Eleanor (Ellen) Creesy & Flying Cloud

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    Frank Scott

    Eleanor (Ellen) Creesy was the wife of Captain Josiah Perkins Creesy, and is notable for being the navigator (perhaps co-navigator is a better term) of the clipper FLYING CLOUD for two record breaking passages from New York to San Francisco (1851 & 1854). Apparently she made her name by calculating the drift for a man overboard, ensuring that he was recovered in difficult conditions.

    David Shaw wrote a factionalised account with a terrible title, ‘Flying Cloud: The true story of America’s most famous clipper ship & the woman who guided her’ (New York, 2000), but did not provide any primary source detail as to her claim. Earlier classics gave her no credit, which is perhaps not surprising given attitudes of the time. For example, Carl Cutler’s ‘Greyhounds of the Sea’(New York, 1930) does not mention her at all, while Arthur Clark’s ‘Clipper ship Era’ (London, 1911) only mentions her hospitality in harbour.

    Worth noting that her exploits proceeded those of Mary Patten in NEPTUNE’S CAR (1856), and Mararetha Meinders in JOHANNA (1890), but they are much better known, probably because they more easily conformed with the Victorian reverence of the ‘one off’ heroine, as epitomised by Grace Darling.

    Two questions
    1. How strong is her claim?
    2. When was her skill first acknowledged in print?

    Frank Scott

    Subsequent to my initial post I have searched for a review for this book in both Mariner’s Mirror and Northern Mariner and found nothing.
    I have received the following responses on another forum:
    David Shaw also wrote an article “Flying Cloud and the Creesys”, which appeared in ‘Maritime Life and Traditions, No 11’, Summer 2001, pp. 44-55. This generated a letter concerning his very odd figures for the masthead height of the FLYING CLOUD. He had truncated the main mast in both book & article by about sixty feet, which is not a small error. This letter along with Shaw’s very weak reply is in MLT No 15, Summer 2002, p. 79.
    Shaw’s article, like the earlier book, has no primary material concerning Eleanor’s role as navigator. It simply states that she had learned navigation at young age from her father, and had read Maury’s “newly published” book. In 1851, when Captain Perkins Creesy took command of the FLYING CLOUD, this may have been on the Series C Pilot charts (Atlantic 1848; Pacific 1852), but Maury’s writings are so prolific that it is hard to be sure. Shaw also claims that Ellen was responsible for provisioning, procurement, stowage and medical supplies, but again without providing any primary sources.
    Joan Druett reported that she had considered Ellen Creesy’s story for her two excellent books on women at sea in the age of sail (‘Hen Frigates: Wives of Merchant Captains under Sail’ (London, 1998) and ‘She-Captains: Heroines and Hellions of the Sea’ (London, 2000)), but had rejected it as impossible to authenticate. She had found nothing about her in more substantial books, apart from stray mentions of her presence. More importantly, there was nothing in contemporary San Francisco papers, indeed no mentions in newspapers were found prior to 1983, when the Shaw book came out. There is a crew list at the San Francisco Maritime Museum, but she was not listed, which is interesting because at that time whaling captains were in the habit of listing their wives as navigators to get around shipowners’ objections. There is evidence that it was quite common for captains to teach their wives to navigate, as described by the wives themselves, Fidelia Heard and “Madam” Follansbee being examples that jump to mind. So the fact that Ellen could navigate would not have been considered newsworthy.
    Altogether it seems that this “True Story” is more a case of wishful thinking, and imagination, than historical reality. As a result, despite its thin veneer of historical research, I have to conclude that Shaw’s book should be classified under fiction.
    With thanks to W.H. (Bill) Bunting, Joan Druett, and Paul Adamthwaite, all of the MarHst-L Forum.

    Frank Scott

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