top of page
  • James Wheeling

Sailors were an interesting crowd in 1849

So, what kind of people were sailors in the year 1849? The answer? A mixed lot. Typically, sailors were men who chose to make sailing their livelihood. Their fathers were sailors so they became sailors. Some were drawn to the military and sailing on naval ships for their respective countries. In the military case, there was a rigid hierarchical system for which some were more suited than others.

For the purposes of my story, I’m going to do a quick recap of roles on a ship. The easiest is the captain. The boss. He hired and fired, he kept the log, he managed discipline, and maintained spirits on long voyages. He was responsible for reporting at customs offices, how money was spent, making sure the ship had adequate supplies for the crew, repairs to the ship, and food and water enough to get from place to place. And, he had to sail the ship.

Even the captain needs a break and that’s where his mates come in. His first mate would be someone he trusted to sail the ship while he rested. He had to be able to count on his first mate to follow his instructions, take measurements of speed and direction, manage relationships and have the respect of the crew. There could be a second and third mate but, in my story, one mate is enough.

Other necessary individuals are the carpenter, the boatswain (in charge of the sails) and the ship’s cook, or two, depending on the ship’s crew size and number of passengers, a surgeon, and around twenty crew. Cabin boys were also common, their role one of grunt, but in 1849, men were so eager to get to California, they were willing to accept the role for passage so very few “boys” were noted.

Courtesy of

But, 1849 - 1851 were different years. The rush to California had European crews jumping ship to join a California-bound ship and the roles became a blur. Willing to risk it all had some ships over-crowded with crew and passengers such that they were in peril. What became of the ships whose crews abandoned? Enter the concept of “being shanghaied.”

To be shanghaied meant that captains and mates whose crews had disappeared would cruise the waterfront bars and brothels for unsuspecting individuals. If the individual had any experience with sailing, or perhaps none at all, the captain or mates might have enabled the individual into becoming drunk or, potentially, drugged. At some point, the poor individual would have passed out and the next thing they knew, they were in the middle of the ocean. Shanghaied. Forced to work at sailing the ship until at least the next port but sometimes kept aboard by cuffs until the ship reached its destination.

Sailors came with whatever they were wearing at the time and a very small kit. They were responsible for their own foul-weather gear, including a slicker and boots but otherwise, nothing more. They went barefoot most of the time, barehanded all of the time. Cuts and bruises were part of the drill and there are many recorded instances of simple cuts becoming so infected that the sailor lost a digit or an appendage. First aid was rudimentary at that time in history and especially on ships, doctors were scarce. Often, ships who had a doctor as a passenger advertised the fact to attract other passengers.

The physical demands on a sailor were extraordinary. With bare feet and bare hands, they were expected to scale the mast’s shrouds to each yard, quickly and without question, at the captain’s command. There they had to step out onto a narrow line and balance thirty, sixty or ninety feet off the ship’s deck and either furl or unfurl the sail with the other crew members, without fear of heights or losing their balance. If the seas were calm, I would imagine it was no big deal. But going around Cape Horn, the seas are never calm. All of that takes courage.

A sailor’s tenacity for being wet was something else to consider. Once they entered the passage around Cape Horn, their clothes never dried out. Socks in their deck boots were a luxury let alone dry socks. They lived in a constant state of damp including their bedding, such as it was.

We’ve all heard of how salty a sailor’s language was and in the accounts I’ve read, I have to concur. Not many had any education, although some had military training. Many came from different countries with different words for the same thing so communication between sailors evolved into its own language. But swearing is swearing and some were fantastic at it!

Sailors were always busy but when they had extra time, they would play cards or dominoes, some gambling is recorded. Small musical instruments like mouth harps and harmonicas that were easy to tuck into a pocket were most common. As discussed in an earlier blog, songs called shanties, were part of the working sailor’s life and a sailor with a good voice was likely to have been pressed into singing by passengers, especially during the doldrums.

All in all, sailors in 1849 were an interesting crowd, especially headed to California. Once there, few left on a ship, most stayed to try their luck in the goldfields.

63 views0 comments


bottom of page