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A Tale of the Sea

The Newfoundland Quarterly

Vol. XII-No. 3  DECEMBER, 1912  40 cents per year

Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch – A Tale of the Sea

By The Right Hon. Sir Edward Morris, P.C, Prime Minister

Newfoundland Quarterly December 1912 p 1 Howard Blackburn
Photos: (top) Sir Edward Morris, (bottom) Howard Blackburn (Click for link to NQ)

It is just twenty-five years since I first visited Little River, twenty-one miles east of Burgeo, on the South Coast. It was the Jubilee Year of Her late Majesty, Queen Victoria. We were on the good ship Leopard, Captain Feild, with the late Mr. Justice Pinsent presiding. We had a goodly company, plenty of law work at the points touched, glorious weather, and good fishing. Only a few remain of those who were on that Circuit. Judge Pinsent, D. J. Greene, I. R.  McNeily, T. Walsh, James Milley, M. H. Carty, Captain Field, John Burke the Crier of the Court, and the late R. H. Parsons, Photographer — have all passed away.

We put into St. Pierre on the way, and were the guests of the Anglo American Telegraph Company at the Jubilee Ball, and were also entertained at dinner by the Governor of St. Pierre. We stopped at Little River for some fishing and were not disappointed in the result. Little River is a long, deep inlet, about 130 yards wide, extending about five or six miles, where it branches out into the North-East and South-East Arms.  The shores are steep and bold, falling precipitously from a height of a thousand feet. The scenery is not unlike that of Bonne Bay, Placentia and Bay of Islands, perpendicular hills, through which the tide rushes with great velocity at ebb and flow. On the evening of the second day at Little River, returning from fishing, I first learned from my guide, the astounding story of Howard Blackburn, his marvellous escape from death, as well as the sad fate of his dory-mate, Thomas Welch.

This summer, when at Burgeo, I went over the incident again with my friend, Magistrate Small, from whom I obtained further particulars. The story aptly illustrates the time worn adage that “truth is stranger than fiction.” A three volume novel might be written from the facts which make up this story; the tragedy of the cruel sea, the romance of quiet lives, and the heroism of those who go down to the sea in ships. At the present time I shall have to content myself with the barest outline.

Christmas Eve, 1834

The first streaks of dawn on Christmas Eve 1834 were just perceptible when William Lishman with his little son, aged eight, left his home at Little River, his wife, two sons and three daughters, never to return. His course lay through the trackless woods between Little River and Burgeo. Arriving there he put up for the night, and on Christmas moming, with several inches of snow on the ground, he and the boy started for LaPoile. There he boarded an American fishing schooner, bound for Marblehead, Mass., on board of which he was taken and given a passage. That was the last ever seen or heard of William Lishman and his boy, either by his family at Little River, or by his aquaintances at Burgeo or La Poile; and it is probable that if it had not been for the casting away of Howard Blackburn, and Michael [sic] Welch on the Burgeo Banks fifty years later we should never more have heard of them.

Christmas Eve, 1882

Newfoundland Quarterly Dec 1912 Morris p. 2
Photos: (top) Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch hauling trawls on Burgeo Banks, as the storm came on, January 25th, 1883. (bottom) The second night out – Laying a drag – Welch succumbs to cold and hunger – Blackburn with frozen hands and feet fighting desperately for life.

With flags flying, in good trim, with fresh bait, iced down, and everything promising for a successful halibut voyage, the schr. Grace L. Fears sailed out of Gloucester Harbour, bound for the Burgeo Banks. After fishing there for three weeks, and with fair success, on the morning of the 25th January, 1883, shortly after dawn, the crew left the schooner’s side in eight dories, to overhaul their trawls, the position of the vessel being then about thirty miles from the Newfoundland coast.

In one of the dories was Howard Blackburn, by birth a Nova Scotian, from Port Medway, then a citizen of the United States, and Thomas Welch, a native of Newfoundland. The weather was not stormy, but it had been threatening snow. They had only been a short while from the side of the vessel, when the wind started to blow, the snow falling thicker and thicker. The hauling of the trawls half-filled the dory with halibut, and the boat continued to ride with safety the sea which the freshening breeze had made. As the day wore on, the wind veered from south-east to north-west. The effect of this was to alter their position with regard to their vessel, placing them to leeward. On realizing this both men started to pull towards the schooner, but owing to the strong wind and the buffetting waves, they were forced to anchor.

