The unusual journey of Parnell Pease Fisher

The rare diary of an Edgartown whaling wife goes on the auction block.

Parnell Pease Fisher and Captain Charles W. Fisher - Courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries

In 1885, Parnell Pease Fisher embarked on a harrowing voyage on a whaling ship her husband captained. The journey took her around the world and lasted five years.

On Thursday afternoon in New York, Swann Auction Galleries will auction off a journal Mrs. Fisher kept. It includes the first two years of her voyage on board the whaling ship Alaska.

Rick Stattler, director of printed and manuscript Americana from Swann Auction Galleries, explained over the phone: “This is quite unusual. We really haven’t seen many logs by women; they don’t turn up that much. Even men’s don’t turn up that much. Women have a different perspective. They’re not just interested in the whaling works; they have a more personal perspective. Parnell’s story is particularly interesting: To begin with, she hated being at sea — she was ill nearly the whole time. Her husband was at a loss for what to do with her, but his answer seemed to be: ‘Here, I’ll drop you off on this godforsaken island, and I’ll be back in a few months — hope you feel better.’ And he did that three times.”

Parnell Smith Fisher, nee Pease, the wife of whaling captain Charles Williams Fisher, came from one of Martha’s Vineyard’s oldest maritime families, and by all accounts, to use the language of the day, she was a handsome woman:

“Parnell missed little of the being a beauty like her mother, who was a very great beauty indeed. Her features were regular and finely proportioned, her hair curled above her forehead and she was radiantly young when she married Captain Charles W. Fisher of Edgartown, a dark-bearded widower, in 1885.”

“Whaling Wives” by Emma Mayhew Whiting, Henry Beetle Hough

Captain Fisher had earned himself a reputation as a young rising master and at times even a bit of a taskmaster. He once went to jail for 20 days in San Francisco after having been found guilty of cruel and unusual punishment of his crew. In his defense, it was noted that the crew included “hoodlums and Barbary Coast Rangers.”

After their marriage, Parnell and Captain Fisher took a wedding trip to Boston, New York, and Washington, and they returned home in April of 1885. By June, they were off on a five-year voyage on the whaling ship Alaska that would take them to some of the most isolated corners of the globe.

Parnell’s diary begins in September of 1885, a few months into the voyage. She had apparently never spent much time at sea before and found herself seasick almost constantly. The first stop she records is at Tristan da Cunha, a South Atlantic island considered one of the most remote places on earth. She wrote, “The people there are very poor. There are 107 on the island, and they all want to leve.”

She also describes her anxiety during a storm: “I was frightened during the gale … It makes me sick to be so frightened, and it makes it so hard for my husband. I have been so much trouble to him since I left home. Sometimes I think he is more than good to have so much patience with me.”

She was still seasick, after eight months at sea, on Jan. 22,1886, when the Alaska anchored at Chatham Island, to the east of New Zealand. Captain Fisher had friends on the island, a bachelor named Mr. Ritchie and his two sisters. It was decided that Parnell would stay with the Ritchies and try to regain her health.

“I am to be left here for two or three months to get well,” she wrote in her diary. Parnell enjoyed the exotic flowers and English gardens on the island, and the Captain had bought her a horse named Dickens to ride, but all was not sunshine and roses:

“Mr. Ritchie is a perfect gentleman when not drunk,” she recorded. “Then, thank the Lord, he lives in a separate house, and we are safe from his awful ways. It is so shocking! I hope the Capt. returns soon.”

It would be nearly five months until the Captain returned.

In July, finally back at sea, Parnell was once again plagued by seasickness, and the weather wasn’t helping matters.

“There was a sudden squall.” she wrote. “I was so frightened the ship went down on one side and the Capt. went on deck & did not return for a long time. I got up & dressed when he returned, and I was sitting by the door expecting the worst. It did not happen, and I am thankful no one was hurt. The sails split all to pieces, new ones, and the ropes as large as my arm were gone. Capt. said, ‘The worst is over now. Calm down Nellie.’”

By September, they had reached Norfolk Island, where Parnell would once again recuperate while the ship pursued whales to the south. While grateful to be on dry land, it was hard for her to be separated from the captain.

“My dear husband has just left,” she wrote “& it is hard to bid him goodbye. I never mean to again.”

Parnell’s stay at Norfolk Island actually turned out to be quite agreeable. She reports that she was able to go riding and help out at the mission; she went on picnics and to a wedding, and met “lots of nice people.” And one nice person in particular: In writing about the guest list for a birthday party that was to be given in her honor, she mentions, “I hear Lord Dudley is on the Isl. I hope to see him later.”

Lord Dudley was actually William Humble, who would go on to become Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and Governor General of Australia.

On Dec. 12, Parnell records, “I went to a ball given for Lord Dudley & went on board his yacht. It is the prettiest one I ever saw. His Lordship is young (19 or 20). I danced once with Lord Dudley & once with his doctor. Such a fine time for me on this little island.”

