Americans at Sea

The Newberry has surprisingly rich collections related to maritime history and literature, perhaps thanks in part to Chicago’s position as an inland port. The library recently received a wonderful addition to these collections: a gift of nearly 100 autobiographies of United States enlisted sailors and Marines from Christopher McKee, a naval historian and current Scholar-in-Residence at the Newberry.

Stretching from the 1808 publication of William Ray’s Horrors of Slavery, or, The American Tars in Tripoli to twenty-first-century published editions of sailors’ journals, the collection includes many hard-to-find gems of the genre. P. J. Forde’s 1856 publication Our Cruise!, for instance, an account of the naval frigate Savannah’s cruise on the coast of Brazil from 1853 to 1856, is one of only four institutional copies known in the country.

The collection also adds significantly to our sense of the complexity and diversity of the experiences of sailors and Marines in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. John Swift, from thoroughly landlocked Iowa, shares his experiences in 1902’s An Iowa Boy around the World in the Navy. John H. Paynter, an African American, enlisted in the Navy as a cabin boy in 1884—prior to the Navy’s formal segregation but when most African Americans had limited opportunities for advancement; his Joining the Navy, or, Abroad with Uncle Sam includes a foreword by W. E. B. DuBois. And in the book To a President’s Taste Ping-Quan Lee, the Chinese-American cook and steward to presidents Harding and Coolidge aboard the U.S.S. Mayflower, shares his experiences as well as many of the recipes that pleased the presidents.

By Will Hansen, Curator of Americana and Director of Reader Services at the Newberry