Young Edgartown girl kept a journal while traveling with her family on a three-year whaling expedition

Artwork by Delaney Gosse

Artwork by Delaney Gosse

  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.