Interview with Cipperly Good on Maritime History & Culture of Penobscot Bay
Many people think of coastal Maine as an off-the-beaten-path place to retreat and relax. Yet in the 19th century, this part of the world was the launching pad for daring adventures, global trade, and ground-breaking ingenuity. If you are someone who enjoys learning about action-packed epochs of history, then the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport Maine is right up your alley!
We are pleased to share this conversation with Cipperly Good, who is curator of the Penobscot Marine Museum and oversees its object, archive and library collections.
Previous to working at Penobscot Marine Museum, Cipperly taught maritime history for the Ocean Classroom-Proctor Academy semester, and worked as a curator at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum and Falmouth (Massachusetts) Historical Society.
Cipperly holds a Bachelor’s degree from Colby College in Waterville, Maine, where she double majored in History and American Studies. She spent her junior year “abroad” at the Williams College-Mystic Seaport Maritime Studies Program, which sparked her career in maritime history and maritime museums. She holds a Masters of Arts in Museum Studies, with a concentration in American History, from The George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Enjoy getting to know Cipperly, and some of the history of maritime Maine!
Inspiration for Career as Marine Curator
Meg: When did you discover your fascination with maritime history and can you recall what some of the catalysts were?
Cipperly: As a child, visiting museums was the best field trip in school and as a family activity. Seeing objects touched by famous historical figures and authors I had read about in books made history come alive for me. Growing up on Lake Champlain, Kenneth Robert’s Rabble in Arms about Benedict Arnold’s rag-tag American navy that delayed the British advance down the lake in 1776- thereby gaining another season that culminated in Saratoga, the turning point in the American Revolution- was brought to life by the exhibits and reproduction gunboat of Arnold’s at the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
When my pre-calculus class in high school assigned us the task of interviewing two professionals in a field in which we were interested, I called up two family friends who worked in historical societies and archives. My dream was to work at a living history museum like Colonial Williamsburg or Sturbridge Village.
That dream took a u-turn in college when I read about a semester-long maritime studies program offered by Williams College and Mystic Seaport. Here, I thought, was my chance to get an in-depth knowledge of a living history museum campus and perhaps being able to volunteer in the exhibits. It was at Mystic Seaport that I fell in love with maritime history and tall-ship sailing. My revised dream was now to work at a maritime museum somewhere on America’s ocean coasts or lakes and rivers connected to the sea.
Penobscot Marine Museum | Maritime History is Global History
Meg: How is maritime history different from other kinds of history? Can you make any generalizations about the people drawn to maritime life?
Cipperly: The sea connects all things, so maritime history is really a global history. I love to read letters and journals of merchant mariners, from what some today consider “backwater” communities, experiencing new cultures across the globe, and wonder how their descendents found that sense of adventure when the age of sail died.
In maritime history, men and women must use ingenuity and resourcefulness to tackle the elements; surviving a shipwreck or jury-rigging a sail to keep going engages our attention and makes us wonder if we would be up for the task. So while the ship’s business accounts and log books documenting the wind and weather might seem mundane, it is the little snippets of “mutiny” or sighting a distant land that keeps us combing through the primary sources.
The officers and crews represented a microcosm of the different world cultures. Crews jumped ship in foreign lands to start adventures, requiring captains to recruit an international crew in which racial and ethnic tensions and prejudices played out. The merchant marine employed freed blacks at a time when other professions were closed, and allowed enslaved peoples to escape. Women also found freedom aboard ship, as trusted navigators and confidantes to their captain husbands, sometimes even taking command when sickness and death took officers out of commission.
Penobscot Marine Museum | Life of a Museum Curator
Meg: Can you share what some of your most interesting and/or rewarding moments as a curator have been?
Cipperly: I love that no two days are the same as a museum curator, one day I may be dressed in my carpenter jeans installing an exhibit, and the next I am dressed up for an exhibit opening. I may plan to spend the day cleaning the storage area, and be pleasantly interrupted when the descendent of a donor wants to see the donated object and I spend the day learning about the family lore behind the piece.
As a historian, writing books or teaching could have been a career path, but instead the museum walls become the canvas on which I “paint” the history I am trying to tell. It is very rewarding to give researchers access to the archive or object that gives new insight into their field of study.
A couple of years ago, the Camden Conference (an annual conference that provides informed discourse on world issues) posed the question: “Is this China’s Century?” In a related community event, I argued, with the help of archival documents and objects, that the Nineteenth Century, when the American Merchant Marine began trade with China, was instead China’s Century. The research is ongoing as I find more key documents and objects to probe this question.
Penobscot Marine Museum | Wabanaki Birch Bark Canoe
Meg: I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits in the “boat barns” and thought the birch bark canoe was almost sculptural. Can you share a little bit about its history?
Cipperly: The birch bark canoe of the Wabanaki peoples of Maine (Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet) was adapted to its landscape and function. The ocean-going canoes had higher bows and sterns for navigating the ocean waves, and a round belly to act as a stable platform for spearing fish. Yet these ocean-going canoes were light enough for portaging up river into the crown of Maine via the Penobscot, St. John, and Kennebec Rivers for fur, meat, and other supplies. Made of entirely local materials: birch bark, spruce root, cedar ribs, and a “glue” of pitch and fat, repairs could be made on the fly with patching materials readily at hand.
