In 1803, the American ship Boston was captured at Nootka Sound on Vancouver Island and all the crew but two were murdered. One of the survivors, John Jewitt, wrote about his experiences as a captive for two years of the Nuu-cha-Nulth chief Maquinna. At the very end of the book, Jewitt wrote a terse description of his rescue by another American ship, the Lydia, under the command of Captain Samuel Hill.
While working on a history of American ships engaged in a trade for sea otter pelts on the Northwest Coast, I came across Jewitt’s 1815 Narrative of Adventures and Suffering, and also found two journals written by men serving on the Lydia. The story they told was of what sailors referred to as a “hell ship.” The men were always poised and ready to mutiny; the original first officer had already been dismissed and put off the ship for challenging the authority of the captain. Three different men served as chief mate in the course of the voyage, each more brutal than his predecessor. A young Hawaiian woman lived in the captain’s cabin as his sexual hostage, and the captain himself behaved like a madman. This was the situation into which the Boston survivors escaped.
I thought I would write a book that compared the two captivities of John Jewitt, first among the Indians, and then aboard the Lydia. But the more I looked into the character of Capt. Samuel Hill, the more he demanded that the book be about him. Hill was Forrest Gump-like in his peripheral appearance at important historical events at the turn of the nineteenth century. He was the first American to live in Japan, he was at the Columbia River at the same time as Lewis & Clark, he was captured as a Privateer during the War of 1812, rescued captives of Indians and pirates, was in Chile during the Chilean Revolution, and in Hawaii when the great King Kamehameha died. Throughout all this he was a beastly rapist and murderer, a tyrannical and abusive captain—and a literate and persuasive writer.
It was the extraordinary wealth of source materials that led to my writing a biography of Hill, and it is my advice to anyone writing non-fiction history that they let the available sources steer the direction of their project. In addition to the two manuscript journals of the Lydia voyage, I found three associated with Hill’s next Northwest Coast voyage on the Otter, papers related to the ship Franklin’s voyage to Japan in 1799, and two logbooks in Hill’s own hand of voyages he commanded on the Ophelia and Packet from Boston to Chile and China, as well as logbooks or journals from several ships he met along the way.
Hill was described by the Chinook Indians to Lewis and Clark, and he appears both in the explorers’ journals and on one of their charts—where they named a bay after him. There are also court records from two lawsuits, when an angry Hill sued the owners of ships he commanded. He wrote epic letters and even an unpublished (and misleading) “autobiography” where he tried to square his monstrous past with a new born-again Christianity. He was before his time in trying to manipulate his own image by writing articles for Boston newspapers.
I used many standard sources for biographers, including genealogies, city directories, a cemetery plot, and church records. I also looked at art and objects, and found a rich record of life in the Dutch settlement in Japan during Hill’s time, portraits of the ship Franklin, and even objects that Hill must have had his hands on. (See more about hats collected by Lewis & Clark at http://www.lewis-clark.org/article/2981?ArticleID=2981.)
There are details about all the sources in the book, and you can read much of it on this webpage at http://www.marymalloy.net/inside1.htm#1. New copies of the book are available at Sea Ocean Book Berth in Seattle and at Frank’s Fisherman in San Francisco.
In the next blog I will describe in greater detail what researchers can find in shipboard logbooks and journals, and how to get access to them.