Shortly after dark the weather cleared, and they could discern the schooner’s riding light, as well as the flare-up which their shipmates maintained on board to indicate their whereabouts. On seeing their ship, they pulled up anchor and bent all their energies in an effort to reach her, but, owing to the wind which by this time had increased to almost a gale, no headway could be made. An attempt was then made to again anchor but they had evidently drifted over the shoal ground and were now in deep water, and could get no anchorage. Accordingly their dory drifted away to leeward. Their first night was spent in the open boat, with the weather bitterly cold and a piercing wind, with no food or water, both men being occupied pretty well the whole time in keeping the dory free. At that season of the year there is not much daylight before seven o’clock, and dawn brought them no sight of their ship.

Newfoundland Quarterly Dec 1912 Morris p. 3
Photos: (top) Blackburn with hands frozen on the oars rowing up Little River, after a fearful struggle of five days and nights without food or water. (bottom) Thirty foot sloop Great Western in which Howard Blackburn crossed the Atlantic alone – sailed from Glouchester, Mass. June 17th, arrived in Glouchester, England Aug. 18th, 62 days of sailing.

Giving up all hope of reaching the schooner, they set to work to lighten their boat by throwing overboard their trawls and fish, and by the aid of their oars helped their frail craft to drift towards the land. The wind increasing towards noon, it was not deemed safe to continue running before the heavy sea and accordingly they “hove to” by improvising a drag made by attaching a trawl keg to a small winch. Whilst rigging this drag or floating anchor, Blackburn had the misfortune to lose his mittens overboard, a mishap which largely increased his after sufferings. Shortly afterwards, both his hands became frozen. On realizing this, he saw that there was nothing left for him but to grasp the oars, so that his hands might freeze around them, and thus, stiff in that position, when he required to row, all he would have to do would be to slip his hands over the oars.

During the whole of that day and the following night the boat lay to the drag, the two men continually bailing out the water. At five o’clock the following morning Welch succumbed to the cold, hunger and exposure, and died. The weather conditions that day were much the same as the preceding one, Blackburn’s time being fully occupied in bailing the boat. Another night passed, and another day dawned, and rowing again all that day he again anchored with his drag for the night, and early the next morning, resuming rowing, he saw the first sign of land. Pulling on all that day until the night, he again threw out his drag and on the following day, Sunday, reached the mouth of Little River, just inside the headlands where he saw a house. The house was unoccupied, but served as a shelter for Blackburn. He had the misfortune, however, of having his dory stove at the stage head during the night. In order to repair her next morning, he had to lift the body of Welch out, and in endeavouring to get it up the stage head it fell into twelve feet of water.

Having repaired the dory he headed her west, and after a few hours rowing up the river, was gladdened by the sight of the people who lived there. Notwithstanding his terrible condition, having been practically without food for five days and five nights, except portions of the frozen raw halibut, with hands and feet frozen, he refused any assistance for himself until the men went and recovered the body of his dory mate.

Within a few minutes after landing, Blackburn was comfortably housed in the home of Francis Lishman [sic], where cod-oil and flour, the local remedy, were applied to draw the frost from his feet and hands. In this process, he must have suffered excruciating pain. There was no doctor available, nearer than Burgeo. The fingers and thumbs of both his hands had been worn away in the work of rowing, and during the days that followed, gangrene set in and nothing being left in the end except two stumps. For over fifty days the process of decay went on. The heel and three toes of the right foot were completely destroyed, as well as some of the toes of the left foot.

Nfld Quarterly Blackburn and Welch story p 4
Photos: (top) The seventeen foot dory America in which Howard Blackburn made his third, but unsucessful, attempt to cross the Atlantic; sailing from Glouchester, Mass., June 17, for Havre, France — Sunday. July 5th, when 165 miles SE of Cape Canso, N.S., he had his craft stove by a heavy sea.— Abandoned voyage and returned to Sydney. (bottom) The twenty five foot sloop Great Republic in which Howard Blackburn crossed the Atlantic alone – sailed from Glouchester, Mass., June 9th, arrived in Lisbon, Portugal, July 18th – Time of voyage, thirty-nine days.

