Matthew Bullard: Morgan descendant
I left Massachusetts for Idaho 15 years ago this month: the allure of the west–its great open spaces, adventure and opportunity–were hard to resist. I’m hardly the first person in my family to find the charms of the west attractive. Henry Howland Crapo, a fourth-great-grandfather, left New Bedford for the “frontier” of Michigan and eventually became that state’s Civil War governor. Other Crapos went west, too, including the ancestors of Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a distant cousin. There were Rotches that settled in the west, including my favorite, Captain Garland Rotch (another cousin) of San Francisco, who survived the wreck of his ship in a hurricane off of Cuba in 1915.
My story isn’t as exciting as that of Captain Rotch and my ambitions aren’t quite as grand as Governor Crapo’s, but the common thread that ties us all together is New Bedford. Since moving to Boise, I’ve returned every year or two to visit family. And now that I have a family of my own, including a two-year-old son, my visit this month will be that much more joyful.
But this homecoming will be even more special: I will be returning aboard the Charles W. Morgan.The Morgan,whose first owner and namesake was also an ancestor, will be coming home to New Bedford after a 73-year absence. Of course this won’t be the first time the Morgan has returned to New Bedford. As a whaling ship, her voyages of usually three or four years would take her and her crew to the far corners of the earth and back. Even the Morgan succumbed, for a time, to the call of the west: In 1886, her owners at the time (principally the Wings, but with shares also held by ancestors William W. Crapo and William J. Rotch) sent her west to whale out of San Francisco.
My great-grandfather, John Morgan Bullard witnessed the Morgan return to Buzzard’s Bay under full sail in 1906 after her 20-year stint whaling from the west coast. Many years later he wrote that the “Morgan’s arrival after such a long absence created quite a stir in the papers.” As an attorney in the 1920’s, he would go on to assist Colonel Green in his efforts to preserve the Morgan at Round Hill. In 1941, when not enough local money could be raised to keep the deteriorating ship in New Bedford following the Colonel’s death, Mystic Seaport stepped in and saved her, and what a job they have done!
Each time I come home, I notice the many positive changes occurring in New Bedford. Families change, too. New children bring joy and energy; funerals bring sadness and reflection. Relationships that were once every day are now experienced only occasionally. So when I come back, I try to cram months or years of separation into an hour or a day or a weekend.
I imagine that my homecomings are not unlike those of the whaleman who would ship out for years at a time. Without the benefit of a phone or the internet, the changes they must have experienced upon returning home would have been shocking.
But even though much has changed since my last visit to New Bedford, much is still the same. And I believe that if the Morgan had eyes, she, too, would be able to recognize the new New Bedford of 2014, whose skyline is much as it was during whaling’s golden age. And that is what I’m most excited about. When I was a boy, I experienced the first stages of New Bedford’s revitalization and preservation through the work of my dad, John K. Bullard. But that work didn’t preserve New Bedford and the historic district as a time capsule or a museum. I think the Whaling Museum is one of the premier museums in the country, but what I love most is the stories that it helps to tell seem to come alive when you step outside its walls and onto the streets that are still bustling with activity, not unlike that day in 1841 when the Morgan was launched.
It is easy to second-guess the failed attempt to preserve the Morgan in New Bedford prior to World War II, but the city had been hit hard by the Great Depression and textiles, its second great industry, were in tatters. But I see the Morgan’s loss as a blessing. A museum ship would not have fit in this working port, and may not have been saved at all. Her saviors at Mystic Seaport came along at the best possible time. Their ambitious plan to sail her again and bring her to home New Bedford is the perfect way to continue the story, not only of this luckiest of ships, but also of New Bedford and its working waterfront.
Though she will have a hold full of knowledge instead of sperm oil and whale bone, the Morgan returns to New Bedford’s working waterfront as a working ship, not a museum piece. Once again, she will come into Buzzard’s Bay with all sails set (weather permitting, of course), and I am honored to stand on her deck when she rounds Cuttyhunk and sets a course for New Bedford harbor. And like my family reunion this weekend, we will all have to cram as much catching-up as we can into the short time she will be here. When you go down to the waterfront to see her, I hope you will notice that she still has Charles W. Morgan of New Bedford painted on her transom. And I think her return home will once again cause a bit of a stir in the papers.
Matthew H. Bullard
A meteorologist and wind energy consultant by profession, Bullard came to the 38th Voyage to explore heritage. “As father of what is now the seventh generation of Morgan descendants, I will write directly to my young son about what it means to return to New Bedford, what it means to come home, and what it means to inevitably leave once again.”