Female Sailors

Not all women sailing on board were wives or daughters of whaling captains. There were incidents where women dressed as men in order to sign on as crew. One documented incident happened under Captain Thomas Sullivan sailing the Christopher Mitchell out of Nantucket in December 1848.

After seven months at sea, in July 1849, heading towards the Galapagos Islands, Sullivan suddenly turned his ship around and headed for Paita, a port in Peru. It had been discovered that a 19 year-old woman from Rochester, New York, Ann Johnson, had posed as a man to join the crew using her father’s name, George Johnson. According to author Joan Druett, "She was also known as Shorty, claimimg to have left home in July, 1848 and casting off her petticoats in order to see the world."

When the ship was off the coast of Peru, Ann fell ill and took to her bunk. Her disguise of a homemade corset under loose fitting clothes exposed her female body while she slept and a fellow crewmember noticed. Although there are several stories as to why Miss Johnson signed on, some are more believable than others. One was that she wanted to track down the love of her life who recently had left for the Pacific to hunt whales rather than to marry. Another suggested motive was that she believed she would make lots of money in the business.

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image of woman_disguised

Library of Congress