Kathleen Lafferty: My Cousin Marian

A pair of tall vases.
A ruby ring.
Huge whale teeth.
A carved walrus tusk.
An umbrella swift made of whalebone used to wind yarn.
Old photographs of whaling ships.
Letters written on thin vellum, with fading ink, signed by a woman named Marian.

Thus was my introduction as a young girl to the world of whaling and the adventurous life of Marian Shaw Smith. These items were scattered about our house and my grandmother’s, tucked into corners or sometimes sitting out in full view. All were items that our cousin, “the whaling captain’s wife,” had brought back from her voyages at the turn of the twentieth century.

Cousin Marian was born in 1866 in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, to Dumpling Rock Lighthouse keeper Charles C. Smith and his wife, Sarah Davenport Shaw Smith. Marian spent the first six years of her life there on the rock. After her mother died, Marian lived with relatives in nearby New Bedford, graduating as valedictorian of her high school class in 1885 and then moving to Northampton to teach at the Clarke School for the Deaf.

In late December 1889 at age twenty-three, Marian married Horace Perry Smith, her father’s first cousin. Horace was thirteen years older than she was and had been at sea on and off since he was fifteen. By marrying her cousin of the same surname, she retained her birth name and was known as Marian Shaw Smith. (Although her first name is spelled “Marion” in some records, I follow her signature as well as what appears on her headstone: Marian.)

Marian’s first whaling voyage was in 1895 aboard the Narwhal, accompanying Horace from San Francisco to the North Pacific and the Arctic. During that and subsequent whaling hunts, she wrote many letters home, corresponding with her father, sister, and favorite cousin Agnes (my mother’s beloved great-aunt), and returned with exotic treasures. When I was young, I listened to stories about Marian and was fascinated with the “fancies” she had brought back that were passed down through the family. I toyed with the umbrella swift, ogled the rubies, and was careful not to break the vases. I read her letters, wondering where Table Bay was and what gamming meant. Now, I simply wonder how she did it—the only woman aboard a whaleship and so far from home—and why?

On my day aboard the Charles W. Morgan as a 38th Voyager, I explored the spaces and places that a whaling captain’s wife like Marian would have inhabited on a whaleship—with modern-day touches, of course. And, just as Marian wrote to us about her adventures, I write about mine. My series of letters, though, are written back in time to Marian in 1895, back before computers and digital cameras, back to a day when we took the time to correspond with pen and ink and took a chance that our words would eventually make it across oceans to those we love.

Linked here is my Morgan logbook entry for July 12–13, 2014, as well as my handwritten letters. I start with my preparations for the 38th Voyage and musings about the life of a whaling captain’s wife.