Young Edgartown girl kept a journal while traveling with her family on a three-year whaling expedition
Never underestimate the power of a girl with a journal and a story to tell; her words may one day make history. In October of 1868, Edgartown’s Laura Jernegan embarked with her family on what would be a three-year voyage aboard the whaling bark Roman. Just 6 years old at the time of the ship’s departure from New Bedford, Laura kept a journal over the ensuing three years, recording everyday life on the whaler as it sailed to the Pacific and beyond. Due to Laura’s keen observations, details can be learned of the expedition even though the Roman’s logbook no longer subsists.
Donated to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Laura’s journal has been preserved and digitized, and now lives online as part of a narrative exhibit titled, “Laura Jernegan: Girl on a Whaleship.” Launched in 2010, the website, girlonawhaleship.org, illustrates the distinctive contributions that Martha’s Vineyard residents made to the 19th-century whaling community, and enables Laura’s fascinating story to be told.
Nancy Cole, the museum’s former education director, led the “Girl on a Whaleship” project, which was inspired by the museum staff’s desire to create an online exhibit that would be engaging, educational and accessible from anywhere. To fund the project, Cole obtained grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. “We were taking this little, local story,” says Cole, “the story of a little girl here who was part of a much bigger story in our nation’s history—the whole whaling industry—and through the website we were able to share it with people all over the world.”
The exhibit includes a timeline of the history of whaling, a map of whaling hotbeds and common whaling ship routes, photographs of artifacts from the Roman, and a picture gallery containing original artwork from logbooks and portraits of Laura at various ages. The gallery also displays many images depicting the whaling industry, including artists’ renditions of life aboard a whaleship.
Aboard the Roman, Laura had the responsibility of watching over her brother, Prescott, who was 2 years old when the venture began. En route, Laura’s mother, Helen Jernegan, taught her to read and write, and encouraged her to make journal entries in order to practice. In her journal, Laura may have been mimicking her father, the Roman’s captain, Jared Jernegan, since her formal writing style and precise, yet simple descriptions reflect that of a ship logbook.
On December 7, 1868, for example, Laura wrote the following in carefully drawn capital letters: “The men are boiling the blubber that makes the oil.” Three days later, she wrote of the weather and other activities she observed aboard the ship. “We had a tempest last night and a squall this morning. Papa spoke the ship Chnticleer [sic]. And reported our oil. We have 60 barrels of sperm oil.”
Thanks to Laura’s 42-page journal, museum staff were able to compile a better picture of the Roman’s endeavors. Anna Carringer, the museum’s assistant curator, says the journal’s value was apparent upon its donation to the museum. “We recognized early on how important it was,” she says, adding that a physical exhibit showcasing Laura’s journal, which preceded the online version, had been a success.
As the Roman’s journey—and Laura’s journal—progresses, the young writer’s sentences grow more complex, and she begins writing in cursive. On February 21, 1871, she wrote about the processing of whale blubber: “It is quite pleasant today. The men are cutting in the whales. They smell dreadfully. We got a whale that made 75 barrels. The whale’s head made 20 barrels of oil. […] I am going up on deck. The men have just begun to boil out the blubber.”
Although it could be lucrative, whaling was far from a glamorous profession, and Laura’s vivid accounts of rough weather and the stench of dying whales give just that impression. Skip Finley, director of sales and marketing for The Vineyard Gazette Media Group, explains that life aboard whaling ships could be uncomfortable and isolating. “It is an awful experience from start to finish,” says Finley. “Whalers ate rotten food and received poor treatment.” Finley, who is currently working on a book about black whaling captains, says the dangerous profession could also prove fruitless at the end of a journey. “They could see just 20 whales,” he says, “in four years.”
Ann DuCharme, the museum’s education director, utilizes the online exhibit as a teaching tool for elementary students on the Vineyard. “We love Laura,” says DuCharme. “The students love her, too. They see her as a peer. They can identify with the amateur sentence structure and the spelling errors.” Another signature of Laura’s journal is the way she signed off each entry with “Goodbye for To Day.” DuCharme notes that many students who read the journal connect with this. “Laura addresses her journal like a companion,” she says, “which seems to resonate with them.”
DuCharme says Laura’s journal is also a great resource for teaching about geography and whaling, and can help young people appreciate that their words can hold power. “I want my students to know that history is real,” she says. “Kids like them made history, and their story is important. The Vineyard is their story, and they can write their own story for others to find, just like Laura.”
