Object of the Month

View of Snow George. Bound to the East Indies – 1796

View of Snow George (drawing), logbook of snow George kept by John Boit, [unnumbered page, opposite page 1] Ink with hand coloring

View of Snow George (drawing), logbook of snow George kept by John Boit, [unnumbered page, opposite page 1]

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21-year-old ship captain John Boit drew this depiction of the snow George in the logbook of the vessel, which he commanded during a voyage from Boston to Mauritius in 1796 and 1797.

Rigging a Snow

The origin of the term “snow” (from “snau” in Germanic and Scandinavian languages) to describe a small sailing vessel with the appearance of a square-rigged brig is uncertain, but by the 17th century it was in common use. Although mariners often used the terms “snow,” “brigantine,” and “brig” interchangeably to describe similar types of sailing vessels, a snow came to be associated with a specific detail of its rigging.

As John Boit makes clear in his drawing of the George, a snow had a small, supplementary mast stepped closely abaft (behind) the mainmast to which a fore-and-aft trysail or “spanker” was attached. The small mast solved problems caused by carrying both square and fore-and-aft sails on the mainmast. True brigs, with both square and fore-and-aft sails set on the mainmast, overcame this difficulty and began to appear in the 1770s.

The “bright dawn of youthful adventure”

John Boit was born on 15 October 1774, a son of John and Sarah Brown Boit of Boston. John Boit Sr. was a prominent merchant in Boston before the Revolution and his business and family connections made it possible for John Jr. to go to sea in 1790, shortly before his 16th birthday. He sailed as the fifth mate (officer) of the Columbia on that ship’s second voyage to China by way of the Northwest Coast and a second circumnavigation.

Young Boit kept a logbook during the Columbia’s three-year voyage and left the only eyewitness account of entering the Columbia River on 12 May 1792—an event that later would have important diplomatic consequences in the Northwest boundary dispute between the United States and Great Britain.

John Boit was not yet 19 when Columbia returned to Boston, but soon sailed again as first mate of the Eliza on a voyage to Virginia and Ireland. In the summer of 1794, still not 20, Boit was placed in command of the small (65-foot, 98-ton) sloop Union and embarked on a two-year voyage from Newport to China (“Adieu to the pretty girls of Newport,” he wrote in his Union logbook), a voyage that maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison described as “the most remarkable youthful exploit in this bright dawn of youthful adventure, that has come to my notice.”

The Long, Leaky Voyage of the George

No sooner had John Boit’s ship reached Boston in July 1796 than the owners of the Union appointed him captain of the George, a British storeship that had been captured by a French privateer and sold in Boston together with its cargo of casks of peas, potatoes, and beef. The new owners of the George (one was Boit’s brother-in-law, Crowell Hatch, a part owner and investor in the Columbia and Union voyages) gave him no time to land the snow’s cargo or repair the leaking hull of the vessel before setting sail for Isle de France (Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean in September.

Despite his lively frontispiece portrait of the George, Boit’s logbook reveals that the snow sailed “too dull for comfort” and leaked so badly during the voyage around Africa that it took the aid of the French garrison of Isle de France to work the ship into port when it arrived—and then the snow “leaked just as bad in the harbor as she did when at sea” and threatened to sink at anchor.

The Pleasures of the Harbor

John Boit proved to be as able a business agent as he was a captain. He sold the George’s cargo, despite damage from leaks and attempts to repair his vessel at sea, for an enormous profit and even received “a good price” for the snow itself—smartly repainted and then sold for local trade with Madagascar. Boit ended his logbook remarks about the “Old Snow George” with the wish, “God send I may never sail in the like of her again.”

Boit went ashore at Isle de France and “kept Bachelor’s hall—and the gay life that is generally pursued by young men of this island,” by passing “a few months away in quite an agreeable though dissipated manner.” He noted that he was attended, as he had been at sea, by his “faithful servant Chou (a Chinese).”

