Earlier this month the USS Constitution Museum acquired a 1797 Almanack with an interesting link to USS Constitution‘s launch during that same year.
The Almanack’s anonymous owner used the annual calendar as a journal of sorts, jotting down notes on the weather, meetings with friends, and assorted reflections on life and local events.
Among these musings is a note on May 19th about an “anchor for the frigate,” presumably USS Constitution as she was the only frigate built in Boston that year.
Furthermore, the writer includes first-person accounts for all three of Constitution‘s launch attempts! Considering the detail presented in the writer’s account of the first launch, we can assume he was in attendance for the grand event. He writes:
“This day so anxiously anticipated is arrived, the Weather is fine — the Flags & Pendants displayed — announce the Launching of the Frigate Constitution…but alas, how futile are the Anticipations of Mortals, the Constitution after moving slowly about 20 feet remained, Immovably fixed…”
On October 21, 1797, the third attempt successfully launches the frigate into Boston Harbor. The writer describes it succinctly as “a fine launch.”
It’s clear this person was somehow involved in shipbuilding in Boston in the late 18th century or had at least some familiarity with the building and launch of USS Constitution. So, the question remains: Who is this anonymous writer?
After a bit of research into the names and events mentioned throughout the Almanack, we suspect the writer is perhaps Simeon Skillin, Jr. (abt. 1756–1806), a prominent wood carver who managed a workshop along with his brother, John, in Boston’s North End. The brothers were in high demand among shipbuilders at the time and enjoyed a successful career. In 1796-1797 they were hired to carve Constitution‘s sternboard and the Hercules figurehead for her bow.1
Skillin was married to Margaret Cazneau on October 1, 1782. The name Margaret appears several times in the journal (“Margaret and I…”), as do the names of Isaac and Captain Andrew Cazneau. The names John (the name of Simeon’s brother) and Simeon Skillin, III (the name of Simeon’s nephew) are also mentioned. Further research into Skillin’s handwriting will help us confirm the author’s identity.
Whether or not Skillin is the true author of this work, this Almanack is a tangible link to Constitution‘s early days and a welcome addition to our archival collection. About midway through the journal, the writer, while contemplating an old tree, reflects on his own fleeting time on Earth. Little did he know his words would survive over 200 years and end up in a museum devoted to the history of that famed vessel launched in 1797:
“…the idea struck me, Alas this Tree so flourishing may soon fade…the thought agitated my mind, I reflected on the uncertainty of all our attachment on Earth, on the Irresistible Sweep with which nature absorbs every thing, into itself….I then reflected that every purpose of those inanimate things was answered during their existence here, yes, said I, I will hold the consoling Idea to my heart, we shall not perish as the Trees of the field…”
Happily, his words–and USS Constitution–live on.
– K. Monea
1. Lahvis, Sylvia Leistyna. “Icons of American Trade: The Skillin Workshop and the Language of Spectacle.” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 27, no. 4, 1992, pp. 213–233., www.jstor.org/stable/1181434.