The Searsport Captains: Introduction

Searsport Captains Meet in the Chincha Islands


 Searsport, Maine, was famous for its master mariners. Over 500 merchant captains came from this small coastal town in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Considering that Searsport’s population was only about 2,000 people at that time, it was remarkable that so many master mariners called it home. Twenty or so families predominated: grandfathers, fathers, sons, sons-in-law, brothers, and cousins following the tradition of making their living on deep water. Often they married daughters or sisters of other captains. According to Robert B. Applebee, past Penobscot Marine Museum Historian (in Searsport Sea Captains, by Col. Frederick Black): “Searsport furnished more masters to the square mile than any other community in the United States.” The “captains’ book” includes, among others, multiple captains named Blanchard (16), Carver (24), Colcord (16), Curtis (12), Colson (9), Gilkey (15), Griffin (15), McGilvery (8), Merithew (8), Nichols/Nickels (40), Park (28), Pendleton (24), and many others. The index of the captains’ book includes Searsport citizens named:

Phineas Pendleton Carver

Phineas Pendleton Colcord

Phineas Pendleton Griffin

Phineas Pendleton Nichols

Prudence Nichols Pendleton

Hervey Pendleton McGilvery

Willard McGilvery Nickels,

William McGilvery Carver

John Carver Blanchard

Clifton Blanchard Pendleton

Alfred Blanchard Ford

Alfred Blanchard Pendleton

Nancy Pendleton Nichols

Green Pendleton Nichols

Oscar Gilman Eaton

Oscar Eaton Nichols…..

and more.

 Applebee writes: “Many of these masters went to sea, as boys, in their teens, got in their five years sea experience and took command at 21. Some of them retired from the sea in their 40s and 50s, built fine homes and stayed on shore, while others, whose blood was filled with the tang of the sea, took their wives and families on their voyages and kept on for a lifetime … these early sailing ship masters deserve great credit, for in the early years the ship’s instruments were not as improved as they are today … (the captain) set his own course, matched his wits and experience with the whims of the wind and the sea and sailed to foreign shores ….”

 Searsport captains were sought after for their experience and good reputation. They frequently commanded ships built and at least partially owned in Searsport, but they were also hired to sail vessels built and/or owned in Bath and other parts of Maine, Boston, New York, and other port cities. Many of their vessels were named for prominent individual captains or owners, among them B. F. Carver, Benjamin Colcord, David Nickels, James G. Pendleton, Jeremiah Merithew, Phineas Pendleton, and William McGilvery. Even more numerous were vessels bearing the names of wives, daughters, and mothers, including Sarah A. Nickels, Wealthy Pendleton, Nancy Pendleton, Lucy A. Nickels, Georgia Gilkey, Eliza Merithew, Harriet H. McGilvery, Clara E. McGilvery, and Clarissa B. Carver.

 Searsport captains, like others in Maine, often took their wives and families with them on trading voyages around the world. Approximately sixty children from Searsport were born at sea, and over seventy women accompanied their husbands. For their stories, see Stories of the Sea: Women’s Roles.

 In our chapter on Life at Sea we described the various members of the crew, their duties, and how the families of the captain lived while aboard. In this chapter we present some personal stories about captains from Searsport. Commanding a large wooden merchant vessel with a crew of 20 – 30 men was a difficult and sometimes dangerous task. Captains experienced storms, collisions, and wars; and had to be skilled in business and economics as well as seamanship. Their stories illustrate their lives.