For over a month the poor but hospitable people did everything in their power for him, and contributed to his comfort from their own small and meagre store. Fortunately the s.s. Nimrod that year was frozen in on the Burgeo coast, and, being boarded by the inhabitants, some few delicacies were obtained for the unfortunate man.

On May 3rd Blackburn left Burgeo, where he had gone a few days earlier, for treatment, and proceeded to Gloucester. The body of Welch which had been brought to Burgeo at the same time that Blackburn came there, was buried in the Church of England cemetery. The people of Gloucester subscribed $500 for Blackburn, and started him in business. It must be recorded to his credit that, having once established himself in business, he returned the whole amount, unsought, to the citizens, and it was transferred to the Fishermen’s Widows and Orphans Fund.

Sequel

“Truth is always strange, stranger than fiction,” and there are more vagaries of romance in real life than would be admitted into any well-written novel.

Upon the first authentic story of the casting away of Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch having reached Burgeo, Mr. J. P. Small now Magistrate wrote an account of it for the Gloucester Times with particulars of his rescue and whereabouts, pointing out that he had been cared for by one Francis Lishman of Little River.

It so happened that a copy of the Times containing the story fell into the hands of the Editor of the Essex City Statesman of Marblehead, Mass., whose name was Litchman. On reading the account he remembered to have heard his father say that his name had been Lushman, and that he had changed it, that he was born in Newfoundland, and that he had left that country when only a lad, with his father, who had carried him on his back and had conveyed him to Marblehead in a fishing vessel from LaPoile. Handing the paper to his father he said “It looks as if you had some relations living in Newfoundland.”  The father, William Litchman, the boy that had left Little River fifty years before, on the, to him, memorable Christmas Eve morning, exclaimed – “This Francis Lishman must be my – brother.  I remember him quite well, although I was very young when I left.” Communicating with Francis Lishman led to the identification of their being brothers.

William Litchman, with his father, having come to Marblehead. had there been apprenticed to the shoemaking trade, his father for several years continuing to fish out of Gloucester, seeing the boy from time to time. In the year 1838 he saw his father for the last time, and from then until 1883 had never heard of him and supposed he was dead.  In 1845 young Litchman married, and had no idea that he had any relations whatever in the world.  At the time of his marriage he altered his name to “Litchman.”  Though, from the year 1838 he had never heard from his father, it afterwards transpired that it was through no fault of the latter. In 1874, thirty years after the death of one Mason, to whom the boy had been apprenticed as a shoemaker, on examination of his papers a letter was found written thirty-two years before, addressed to Mason by Thomas Lishman, as follows:

Franklin, Louisiana, March 27th, 1842.

Dear Sir,

Having located myself in Louisiana, St. Mary’s Parish, and wishing to get some information of my son, that I left with you, I take this liberty to write this letter, and wish you to answer me and state where he is. In so doing you will much oblige me, as I wish him to come to this country. I expect to continue here for some time, and if he will come I will be able to do something for him. Direct your letter to me, Franklin, Louisiana.

Thomas Lishman

Mr. Litchman was unaware of the existence of this letter until it was handed to him in 1874. Writing to his brother, after reading the article in the Gloucester Times, he received the following letter from Little River in reply:

Little River, Nfld., Nov. 21[or 28], 1883

My Dear Sir, — Your valued favour of June 5th received, and read with great interest. I will now give you a brief history of our family. It is as follows; — My father’s name was Thomas Lishman, a native of England. He married Susanna McDonald, a native of Hermitage Bay where he resided for some time, moving afterwards to Little River. My mother is now dead nine years. I am married and have eight children. My brother Thomas is living near me with a wife and three children. We both get a living by fishing, but as a rule we do not do well. My sister Bridget is dead six years. My father and brother William left Little River forty-seven years ago, and I have heard they resided at Marblehead, Mass., U.S.A. I have heard my father died four years ago; and I think it is likely that you are my brother. If so, you are minus a part of one of your fingers, as I remember a man named Organ cut it off by accident making kindling. I am fifty years of age, and my brother Thomas is fifty-three. If you are a brother, you should be between fifty-seven and fifty-eight. On reading the above, you will certainly be able to decide on the relationship, if any, between us. My brother and I will be much pleased to hear from you on receipt of this. With kind regards,

