About the Author of the Journal

There is no “by line” in  the manuscript of the Journal of the Merrimac.  But there are many clues within the text itself to convince many of us that the author is Frederick Olney, third mate aboard Merrimac. Olney was born around 1810 in Brooklyn, Connecticut and died on March 14, 1869, age 59.  He is buried with his wife Olive Smith Harris (1822-1902) and their son Oliver (1848-1864) in the Carey Cemetery in Canterbury, Connecticut. Olney is on the crew list for the 1844-47 voyage of Merrimac as well as on the crew list for the 1851-54 voyage of General Williams, part of which is recorded in our Journal, although on this trip he is listed as Frederick "Huey''.  Although the surname is misspelled this is clearly the same person since the age and physical description match. He also served in the crew of North America on its 1842-44 voyage, which he alludes to in one of his entries in the Journal. It is likely that he also served on other ships than the three mentioned above, but in the 1860 US census for Canterbury, Connecticut, Frederick Olney is listed as a farmer, living with his wife and four children, with real estate worth $1000 and $500 in personal property. The race of all members of the family is “mulatto.” 

According to his description in the Merrimac crew list, Olney was a man of imposing stature, at 6’ 5” easily the tallest man on board.  At that time he was 35 years old with “yellow” skin and black hair.  When he set sail from New London in July of 1844, he was very recently married to wife Olive to whom there are frequent loving references in the Journal.  Olive was a younger sister of Sarah Harris Fayerweather who was involved in the Canterbury Female Boarding School incident in the early 1830s, which became a major case in the legal history of school desegregation in the United States when Headmistress Prudence Crandall was forced to close her school for black girls and to leave the state. A detailed account of Olney’s connection to the school and more information about the Harris family in New London follows below in an article by local historian Tom Schuch.

From the facts in the written historical record and the unsigned journal that he left behind, we can form a picture of Olney’s character and personality. He was a religious man and a teetotaler with strong feelings about right and wrong behavior.  A proud man and a hard worker, he expresses disapproval of fellow officers who slack off, and also of Captain Destin for excessively harsh discipline and for the lack of religious observances aboard ship. He is genuinely curious about the exotic places he visits during the voyages but many of his observations are those of an American man of his time and culture. His one reference to racism is when he visits Sydney, Australia and he writes bitterly in the Journal of the prejudice of the English, the “Monster Joe” that he experienced as he walked around the city.

---Laurie M. Deredita, librarian and editor

Frederick Olney and the Canterbury School

Frederick Olney lived in Norwich, and was a friend of Sarah Harris Fayerweather’s brother, Charles Harris, and Charles’ fiancée, Ann Maria Davis, who was a household employee of Prudence Crandall.   He was contacted by the mother of Gloriana Catherine Marshall, one of the students at the school, who asked him to deliver a package to her daughter in Canterbury.  A previous package that she had sent by normal post had failed to arrive.  Frederick agreed to deliver the package, and promised to send a letter to the mother as soon as it was delivered to confirm the delivery.   He did deliver the package, and wrote a note to the mother, while still at the school, as promised.  During his visit that day, he happened to notice that a clock was not working properly.  So he took down the clock and started to fix it.  It was at that moment that smoke was detected by one of the girls in the house. Olney traced the source of the smoke to a fire in the walls and floor, and immediately took steps to extinguish the fire.  This was shortly after the townspeople of Canterbury had made physical threats against the school.  The fire was put out and, luckily, no one was seriously injured.

A few days later, Olney was back in Norwich at a barber shop, and was approached by two men from Canterbury.  They questioned him about the fire, and then they arrested him, charging him with arson.  At his trial, the young students bravely testified in his defense in front of a hostile courtroom, and the mother came from New York to also testify on his behalf.  Their testimony gave a complete accounting of all of his activities that day, as well as establishing the high regard in which he was held.  The evidence of his innocence was so overwhelming that it took the all-white jury less than 15 minutes to acquit him.  Although it was determined that the fire was set by an arsonist from outside the building, no one else was ever prosecuted for the crime.  The prosecution had tried--- and failed--- to implicate Prudence Crandall and Frederick Olney in setting the fire to gain publicity and public sympathy.  Frederick Olney was, in fact, the hero who saved the school, and the despicable effort to frame him as the arsonist was a shameful miscarriage of justice.  It speaks to the bigotry of the time, and the desperate measures to which the townspeople of Canterbury were apparently willing to resort, to stop Crandall’s school.   And it resonates today as we continue to strive for justice and equity.

Most of the above information is from Susan Strane’s biography of Prudence Crandall, A Whole-Souled Woman, which I recommend for further information.  I am also grateful to Joan DiMartino, the Director of the Prudence Crandall Museum, for sharing her information with me.  I would further strongly recommend a couple of video presentations by Dr. Jennifer Rycenga that are available on Youtube.  Dr. Rycenga is arguably the foremost authority on Crandall and her school, and she is also very interested in the Olney journal.  She is presently writing a book on the Crandall school, with the focus on the students of the school, about which very little has been written. They are heroes also.  We eagerly await the publication of her book, and there is no doubt that her scholarship will shed even more light on this fascinating period of American history.

Frederick Olney was not only a significant part of the Crandall School story, but he was also related by marriage to the remarkable Harris family. In 1844, Frederick married Olive Smith Harris, the younger sister of Sarah Harris, who was the first Black student at Crandall’s Boarding School.  The Harris family, originally from Norwich and Canterbury, was active in the movement for abolition, Black suffrage, civil rights and education from as early as 1817.   At least two of the Harris sisters and their families were residents of New London in the 1840s.

This story of the Journal of the Merrimac could not have come at a more opportune moment:  the City of New London, in collaboration with New London Landmarks, is developing a Black Heritage Walking Trail, scheduled for completion this summer.  One of the 15 sites on the Trail is dedicated to Sarah Harris Fayerweather, who lived on Broad Street in New London with her husband George and their growing family from 1841 to 1855.  While in New London they were active in issues of civil rights, suffrage, abolition and the Underground Railroad.  Yet their presence here is virtually unknown.  Celinda Harris Anderson, one of Sarah’s sisters, also lived in New London, and with her husband William, was also active in the issues noted above.  This was also around the time that Ichabod Pease established his school for Black children in New London, which is also on the Heritage Trail.   We are currently exploring any possible connections between Pease and the Harris sisters.  His plaque has already been installed on the site of his school.

As mentioned above, Frederick Olney was married to a third Harris sister, Olive Smith Harris.  They were relatively newlyweds at the time of the Merrimac voyage.  This Journal potentially adds a whole new dimension to what we know of the Black community in New London and the surrounding area in the 1840s.  

---Tom Schuch