Unsigned: The Letters that Spared Siam from Colonization
…Wood creaked, its canvas clapped in the wind as the ship pitched through fins of waves. The ocean swelled; it’s spritz like pellets. Alone at sea clouds blurred the touch of earth and sky. With bent knees and fists at their eyes the deck’s seamen dashed about listening through gale force winds for the boatswain’s orders. The deck rose and fell beneath them.
Hands about ship! Reef topsails in one! said the mate on the watch and the boatswain echoed coning the shout with his palm.
Reef the sails, men roared.
The stout ones bent for the rail of the ship scaling the salty ropes up the shroud for the yardarm, Luddington amongst them. They cross the yardarm feeling for the guard lines to hinge themselves at their waists shimmying over the sail. The ship’s carpenter below assessed the mast, gauging the groan and yawn of its wood. Luddington strained to mind the boatswain’s commands. The wind danced his hair. Legs wriggled as they all clung to the weather worn stalk. The yard thrust downward to the tilt of the ship then pushed back up hard against them. Their hands slid, slimy wet with sweat and sea.
Luddington lunged for the reefing ties on the bloated sail. His grip slackened. Fear creased his face. He hollered to the carpenter pacing below.
I cried out to the carpenter to catch me,…
The carpenter followed the trajectory of Luddington’s body like a puppet above. Seamen turned their gaze. The ship’s lean, the mast’s growing angle, he could drop to the ocean.
Others froze; some quieted.
The wind burst. Luddington lost hold of the yardarm. A yell. Breathing stiffened. Feeling canvas flapping from the windward yardarm he caught hold, airborne with the wind. …and I barely saved myself by the sail flapping on the windward yard arm or main top sail. Remembering like a dream; the deep hole in the river when he didn’t know how to swim, eight years old, nearly drowning, then crawling on the bed of the creek until he reached the opposite bank, panting. Dangling now, he opened his eyes.
…when I was eight years old, when, before I knew how to swim, I stepped in a deep hole in the river and crawled on the bed of the creek until I reached the opposite bank.
A glance upward to the Almighty.
The poorly set, broken arm coupled with a near fall off the yard arm on the Atlantic voyage changed his life’s trajectory permanently. Nineteen-year-old Elam Luddington slogged down the gang plank in New York the summer of 1825 with that lingering pain in his arm. He needed his arm for any of the work he had trained for. He must have already determined at this point, that he wouldn’t get back to the sea for a while. But the sea and all of the skills he learned there would save his life many times….
“thy name shall not be lost” (Joseph Smith, Sr. patriarchal blessing to Elam Luddington. Courtesy of Karen Bush Heritage documents. Nauvoo, September, 1842.)
“Wood creaked and its canvas clapped…” The event is taken from Elam Luddington’s Autobiographical Statement. “One thing I forgot to mention, while reefing the topsails in a gale of wind, I lost my hold. I cried out to the carpenter to catch me, and I barely saved myself by the sail flapping on the windward yard arm or main top sail.” (Luddington, Elam. “An Autobiographical Statement of Elam Luddington”. (Written some time between 1868-1893) Transcribed. Luddington Family and all Existing Portions of an Autobiographical Sketch, FHL US/CAN Fiche 6018292, LDS Family History Center, Salt Lake City, UT.) Bent knees comes from the reality that as the ship is moving through rough seas, it would behoove seamen to keep knees bent to stay upright.
“Hands about ship!…” The sailing commands are from an old sailing song, “Oh’t is a fine frigate” from 1835 recorded by John Harland. I gained a fuller knowledge of reefing procedures from his work. (Harland, John. Illustrated by Mark Meyers. Seamanship in the Age of Sail. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1985 p153.) John Harland also points out that the stout were the ones recruited for reefing assignments. This lines up with our measurements of Elam Luddington which we have from his military pension application, 5’8″. I also met with his descendent Sam Bush who is also stout and aligns with this account.
“rail of the ship scaling the salty ropes up the shroud” I tried to balance actual sailing terms with words modern readers can understand. A shroud is the latticed rope structure that leads to the upper part of the ship’s masts and yardarms. Ropes have several names depending on their function and location on a ship. In an attempt to replicate the experience as closely as possible, I consulted several sources. (US Sloop-of-War Constellation (1854-1955). Maintained and operated by Historic Ships in Baltimore. Baltimore, MD.) Even after all the book research, it still took a careful walk with some ready guides navigating around the US Sloop-of-War Constellation to realize some of the finer details that Luddington needn’t include for an audience more familiar with ships. Bjorn Landstrom’s book directed me to period appropriate drawings of ships of different sizes and modalities. (Landstom, Bjorn. The Ship: An Illustrated History, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc, 1961.) I also ran my version of events with Jonathan Vega, a sailing instructor who corrected some of my assumptions. I sailed on the schooner Pioneer (1885) in New York harbor under the care of the South Street Seaport Museum to get a sense of a moving sailing ship. I would also recommend the movie Master and Commander.