Chow Manderien, a Native of China

“Chou” (sometimes spelled “Chow”) had joined the crew of the Union in China during John Boit’s earlier voyage. A young teenager, he travelled to Boston as Boit’s servant and then almost at once went to sea again with him in the George. After their sojourn in Isle de France, Boit and Chou returned to America in 1797 as passengers in the ship Canton. Less than a year later, in September 1798, 19-year-old Chou was killed in a fall from the masthead of John Boit’s new command, the ship Mac, then in Boston fitting out for a voyage. Chou’s self-described “affectionate Master,” John Boit, had him interred in Boston’s Central Burial Ground and supplied a large headstone in his honor (the inscription spells his name as “Chow”). Chou or Chow (Boit’s family knew him as “Libei”) was one of the first persons of Chinese ancestry to live in Boston—although briefly—and to be buried here.

A Secret Voyage Becomes Public

Not all of John Boit’s logbooks are extant: in 1798 when Boit’s “faithful servant” Chou had his fatal fall from the masthead of the Mac, Boit was preparing the ship for a secret, and illegal slaving voyage to Africa and then on to Cuba—the traditional route of the notorious triangular trade. There is an official record of the Mac’s arrival in Cuba in May 1799 after a harrowing voyage—only 206 of 244 enslaved captives survived the Atlantic crossing and almost one third of the survivors were children. Boit’s voyage became public when the ship returned to the United States. Under the Slave Trade Act of 1794, American citizens were forbidden to outfit ships for importing slaves. Boit was severely criticized in the public press and the Mac was seized and sold at auction in Bath, then in the District of Maine, in October 1799.

Home from the Sea

John Boit had a lengthy career as a ship captain that stretched into the 19th century, alternating periods ashore as a Boston merchant with wide-ranging commercial voyages. In 1799, he married Eleanor Jones of Newport, perhaps one of the “pretty girls of Newport” whom he had left behind when he sailed in the Union. They had seven children and divided the time that John spent ashore between Boston and Jamaica Plain. John Boit died in Boston in 1829, at last home from the sea.

For further reading

Baker, William A. “Vessel Types of Colonial Massachusetts.” In Seafaring in Colonial Massachusetts: A Conference held by the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, November 21 and 22, 1975. Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1980, p. 3-29.

William Baker defined early types of sailing ships and illustrated his essay with contemporary depictions of ships from manuscripts, publications, engravings, and paintings.

Boit, John, 1774-1829. John Boit Journals, 1790-1830

The Boit manuscript collection at the MHS consists of logbooks kept by John Boit as captain, officer, or passenger, including extracts of logs and notes on voyages. Boit illustrated his logbooks with drawings of ships that he served on or commanded. He also used blank pages in his logbooks to write poetry and record lines from published poems, as well as to record romantic and inspirational quotations from his reading.

Boit, John. Log of the Union: John Boit’s Remarkable Voyage to the Northwest Coast and Around the World, 1794-1769. Ed. by Edmund Hayes. Oregon Historical Society, 1981.

Through annotations, maps, views, and especially schematic drawings of the Union by Hewitt R. Jackson, Edmund Hayes “opened up” Boit’s logbook for modern readers.

Boit, Robert A. The Boit Family and Their Descendants and Other Allied Families. Boston: Privately printed, 1915.

A lively account of John Boit’s ancestors and descendants, by a great-grandson, drawing heavily upon John Boit’s logbooks and other writings, which were donated to the MHS by Robert A. Boit.

Malloy, Mary. Souvenirs of the Fur Trade: Northwest Coast Indian Art and Artifacts Collected by American Mariners, 1788-1844. Cambridge: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, 2000.

John Boit donated art and artifacts collected during his early voyages to the Pacific to the Massachusetts Historical Society before January 30, 1798, when the Society compiled a list of recent gifts. Some items later were deaccessioned by the Historical Society and donated to the Peabody Museum of Harvard University. Mary Malloy has made a heroic effort to match early records of gifts to the MHS, including those of John Boit, with specific items now held by the Peabody Museum.

Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade – Database

The record of the arrival of the ship Mac at Havana, 31 May 1799, is Voyage ID 13807 in the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database. “John Best” is listed as the ship’s captain, but the record closely matches contemporary reports in the American press describing the seizure and sale of the Mac and condemning John Boit’s role in the voyage.