Saturday, January 17, 2009

Cabinet of Curiosities Blog Carnival - Family Artifacts

Show and tell for grown ups, Cabinet of Curiosities is a celebration of the oddities and marvels of natural history, anthropology, archaeology and historic interest that reside in our personal collections. Tell us the stories behind the historical or religious relics, artifacts, mementos, talismans, specimens and ephemera in your steamer trunks, sock drawers and dusty fireplace mantles. Anything that is a conversation piece is fair game for a good storyteller. What's in your attic? Remember, this is show and tell, not merely a bazarre of the bizarre. It's just an old lump of flattened lead unless you can tell us - engagingly - that this was the Minnie Ball that shattered the stock of your ancestor's Enfield at the otherwise unremarkable Battle of Bean's Station back in December of 1863. So what have you got, and what's the story?

Family artifacts and memorabilia are wonderful things. Many of us have items that have been passed down across the generations. A friend of mine has his family’s original bible from the 1770’s. My wife has a necklace that was given to her great grandmother on her wedding day. My family artifact is not in my possession but it is still in the family. This artifact was the original steamer trunk that my 3rd great grandfather Justice Wyse and his family carried over from Germany in 1854. Having this trunk in the family makes you realize that many immigrants had very little when they came to the United States. So I decided to learn more about what their voyage was like.

You may wonder where to start when doing your research on immigrants. Well that depends on when your family immigrated. In my case, since they immigrated in the 1850’s I used the database at Castle Garden ( If your family immigrated in 1892 or more recently, you might try the database at Ellis Island (

Castle Garden, today known as Castle Clinton National Monument, is the major landmark within The Battery, the 23 acre waterfront park at the tip of Manhattan. From 1855 to 1890, the Castle was America's first official immigration center, a pioneering collaboration of New York State and New York City.

Of the 10 million immigrants who entered through Castle Garden, most were German (3,425,000) and Irish (2,541,000). The rest, in descending numerical order, were English, Swedish, Italian, Scottish, Russian, Norwegian, Swiss, French, Hungarian, Danish, Austrian, Dutch, Bohemian, Welsh, Belgian, Spanish, Polish, Chinese, Portuguese, Greek, Turkish, and Australian, plus 162,173 from “other countries.”

Once I found the immigration records I was able to track down the ship they immigrated on. If you want to research more on immigrant ships you could visit The Shiplist at

This picture is of the ship William Tapscott. This is the ship that the Wyse family took in their migration from Europe to the U.S. during March/April 1854. The average travel time for this voyage was about 31 days but could have taken over 45 days depending on weather. The William Tapscott was one of the finest ships of its time. It was one of the largest full-rigged ships built in Maine during the 1850's.

I was able to find more information about what a voyage on this vessel would have been like by looking in the published diaries in the BYU Digital Collection (

The ship had three decks. The passengers slept on the two lower decks. The second deck was entered through a trap-door hatchway. On each side of the deck, there were numbered cabins. Each cabin contained sleeping “berths”. Each cabin also had light from a large porthole covered with very thick blue glass. Two long tables ran down the middle of this deck. Benches, fastened to the floor, bordered these tables. When the sea wasn’t rough, the porthole window could be left open.

The bottom deck was entered by a trap-door hatchway on the second deck. Like the deck above, there were cabins with berths around the sides. There weren’t any portholes on this deck. For light, there were lanterns. It was very dark. It was described by a passenger on this deck as “… so dark that you could not see for awhile till your eyes got accustomed to the gloom.”

There was a cooking gallery for the common use of all passengers. In the center of the cooking gallery was a very large stove, about 10 feet square. Around this stove was space for passengers to stand and hold onto their pans as they cooked. The toilet closet was a large hole with a bar to sit on. A passenger described the closet as “…The only place I was frightened was when we had to go to the closet, there was just a straight stick across and of course you could see the ocean. How I did cling to my little sister when she was on that bar, for it was a large enough place to let a grown person down, let alone children.”

After plying the oceans for about forty years the William Tapscott was lost in the English Channel in 1888. The figurehead from the ship was salvaged and is now on display at the Bude-Stratton Museum in Cornwall, England. So, as my final step in researching this history, I contacted the Bude-Stratton Museum and was able to get pictures of the artifacts, including the figurehead, that were salvaged from the shipwreck.

Starting with just the one artifact, an old steamer trunk, I have now gained a much more in depth understanding of the trials that the early immigrants had to endure to come to our great country.


Becky Jamison said...

This is wonderful, Miles! My grandparents immigrated from Germany so it was interesting to me to read what it was like on those ships. Thanks for passing on your research details. I know it takes time to do that. I've got to share this post with my Dad who was the son of those immigrants and also writes a blog. Thanks again, Miles.

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