JANUARY 23, 1854 was a cold and blustery day on the Liverpool waterfront, but that did not deter a large crowd from gathering. News had spread quickly that a fabled record was about to be broken. According to the crew of an American steamship that had just arrived, a Yankee clipper had stayed close behind them for much of the way from New York, and must therefore be on the verge of completing the fastest-ever crossing of the Atlantic by a sailing ship. This was too significant an event to be missed. The rivalries between the ships that regularly fought their way across the Atlantic were closely followed, with every departure and arrival faithfully reported in the newspapers; a record crossing would be big news, and the people rushing to the docks wanted to witness history being made.
Squinting into the strong westerly wind, they waited expectantly for the first sight of the clipper ship entering the mouth of the River Mersey. Soon enough, a magnificent vessel hove into view, slicing through the muddy brown waters at a remarkable speed. Initially, all that the watchers could discern was a huge cloud of sail, bulging above a hull that seemed too narrow to carry so much canvas. As the ship came closer more detail emerged: the strange carved figure above her bow—an Indian chief wearing the jacket of a British redcoat—and dozens of deckhands in the rigging, clambering to take up precarious positions along the spars that supported the numerous sails. To the puzzlement of the watching crowd, the clipper showed no sign of slowing down even as she neared the docks, quickly overtaking the tugboats that were vainly offering her towlines. Finally, at what seemed the last possible moment, the captain executed an astonishing maneuver, the like of which no one could recall ever having seen before. With a loudly barked command he ordered all of the sails released, and as they crumpled in unison, he turned the wheel hard over and neatly guided the clipper in a precise rearward glide to her berth.
As the spectators roared their approval, the captain stepped to the rail of the quarterdeck and lifted his peaked cap in acknowledgment. Although middle-aged and somewhat portly, he still cut an impressive figure. Almost six feet tall, he retained a full head of brown hair, carefully combed from right to left over a face that was strong rather than handsome: blue eyes full of determination, with thick eyebrows above and noticeable bags underneath; a narrow but prominent nose; a thin upper over a fat lower lip; and a black beard with no mustache. His name was Asa Eldridge, and he had just sailed the Red Jacket from New York to Liverpool in a fraction over thirteen days—a time that has never been bettered by a sailing ship before or since.
Making this achievement even more remarkable, the Red Jacket was on her maiden voyage, manned by a ragtag assortment of sailors who had been hanging out on New York’s South Street wharf hoping for work. Somehow, Captain Eldridge had managed to set the new record with no prior experience of either the ship he was sailing or the crew he was commanding. Clearly, this was no ordinary mariner.
Indeed, his new record confirmed Eldridge as the ablest member of an elite group who played a key role in American history: the nineteenth-century transatlantic shipmasters. Without their courage and skill in navigating the treacherous waters of the Atlantic, the boom in trade and immigration that shaped the country after its conflict with Britain was finally over would not have been possible. Much can therefore be learned from the careers of these men. And no man is a worthier example than Captain Asa Eldridge.
CAPE COD. THE SEA. Since the last Ice Age they have always gone together, one sculpted by the other after the glaciers retreated until it resembles a giant arm bent upwards at the elbow—or in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.”
Adorning the bicep of this metaphorical arm is the picturesque village of Yarmouth Port, with gray-shingled cottages and white-clapboard colonials lining its gently meandering main street. Founded in 1639, the village is one of the oldest in New England, and lies almost exactly at the midpoint of today’s Old King’s Highway Historic District. At thirty-two miles long this is the largest such district in the country.
Many of the houses in the village carry a distinctive oval plaque, with a schooner silhouetted in gold against a black background. The plaque identifies the former homes of sea captains, and is a particularly common sight along a section of Main Street known as the “Captains’ Mile.” With good reason: a recent survey of historical records confirmed that fifty-five houses in and around the village center once belonged to shipmasters.
One plaque-bearing house at the western end of the village is of special significance for this narrative. At the turn of the nineteenth century it was the home of a captain named John Eldridge and his wife, the former Betty Hallet. The Eldridges had many children, the first and the last of whom—John and Oliver—became well-known international seafarers. Neither, however, could match the fame of a third seafaring brother born almost halfway between them, eleven years younger than John, nine years older than Oliver. His name was Asa. And in the view of Cape historian Henry Kittredge, he became “the most distinguished shipmaster that the Cape ever produced… among the world’s half-dozen greatest shipmasters.”
A strong spirit of adventure clearly ran in the family, dating back to the earliest days of the village. Two of the first settlers in the 1600s were direct ancestors of Asa and his siblings who had made the grueling journey from England. The boys’ fifth great grandfather on their mother’s side, Andrew Hallet, first appeared in the village in March 1639, just a few months after it was established as an offshoot of the Plymouth Colony founded by the Pilgrims. On their father’s side the first ancestor to arrive was William Eldridge, who was definitely a resident by 1645, and possibly before that.
For these early adventurers in the family, their one great move from England was enough. Once they had settled in Yarmouth they stayed there. So too did multiple generations thereafter, showing little inclination to wander. Indeed, when Betty Hallet married John Eldridge over a hundred and fifty years later they made their home in exactly the same neighborhood as the original settlers, less than a quarter mile from the site of the village’s first dwelling.
