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January 31, 2019     Post 100
Forgotten Female Mariners

Forgotten Female Freshwater Mariners

My historic novel is now up on Amazon.com for purchase. It’s inspired in part by forgotten female mariners who once sailed commercial cargo carriers on the Great Lakes. “Widow Maker a Maritime Tale of Lake Ontario” is set in 1880 and though the feisty young widow and her crew and ship are fictional, many of the events including several of the shipwrecks and the climactic gale at the end of the book did happen.

In the process of researching history, I was surprised to learn that a few real women actually manned nineteenth century cargo schooners on the Great Lakes. Most who did so were cooks, but a few notable women also took a turn on the helm, manned the pumps or otherwise assisted on deck with the active operation of the vessel.

The work of a cook during heavy weather on the lakes was a considerable challenge in its own right. Often the cook aboard the smaller two masters that traded on lakes Ontario and Erie, was the wife, daughter or sister of the captain or one of the crew. Sometimes,though, the cook was just an adventurous girl who knew how to take care of herself or she was a widow who shipped out to support a brood of children back on on shore.

Minerva McCrimmon, a cook aboard the schooner David Andrews, has been memorialized by a bar room ballad and in a twentieth century folk opera. She was a real person and took an active role in the management of the family two master. She was the captain’s daughter and in addition to galley duty also sometimes took the helm when needed. She was the subject of a popular tavern house ballad after she steered the whole night during a gale, while the crew manned the pumps to keep the ship’s grain cargo from being damaged.

However, in 1880 her vessel went ashore in a blinding snowstorm near Oswego and was wrecked. The lifesavers hauled their boat and gear on sledges across the ice, but found it was too broken up to reach the schooner. The crew set up their rocket gun and fired a line out to the wreck to rig a breaches buoy. This would then allow the crew to be brought off the boat. But though ‘Nerva read the crew the instructions on the card sent over with the line, they refused to trust the newfangled apparatus. So ‘Nerva climbed into the life buoy to be hauled off the boat over the freezing slush and snow to show the skeptical men the way.

Another notable female schooner sailor, Maud Buckley, has been written of by at least two Great Lakes historians. She worked with her husband aboard his schooner as a cook on the upper lakes. After he died, she passed the exam for her papers and took command of the three masted schooner Fanny Campbell for several years. She shipped another woman as cook and bossed a crew of six men and one or two mates as efficiently as any skipper with sidewhiskers. She was quick as a cat, and would lay aloft with the watch if necessary.

Captain Buckley sailed the Fanny Campbell for some years, until she and her crew were caught in the big northeast gale of the fall of 1890. The vessel was driven ashore after her sails blew out, and she could not be kept off the land. The Fanny Campbell went in the breakers on the sandy shore two miles south of the harbor, but all her crew got off safely. The captain was the last to leave her ship.

Find “Widow Maker A Maritime Tale of Lake Ontario” at Amazon.com as paperback or $2.99 ebook or get a copy at Rivers End Books of Oswego or contact me via e mail and I will send you a copy.

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