By Susan Stowe-Kindstedt, Athenaeum Archivist

The Athenaeum recently received a generous donation from a descendant of nineteenth-century Portsmouth sea captain Nathan Parker Simes. Simes was born in Portsmouth on August 1, 1833, the son of Ann (Yeaton) and Stephen Hardy Simes. The donation consists of nine volumes of logbooks detailing voyages from 1853 to 1871. Captain Simes left record of dozens of voyages to locations in Europe, South America and Australia; however, one voyage stands out among the rest.

On September 21, 1862, Captain Simes left New York in the Portsmouth-built Emily Farnum with cargo bound for Liverpool. Simes described the voyage as uneventful at first with “pleasant weather” and daily sightings of ships, dolphins and jumping fish. On September 29, Captain Simes recorded that the sky turned “a dirty lead” color and on the 30th that the wind picked up and night brought “gales and hard rain.” The gray, gusty weather continued on October 1 and 2, and on October 3 the Emily Farnum was in the Atlantic east of Nova Scotia at 40 degrees north and 50 degrees 30 minutes west. Captain Simes penned the following in his logbook:


1862 October 3rd Comes in with fresh breezes & gusty weather at times quite moderate-sea regular, from the N.E. During the afternoon & evening wind baffling & blowing in gusts for a few moments and then quite moderate…Ship lying on her side making very slow progress. Morning watch the same. A large ship to leeward bound the same way, and a vessel ahead standing to the N.W. at 9 PM the vessel ahead set the “St. George” Cross at her peak, immediately on seeing our colors, she run up the “Rebel” flag & fired across our bow. As there was no chance of escape, I have too, when she sent an armed boat along side, the 2nd Lieut (Mr. Armstrong) hauled down our colors, and informed me that the “Emily Farnum” was a prize to the Confederate States Steamer “Alabama” Capt. Semmes. 


The Alabama and Captain Semmes, called a pirate by Captain Simes, were much feared by Union forces. Captain Semmes destroyed nearly sixty ships during the course of the Civil War. Simes recorded his interaction with Semmes in his logbook:

She proved to be a steam propeller, bark rigged, English build-carried 6 broadside guns, and two pivot (one a 100 pound riffled, and one 68 pounds ditto), vessel painted black outside & yellow in, has a round stern, short poles & altogether, a rakish looking craft, and a fast Sailer. A large portion of the crew appeared to be English… The 2nd Lieut took charge of the “E.F.” and kept her off after the steamer, while She chased the Ship to leeward about 11 am the other ship have to we stood on a short time and have to near her, she proved to be the “Brilliant” of New York. A second boat came alongside of us, and ordered me to go on board the steamer with my papers. Which I did, on rea-was kept on deck for about an hour, and finally ordered down in the cabin to see the Capt. He took my papers, examined them, and then ching her, I found a large number of Prisoners in irons on deck. I called his clerk, who asked me several questions, taking my replies in black & white, viz. What is the name of your ship? What is your name? By whom owned? Have you any certificate, or proof to show that your cargo is owned in Liverpool? What is the value of your ship today in New York? When he asked if I had anything to prove that my cargo was owned in Liverpool, he told me to look over my papers for myself. I found attached to one set of Bills lading, a certificate signed by the British consul, stating that the goods were the property of John Spence Esq. of Liverpool. On showing him this, he said it was “Bogus,” and that the owners of the ship had done it for the purpose of saving their vessel. After asking me a great number of questions about the Armies, their movements, how many new vessels were being added to our Navy, their whereabouts, +c, he informed me that he burned eleven whale ships off the Western Islands, had landed 190 Seamen in that vicinity, and now had 54 on board in Irons. He said, while in the “Sumpter” he allowed his prisoners their freedom about deck, but owing to the harsh treatment his Purser received on board a Federal vessel, He was going to retaliate, by ironing everyone. They had a bag of irons ready for us, and were to put us in double irons below. After considerable consultation with his clerk in an undertone he asked me how long it would probably take me to get to Liverpool, and if I was willing to take all his Prisoners forward. I told him “yes.” He then said that as he had so many on board at present, and with the “Brilliant’s” crew (as he intended burning her) he would let me proceed, though very much against his wishes, as he should like to have destroyed her. His clerk then filled out several Paroles, and he had the option of signing our names, or remaining on board his vessel in irons. I signed it. He then informed me, if I was caught in arms either in the Army, or Navy, I should be either “shot” or “hung.” I then went on deck and remained his 1st Lieut. Went on board the “Brilliant” and her boats, as well as two of the Steamers were busily employed, removing stores, blocks, lanterns +c, everything of value on them to the Steamer. At 11P.M. the “lookouts” on Fore top gallant yard reported another sail in sight. I could not ascertain which way she was standing as the steamer was moving about in all directions. At all Events they were keeping an eye to her. During the forenoon, the officer in charge of the “Emily Farnum” kept her moving with the Steamer.

