Whaleship "Walter Scott" in a hurricane, Courtesy of the Nantucket Historical Association
Captain Charles Grant’s chronicle is an excerpt from Prospect Hill Cemetery Association's book,
Tuck't In: A Walking Tour of Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery Nantucket, Massachusetts (pages 139,140). Please note: included with his chronicle in Tuck’t In are photographs of Captain Grant and the painting Whaleship Walter Scott in a hurricane by John Fowles. The painting of the Walter Scott depicts the hurricane off Lord Howe Island, New South Wales, Australia, October 5, 1847, during Captain Grant’s first voyage as master.
Captain Charles W. Grant. June 4, 1814 – March 18, 1906.
Charles was the second of James Grant and Elizabeth Ellis Grant’s six children. His father James, was from Scotland. Shipwrecked on the shoals in 1801, he was brought ashore to Nantucket, an authentic washashore! Here he fell in love with and married Elizabeth Ellis in 1806. Charles married Nancy Wyer on August 28, 1839. She was a cousin of whaling master Captain James Wyer (lot 41). Captain Grant’s sons also followed the sea: Charles Jr. was a mariner and his younger son was Captain George Grant.
Grace Brown Gardner wrote of Captain Charles Grant, “who made more money for himself and the owners of the vessels he commanded than any other captain in the history of the whaling industry,” in her series Fifty Famous Nantucketers, published serially in the Inquirer and Mirror.
“his record was 30,000 barrels of oil while as an officer and 22,000 barrels more as master, besides 12,00 pounds of whalebone and eighteen pounds of ambergris. In spite of the fortunes he made, Capt. Grand died a poor man. He was called the most charitable man who ever trod the deck of a ship. He never turned down an appeal for help.”
Captain Grant spent fifty-six years of his life aboard whaleships. He began his career in 1825 at the age of ten aboard the John Jay as a cabin boy, on a voyage that was not completed. During breakfast one morning, Charles was witness to a horrifying incident that would end the sail. Captain Alexander Drew stabbed second mate Mr. Clark with a large knife during a quarrel. Captain Drew arrived home in irons. Captain Charles Grant’s son spoke of this incident to the public when he was custodian of the Whaling Museum:
“My father went on his first voyage when he was ten years old in the ship John Jay. The captain was a drinking man, and he killed his second mate at the table with a carving knife, and the captain died a natural death in his home here on Nantucket; nothing was ever done about it. He was in a state of delirium tremens when he done it. He called my father down in the cabin once and says to him, “Are you afraid of me?” “No, I am not afraid of you.” And then he pulled out a knife and my father come to the conclusion he was afraid of him.”
In 1828, Charles was fore the mast on the ship Maria, followed by three voyages on the Mount Vernon: as boatsteerer in 1832, second mate in 1835, and first mate in 1839 under the command of Captain Lewis B. Imbert (lot 244). On this third voyage, Henry Coleman (lot 353), who went on to become a whaling master in his own right, was the second mate. Years later, Captain Grant recounted this Nantucket sleighride on that voyage in 1840:
“May 20, 1840, cruising off the coast of Peru, he struck a large sperm whale just at sundown. The whale sounded and took out all the line and by the time he came to the surface it was dark. The ship came up alongside his boat and Captain Imbert wanted to know what he intended to do. “Let me stay by this whale all night,” was his (Charles Grant) prompt answer. To this Captain Imbert consented but added that if he (the captain) set two lights on the ship he must cut line and come aboard. Well, as Captain Grant tells the story, Captain Imbert set the double lights three times, but he and his crew paid no attention to the signal. They wanted that whale, and felt confident if let alone they would capture him. At 7 o’clock, the whale took a course west-north-west, and went off at a rate of eight miles and hour until 6 o’clock the next morning, never sounding once. “We had seventy fathoms of line out,” says the Captain, “and we went through the water a whizzing all night long.” He had set a light in his boat and the ship could easily keep track of him. Shortly after 6 o’clock the boat hauled up to the big fellow and Captain Grant killed him, and three hours later he was alongside the ship. The whale yielded 105 barrels of oil. The remarkable feature of this experience is the fact that Captain Grant was fast to the whale so long and the creature being killed such a distance from the place where struck.”
Captain Grant sailed his first voyage as master on the ship Walter Scott in 1844. He took 2,100 barrels of sperm oil and netted over $100,000. He was also master of the ship Potomac, Mohawk, Japan, Milton, Niger,
and Horatio. Captain Grant’s wife, Nancy, accompanied him on many of his voyages, spending many years at sea with her husband. All their children were born during whaling voyages. Edouard A. Stackpole writes in his book Rambling Through The Streets and Lanes of Nantucket that on Christmas Day 1856, there was a prearranged rendezvous among captains who brought their wives and children on their respective ships: Captain Charles Grant, Captain Perry Winslow (lot 476), and Captain Nicholson. They met at Norfolk Island, east of Australia and northwest of New Zealand. The families dined on board Captain Winslow’s ship Edward Cary, enjoying a Christmas dinner of roast pig. Seventy-five years later and back on Nantucket, three of these children met to recall that occasion thousands of miles and almost another century away.
