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She wrote of oceans and whales and other tales

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Pages from Laura Jernegan’s Journal

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.”

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