Source of the Week: The Autobiography of Capt. Zachary G. Lamson

I would probably like any unfinished autobiography written by an obscure nineteenth-century mariner. But The Autobiography of Capt. Zachary G. Lamson will forever remain a personal favorite. Lamson’s prose bristles with the salt of the sea and his narrative includes all the classic shenanigans of an early nineteenth-century sailor. Even better, Lamson gives one of the most detailed descriptions of a shipwreck and salvage operation along the early Republic coast. It describes the horror and tribulations of sailors who wrecked on the fledgling nation’s isolated coastal frontier, and it serves as the opening vignette of my first chapter.

I stumbled upon Lamson’s Autobiography while rereading Samuel Eliot Morison’s classic The Maritime History of Massachusetts. A passing reference on page 149, a quick Google search, and, as luck would have it, I found The Autobiography (along with a 168-page introduction) online for free! Lamson’s description of the 1801 wreck of the schooner Industry can be found on pages 164 to 170. But the entire autobiography is worth reading if only because Lamson lived an epic life and he tells an engaging (and concise) tale about his time at sea. (note: I suggest skipping all of the intro except pp. 150-168.)

Don’t have time to read it? Here’s the synopsis: Zachary Lamson spent most of his life at sea, boarding his first vessel in 1797 at the age of fourteen.  In through the hawsehole, he quickly climbed to the quarter deck. By twenty-one, he had his first command. Lamson remained at sea, in some capacity for the next three decades before establishing himself as a merchant in Granada during the mid 1830s. His was not a blessed life however. Throughout his career, Lamson was, as one observer put it, “followed by the most persistent ill fortune.” He was prisoner of English and French warships, shipwrecked twice, captured by pirates two times, and died alone and far from his home at the age of sixty-three. Quite the life!

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