In 1892, Captain Grant, described the perils of the whalemen’s life at sea, telling about an incident that occurred during the ship Japan’s voyage from May 31, 1859, to May 19, 1863:
“On the voyage a man called “Scotty,” whom Capt. Grant believed was a Scotchman, was scalded to death. He was skimming off the oil from a pot of hot water and oil while they were trying out with a roll of the ship lost his balance and slipped into the hot liquid. He managed to keep his head above the water, or water and oil, but the skin was all taken off from his hands and arms, and he was in bad shape. “Scotty” lived only 36 hours, and died in great agony, was buried at sea.”
Captain Alexander F. Snow of Dennisport, Massachusetts, wrote a letter to the Inquirer and Mirror in 1917, describing his meeting Captain Grant at sea:
“It was in 1866 or 1867 that I was on a voyage from Australia to San Francisco and made the acquaintance of Captain Grant of Nantucket. We saw a sail show up on the horizon and soon a boat put out from the ship and boarded us. She was the Milton, a whale ship in charge of Captain Grant of Nantucket and he recognized the Japan the moment he saw her masts above the horizon. It seems that he commanded the bark on his previous voyage and his keen eye identified her spars the instant she showed up in the distance. We had an English opera company on board, bound for ’Frisco, and Miss Celia Honson, a member of the troupe, had her birthday that day, and we were helping celebrate by an extra dinner. Captain Grant took the troupe over to his ship for an hour, showing them the methods of whaling, gathering oil, etc. He then returned and took supper with us on board, then bid us good-bye, leaving the mail for us to post at ’Frisco for him. In it was a letter to Mrs. Grant telling her to meet him at ’Frisco to accompany him on a cruise up into the Arctic. I found Captain Grant a very sociable caller and enjoyed the “gam” very much. When I saw his picture in the Mirror last week, it all came back to me as though it happened yesterday.
Captain Grant’s mate told me that he named the Japan and when he saw her show up above the horizon, a pull of six or seven miles was at once decided upon in order to board us, and leave the mail bag. The members of the opera troupe said that his ship had the whitest deck they ever saw and that the ship was the cleanest that they ever visited. It seems that the day before, the Milton had just cleaned up after boiling oil, but there was nothing to indicate it. Evidently Captain Grant was a fine skipper as well as an expert whaleman. I never had the opportunity to renew Captain Grant’s acquaintance after that brief call out in the Pacific, and when he passed on, a few years ago, I noticed it with regret.”
During the last years of his life, Captain Grant was custodian of the Old Mill. He died on Nantucket at the age of ninety-two. Dr. E. B. Coleman (lot 7 Mount Vernon) signed “old age” as primary cause of death on the death certificate. Clinton Parker, in an oral history taken and transcribed in 1927, recalled Captain Grant as “very dignified. I can see him when he come home with his silk hat and kid gloves. Like a dandy, he was, yes indeed.”
Nancy Jay Wyer Grant’s chronicle is an excerpt from Prospect Hill Cemetery Association's book,
Tuck't In: A Walking Tour of Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery Nantucket, Massachusetts (page 141).
Nancy Jay Wyer Grant. March 29, 1823 – November 18, 1904.
Nancy was the oldest of Benjamin Wyer and Eliza Hull Wyer’s five children. She was the cousin of Captain James Wyer (lot 41). Nancy was sixteen years old when she married Charles Grant on August 28, 1839. Nancy accompanied her whaling-master husband on many of his voyages, spending a total of thirty-two years at sea. Nancy and Charles had three children, all born during the course of whaling voyages: Charles (b. 1850) at Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific during the voyage of the Potomac; Leonora “Ella” (b. 1855) at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand and George (b. 1857) at the Samoan Islands. The latter two were born during the voyage of the whaleship Mohawk.
In his 2003 oral history interview with Mary Miles, Phil Grant told an anecdote about how his great grandmother Nancy Grant missed her husband while he was off on a voyage and what she did to remedy the situation:
“she jumped a merchant ship going to New Zealand because she knew his route, and in Feb. he would be down in New Zealand. So she was down in Auckland waiting for him when he came in (laughs)…and old Charles, I’ll tell ya, was quite surprised. So she was considered one of the first women to go to sea with her husband.”
Benjamin F. Williams (lot 56 Mount Vernon), in his 1927 oral history now in the Edouard A. Stackpole collection in the NHA Research Library, recalled his time on the ship Milton with Mrs. Grant:
“Mrs. Grant used to keep ship when we went for whales. When all the boats was down she was captain. Mrs. Grant and the ship’s crew, cooper and carpenter kept ship. She was in command. She’d take ship and follow us down.”
The Nantucket Journal of Thursday morning, October 27, 1892, reprinted an article from the New Bedford Evening Journal, “Whalemen of Nantucket,” which noted Nancy’s seafaring acumen: “Capt. Grant’s wife was quite a sailor, and accompanied him on some of his voyages.”
Nancy and Charles were married for sixty-five years. They share a marker in Prospect Hill Cemetery. Nancy’s interment took place on November 20, 1904, and Charles was interred March 20, 1906. Ezra W. Lewis was the undertaker for both burials.
Note: In Tuck’t In: A Walking Tour of Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery Nantucket, MA is a photograph of Charles and Nancy’s Grant's marker. Engraved:
CAPT. CHARLES GRANT
JUNE 4 1914
MAR 18 1906
NANCY JAY WYER
MAR 29 1823
NOV 18 1904
Excerpt Tuck’t In: A Walking Tour of Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery Nantucket, Massachusetts by Paula Lundy Levy.
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