Historical Books and Their Personal Histories


In a box of old textbooks and odd paperbacks, this unusual book, The American Ship-Master’s Guide: Seaman’s Manual useful to merchants, ship-masters, supercargoes, mariners, and merchant’s clerks, was found in New London, Connecticut in the 1970s. Since that time, the book has been part of my family collection. I’m fortunate to live among a rich historical backdrop of the colonial and revolutionary times in New England. Old books come and go from attics, basements, used bookstores, and relatives. This particular volume is a Ship Master’s reference book. Perhaps as a reference book it is common. But the book’s inscriptions and condition make it valuable to the history of New London.

Ron_CoverThe book is covered in some kind of skin or cloth seemingly to protect it from the damp voyages aboard a ship. It is thin and falling apart. It might be seal skin, or what men called oil skins (previously used in wet gear). It is fastened to the book cover with intricate stitching in the corners and a web of threaded fasteners.

The inscription on the inside cover is in bold dipper ink and reads: Franklin B. Harris, New London, Conn.Ron_ScriptFHarris The script is filled with flourish. The second inscription is in pencil and reads: Ship Columbus of New London Bound for the Arctic Sea, Sailed September 1851. The other interesting feature is the book plate beneath the web that keeps the book cover on. It states the name of the company that probably sold the book.

The contents of the book share useful basics of being aboard a ship. Ron_TiedinPageTopics include direction for: keeping accounts, proportioning the spars, making the sails of a vessel, adjusting a sextant, obtaining latitude, and ascertaining tonnage. It also includes trigonometry laws of ships and shipping and the law of marine insurance.Ron_ShipDrawing

Captain Franklin B. Harris is cited in For Oil and Buggy Whips as a New London Whaling Master for his trips in 1847 and 1849 on the ship Venice. In 1851, he boarded the Columbus and ventured toward the Arctic Sea. He was probably searching out the seal trade for skins. It is also noted the ship came through Micronesia to the island of Pohnpei in 1851, where some of his men deserted and were caught and shackled. It could be assumed he passed through that area again in 1853 as it was recorded: Whaleship COLUMBUS of New London, Capt F. B. Harris, visited Mokil on Mar 9 and Pohnpei the following day. Took on provisions and left Pohnpei on Mar 282.

Ron_HarrisMonumentCaptain Franklin. B. Harris died in August 1855 “without issue,” according to a 1911 state genealogical record. However, he died early at the age of thirty-six. His marker is an ornate and majestic spire in the Cedar Grove Cemetery in the northern edge of New London. According to the National Maritime Digital Library, the Columbus would embark on two more expeditions (each typically 2-3 years long) until it was lost in the Ochotsk Sea in 19585.

Old books have distinct personalities rooted in their inscriptions, marks, covers, and things stuck in them. This book is more than just a mariner’s reference; it’s an intimate possession of man who walked the streets of new London. It is a reminder of the distance we travel and the lives we take on. It is amazing that this book on the desk in a captain’s quarters, sailed so far, and returned to New London.

Reprints of the book are available from on-demand publishing for $30-$40 dollars. Antique versions are found listed from $100-$450.



1. Colby, Barnard L. For Oil and Buggy Whips. 1990.
2. Foreign Ships in Micronesia.
3. Genealogical and Family History of the State of Connecticut Volume 2. 1911.
4. Find-A-Grave
5. National Maritime Digital Library



Ron Samul