That dwelling had been erected in 1638 by a man named Stephen Hopkins, one of the secular “Strangers” who had arrived with the Pilgrims on the Mayflower. He had since become so important to Plymouth Colony that its General Court would not allow him to move permanently to Cape Cod. The Court authorized him to build a house there only “provided it be not to withdraw him from the town of Plymouth.” He thus became the first of a great many people to own a second home on the Cape.
The site Hopkins chose was on the raised bank of a sheltered tidal pond connected to Cape Cod Bay by a broad inlet. Easy access by sea was essential, since that was the only feasible means of travel to and from Plymouth, about thirty-five miles up the coast. Conveniently, the house he erected was also just off the main trail used by the local Wampanoag tribe to travel along the north side of the Cape. Over time, this trail evolved into the road now known as the Old King’s Highway (or more prosaically as Route 6A).
Between Hopkins’ arrival and Asa Eldridge’s birth in 1809, the village had evolved in a manner typical of many coastal communities in New England. Thus the issues that shaped it were initially local—the basic need to subsist and establish a workable community—but gradually became broader as the regional economy developed and tensions with England grew. And throughout its development the waters off its shore played a key role, serving as the main highway for commerce and communication, and as a source of important products for the local economy.
The first generation of settlers—including the Hallets—were farmers, who prospered more quickly than the colonists they had left behind in Plymouth. They raised cattle, pigs, and sheep, grew corn and vegetables, and found abundant fish and game in the local waters and woods. In due course, their prosperity attracted a full range of craftsmen to service their needs: blacksmiths, carpenters, wheelwrights, coopers and cobblers, among others. By the late 1600s the new village—which had been named Yarmouth, after the port of Great Yarmouth on the east coast of England—had grown into a flourishing community of about a thousand people. The settlement also expanded southwards, so that it spanned the full five miles between Cape Cod Bay on the north and Nantucket Sound on the south. It also encompassed large areas that later became separate towns: Dennis, Harwich, Chatham, Brewster and the village of Cummaquid in Barnstable.
With two long borders consisting of coastline, the growing town inevitably conducted much of its business with the outside world by sea. Travel for any distance by land was simply too slow and difficult. Even to reach Plymouth, the main port of call in the settlement’s early days, would have been a major trial for horse and man, requiring many long hours on rough trails through thick woods. And as new destinations beyond Plymouth gained importance, the advantages of maritime travel became even greater.
One new destination in particular stood out: Boston, the principal port and town of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The latter had been founded in 1628 to the north of the Plymouth Colony, and soon surpassed it. By 1660 its population was already three to four times larger than the Plymouth Colony’s, whose entire population of three thousand was matched by Boston alone.
Boston quickly became the busiest port not just in Massachusetts but in all of the American colonies, largely because it was the first town to build its economy around maritime trade rather than agriculture. Bostonians therefore had the most at stake when England first tried to prevent its colonies from trading directly with other countries in the latter half of the seventeenth century. Responding to increased commerce between the Americans and the Dutch, the English Parliament passed various Navigation Acts intended to secure a monopoly for England on trade with its American possessions. Under these Acts, almost all goods imported into the colonies had to be carried by English ships, and to pass through England on their way if they did not originate there. Similarly, most exports could only be made directly to England.
Given the importance of maritime trade to its economy, Massachusetts strongly resisted these restrictions. So too did other New England colonies. The King responded by revoking their charters and creating a single Dominion of New England under the control of an English governor. When it was formed in 1686, the Dominion incorporated the Colonies of Massachusetts Bay (which included present-day Maine), Plymouth, Connecticut and Rhode Island, together with the Province of New Hampshire. Later, it was extended to include all of the present-day coastal states from Maine to New Jersey, and Vermont as well.
For the colonists in these territories, the single most galling aspect of the new Dominion was that it took away all their rights to local self-government and regulation; all judicial and legislative powers were reserved to representatives of the King.
The Dominion lasted barely three years. In 1689, emboldened by the overthrow of King James II in the so-called “Glorious Revolution” in England, the colonists in Boston staged their own mini-revolution. They arrested the unpopular governor, Sir Edmund Ambros, and other officials of the Dominion, and sent them back to England for trial. The Dominion effectively dissolved, and for the next two years its various members resumed local self-regulation under the charters that had previously governed them.
By 1691, however, the usurper to the English throne, William of Orange, was secure enough in his position to turn his attention to the American colonies. He issued a new charter creating the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which differed from the former Massachusetts Bay Colony in two important respects. First, its governor would be appointed by the Crown rather than locally elected—an issue that would become increasingly contentious over the next eighty-five years. And second, it would now include what had formerly been the Plymouth Colony. Cape Cod thus became part of Massachusetts for the first time.
By the time of this reorganization, Boston had a population of around seven thousand and was on its way to becoming the third busiest port in the British empire, behind only London and Bristol. The town’s rapid growth and international traffic had also made it an important hub for the colonists on Cape Cod: a market for the food they now produced in excess of their own needs, and the source of many goods they could not find locally. A thriving maritime trade had developed between Boston and the towns on the north side of the Cape, Yarmouth among them. The trade was conducted by a variety of small vessels—sloops, ketches and the like—that made their way regularly up and down the coast carrying passengers and cargo. More and more people on the Cape made their living on the water, and each coastal town could claim a number of sea captains among its residents. Like similar craft elsewhere, the vessels they operated were often referred to as “packets.” The term had originally signified a vessel that carried packets of mail from one place to another, but gradually came to mean any boat or ship that operated to a regular schedule….