Sometime before the wind & at times have too. To end this day. Wind during the later part very light from the Northward, and Eastward fine weather for Pirates & Robbers.


4th October 1862 – Commences very light airs from the Northward, swell from the N.E. the crew of the steamer busily employed robbing & plundering the “Brilliant,” and putting Prisoners onboard the “E.F.” at 5P.M. I was ordered into the boat & sent on board the ship with  about 20 Prisoners. When on board, the 2nd Lieut. & Clerk called the “Brilliant” crew aft, and requested them to sign the Parole, they all done it but three, who shipped in the steamer. One of our crew, and one from the bark “Virginia,” also shipped in the Pirate. During their stay on board the ship, they were very civil, not taking anything without leave. About 5.30 P.M. they left us taking two boats belonging to the ship “Brilliant” and leaving behind 65 or 70 Prisoners, being the Capt, officers & crews, of barque “Virginia,” Ship “Brilliant” & Bark “Elisha Dunbar” captured by them. I then filled away with ships head to the Northward, wind very light from the Eastward. At 6 P.M. they applied the torch to ship “Brilliant,” and in one hour she was in flames fore & aft, the Pirate laying a short distance to windward viewing his hellish deed. During the eight we had very light airs from Eastward & Northward, ship making little, if any headway. The blaze of the ship distinct all the time, at 4 a.m. she appears to be burnt nearly to the water, but still blazing. At daylight we saw the steamer to S.E. from our viz Topmast crosstrees steering for the ship reported yesterday, and quite near her. During the morning light airs from NW ship going about 2 knots. No doubt — this (10 a.m.) the other ship is being plundered, and her unfortunate Officers & Crew in irons on board the Pirate “Alabama.” Capt Semmes had the appearance of being a villain. I do not think he would scruple about hanging or shooting anyone.


Latter part light winds & beautiful weather. Crew employed hauling up chains, to try, and get the ship upright. All sail set by the wind. A few Storm Petrel.


5th October 1862 …Saw the glare of a fire to the S.E. the Sky illuminated by it, no doubt the Pirate has fired the ship, he was chasing yesterday, or perhaps a second one. The fire was quite plain from aloft at 4 this morning…

TOP IMAGE: Logbook page of the transcribed text. BOTTOM IMAGE: A sketch of the Emily Farnum by Capt Simes. MS142 Capt. Nathan Parker Simes Logbooks, 1853-1872

From October 6 to 18, Captain Simes’s observations were uneventful as the Emily Farnum continued to Liverpool. He observed other ships from a distance as well as gulls and a seabird known as a petrel. On October 19, Captain Simes observed “several ships in sight bound outward, all under snug canvas.” The Emily Farnum passed Holyhead’s South Stack Lighthouse and then Point Lynas Light, coastal landmarks west of Liverpool. On the next day, October 20, 1862, Simes stated that it “commences with a Hurricane from N. W. accompanied with violent hail squalls.” The weather cleared and presumably Captain Simes and the Emily Farnum arrived at Liverpool later that day as entries end for the journey. On October 22, Captain Simes delivered testimony of the incident with the Alabama at the American Consulate in Liverpool. The testimony he delivered is an exact copy of the account he penned in the logbook that is now at the Athenaeum.


Captain Simes’s logbooks descended in the Simes family, most recently belonging to Nathan Parker Simes (namesake of his ancestor) who has generously gifted the nine volumes to the Portsmouth Athenaeum. The story of the interaction between Captain Simes of the Emily Farnum and Captain Semmes of the Alabama appeared not only in the October 22, 1862 deposition in Liverpool but also in an 1883 article in The Granite Monthly by Portsmouth’s William H. Hackett. This article provides almost exactly the same details provided in Captain Simes’s logbook, causing one to wonder if Hackett had access to Simes’s original logbook or perhaps to the transcript of the deposition at Liverpool.


In November of 1875, the Emily Farnum sank carrying a load of railroad tracks for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 2000, archaeologists found what they believe are the remains of the Emily Farnum off the coast of Washington State in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

For more information, click the button below to view the finding aid for the Captain Nathan Parker Simes Logbooks.
For more about the Emily Farnum, here are additional sources consulted for this post:
  1. NOAA provides information about the Emily Farnum as well as the location of her remains in the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.
  2. For the deposition given by Capt. Simes in Liverpool on October 22, 1862, visit Google Books and search: Correspondence Respecting The “Alabama.” The original volume was part of evidence presented in 1863 to both houses of Parliament and was published in London by Harrison and Sons in 1863. Page 24 details the interaction between Simes and Semmes.
  3. William H. Hackett’s “A Reminiscence of the Alabama” can be found in The Granite Monthly: A New Hampshire Magazine, Concord: John N. McClintock, 1883, pages 382-383, also available digitally on Google Books.