JOHNSON, Ebenezer




Author Tags: 1700-1800, Haida Gwaii

“Distressing is our situation on account of bad provisions by the neglect of the owners of the Ship, confined to three small biscuits per day, and three pints of water. In this situation for three months, with a small allowance of beef.” —EBENEZER JOHNSON

Of all 18th-century journals pertaining in some way to British Columbia, Ebenezer Johnson’s tale is the most humble, and also one of the rarest. Although many American seamen came to the North Pacific on dozens of American ships, and several kept journals, no other accounts of maritime fur trading were published in their lifetimes.

In 1974 UBC librarian Basil Stuart-Stubbs selected Johnson’s diary for republication in 450 copies by the Alcuin Society of Vancouver. Precious few 18th-century copies are known to exist: one is at the Houghton Library in Harvard, another belongs to the American Antiquarian Society and a third is at UBC Special Collections. “Johnson’s Short Account,” according to Stuart-Stubbs, “seems to be the sole example of a contemporarily published personal narrative arising from an American voyage in this period. It appeared in Massachusetts in 1798, the same year in which Vancouver’s account was printed in London.”

(The journal of seventeen-year-old American William Sturgis’ 1799 visit to the coast on the Eliza was edited by S.W. Jackman and published by Sono Nis Press in 1978. See Addenda.)

Johnson was a common sailor, a young man with limited education, who endured scurvy on the India Packet, captained by William Rogers from August 29, 1796 to April 10, 1798. Built in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1795 and owned by Dorr and Sons of Boston, the India Packet was a three-masted, square-sterned ship with two decks, only 88 feet long and 24 feet wide, 12 feet deep and weighing 226 tons. Johnson spent a year-and-a-half at sea and managed only about 1,000 words in his diary, plus a concluding original poem that expresses his relief at returning safely (“Blest with Neptune smiles we fly”). Friends apparently encouraged him to self-publish his 15-page memoir in 1798.

Johnson’s ship reached the Queen Charlotte Islands in February of 1797. He provides some cursory descriptions of meeting Indians at “Charlotte’s Island” but their trade was initially limited due to ‘boisterous weather’. He writes, “We then thought best to sail for Skiticus [Skidegate] still further to the Southward, the distance about 40 miles. After arriving, we came to anchor, and find here a large Village rather a metropolis of this Nation, where we purchased three hundred skins.”

BOOKS:

A Short Account of a Northwest Voyage Performed in the Years 1796, 1797 & 1798. With an introduction by Basil Stuart-Stubbs. Illustrations by Fritz Jacobsen. Edited by M.S. Batts. (Massachusetts: 1798; Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1974)

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2004] "1700-1800" "American" "QCI"