Birchbark canoes became popular with European settlers and their design was copied by wood-and-canvas canoe builders like Old Town Canoe. I would argue that the Peapod, a double-ended, full-bellied rowing boat, which cut through the waves and provided a stable platform for lobstermen, found its genesis in the Wabanaki birchbark canoe.
The French sought to trade with the Wabanaki and British sought to take their land and displace them. This antagonistic attitude of the British meant that British-held West Penobscot Bay was not settled until Fort Pownell was built in 1759 in today’s Stockton Springs.
Read: Hear from a real Maine lobsterman, Julie Eaton of Deer Isle!
Penobscot Expedition | Pitfalls in Co-Leadership
Meg: I realized during my trip how woefully ignorant I am about the history of my own native New England–and how complex it is. In particular, the Penobscot Expedition that you mentioned earlier struck me as a very contentious episode in American history. Can you explain that further?
Cipperly: Maine was a province of Massachusetts until 1820 (it’s our Bicentennial!) and during the Revolution Loyalists and Rebels and Undecideds lived side by side. The Rebels on privateers (state-sanctioned pirates authorized to disrupt enemy shipping) attacked British merchant ships delivering goods between Halifax, Nova Scotia, and New York, as well as their Loyalist neighbors. Loyalist neighbors preyed upon their Rebel neighbors. Each group wrote to their representative governments for protection.
Annoyed with Rebel privateers disrupting shipping, the British Army and three ships of the Royal Navy landed at today’s Castine and began building a fort. Massachusetts mounted an expedition to remove this incursion of the British on “their” territory. Massachusetts bankrolled the expedition and assembled their untrained State Militia under General Solomon Lovell and cobbled together a Navy of Massachusetts and New Hampshire Naval vessels, Massachusetts privateers, and Continental Naval vessels under Connecticut-born Continental Navy Commodore Dudley Saltonstall. Other vessels served as transport for troops, ammunition, and gear, with Paul Revere acting as commander of the artillery.
This motley crew co-lead by Lovell and Saltonstall headed north from Massachusetts to Castine where they found the British fort under construction. The American co-leadership model was a complete failure with the Massachusetts state militia refusing to attack the unfinished fort until the Naval forces took out the three British naval vessels, and the Naval forces refusing to sail into the narrow harbor of Castine with no means of escape until tide and wind changes, until the militia immobilized the fort’s guns.
The stalemate lasted until British reinforcements from New York arrived and sent the retreating American navy and transports into complete disorder of “every man for himself” that led to British capture or scuttling (purposely sinking ships) and burning to prevent ships from capture, with the escaping troops melting into the forest for a long walk back to home.
In the aftermath, as Massachusetts sought to regain their financial losses and pay the insurance costs on the privately owned privateers lost, they found a scapegoat in Continental Navy Commodore Dudley Saltonstall. Although they could not charge him directly, they used their influence to delay his court martial until his witnesses were called back to sea.
The Penobscot Expedition was the worst American naval disaster until Pearl Harbor and historians have put the blame squarely on Commodore Dudley Saltonstall’s shoulders. Through Saltonstall’s court martial notes and related letters, we have been able to show that while he was partly to blame, he does not deserve the full blame the State of Massachusetts’ scapegoating placed upon him.
Moral of the story: The Penobscot Expedition is used as a case study at the military academies and war colleges about the pitfalls of co-leadership. Had there been a clear authority structure in place, with one commander making the decisions, the outcome could have been very different.
Penobscot Marine Museum | We Bring History to Life
Meg: The Penobscot Marine Museum’s tagline is “We bring history to life”. Can you share a couple of stories or anecdotes that illustrate this mandate?
Cipperly: While today Searsport is a drive-through town on the way to Acadia or Portland, back in the second half of the nineteenth century, it was a thriving town of shipyards whose residents owned shares in profitable deep sea sailing ships carrying cargos across the globe. Our sea captain’s house contains souvenirs from trading ports across the globe brought back by merchant marine families, ship portraits of the source of their economic prosperity, and mementos of shipwrecks and heroic rescues. While the written page tells these stories, it is the collections on display that make them come alive.
Fishing has been a way of life since people settled on Maine’s shoreline. Our exhibits show the evolution of boats designed to catch fish and shellfish, from the Wabanaki birch bark canoe, to the rowed peapod, to the motorized Jonesporter lobsterboat. It also shows how improved technology, i.e. motors which allowed boats to go further afield faster with little human muscle needed, and fish-finders led to overfishing that has wiped out some traditional catches, like cod and mackerel.
Penobscot Marine Museum | People to Admire
Meg: Are there a couple of people in the Penobscot Bay region that have been larger-than-life figures in its maritime history with stories that you feel make a statement about life in the area?
Cipperly: One of my favorite people is Lillias Lewene Pendleton Nichols. The daughter of sea captain Phineas Pendleton, patriarch of many Searsport sea captains, and wife to another prominent Searsport sea captain family, she certainly knew the business.
