, for although he initially shipped as an officer, he assumed the role of replacement master, marking the first time he served in this capacity during his career.

Bodfish devotes two and a half pages towards the end of his journal to baseball statistics.  According to his notes, the league champions won 40 pounds of tobacco.

The entries of this journal are filled with notes common to a typical whaling account. However, many of the entries offer valuable insight into the daily life of an Arctic whaleman, as Bodfish constantly interacted with the officers of other vessels in the fleet.  What makes this particular account notable is the additional material not common to other whaling logbooks and journals.  For example, Bodfish uses pages in his journal to record the statistics from the Hershel Island Baseball League's 1895 season.  Following the list of baseball statistics is a page titled “Fly balls caught by myself in left field.”  Not only did Bodfish enthusiastically follow the league, he was also an active participant.  Bodfish’s poetic nature even shines through, as his journal contains an original poem written about whaling titled “That is Love,” where he references various elements of a whaling voyage, including the social gatherings shared by the officers of the fleet and the baseball games.  These unique and interesting details truly make Bodfish's journal a fascinating piece.

Pictured above is the first stanza of Bodfish's original poem titled "That is Love."  His poem takes a light-hearted look at Western Arctic whaling from the port of San Francisco.

The Research Library proudly boasts the largest collection of whaling logbooks and journals in the world, and Hartson Bodfish’s journal is only one example of the thousands of unique and interesting stories stored in the Library’s vaults.  Thanks to funds provided by the North Pacific Research Board secured through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it is now possible to view this journal in a digital format through our logbook and journal webpage.  If you would like to take a more detailed glance at this whaling journal, Bodfish’s manuscripts, or any other piece of the Library’s collection, please contact Mark Procknik in the Research Library, (508) 997-0046 ext. 134, to schedule a research appointment.  

Last modified: October 1, 2013