“Catch me [!]” This is a quote taken from Elam Luddington’s Autobiography. “I cried out to the carpenter to catch me…”.
“The carpenter followed the trajectory of Luddington’s body like a puppet above….he could drop to the ocean.” We can assume that at least some people watched the men risking their lives reefing the sail. Seamen often lost their lives in this very dangerous activity. The carpenter who was in charge of repairs to the ship would have paid attention, especially since we know he was somewhere below Elam when he lost hold. Jonathan Vega helped me understand that the wind would have tilted or rocked the boat quite dramatically and at the angle and height a typical mariner was stationed reefing a topsail, Elam could easily have fallen into the ocean.
“Others froze; some quieted.” Officers aboard ships expected that seamen would not talk on the top deck so they could hear orders. Likely in a gale, it would have been hard to hear anyway. Even with the potential for a fatal fall, not all of the men would have been able to stop but some must have realized what could have happened to Luddington and froze, perhaps even imagining themselves in his place. The men depended on the sails to be reefed so they could manage the ship keeping as many safe as possible.
“Remembering like a dream; the deep hole in the river…” This also comes from Luddington’s autobiography previously cited. I used the even as a surreal memory that blurs his mind when he thinks he will lose his life. He writes about this memory very close to when he writes about reefing the sails. From his autobiography, “Three times I have come very near losing my life…. [The first is while reefing the sails which is portrayed in this opening scene. The second is in Lousiana.] The third occasion was when I was eight years old, when, before I knew how to swim, I stepped in a deep hole in the river and crawled on the bed of the creek until I reached the opposite bank.”
“Nineteen year old Elam Luddington slogged down the gang plank in New York with a lingering pain in his arm” We know he arrived in New York during the summer. He writes in his autobiography, “We took on a load of coal, salt and 200 passengers, and sailed for New York, where we arrived after a sixty day passage, making the end of my first long sea trip.” The lingering pain in his arm also comes from his autobiography. “Here [Liverpool-1825], while discharging cargo between daylight and dark I feel down the hold and broke my left arm. It was not properly set, and is lame to this day.”
“There would be no return to sea for twenty seven years.” We have no record of him returning to sea until his mission to Siam. All other accounts of him are inland.
“saw nothing but seas, waves and storms” This is a quote from Wilford Woodruff in 1857 recalling a blessing he gave Elam Luddington in 1852. (Long, J.V. Report on Elder Wilford Woodruff’s Remarks. Bowery, Sunday Morning, September 27, 1857. Courtesy of Karen Bush Heritage documents.)
“British redcoats torched Elam Luddington’s house on their ride out of town in 1779…” This Elam Luddington refers to Elam Luddington’s grandfather. The reference to the British burning down his house as well as replacing it the following year as well as more details regarding the British raid are from this work: (Hayward, Marjorie F. The East Side of New Haven Harbor, Morris Cover (Solitary Cover), The Annex (The Indian Reservation), South End & Waterside 1644 to 1868. New Haven: New Haven Colony Historical Society, 1938. p33-34, 75-76.)
“eighteen-month-old son and namesake matured with rarely a reprieve from menacing British war ships…” The dates of both grandpa Elam Luddington and father Elam Luddington as well as the Elam Luddington of this book come from a well respected genealogy. (Jacobus, Donald Lines, compiler. Families of Ancient New Haven, Vol IV. New York: Clarance D. Smith, 1927.) Father Luddington grew up during the wind up to the War of 1812 and was married with children when it occurred. We know from Elam Luddington’s autobiographical sketch that his father was also a mariner at one time which strongly suggests that as a younger man he might have even taken part in some of the runs on British ships because New Haven and all the northeastern ports were involved. The blockades of the New Haven harbor may have also instigated his move inland as well as his change in profession. For this book I have chosen to take a more conservative route and assume that he at least had stories from his friends and extended family who were involved.
“He married Sena.” This comes from the genealogy cited above as well as Luddington’s autobiographical sketch. Her full name was Aseneth Munger Luddington.
To Siam, Chapter One.