To this day, several descendants of the Jernegan family reside in Edgartown, and one relative—a namesake of Laura’s—shares her taste for travel; Laura Jernegan, a 2009 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, has worked as a Peace Corps education volunteer in Vanuatu for the past two years. “I have always been profoundly proud of the fact that I was named after Laura,” says Jernegan. “My dad took a trip to the museum when he was in first grade at Edgartown Elementary and learned about his ancestors and, at that moment, he decided to name his first daughter after her.”
The online exhibit also features some interactive components including the ability to flip through the pages of Laura’s journal and explore various parts of the Roman. Cole, who has even shown the journal to a classroom of international students over Skype, emphasizes that the exhibit is being viewed—and Laura’s story is being shared—around the world.
Katy Fuller, the museum’s marketing manager, confirms that traffic to the online exhibit has increased steadily each year since “Girl on a Whaleship” launched in 2010. “Families and educators are learning about the site and using it from as far away as Australia, New Zealand and Japan,” Fuller says. “In just a few years, a young Vineyard girl’s diary has become internationally known.” Courtesy of the exhibit, the story of Laura—whom Cole describes as “a normal little girl who had an extraordinary opportunity”—has now traveled even further than she had during her lifetime.
Carringer adds that Laura’s story has significance to those who live and work on Martha’s Vineyard, especially since the culture of the island has been in many ways shaped by its whaling history. “People are pulled into the story in a weird and strange way,” she says. “It’s compelling and it’s a very personal thing for them.”
Describing whaling as “an industry that supported an entire nation,” Carringer is also heading a new whaling exhibit, which is set to open at the museum in April. “Whaling is an important part of the community here,” Carringer says. “It’s perennially interesting.” The new exhibit will complement the “Girl on a Whaleship” project in that it will highlight lesser-known individuals who contributed to the whaling industry.
One such story is that of Captain William A. Martin, an Edgartown native like Laura, who was a key player among Vineyard whalers. A black man who was a part of several whaling expeditions, Martin’s tale has gone widely untold, Carringer says. For the exhibit, Carringer plans to consult with Finley, who in his research has uncovered records of 60 black men who served as ship captains across the whaling industry.
Researching a variety of perspectives, Carringer adds, allows historians to gain a broader idea of what life was like on whaling vessels—and can help people to relate. Much like how Laura’s journal entries tell a different version of the Roman’s story than a logbook would have, the upcoming exhibit will feature voices that are less often heard and rarely given a platform.
Echoing Carringer’s sentiments, Jernegan—Laura’s relative— encourages audiences to learn about the Vineyard’s important whaling history. “With Laura’s journal as proof,” says Jernegan, “I hope people will learn that it wasn’t just a man’s industry. It was something that shaped families and an entire society. I hope young girls learn her story and are inspired to go on adventures of their own, and I hope young boys learn her story and understand that girls can have epic adventures just like any boy.”
In March of 1871, the Roman arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii, and on May 1 of that year, Helen, Prescott and Laura left the ship to return to their home in Edgartown, the young writer taking her journal with her. Captain Jernegan continued north, until September 1871, when the ship became caught between sheets of floating ice while taking a whale on board near Alaska’s North Slope. The pressure of the ice became too much for the ship’s hull, and the Roman ultimately broke apart, sinking into the icy depths. Seven vessels came to the rescue that day, including Europa, which was captained by Edgartown’s own Thomas Mellen.
According to the online exhibit, “No log books, no charts and few records of the voyage survived the sudden sinking of the Roman.” Due to this, Laura’s journal has become even more important; her words commemorate the ship’s final journey.
After returning to Martha’s Vineyard, Laura attended public school for the first time at the age of 9, and eventually graduated from Edgartown High School in 1876. She would go on to study at both the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore. She married Herbert W. Spear, the chief engineer of the United States Revenue Marine Service, and her brother Prescott, then an ordained minister, performed the ceremony. An Edgartown girl at heart, Laura moved back to the island town for good in 1912, and created sea moss artwork inspired by her whaling voyage until she died in 1947; as Carringer puts it, “she was always tied to the sea.”
A graduate of Providence College, Sarah A. O’Brien is a freelance writer living in Boston.
To learn more about the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s special exhibit, visit girlonawhaleship.org.