Sailing into Winterthur

The first in a blog series about one Winterthur Fellow’s experience in the Winterthur Fellowship Program

I discovered a few years ago that the only thing more fun than reading a good book is writing one. You get to tell the kinds of stories you enjoy and follow your characters around almost as an extension of yourself. When I sit down to write, I gravitate to the world of merchant trade during the age of sail, as I am a sailing captain myself. In my modern world, I teach keelboating and run sailing charters, but my protagonist, Captain Jane Thorn, takes her schooner out into the wider world and makes money for the family business off smart deals and her wits. 

As an author, it is important to me that my readers learn something interesting about the history of the time, especially about women in that world. So off I went on a research journey through maritime libraries on the east coast, eventually landing at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library as the online catalog indicated that the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera contained a number of ship’s journals and merchant family papers. And it was a gold mine! The two days I spent feverishly transcribing and poring over two-hundred-year-old documents gave me the core of the voyage that takes Captain Jane and her schooner to Cuba, St. Petersburg (Russia), and home to New York.

While I was working with the awesome library staff at Winterthur, they suggested I might look into the Maker/Creator Fellowship Program and come back with a larger project in mind. Two books later, I decided it was time. I knew what I needed as an historical fiction author, and thought there might be a larger audience for the material―I’ll talk more about the project in another post. It was a terrific process to put together the fellowship application with the enthusiastic support of the program director. Working up and reworking the project goals and approach was itself a challenge, I must say! But the final proposal was specific enough to give me a defined plan while leaving room for things to evolve as I gained a better sense of the available materials. 

As I reached the end of the research phase of the project, I had to force myself to focus as there are at least a hundred other exciting projects buried in the Winterthur Archives!

A cool thing I found in the collection:

One of the earliest challenges of the young United States was the control of its borders basically, its coasts (and of course the leaky border with Canada to the north). The regulation of trade across those borders was of paramount importance and hotly disputed (see War of 1812) for years to come. One method of keeping track of things was the issuing of licenses for coastal trade, fishing, and so on. Just like today, 19th-century captains had to have their papers in order if they were stopped by Customs officers!

Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Winterthur Library
COL 245 Shipping records, 1708-1892, bulk 1790-1820

Post by Pamela F. Wik-Grimm, Maker/Creator Research Fellow, Winter 2020

Pamela Wik-Grimm writes historical maritime fiction based on her lifelong love of sailing and the sea. She holds a USCG captain’s license and is active as a commercial and recreational sailor. http://www.pamelagrimmauthor.com


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