The Sea Lions; or, The Lost Sealers (1849)

Warren S. Walker (Texas Tech University)

Originally published in Warren S. Walker, Plots and Characters in the Fiction of James Fenimore Cooper (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1978), pp. 204-211.

Copyright © 1978 by Warren S. Walker.  Placed online with the kind permission of Warren S. Walker, and of Shoe String Press, Inc.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Chapter numbers [in square brackets] have been inserted by the webmaster at approximately the point where each chapter begins, to facilitate locating particular plot incidents in the text.

— Hugh C. MacDougall

[1] The novel begins on a Sunday in September, 1819, at Oyster Pond (Oyster Point), Southold township of Suffolk County in the northeast corner of Long Island. It is an area separated from the New England coast by that narrow strip of water known as Long Island Sound, and the inhabitants are as often of Yankee origins as they are of native New York stock. Deacon Pratt, in whose house the action commences, is a stereotype of the Yankee as he was often viewed in that period by citizens of neighboring states: seemingly pious but in reality hypocritical, materialistic, and grasping. A man of considerable affluence, the Deacon affects humility and practices frugality. Guardian and benefactor of an orphaned niece, Mary Pratt, he keeps careful records of all expenditures made on her behalf with the expectation of reimbursement from her future husband. In his grotesque way Pratt personifies that avarice, together with its destructive effect, which constitutes one of the primary themes of the novel.

[2] On this particular Sunday the Deacon does not remain at church — “meeting house,” he and the Calvinist community call it — for the afternoon service but instead hurries home on urgent business. His concern centers on an ailing superannuated seaman, Thomas Daggett, who had been set ashore at Oyster Pond several weeks earlier by an incoming vessel bound for New York City. Housed at the nearby cottage of the widow Betsy White, Daggett has grown steadily weaker until now his death seems imminent. Penniless and possessed of only an old sea chest of personal belongings, the seaman has prompted succor for himself by exploiting Deacon Pratt’s cupidity. He confides to the Deacon that charts in his chest show the locations of two great treasures: an uncharted breeding ground for seals in the Antarctic, and a cache of pirate gold on a tiny key in the West Indies. [3] As Daggett’s health deteriorates day by day, Pratt visits the old man more frequently and presses him more zealously for the precise locations of these treasures. Prudence dictates that Daggett withhold this information, and he tells Pratt he has taken an oath not to divulge the position of these sites until after the sealing season of 1820. Daggett’s account has sufficient credibility, however, to induce Pratt to purchase a newly built schooner (christened Sea Lion), commission as its captain young Roswell Gardiner, and finance a sealing expedition to the South Polar Seas.

[4] When Thomas Daggett dies in the night, after a protracted and wearying discussion of these two treasures, Pratt pays for his funeral services, gives the Widow White ten dollars for her nursing care, and then triumphantly carries home the sea chest containing Daggett’s two valuable maps. As he had expected, Pratt finds the seal island and the Caribbean key marked on the charts, with the exact latitudes and longitudes written In the margins. After copying this information in his notebook, Pratt proceeds to expunge both sets of marks from these two documents.

[5] The next day the Deacon, Mary, Roswell Gardiner, and the Rev. Mr. Whittle are having dinner at the Pratt residence when a stranger appears. He is a nephew of the deceased seaman, a young captain named Jason Daggett, who has come from Martha’s Vineyard to visit his ailing kinsman. When informed that his uncle has died, Captain Daggett reimburses Pratt the ten dollars paid to the Widow White and then demands his uncle’s sea chest. Hastily examining the two charts that it contains, the Martha’s Vineyarder is disappointed not to discover on them the notations he had expected to secure. Much to the alarm of Deacon Pratt, the visitor now reveals that Thomas Daggett had confided to several people his possession of charts showing the locations of sealing grounds and buried gold, and that these reports had reached the large Daggett family of Martha’s Vineyard. Suspecting that the charts have been tampered with, Captain Daggett next visits at some length with Widow White, from whom he learns of Pratt’s frequent and fervent discussions with his uncle. Keeping his own counsel in the matter, Captain Daggett leaves Oyster Pond without the specific information he came seeking but with the firm conviction that his uncle’s accounts of treasure were more than mere yarns spun by an old seaman.

[6] A rival ship, also named Sea Lion, is being outfitted at Martha s Vineyard under the direction of Captain Jason Daggett. Its agents delay the sailing of Pratt’s schooner by confusing Gardiner’s job applicants with the misinformation that the sealer named Sea Lion will sail from Holmes’ Hole on Martha’s Vineyard rather than from Oyster Pond, Long Island. To determine the degree of Gardiner’s readiness to sail, Daggett sends a spy aboard the Oyster Pond vessel. He is Daggett’s second mate, Watson, who pretends to be seeking employment but who refuses to sign a contract.

[7] Before sailing, Captain Gardiner confers privately with both Deacon Pratt and his niece. Swearing his young captain to secrecy, Pratt reveals to him the locations of the seal island and the Caribbean key on which the pirate gold is buried. Roswell’s conversation with Mary is much longer as they discuss (obviously not for the first time) the one barrier to their future marriage: their religious differences. Roswell cannot accept the concept of Christ’s divinity; Mary cannot, she says, marry a man who allows his reason to keep him from faith in the Trinity. Although they love each other, they part without resolving this issue. Their controversy introduces the second major theme of the novel: unitarian versus trinitarian Christianity.

[8] Some forty miles out of her home port, the Sea Lion of Oyster Pond is joined by the Sea Lion of Martha’s Vineyard under the command of Captain Jason Daggett. The second vessel is an exact replica of Pratt’s schooner — the same design, tonnage, and rigging; even their sea-lion figureheads have been carved by the same Boston wood sculptor. [9] Soon the two ships are caught up in a heavy storm from the east which drives them landward to within sight of offshore breakers. When Gardiner loses his masts and then discovers that his anchors are not holding, he feels certain that the ship and all aboard her will be lost. When the storm abates, almost miraculously, Gardiner exclaims, “God is with us! blessed forever be his holy name!” To this a voice adds, “And that of his only and true Son” (p. 152). Thus does an old mariner named Stephen Stimson become the spokesman for trinitarian Christianity aboard ship as Mary Pratt has been ashore.

[10] Daggett and his crew assist in installing temporary “jury masts” on the Oyster Fond Sea Lion, and they refuse to accept the “salvage” payments to which they are legally entitled for recovering from the sea Gardiner’s detached spars, sails, and rigging. When the Oyster Point ship docks at Beaufort, North Carolina, to replace its masts, its twin from Martha’s Vineyard also lands. Having faced and then escaped destruction together, Daggett tells Gardiner, the two vessels should henceforth accompany each other. Knowing the loss in profit that the Vineyarders may incur by this delay, Gardiner is touched by their apparent sense of fellowship and generosity. He does not understand Daggett’s true motive: keeping the Long Islanders under constant surveillance with a view toward claiming at least part of the treasures they seek. (Throughout the tempest and its aftermath, the reader is frequently introduced to nautical operations, shipboard equipment, and seamen’s lingo. Sometimes these items are mentioned only in passing; occasionally they become the subjects of brief interpolated essays.)

[11] When the twin ships sight a school of spermaceti whales, off the coast of Brazil, they at once lower boats and give chase. Gardiner harpoons a giant spermaceti bull and Daggett later strikes a smaller one. As the two boats are being towed some distance by the wounded whales, their lines cross, causing the Vineyarders’ shaft to be pulled out of the smaller “fish” and then caught in the jaws of the larger one. After the great bull, exhausted, surfaces, both Gardiner and Daggett drive their lances into its vitals; when it is dead, both captains mount its carcass to claim title to the rich prize. [12] Although Daggett knows that he has no legal claim to the whale — Gardiner’s “irons” were “fast” in the creature before his own line had become entangled — he pushes his claim just short of the point of physical combat. It is a ploy, however. By conceding at the last minute to Gardiner’s claim, he can again appear to be extending generosity and camaraderie, as he had, he reminds Gardiner, while aiding the Oyster Ponders after the storm off North Carolina. While Gardiner’s crew is cutting up the blubber and “trying out” the valuable oil — it nets more than $4,000 for Deacon Pratt — the Vineyarders kill some whale calves and thus enjoy some profit from the venture. But Daggett has won a great victory, for the ingenuous Gardiner now feels doubly indebted and conscience smitten by his wish to elude such a chivalrous rival. His dilemma is evident in the two letters that he mails from Rio de Janeiro, one to Deacon Pratt and one to Mary.

[13] When they reach Cape Horn, Daggett gives the promontory and its islands a wide berth, swerving well to the east. With the guidance of Stephen Stimson, who has rounded the Horn eleven times, Gardiner anchors his ship in a protected cove within the Cape islands. On the fourth day Gardiner and Stimson, going ashore on a high, rocky island, see the Sea Lion of Martha’s Vineyard passing the Cape, apparently searching for its consort, and then, not finding her, sailing away due south. Once the Vineyarder is out of sight, the Oyster Pond schooner leaves its snug anchorage and sets its course south-southwest for its destination in the Antarctic Ocean. [14] Six days later, after passing several icebergs, they discover the island Thomas Daggett had described, its beaches covered with sea lions, sea elephants, and other aquatic mammals.

[15] The business of sealing now begins. Sea lions are killed and skinned, and their pelts cured. Sea elephants, some nearly thirty feet in length, are taken and the oil rendered from their carcasses. Great care is exercised to avoid alarming the great herds of animals that gather on the shores of the island. On the twenty-third day, a Sunday, Stephen Stimson, the old boat steerer, requests Captain Gardiner to declare a Sabbath, a day of rest. Although Gardiner disagrees with Stimson’s religious position, he realizes that from a more practical point of view, allowing a free day for the men might be a wise move. Stimson and Gardiner later start to climb a nearby peak when they see, at some distance, the Sea Lion of Martha’s Vineyard jammed in an ice flee. [16] After a day’s hard work by both crews, the Vineyard ship is freed from the ice, guided to the cove where Gardiner’s sealing operations are being conducted, and, by nightfall, tied up alongside its twin from Oyster Pond.

[17] A month later, again on a Sunday, Captain Gardiner, Captain Daggett, and Stimson climb to the top of the highest peak and view the sterile valley below. Their reveries as they gaze on this wasteland reflect well their respective preoccupations. Daggett’s mind is on sealing and the probable profits of the voyage; Gardiner dreams of Mary Pratt; Stimson’s thoughts are lost in religious meditation. During their descent, Daggett declines the aid of a safety line, slips on the snow, and plunges to the base of the mountain. He suffers a broken leg and has to be carried back to the sealing camp.

[18] Macy, Daggett’s first mate, now takes command of the Vineyarders’ fur and oil procurement. Ignoring Gardiner’s practice of killing only as many animals per day as they can process, Macy leads a ferocious onslaught on the sea lions and sea elephants, taking more than they had on any previous day. The result is exactly what Gardiner had predicted: the herds are frightened, and only a few return to the island each day thereafter. When March arrives and the Vineyard ship is still only half full, Daggett uses all his wiles to play upon Gardiner’s sympathy and persuade him to remain until their cargo is complete. Gardiner, whose hold has been filled for some time, agrees to remain for another twenty days, the latest date on which they could hope to thread their way among the ice floes before the Antarctic winter closes in and makes all travel impossible. When twenty days have passed, Gardiner gives orders to his crew to weigh anchor and start the homeward voyage. With a rebellious mate and a leg not fully recovered, Daggett reluctantly but wisely decides to leave with him.

[19-20] There are ominous indications, however, that they may have waited too long. Their course is blocked by towering icebergs among which they maneuver their craft with utmost care. [The fearsome and sublime seascapes are based in part on accounts of exploring expeditions of the 1830s, especially the one led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes which spent a winter jammed in the ice near the Antarctic Circle.] After a short run, the Sea Lion of Martha’s Vineyard is “pinched” between two icebergs and damaged too severely to permit any further progress. [21] Again playing on Gardiner’s sense of compassion and loyalty, Daggett persuades the younger captain to return with him to their sealing camp and help repair the damaged schooner. This Gardiner does, although another precious two weeks are lost in the endeavor. [22] By then, it is too late to leave: they are trapped in the ice.

[23] There is no choice now but to prepare to winter in the Antarctic. Both crews move into the processing shed, a cabin belonging to Deacon Pratt which Gardiner had dismantled, carried aboard his ship, and rebuilt on the island. Stimson, who had earlier survived a winter on Cape Horn, provides invaluable advice to the two captains. He directs the insulating of the cabin, the rationing of the scant supply of wood for fuel, and the hardening of the men (via daily baths in ice water) against extreme cold. [24] It soon becomes evident that securing fuel in that treeless area will be the most pressing problem. The wrecked Vineyard schooner would seem to be the most logical source of wood, but Daggett reacts strongly against this idea. In fact, he and his men are so alarmed at the suggestion that they withdraw from the cabin and move to the wreck in order to protect it. [25] As the winter intensifies, however, each group runs out of fuel and is forced to start burning its own ship, piece by piece, beginning with the upper works and deck planking. Just how severe the weather becomes is made dramatically clear by the loss of Macy and a fellow crewman, both frozen while returning to the wreck after visiting the cabin.

Throughout the long nights Gardiner and the devout boat steerer, Stimson, read from the Scriptures and discuss religion. Gardiner digs from his duffel the marked copy of the Bible Mary Pratt had given him just before his departure from Oyster Pond. Observing with fascination the many strange climatic phenomena of an Antarctic winter, Gardiner slowly comes to the realization that his reason can account for them only to a certain point. Beyond that point one simply accepts on faith that there is some causative pattern. Although he still does not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, he now recognizes that he does depend upon faith in many matters as little subject to rational proof as the divinity of Christ. His religious orientation has thus begun to change.