I remain, yours very truly, Francis Lishman

The Essex City Statesman published in its columns an account of the discovery by Mr. Litchman of his relatives in Newfoundland. This Item being copied into a Minneapolis paper, was read by a Mr. Smith, a lawyer of that city, who had formerly lived in Massachusetts. His wife was a Miss Lishman, born in the State of Louisiana. She was an adopted daughter of wealthy people, her father and mother being dead. She had informed her husband that her father had told her that he had come from Newfoundland. On Mr. Smith taking to his home the paper containing the article referred to, his wife was convinced that the Lishmans of Little River were half brothers and sisters of herself, and she then learned for the first time that her father had been married before he had come to Louisiana.

Mrs. Smith then opened correspondence with Mr. Litchman of Marblehead, and the proofs being enquired into, the relationship was firmly established. Mr. and Mrs. Smith also communicated with the Lishmans at Little River. In the following June, Mr. Litchman left Marblehead and proceeded to Burgeo where he was the guest of the Magistrate, Mr. Small. His two sisters, Susanna and Jane, had previously arrived from Little River, and the two brothers Francis and Thomas had also come up from there with their sons. Mr. Litchman remained eight or ten days with his relations in Burgeo. Whilst there he met one of the old fishermen, Charles Collier, the last man to whom he and his father had spoken on the memorable Christmas Morning, fifty years before, when they had left Burgeo for LaPoile.

On his return to the United States, Mr. Litchman visited Minneapolis, and saw his half-sister Mrs. Smith, who was undoubtedly a Lishman, she having every feature of the family. Believing her husband to be dead, Mrs. Lishman had married one Stiles in 1846, just fourteen years after her husband had left Little River. Since then the Lishmans of Little River and those of Marblehead and the Smiths of Minneapolis have been in communication, and no year passes without a tangible proof of the relationship from the wealthy relatives abroad to the kindly hospitable fisher-folk at Little River.

• • • • • • • •

 If the tale were to stop here it would be in itself remarkable, as illustrating a most extraordinary adventure, involving the casting away from his ship, imminent peril, fearful exposure and ultimate rescue of Howard Blackburn, but this would seem to be only the beginning of the venturesome career of this most wonderful man.

One would think that after having been in such peril, and in the presence of death, and having by almost a miracle escaped, he would have been content to live at home in quiet and comfort, in his maimed condition, for the rest of his life. But no, his escape seems only to have fired him with a desire for further adventure.

Nfld Quarterly Howard Blackburn and Thomas Welch p 5
Photo: Store and residence of Howard Blackburn, 289 Main Street, Gloucester, Mass.

In 1889, in a small thirty-foot sloop called the Great Western, he crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone, having sailed from Gloucester, Mass. on June 17th and arrived in Gloucester, England on August 18th, after a voyage of sixty-two days.

On October 18th, 1897, in company with some friends, he sailed for the Klondike in the schooner Hattie J. Phillips.

On June 9th, 1901, he again crossed the Atlantic alone, in the twenty-five-foot sloop Great Republic, having left Gloucester. Mass., on June 9th, arriving at Lisbon, Portugal, on July 18th, just thirty-nine days.

In 1905 he made an unsuccessful attempt to again cross the Atlantic in the seventeen-foot dory America sailing from Gloucester Mass. on June 17th. On Sunday. July 5th, when 160 miles South-East of Cape Canso, Nova Scotia, he had his little craft stove by a heavy sea, abandoned the voyage, was picked up and returned to Sydney, Cape Breton.

He is now a settled-down citizen in Gloucester, Mass., running a Tobacco Store at 289 Main Street.

My Tale of the Sea, etc. and review of Earl Pilgrim’s novel Drifting Into Doom have more about this story.