When the Confederates captured and set fire to the ship named for her sister Delphine and captained by her husband, she gave the Confederates a tongue-lashing that continued from the time they pulled her out of the ship’s cabin, threw her husband’s navigational instruments overboard, transferred her and the rest of the crew to the Confederate vessel, and landed them off Australia at the US Consulate. And then she broke the gag order on not disclosing how the Confederates took the ship by pretense of being a British vessel. She defies the conventions of quiet, submissive Victorian women tucked safely on shore awaiting the return of her husband, and represents the reality for many women who went to sea with their husbands in the merchant marine.
Another figure is George Albert Carver, son of prominent Searsport shipbuilder John Carver and relation to many Searsport Sea Captains. Like them, he plied his trade as a shipbuilder, shipowner, and deep sea captain, before moving to New York City to be a partner in a ship owning business and ship chandlery that fitted out merchant vessels with provisions for their journey.
George and his descendents maintained ties to Searsport, our local public library is named in his honor and his descendents donated the land for Moose Point State Park, where many find refreshment in the summer. More to the point, his descendants co-founded Penobscot Marine Museum as a repository for collections that tell the story of Maine’s involvement in global trade in the 19th century.
Related to the Carvers was Lincoln “Link” Ross Colcord. He was born aboard his father’s ship during a storm at the end of the 19th century a generation too late to follow the sea. As his father, Lincoln Alden Colcord, watched the decline of the sailing ship trade with Asia in 1900, he counseled his heartbroken son to find other means of employment.
Link turned his energies to preserving the maritime history of the region through fictional sea stories, maritime histories in periodicals, and co-founding the Penobscot Marine Museum. His sister Joanna, who also grew up at sea, documented her time at sea with photography, and later compiled books on sailor work songs and sea language.
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Running Away On A Tall Ship
Meg: Early in your career you taught American Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean History to learning-disabled students from Proctor Academy on a cruise track from Gloucester, Massachusetts to San Juan, Puerto Rico via Dominican Republic on the SSV WESTWARD. What was this experience like and can you recall a couple of moments that were particularly vivid for you?
Cipperly: I spent the two years after graduating with a master’s degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University working at two different temporary grant-funded positions in Vermont and Connecticut respectively. Not feeling like I was getting far in my museum career and thinking I should work towards a captain’s license, I decided to run away to sea on a tall ship.
My task was to teach maritime history to a group of Proctor Academy high school students while cruising from Gloucester, Massachusetts to San Juan, Puerto Rico on Ocean Classroom’s SSV WESTWARD. Like many a first-time teacher, creating original lesson plans was difficult, made more so by doing it aboard a moving vessel and living with the students.
While I decided teaching and shiphandling was not my expertise and I should stick to museums, it was an amazing experience. The tropical depression off North Carolina that had me clutching my bunk as if I was in a washing machine brought home the stories of shipwrecks on the Outer Banks, and made our hurricane hole in Jacksonville, Florida later in the trip a welcome sight. Swimming in Vieques at night in the bioluminescence, in the mangrove swamps of the Caribbean looking at marine life, and in the waterfall pool on the Dominican Republic was a good counterbalance to teaching the repressive history of slavery in the Southern United States and Caribbean.
As an introvert who recharges from being alone, living with the students, teachers, and crew could be challenging, but having nothing but sea and stars from one horizon to the next provided private moments for contemplation. The ship itself provided exercise as I climbed the rigging to furl and set sails, hauled on halyards to raise sail, and tried to walk on a deck tilted to weather. All in all, it gave me a taste for the ports I later saw mentioned in the primary source materials of captains and crew visiting those same ports in the age of the coastal sailing trade.
Meg: How is the history of Penobscot Bay relevant today?
Cipperly: This history of Penobscot Bay is relevant today as we examine our economic conditions. While we no longer build the global cargo carriers on the Bay, those from foreign flags now visit the ports of Searsport, Bucksport, and Bangor to deliver goods for the fuel and paper industries. While wind no longer drives our merchant ships, imported wind turbines help us utilize the prevailing westerlies to deliver power to our homes.
Maine has always turned its ocean bounties into a profitable fisheries industry, today by looking at the fishing journals of the past, we can determine the baseline for fisheries conservation policies to ensure that the industry continues to fuel our economy for generations to come. The shipbuilding, shipping, timber, and fisheries industries which underpinned the Maine economy for generations can be at odds with the rising tourism industry of the last century. Navigating the balance between “America’s Vacationland” and the sometimes gritty industrial landscape requires historical context as we chart our path forwards.
While Maine was once at the jumping off place for global commerce- perfectly situated on the Gulf Stream and prevailing westerlies that blew ships to Europe and beyond, westward expansion by railroad left this mountainous state without a clear path to markets. While others left for economic opportunities elsewhere, it took perseverance and a bit of Yankee ingenuity for those who stayed to survive during lean economic times. There is something to learn from those who left and those who stayed, and the Penobscot Marine Museum preserves those stories for future generations.
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