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Whaler's journal transcription complete; author's identity revealed

New London — It’s a project that keeps on giving — and might keep on giving for some time to come.

You never run out of history.

“It’s not quite done, but it’s good enough for people to look at it, to get something out of it,” Laurie Deredita, the New London Maritime Society librarian, said of “Voyage of the Whaler Merrimac,” the society’s newly posted transcription of the 19th century whaler’s journal it acquired last summer and has kept under wraps at the society's Custom House Maritime Museum.

Accessible on the society’s website, nlmaritimesociety.org, under “Online Exhibitions,” the posting includes an "easy, readable” version of the journal and the transcript of an interview with an expert who provides historical analysis of whaling’s economic impact on America.

The online exhibit’s centerpiece, of course, is the work of the scores of “citizen scriveners” who transcribed the writing of the journal’s author, whose identity they helped pin down along the way.

More than 80 people contributed to the effort, according to Susan Tamulevich, the society’s executive director, who around the first of the year reached out to the society’s membership and took to social media to solicit volunteers. The response was immediate, exceeding Tamulevich’s expectations. Many of those who signed up to transcribe one of the journal’s 156 pages asked to do more.

“People from the New London community are into whaling,” Tamulevich said in a recent interview. “Laurie (Deredita) learned that some of them had talents like genealogy” — expertise that came in handy in helping them confirm the identity of the journal’s author.

“There is no ‘by line’ in the manuscript of the Journal of the Merrimac,” Deredita writes in the online exhibit. “But there are many clues within the text itself to convince me that the author is Frederick Olney, third mate aboard Merrimac.”

Born around 1810 in Brooklyn, Conn., Olney died March 14, 1869, in Canterbury, where he is buried with his wife, Olive Smith Harris (1822-1902) and their son Oliver (1848-1864) in the Carey Cemetery. Olney’s name is on the crew list of the 1844-47 Merrimac voyage described in the journal and appears as “Frederick Huey” on the list of an 1851-54 voyage from New London of the whaler General Williams.

In fact, the journal recounts a portion of that General Williams voyage, concluding with a Nov. 7, 1852, entry recorded in Maui, Hawaii.

Olney, described in the crew lists as a towering 6 feet, 5 inches tall with “yellow” skin and black hair, was recently married when the ship set sail in 1844, Deredita writes. Interestingly, his wife was a younger sister of Sarah Harris Fayerweather (1812-1878), a Black woman who in the 1830s enrolled in Prudence Crandall’s Canterbury Female Boarding School, the first integrated school in the country. Facing backlash, Crandall (1803-1890) turned it into a school for Black girls only, prompting her arrest in an incident that gained national publicity and led to the first major civil rights case in U.S. history.

At the time, Deredita writes, Frederick Olney, employed as a handyman at Crandall’s boarding school, was falsely accused of setting fire to the building and was acquitted in an 1834 trial that lasted 15 minutes.

Other contributions

The journal author's identity is not the only thing revelatory about the "Voyage of the Whaler Merrimac" exhibit, Tamulevich said in discussing the history contributed by Steve Purdy, a volunteer transcriber who was lead interpreter for the Charles W. Morgan, the whaleship exhibited at Mystic Seaport Museum.

Purdy, a retiree who had previously done much research on the social, cultural and ecological aspects of the American whaling industry, in his free time had launched an independent project examining the industry's "financial, political and diplomatic power."

In "A Different Perspective on the American Whaling Industry," Purdy says whaling helped fuel U.S. dominance during the Industrial Revolution, contributing, in 21st century dollars, nearly $11 billion worth of whale oil and baleen, or whalebone. In the 19th century, more than 1,100 whaling voyages originated in New London, fifth-most among U.S. ports, and another 350 or so set sail from Mystic and Stonington, Purdy says.

Another transcriber, Craig Showalter, whose late mother, Lucille Showalter, founded the New London Maritime Society, provided the readable version of the transcription written in modern language. In the original version, some odd punctuation, spellings, archaic phrasings and place names complicate things.

A church business administrator and pastor in Ohio, Showalter earlier wrote in an email that he has volunteered as a transcriber of 18th century documents while participating in the National Archives' citizen archivist program, "So, I was thrilled to see a similar opportunity made available to help an organization I care a lot about."

Tamulevich said the online exhibit and the community's involvement in its ongoing preparation say something about New Londoners' interest in reclaiming their past.

"There was some sense that this city surrendered the legacy of its adventurous whalers' spirit to the nearby (Mystic) Seaport and to New Bedford — two places where the 19th century whaling enterprise is given its due," she writes in the exhibit's introduction. "... Although for several decades New London was one of the leading whaling ports in the world, the Custom House did not have a whaling journal, nor did we have a single whaling log. The City has not retained it artifacts. They are almost all, well, in Mystic and New Bedford."

But Tamulevich thinks that tide might be turning, that "a true pent-up passion for New London's whaling legacy became evident" after the society received the Merrimac journal — a gift from an Oak Bluffs, Mass., woman — and announced plans to transcribe it.

"Nothing prepared us for the flood of community support that materialized," Tamulevich said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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