Help & advice

Sailing away

Now I can see why genealogy is so addictive.  I’ve started researching the journey that I will take in my great-grandfather’s footsteps when at the age of 23 in 1867 he risked everything to seek his fortune in America.

Everything I know about him comes from his beautifully written letters and one other document that is more like an autobiography.  Maybe my passion for helping people tell their life stories comes from him.  I know from reading his letters that I am proud to share his DNA and perhaps a little of my character comes down the line from him.

I found the letters while rummaging through my father’s possessions after he died and while I was sorting out his probate. If you’ve ever done a probate you know how much hunting you need to do to find the paperwork required by the banks and the government. Anyway I was emptying out drawers full of all those odds and sods that one sticks in drawers to forget about them and right at the back my fingers closed around something.  It turned out to be this wallet.

When I opened up the wallet the first thing I saw was some writing…’10shilling reward if returned to W Mitchell, 44 Vincent Square, Westminster  SW.


 And tucked into the pouch of the wallet was a grey snakeskin wallet and in that wallet were 14 letters written by Walter Mitchell back to his mother, his brother and his sweetheart Emillie about his adventures in America.


Below is the start of his autobiography document.  So from it I know that he was born in London on June 20, 1844. That he lived in Chelsea and went to Oxford House School in the Kings Road until midsummer 1858.


I may research a little more about his start in life in the future but, for now, I am going to follow his adventure to America.

I knew that he left London for New York in 1867 on a ship called ‘Hudson’. I also knew he went out with two chums.


A Google search introduced me to the terrific website created by the Immigrant Ships Transcribers Guild.  A volunteer called Phil Buckley had transcribed the passenger list for the Hudson’s journey that reached New York on 19th July 1867.

The ship’s master was Isaiah Pratt.

It’s difficult to describe how I felt looking at the list of people on this immigrant ship. It was a sense of excitement and wonder. There were 276 people on Master Pratt’s list all hoping for a good new life in America.  Most of them were from England but other nationalities were there too; the Irish, a few Scots, large numbers from Germany, a few from Holland, Switzerland and a couple from France.

It’s weird, but I felt a shiver of excitement as I scanned down the list and there he was, number 13, Walter Mitchell, 23 years old, a carpenter from England intending to make the United States his home and he was travelling 2nd class. The next two names on the list gave me information on his two travelling companions. Thomas Fife, aged 24, was a plasterer, and John McDonald, aged 26, was a miner. Somehow seeing Walter's name listed made him even more real to me than he already was.

But now I wanted to know more. I wondered what the ship was like and what conditions were like as they travelled across the Atlantic. I contacted Phil and he was kind enough to give me some web sites to investigate.

At the same time I decided to get help from people in the LinkedIn groups I belonged to and the Genealogy Consultancy came up trumps, in particular Annette Logue who pointed me to .

Because most of the people responding to my enquiries were in the United States it was getting later and later at night but when I got Annette’s link I couldn’t wait until the morning and lying in bed with my iPad I got my first glimpse of the Hudson.

When you think about the ships today that cruise with 3,000 passengers the Hudson looks very small, but it was home to my great-grandfather and his chums for a few weeks in June 1867.

The site also has some fascinating diaries and letters describing an earlier crossing on the Hudson with Isaiah Pratt as the master. I am quoting here extensively from the letters and diaries of people who were part of the Mormon migration.  These documents vividly describe the kind of journey my great-grandfather had as he crossed the Atlantic.  And, once again, it re-inforces my view that it is the little details in a life story that make it fascinating, which is why I created autodotbiography so that future generations would not be robbed of knowing about the day-to-day lives of their parents and grandparents.

Anyway, below is a selection of the memories of the Mormons who wrote about their journey four years before Walter sailed.

“The vessel was completed and we boarded her for our journey across the great Atlantic, six weeks being necessary to complete the voyage. While crossing the ocean, fire broke out on the ship, which created a panic on board. However, not much damage was done. Severe storms were encountered, causing much seasickness amongst the passengers. On another occasion, a hostile warship hove into sight and all persons, both passengers and crew, large and small, women, men and children were all rushed on deck to show how many souls were aboard. During the voyage the regular food gave out and all on board had to live on hard tack.” Autobiography of Eva Christine Beck Zimmerman Harrison.

“On various occasions we were becalmed, making no progress whatever for several days, and what wind we had was fickle, boisterous, and mostly [p.539] ahead, consequently our getting to New York has been principally accomplished by tacking frequently, and keeping as near to the wind as possible. The weather during the first three weeks of the journey was very warm, after which the temperature of the atmosphere cooled considerably which was more favorable to the general health. Considering the number of passengers, very few have suffered from seasickness, although, at times, from the increased motion of the vessel, the majority felt rather qualmish.”

“The ship itself is the finest we ever sailed on. Her movements, even in rough weather, are easy and graceful, and the accommodations afforded for cabin and steerage passengers, are not to be surpassed. The water produced from the condensing engine is quite a luxury, far better than is got in many of the towns and cities in Old England. This boon, however, can only be fully appreciated by those who have crossed the ocean in vessels having bad water with no condensing engine on board.

"The provisions, on every occasion when dealing them out, were found to be in good condition and of excellent quality, also the medical comforts provided by you for the Saints, have been liberally dispensed among the needy, as wisdom dictated from time to time. The supply allowed was equal to the demand, and the quality was first class. For your kindness in so providing for the sick on board all feel very thankful.

