Shipping Reindeer

Shipping Reindeer

On this winter's eve I'd like to weave a tale about reindeer. As we get closer to Christmas there will be recitals of the classic poem A Visit from Saint Nicholas. It speaks of a driver so lively and quick and of his eight flying reindeer who pull his sleigh. It must have seemed perfectly fantastical to children living in the days of horses and rutted dirt lanes but with a little imagination anything was possible. Back then the wide world was still largely unknown but shrinking, as news came in from ships and travelers. Stories of wild animals, strange lands, and wide oceans could kindle anyone's thoughts to the unimaginable. So for a child, it was easy to believe a rosy cheeked man with a belly that shook like jelly could fly a sleigh full of presents to every chimney top in one night. Later on, Jules Verne had readers believing that a global journey could be accomplished in a balloon in 80 days. In all reality it wasn't until 1924 before a plane was able to travel around the world and it took 175 days. Twenty five years after the Clement Moore's poem was first published a different type of reindeer set out to visit the world.

The oldest item I own sits in my hands. It's a slender non-descript book with a rather drab marbleized cover. The powder blue pages within are covered in a handwritten scroll of faded India ink. The cursive penmanship rises and falls like windblown waves on a stormy sea. The capital letters are as full as a topsail and the lower case f's and p's plum the next line like an anchor trying to hold down the sentence. My descriptions make sense as the book in question is a Captain's Log. It's a simple diary of daily weather patterns and a ship's position during its voyage. The information can be used to let future sailors know what to expect as they ventured over the same watery terrain. The author of my log book was a Obed Russell Bunker and his jottings describe the journey of the clipper ship Reindeer in 1856.

The Reindeer was built by a Donald McKay, one of the finest ship builders of his day. She was launched on June 9, 1848 in East Boston, in the presence of 'a large concourse of people'. The papers said the Reindeer was 'the finest model and strength McKay has yet built'. She had a Forbes double topsail rig. Measured 770 tons, and was owned by George Upton and R.B. Forbes. Like today, in the brief era of clipper ships, the speed with which a shipment was delivered was of the utmost importance to the customer. At the time gold had just been discovered in the territory of California and New England goods were being rushed to San Francisco. The Reindeer made three trips to San Francisco that I know of. For each of those voyages Obed R. Bunker was at the wheel.

Obed R. Bunker came from a long line of Nantucket sailors. His father Owen, a lifelong sailor and commander, was aboard the first vessel from Nantucket to sail around Cape Horn. Obed himself became a seaman at the early age of thirteen. He started working ship runs between Nantucket and New York. For a while he shipped on whaling vessels. At the age of 27 he became commander of the Constitution. The first recorded instance of him captaining the Reindeer is in 1853. The account I have is of the one that was taken in 1856. This voyage got under way on June 4, 1856. It left New York heading to San Francisco. From there it traveled to Manila and then returned to Boston. The Reindeer landed in Boston on August 22, 1857. Not exactly around the world in eighty days or one night.

Obed mostly wrote down the nautical and meteorological conditions that the crew and vessel experienced daily.  Very few of his entries reveal any personal side of him or the men who sailed along.  Those that do reveal the insufferable conditions of being a seaman in the 19th century.  On Saturday, September 20, 1856, Latitude 44-40 south, longitude 79-3 west; 'broke out the after hatching for water & we find that about 800 gallons have leaked out in consequence of being put into poor casks.  We shall be obliged to stop in Juan Fernandez for a supply'.   October 30, 1856, Latitude 10-15 north, Longitude 119-35 west; 17 year old Swedish lad named George Nelson 'a very good boy & well behaved boy- one who was beloved by all', died of fever and was buried at sea the following day.  After 162 days at sea the Reindeer anchored at clay street wharf in San Francisco.  'Ten men down with scurvy. All hands more or less affected with it'.  They loaded up on sugar and hemp in Manila and then headed back to New York.When passing around Cape Horn and its African counterpart Cape Good Hope the horrendous storms of rain, ice, and snow went on for days.  While going around Cape Good Hope the entry for Saturday June 20th reads, 'weather thick 7 rainy with a very bad sea, wind changes suddenly, causing tremendous sea swells, sea lying very uncomfortably and entirely unmanageable. Sea leaking all over her. Pump going nearly all the time'. Sails were constantly furled and unfurled all to keep the ship buoyant and sailing along. I can envision in his meteorological observations. His writings of squally weather, sharp lightening, strong gales, the breezes, the clear skies, and the passing clouds are plainly mentioned but must have been a sight to see. I can feel the rolling of the turbulent seas and the doldrums of the slow days of no wind. I can see the forever southern sky and the dark green sea of the India Ocean. Between Obed's undulating lines there are untold stories of this adventure that are lost to the ages. Obed had a duty to get his cargo to port and his men safely home. He wasn't a poet or a writer of tales to keep the children enthralled. That was left to the like of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Obed Bunker remained a captain until his 48th year. He spent those last few years whaling. He retired to Nantucket Island with his wife, Emily. They had two children who died in infancy. I found his personal information in the Biographical Sketches of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that was written in 1900. Obed was still alive and "Though eighty-five years old and nearly blind, he's still hale and hearty, and can spin many a yarn of events in his former adventurous career, interesting alike to young and old."  

    Not a thing remains of that journey around the world.  Not the cargo, not the clipper ship, not the crew.  The Reindeer wrecked in the South Seas on February 12, 1859. Captain Obed Russell Bunker died on February 11, 1904.  Other than the ocean, the only entity still in existence that witnessed the voyage of the Reindeer in 1856 is this log book.

Captain Obed's log book is of little value in this digital age of two day 'shipping', it's a historical piece of jetsam from a bygone era of Clipper ships racing across the world.   I don't recollect when my father gave it to me and I have no idea how it came into his possession but I do know where it's going.  In June I will be attending a meeting in Rhode Island.  At that time I plan on taking a side trip to Nantucket Island.  I will then gift the journal to the Nantucket Historical Association in Massachusetts.  Now I could quickly send the book to them through conventional methods like express overnight or guaranteed to get there by Christmas deliveries, but I prefer to take an old fashioned way. Obed Bunker's log book will return to its home port over water by ferry.

    The wooden boats are long gone and the oceans have been mapped to their breadth and depths. The world is much smaller and just as cruel. At times when madness takes center stage I hope that we all can keep faith in each other. The unnamed sailors who climbed the rigging of the Reindeer in fair weather and monstrous storms had to have faith in their fellow man for their life depended on them.

Have a Very Birdy Christmas, Charles Shattuck


  It's easy for us to wax nostalgic about the old days but in truth little has changed when it comes to mankind. There still are good people and bad people and a lot of us in between. As witnessed on Wednesday October 8, 1856. 'Saw the brig Callao of Liverpool bound south. We passed very near and made preparations to board the Callao, as we are very short of water and have 2 cases of scurvy on board and no vegetables but the Captain of the brig was not inclined to stop for us. So we were obliged to pass on and look for a more accommodating brother. Latitude 25.52 south, Longitude 90.42 west'.