Parnell’s dance card is still preserved, and by the looks of it, she didn’t spend much time sitting down. She danced the Lancers, a waltz, a schostische (a Bohemian country dance), a quadrille, and a Sir Roger de Coverley (an English country dance).

The Alaska eventually returned, and Parnell rejoined her husband as they voyaged to the Marquesas Keys, Tahiti, Rarotonga, and Aitutaki, looking for new crewmembers.

But by December, she was back at Norfolk for another stay while the Alaska again headed south in search of whales. As before, the social life at Norfolk seemed to lift Parnell’s spirits, but she was missing her husband and concerned about his health.

“My heart is heavy thinking about my husband,” she wrote. “His eyes are bad.”

Finally, in June, the Alaska returned, and after a brief stay in Sidney, they were back at sea where judging by Parnell’s entries, there were good days, and there were bad days.

Nov. 13: “We took a whale, the 2nd since we left Sydney. Yesterday I made a chocolate cake for tea. It was good. The boy has been washing for me today. My hens have laid very well for a few days.”

Then …

Dec. 17. “The wind still blowing & boiling can’t be done. They have just taken the larboard boat on deck to repair. My little bird is well, but the hens keep dying off. Only 6 left. Our cockatoo ate copper & died. Our cat a skeleton or an apology for one. We had four pigs, but one was drowned in hot fat, so he was made to grace our table.”

To make matters worse, Captain Fisher’s health continued to deteriorate.

“He saw a doctor at Auckland,” Parnell wrote, “who said he would be better soon, but he was mistaken. He has been worse ever since we sailed. I am so worried.”

Because of concerns for the Captain’s health, the Alaska returned to Norfolk, and Parnell and her husband were put ashore while the ship cruised.

“I thought he might not live to reach the Islands,” Parnell wrote. “He seems very sick and has so much on his mind about the ship that worries him.” But after a month, she was somewhat more sanguine. “Capt. a little better,” she reports; “ship returning for us.”

By April, they were back at sea, and the Captain was still weak, and in addition, there was an ugly incident involving some of the Kanakas, who had been enlisted as crew. They refused to do any work without a written agreement, and at one point, according to the ship’s log, they “came aft with mutinous actions and refused to go forward when ordered.” It took several days to resolve the situation, but Parnell didn’t seem to be too concerned. She was more worried about the potatoes giving out. “What shall we do?” she wrote in her journal.

They had been at sea for what seemed an eternity to Parnell; unfortunately, up until this point, the whaling had been poor in the southern seas, so it was decided to head north to the Bering Sea.

June 10: “We went quite near Cross Sound, saw snow & ice on the mountains and plenty of sea birds. First time I have seen snow for five years. In the morning, Mount Fairweather in sight far above the clouds & looking very grand, the snow on the very top with the sun on it was a magnificent sight.”

They also had a chance encounter with a fellow Vineyarder.

“About tea time we saw a ship come toward us, we were all excitement and happy to find her a whaler. Capt. asked her name and name of her Capt. who was a Capt Smith from Vineyard Haven and came on board. We enjoyed hearing Vineyard news & obtained a lot.”

By the middle of July, they had reached the Bering Sea.

“One of the great sights we saw,” Parnell wrote, “was an immense quantity of birds as far as the eyes could see. It took half an hour to get through them. They were all over the ship, playing about. The tide was also a feature. It was like whirlpools.”

But most important, in the Bering Sea, they finally found whales. Lots of them. The boats were launched over and over again, and the holds began to fill up with barrels of precious oil.

Unfortunately, Parnell was still wracked by seasickness, which was exacerbated by the putrid smell of the burning whale blubber. This whaling business was not for the faint of heart.

Oct. 2: “Lowered for whales. It stove the waist boat & sank it. No one hurt. Last night a small whale, the calf of the one we sunk, came around the ship & struck the rudder. It has been in sight all day.”

It’s an interesting comment on the times that no one, including Parnell, seemed at all concerned about the plight of the motherless calf — or any of the other whales, for that matter. It was strictly business. But at long last, the end was in sight. After nearly five years, the Alaska had reached its quota, and it was time to head for home.

Parnell was over the moon.

Oct. 8: “I must finish my letters, or the excitement of starting for Frisco will take all my ideas away …”

Nov. 10: “A lovely day. A ship in sight. This is my fifth birthday since leaving Martha’s Vineyard. I feel very old. Hope we shall be in Frisco by Sunday …”

Nov. 18. “Sighted land at eleven o’clock. My America and my home!”

Once back in Edgartown, Captain Fisher built what today would be considered a trophy house, complete with a view of the ocean. But Parnell preferred her old home, a block farther up Winter Street, precisely because that house didn’t have an ocean view. She had had enough of the sea for several lifetimes, and didn’t want to look at it anymore, let alone ever set out in a ship again.

The Parnell Pease Smith diary will be auctioned on Feb. 4 at 1:30 pm at Swann Auction Galleries, 104 East 25th Street, New York, NY: 212-254-4710. If people are interested in participating in the auction but cannot be there in person, they can bid over the phone, or online: