James Fenimore Cooper’s Ned Myers: A Life Before the Mast

William S. Dudley * (Naval Historical Center)

Originally published in The American Neptune (Vol. 57, No. 4, Fall 1997) (pp. 323-329).

Copyright © 1997, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts and reproduced with its kind permission.

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

{323} The seafaring biography, Ned Myers; or A Life Before the Mast, originally published in 1843, is the life story of the sailor Ned Myers, as told to James Fenimore Cooper, an old friend and former shipmate. Some may never have heard of Ned Myers, nor have known that Cooper wrote other than romantic novels. Certainly, his literary reputation is based on the famous “Leatherstocking Tales,” mostly set in New York state during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, but Cooper wrote more authentically than most authors about the sea and seafaring men. 1 He knew them well; he had been one of them, and he had served as a midshipman in the US Navy during the years 1808-1810. 2

To prepare himself for a naval career, Cooper spent a year before the mast, 1806-1807, in the ship Stirling, ** under the command of Captain John Johnston of Wiscasset, Maine. During this voyage to England and the Mediterranean, Cooper became a close friend of the subject of this book, a thirteen-year-old cabin boy named Ned Myers. Cooper’s early nautical novels, sometimes called sea romances — The Pilot (1824), The Red Rover (1827), The Water-Witch (1830), and his later ones, The Wing-and-Wing (1842), Two Admirals (1842), and Afloat and Ashore (1844) — demonstrate his mastery of the seafaring world and its strange, colloquial language. He created and developed the American nautical novel. Thanks to his command of the language of the maritime world, and his emotional link to American history, Cooper made an essential contribution to American maritime nationalism. He realized the power of the past and harnessed it to the conflict between man and nature inherent in the maritime environment. 3 His two-volume History of the Navy of the United Slates is itself a classic, being the first complete account of the Navy’s operational history from its inception in 1775 through the end of the War of 1812. In Ned Myers, a nonfiction work, Cooper provides the reader with a realistic, unvarnished view of the seafaring life which he had used as the basis of his early novels.

Cooper’s naval career was short but sufficient to acquaint him with the traditions of the Navy and several of its young, rising officers. 4 He obtained a midshipman’s warrant in 1808. The Navy Department first assigned him to duty in the bomb ketch Vesuvius at New York. From there, he was sent northward to assist Lieutenant Melancthon Woolsey, who was superintending the construction of the brig Oneida at Oswego, New York. This vessel was intended to enforce the embargo laws on Lake Ontario. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, she was the Navy’s only purpose-built war vessel on the lake. {324} Cooper’s last assignment was service on board Wasp, commanded by Lieutenant James Lawrence, who sent him on recruiting duty. Despite their disparity of age and rank, Cooper and Lawrence became close friends, possibly because of their sharing a mutual birthplace, Burlington, New Jersey. In May 1810, Cooper requested a year’s furlough from the Navy for personal reasons. He resigned his commission a year later.

The present work spans the better part of Ned’s life, from his birth in Halifax about 1793 until the end of his seagoing days in the 1840s. These years also encompass some of the most difficult days in the life of the early American Republic, its naval wars with France and the Barbary States, and finally the War of 1812, often called “The Second War for American Independence.” Then came years of exuberant growth for commerce. The American shipping industry flourished as it never would again during the years 1815-1860. For sailors, the seagoing life presented a paradox, a harsh world where nature and domineering masters controlled their destiny, yet a controlled, disciplined life where for reasons of survival, a seaman’s nomadic, unbridled instincts were channeled and used for profit. Even the seamen profited, for this was a time when American shipowners paid higher wages than foreign companies in a labor market short of experienced hands.

Ned Myer’s memoir offers an unparalleled view of seafaring life on the lower deck. By Cooper’s tally, Myers had been a crew member of seventy-two different vessels, some in which he made several voyages. When adding to that number the ships in which Ned was a prisoner or civilian passenger, the total may have been closer to one hundred. His life afloat amounted to twenty-five years out of sight of land. Ned, for reasons he will reveal, preferred to sail “before the mast” as a common seaman despite years of experience which might have qualified him for command at sea. He had his turns as second mate and first mate, and showed proficiency in numerous dangerous situations, saving the ship, cargo, and crew. He usually rejected offers of greater responsibility. His life held much inner conflict, and he expressed unrequited desires for greater companionship and closeness to family. It was characteristic of him, however, that when these opportunities occasionally arose, he turned away. While there is not enough evidence to sketch a psychological portrait, there is much on which to speculate. He mentioned only one female relationship and did not apparently indulge himself in the promiscuity commonly associated with sailors. If he did, he did not disclose it, though Cooper hay have exercised editorial discretion, omitting the mention of adventures that might make his readers blush.

Ned had many acquaintances but few close friends, perhaps because so many died relatively young from accidents, disease, and dissipation. He was fine company and easily established rapport with strangers, even those one might think antagonistic. Between voyages, he spent his hard-earned dollars freely on friends, meals, and liquor. He seemed to own nothing but his clothes and a few nautical instruments. Still, he knew how to lay away his property and a few dollars, leaving these in safekeeping with a friendly landlord for repossession on returning from his frequent voyages. He was not illiterate, and knew enough mathematics to navigate. He did not say much of writing letters, but he grew fond of the Bible, tracts, and other religious works as he grew older. He possessed an active, though frequently dormant, conscience which came back to haunt him as he sensed how his opportunities had evaporated. His bondage to liquor became acute.

Ned was fortunate that churchmen had founded organizations to minister to seamen by the 1820s and 1830s. 5 Thanks to these influences and his own survival instincts, Ned became, by the end of his seafaring days, a reclaimed soul. It is very likely that this memoir would never have been written had he not had a conscience and a strong will to set things right. Nearly fifty years of age in 1843, he probably looked more than his years when Cooper took down his life’s story.

Although Ned spent the greater number of his years in merchant sail, he was also a naval veteran. His love of the service and patriotism {325} ring clear, and there is never a harsh word for his treatment, though he did admit that the Navy did not pay as well as merchantmen. Ned served as an able seaman on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. He virtually jumped from the pages of the National Geographic in 1983, when the Society published a remarkable article on the discovery of the US Navy schooners Hamilton and Scourge. 6 Thanks to the historical curiosity of Canadian Daniel A. Nelson, these war vessels were located by sonar search 280 feet below the surface of the lake in 1973. Two years later, a side-scan sonar search in the same area provided a more positive identification of Scourge, then Hamilton, 1,500 feet away on the lake floor. Nine years later, a team of archaeologists, underwater scientists, and National Geographic Society representatives photographed the schooners with a remotely piloted vehicle.

Ned Myers served in Scourge and was one of the few sailors to survive her sinking. His narrative, as contained in Cooper’s Ned Myers, vividly describes his escape from the sinking schooner. The Geographic excerpted Ned’s account in an illustrated five-page spread in the midst of Nelson’s article on the finding of the schooners. Finding Myer’s account was, for historians, almost as exciting as the archaeological discovery. 7 The excerpt from Cooper’s Ned Myers provides the only detailed explanation of what happened to the schooners lost 170 years earlier. In addition, Ned provides us with a unique account of the capture of the schooners Julia and Growler a few days later. What only a few Cooper scholars knew, others had to rediscover. Cooper’s own History of the Navy of the United States, published in 1839, contains just a summary of the tragic sinking of Scourge. 8 Ned’s naval career, as distinguished from his many merchant voyages, is an important though interrupted theme and deserves summation. He was rescued by the armed schooner Julia, but she soon after was captured with Growler, and Ned spent the next nineteen months as a prisoner of war. Freed in March 1815, he entered merchant sail and did not return to a naval vessel for {326} twelve years. In 1827, he signed on Delaware, 80-guns, under Commodore John Downes for an enlistment that took him to the Mediterranean and back in 1831. He joined the frigate Brandywine and cruised the Gulf of Mexico. In 1832, he found himself in the Revenue Cutter Service off Charleston during the Nullification crisis, serving for most of the time in the cutter Jackson. The excitement ended in March, 1832, and the government discharged the extra hands it had hired for the cutters.

After a three-year stint in merchantmen, Ned returned to the Navy and signed on the frigate Constellation, in which he saw duty in the Gulf of Mexico during the “Florida War” (Seminole War) in 1835-1836, and later transferred to the sloop-of-war St. Louis. After a severe injury, he spent some time in the Pensacola Naval Hospital and was finally invalided back to New York. He traveled to Washington, DC, where he visited the Navy Yard and paid a call on Commodore Isaac Chauncey, then serving on the Board of Navy Commissioners. The old Lake Ontario commander was much interested in seeing Myers and questioned him at length on the sinking of Scourge. Navy Department clerks set him to work on a pension application, but it was several years before Ned obtained anything but a small amount in compensation for the injury that had put him in the Pensacola Naval Hospital. In August 1840, Ned returned from his last voyage, during which he almost died in Batavia [Djakarta]. He applied for admission to the Sailor’s Snug Harbor, a well-endowed home for retired mariners on Staten Island near New York. 9 The Navy Pension Office had by this time cleared his application, and the money was waiting for him.

By the time Cooper was reunited with his former shipmate in 1843, he had firmly established his literary reputation and had produced a number of his nautical novels and The History of the Navy of the United States. Ned’s arrival on the scene was for Cooper a gift from the gods. He wrote Cooper a letter from the Sailor’s Snug {327} Harbor, asking if he were the man Ned knew as a boy on board Stirling. Cooper replied quickly that this was so. They met briefly in New York, and Cooper soon invited Myers to his home in Cooperstown on Lake Otsego, where the two spent five months closely examining Ned’s seagoing career. Here the famous author could see himself through another’s eyes and at the same time share his experiences.

At the time Cooper and Myers were collaborating, the American public’s taste for seafaring literature was changing. The popularity of the “romance of the sea” was being replaced by harsher, more perceptive portrayals of seamen who risked all manner of dangers and lived with minimum comfort, rudderless in the face of almost dictatorial authority, nature’s whims, and ill-educated, occasionally degraded companions. Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast had appeared only three years before, and the Navy’s investigations of the infamous Somers “mutiny” and Captain Alexander Slidell Mackenzie’s shipboard executions of the alleged conspirators were the cause of national debate. Progressives and churchmen were beginning to shoulder the cause of reform within the US Navy and the Merchant Marine. Their goals were the elimination of corporal punishment and the consumption of alcohol on board ship. 10 With Ned Myers’ story, Cooper had the materials to equal Dana’s literary triumph and ride the crest of the new literary trend. For all of Cooper’s efforts, though, Ned Myers was not as well received as Two Years Before the Mast. 11 Dana’s memoir had set the standard. Critics did not applaud Cooper’s work, even though Ned Myers had wider scope, telling of an entire life “before the mast,” global in its seafaring. With Ned Myers, Cooper responded to Dana’s book, replicating its maritime realism and reinforcing the technical authenticity of his early sea novels. Cooper had a stake in the truth and was at pains to display that approach in his History of the Navy of the United States.

Precisely how Cooper wrote Ned Myers is obscure. The literary conventions preserved in the work are Cooper’s, but the terseness of the passages, the harshness of scenes, and the honesty of characterization is authentic. It would have been difficult for Cooper to have “invented” Ned Myers. 12 Cooper himself claimed that he seldom “interposed his own greater knowledge of the world, between Ned’s more limited experience and the narrative; but, this has been done cautiously, and in only a few {328} cases in which there can be little doubt that the narrator has been deceived by appearances, misled by ignorance.” Cooper assumed the first person, writing as if he were Ned Myers, and the assumption of that identity “dictates its own willful pattern in the prose”. 13

If Ned Myers had a “happy ending,” with Ned completing his nomadic seafaring and swearing off liquor, the rest of Ned Myers’ life did not. Cooper paid Ned an advance of his share of the royalties and helped him find a job at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After Ned married a widow with children, Cooper took one of the stepdaughters in as a domestic servant. Two years later, Ned relapsed into his old habits. He died, probably of alcoholism, in 1849. Cooper wrote Ned’s will and later helped his family with their bills. 14

The importance of Ned Myers for modern readers is contained in what we learn about the subject and his companions on the lower deck. The social history of seafaring is still in its infancy, whether we are discussing naval or merchant ships. We need to know why men went to sea, how they looked at their captains and mates, what they thought about their treatment, when and why they got sick, who took care of them when they did, and what happened to them in their old age. The dangers of seafaring in the age of sail may be familiar to some readers, but to others the fragility of that existence may not be apparent. Not many years ago, the capsizing and sinking of the Pride of Baltimore, designed along the authentic lines of a War of 1812 privateer, brought home to many observers the fact that this event was quite common in the early nineteenth century. For men like Ned Myers, the possibilities of piracy, dismasting, shipwreck, impressment, punishment by flogging, insanity at sea, alcoholism, unfaithful landlords, and penury ashore were altogether real.

The study of American maritime culture includes the mental life of the seaman, his worries, his concept of duty, his reading habits, his concerns for his shipmates, his legal rights and responsibilities, and his thoughts on religion. All of these can be gleaned from accounts like that of Ned Myers. Beyond this, Ned Myers is a remarkable tale of adventure on the high seas. It has suspense, excitement, retribution, suffering, remorse, and moments of happiness. From a historian’s perspective, Ned Myers is a work both of art and social comment, and its influence will last far longer than the author would have dreamed.


1 For a general introduction to Cooper and other writers of his period, see Emery Elliott. ed. Columbia Literary History of the United States (New York: Columbia University Press, 1987). H. Daniel Peck’s essay “James Fenimore Cooper and the Writers of the Frontier,” 240-261, provides a balanced view of Cooper’s craft.

2 James Franklin Beard, ed. The Letters and Journals of James Fenimore Cooper, 6 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 1:322.

3 Thomas Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper and the Development of American Sea Fiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961).

4 William Branford Shubrick. later Rear Admiral, and Cooper became lifelong friends as a result of Cooper’s service in Wasp, under Lieutenant James Lawrence. Beard, Letters and Journals, 1:69, note.

5 Roald Kverndal, Seamen’s Missions: Their Origin and Early Growth (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1986).

6 Daniel A. Nelson, “Ghost Ships of the War of 1812,” National Geographic, 163:3 (March, 1983), 289-313. For a more complete treatment of the discovery of the schooners and their historical context, see Emily Cain, Ghost Ships (New York and Toronto: Beaufort Books, 1983).

7 Ned Myers is one of Cooper’s least known works. There have been thirteen different reprints and editions since it first appeared in 1843, Most of these were published before 1860. There is a French edition (1844) and a German edition (1862). The reprint (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1989) uses the text of the last to appear, that of G. P. Putnam’s Sons, Knickerbocker Press, 1899. Many “complete” editions of Cooper’s works did not include Ned Myers. In recent years, literary scholars have been reevaluating Cooper and writers of his generation. In the process, Ned Myers has become better known among literary scholars, to the benefit of maritime historians.

8 James Fenimore Cooper, The History of the Navy of the United States, 2 vols. (Paris, 1839; republished by Literature House, Upper Saddle River, NJ, 1970), 2:262.

9 Kverndal, Seamen’s Missions, 518-519.

10 Harold D. Langley, Social Reform in the United Slates Navy. 1798-1862 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 1967).

11 Philbrick, James Fenimore Cooper, 117-120; [Hugh] Egan, “Gentlemen-Sailors: [The First-Person Sea Narratives of Dana, Cooper, and Melville.” Diss. University of Iowa, 1983], 137-140, 177-178.

12 Egan, “Gentlemen-Sailors,” 158 ff.

13 Egan, “Gentlemen-Sailors,” 162.

14 Egan, “Gentlemen-Sailors,” 155.

* r. William S. Dudley served on active duty in the USS Cromwell (DE-1014), earned a Ph. D in history at Columbia University, and taught history at Southern Methodist University. He joined the Naval Historical Center in 1977 and is currently serving as its director. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy.

** The ship was Stirling, in fact. In Ned Myers, it was spelled Sterling.