In 1839, war broke out over the opium trade. According to my research, the Niantic was loaded up quickly, and she left China. Five years later, the ship was sold as a whaler. Cargo capacity was important—speed was not! Captain Henry Cleaveland, my great great grandfather, was named master of the ship some time after that. His son, James, my great grandfather, was first mate.
The Niantic was in Peru in 1849 when Captain Cleaveland heard that gold had been discovered in California and a mad rush was on with hundreds of gold seekers. The miners would take a shortcut across the Isthmus of Panama, planning to avoid the long voyage around Cape Horn to get to San Francisco. Captain Cleaveland had the ship converted to carry passengers, and 140 signed on for the voyage. Soon the Niantic sailed southwest. The passengers, knowing San Francisco was to the north, confronted Captain Cleaveland.
For as long as I can remember, a faded
painting of my great-great grandfather’s ship,
the Niantic, hung in the parlor of our
West Tisbury home.
It had hung in our island house
for 150 years.
Every once in a while,
we’d dust it or wipe off spider droppings.
“I have sailed the seven seas for 30 years, while most of you have never been out of sight of land before,” said Captain Cleaveland, according to a passenger’s account. “I am sailing southwest to pick up the Trade Winds, and when we do, I will change course.” According to the account, he dismissed the protesters saying, “I sail my own ship, gentlemen. Good day.” The Niantic was one of the first ships to carry gold-seeking “Forty-niners” to reach port.