[26] One night in the depth of winter Gardiner and Stimson hear a distant cry for help. Concluding that the Vineyarders must be in trouble, they make their way toward the wreck and find along the path Joe, the Negro cook, almost frozen to death. He had been the third man sent for help; the first two were later found dead. Revived with brandy and hot coffee, Joe describes the disaster that has befallen the men on the wreck. Their fire had died during the night, and their tinder had been misplaced. After hours of effort to kindle a fire, some had crept into their bunks and the others had yielded to the cold. A rescue mission, led by Gardiner and Stimson, finally manages to reach the wreck, where only Daggett and a young ship carpenter named Lee are still alive. Both Daggett’s hands and feet, however, are badly frozen. Gardiner becomes aware of how low the temperature must be when he observes that all of the mercury has contracted into the ball of the thermometer and that ordinarily combustible fuel will not easily ignite even in the direct flame of their lantern. The two survivors are taken back to the cabin, they and Joe now being all that remain of the fifteen men who shipped aboard the Sea Lion of Martha’s Vineyard.

[27] When rain signals the beginning of spring and some thawing occurs, reconstruction of the Sea Lion of Oyster Pond begins. The wreck is used as the source of needed timbers and planking. Daggett, dying of gangrene in his frostbitten hands and feet, offers no objection to this use of his vessel. The death of Daggett serves as an object lesson to Gardiner that of all idols men worship, the most objectionable is that of self.

[28] As the spring progresses and the field ice around the island starts to break up, the Sea Lion of Oyster Pond finally commences its return voyage. After stopping briefly at Rio de Janeiro twenty days later, to sell some of its oil and buy badly needed provisions, it travels another twenty days to reach the Caribbean key on which pirate gold was said to be buried. Although a month is spent on that islet searching out the landmarks indicated on the chart and triangulating on the treasure (one hundred and forty-three gold doubloons worth sixteen dollars apiece), we are given none of the details of this operation.

[29] Age, disease, and worry over his supposedly lost ship had led Deacon Pratt to his last illness. On the day that he dies, in April of 1821, the strangely altered Sea Lion of Oyster Point sails into the harbor, and its captain wastes no time in reporting to its owner. Mary, who nurses her ailing uncle, is distressed that his last thoughts should be on material wealth. Besides its considerable earnings from oil, the schooner has brought back a cargo of seal fur worth $20,000. Not satisfied with such a bountiful return on his investment, Pratt impatiently demands news of the pirate treasure. Drawing his last breath, the Deacon clutches the bag of gold that Gardiner hands him and dies.

[30] Numerous relatives of Deacon Pratt, including a previously unmentioned brother and sister, gather to lay claim to his property. Mary produces a “letter” from the Deacon addressed to Gardiner. When opened, this “letter” proves to be Deacon Pratt’s will, correctly drawn up, and duly witnessed. Except for a horse, a mirror, and a pincushion left to his brother, his sister, and a cousin, respectively, the Deacon has bequeathed all of his wealth to his niece, Mary, and has named Gardiner executor of the estate.

Learning from Gardiner even before he enters the sickroom of the dying Deacon that her lover had been converted to trinitarian Christianity, Mary agrees to marry him at once. After their wedding, they spend some little time settling the estate of the late Ichabod Pratt, suitably rewarding Stimson and other members of Gardiner’s crew, and distributing the pirate gold — scruple forbids their keeping it themselves — and other money to survivors of the Vineyarders lost in the Antarctic. Their responsibilities fulfilled, Mary, fearful that Gardiner may again hear the call of the sea, persuades her husband to move to western New York State and there invest in the booming flour industry. It has been a long road that has led Roswell Gardiner from the role of unitarian sea captain to that of conservative trinitarian businessman.

Baiting Joe, Squire Craft, Betsey Daggett, Captain Jason Daggett, Thomas Daggett, Bartlett Davidson, Jake Davis, Hiram Flint, Primus Floyd, Captain Roswell Gardiner, Timothy Green, Sylvester Havens, Philip Hazard, Jenkins, Jim, Joe, Lee, Cato Livingston, Macy, Catherine Martin, Arcularius Mott, Peter Mount, Ichabod Pratt, Job Pratt, Mary Pratt, Dr. Sage, Sam, Joshua Short, Smith, Robert Smith, Stephen Stimson, Widow Stone, Jane Thomas, Nathan Thompson, Marcus Todd, Watson, David Weeks, Betsy White, Rev. Mr. Whittle.