"On three occasions we were nearly run into by other ships coming from windward, by their not using that caution so essentially necessary in the preservation of life and property on the deep. On the 8th instant a steamer, one of the Confederate privateers, supposed to be the "Georgia" or "Rappahannock," passed us. Her movements were rather suspicious as she turned two or three times near us, as if surmising on the probabilities of success, by way of booty, did she intercept us. Her appearance created some excitement among a few timid ones on board, and their strange expressions of doubt concerning their safety, to the fearless and confiding, were very amusing.” Letter from John M. Kay - July 19, 1864.

The next entry I include is not strictly on the point but, as I am named after one of the Isles of Scilly, I was rather entertained by the following entry.

“Mon. 13. At 11 a.m. passed Mounts Bay & during the day Lands End & Five Rocks called "Long Ships." On the summit of one is a splendid lighthouse. The English Channel is 320 miles long & finishes at this point. We pass the Scilly Isles. These Isles tho small are inhabited by a race who are but little known. We are now on the broad Atlantic & the roll of the long waves make the Hudson pitch and toss about like a nut shell. 10 p.m. strong wind from southwest with rain. Top sails stowed.” Autobiography and Journals of John Lyman Smith.

This last one is the best précis of the journey.

So, even though he didn’t write about his Atlantic crossing I now a have a much clearer idea of how Walter’s journey began.

“In 1864, when I was sixteen years of age, my parents decided to come to Utah for the sake of their religion. We were all anxious to go but we met with a lot of opposition from all those who knew us. Mr. Wean tried to dissuade father by saying, "Henry, if you will change your mind, I'll give you a better job and I'll sen your three boys to school. They can learn all it is possible for them to learn and then I'll apprentice them to any trade they want to follow. It won't cast you a penny." In spite of this my father adhered to his original decision and in the summer of that year we joined an emigration train and left London docks on the sailing vessel, Hudson, Jun 1st, 1864. There were 900 Saints on board. That was a sight to be remembered! Some were crying, some were laughing and others fainting at the thoughts of leaving their loved ones never to see them again. My father fainted on the deck as the ship began pulling away from the wharf. We thought for a few minutes that my brother Henry would not be with us. My cousin, James Thomas, was holding him on the dock trying to keep him from leaving but at the last moment he broke away and with a run and a big jump, caught hold of one of the ropes on the side of the boat and climbed aboard.

"Captain Pratt, a cousin to Parley P. Pratt, was our captain. A fine man and a good sailor. He piloted our ship to Castle Gardens, New York safe in the harbour after battling head winds all the way across. There were 1025 people all told on board ship. We stood the trip fairly well. The fare was coarse but substantial. Hard ship's biscuits, fat beef, pork, beans and rice were our chief foods. Mother brought a small coop of chickens, two hens and a rooster, across with her and the few eggs we gathered [p.296] were surely enjoyed. Mother was very sick on the ship and could not eat anything until we got an egg and made it into a custard. She was able to eat that and so gained strength. We had a few deaths aboard. When that happened the body was wrapped in a sheet, weighted, and laid on a plank. It was then taken to the side of the ship, the plank tipped, and the body slid off into the ocean. "The billows rolled as they rolled before; there was many a prayer did hallow the wave as they sank beneath in a traveller's grave."

"At that time the Civil War was going on and as we neared our destination, the warship, Alabama, pulled alongside our ship to determine what kind of freight was aboard. The sailors cried out to us to "say your prayers, you Mormons, you are all going down!" But we were spared. We were all immigrants from other countries and they dared not sink us. It took us seven and one-half weeks to make the trip across and at the end our ship was piloted into the harbor.” Autobiography of James T. Sutton

“The only points to break the monotony of our condition were the occasional sighting of an ocean liner or some other sailing vessel which was enjoyed, especially if near, also the shoals of porpoise and the blurting of the whale, which threw up bursts of water many feet high. However at midnight when about in mid-ocean we were awakened by much activity of the crew on deck, and next morning we learned that we nearly had a collision with another sailing boat--so close that the rigging of each ship became entangled, and we felt, upon hearing the news, surely the Lord was mindful of us, and that he had protected us from dangers.[p.5]

"The next point of interest to us was when we were nearing the shores of the U. S., when early in the morning the Confederate gunboat "Georgia" hailed us and brought us to a standstill, for be it remembered the War of the Rebellion was now in full sway. After inquiries from our captain we were permitted to move on for they ascertained that 1100 British subjects were on board. Consequently they had no means of handling that many persons and the would-be prize was given up, the gunboat's band playing a farewell.

"On our journey much sickness in our company was among us, such as measles, and many of the children died and were buried at sea. It was a custom that will always be remembered by us, and very sad to contemplate. The corpse was wrapped in a blanket and then placed upon a plank, and at a certain part of the ceremony the plank was raised and the body fell into the watery grave.

"It was early in the morning of the 16th of July when the words, "Land Ahoy!" were heard and it was a lively rush on deck to witness the new land, and it was certainly a picture never to be forgotten. After our six weeks and over of an ocean life, to again witness land, it looked to us beautiful. In a few short hours a pilot had us in a tow and we were safely taken into the harbor of New York.”Autobiography of Charles William Symons.

Next stop, New York.









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