She wrote of oceans and whales and other tales
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.
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