Sketch of the Life of Willard H. Nickerson
We soon landed on a group of islands belonging to Equador, near the equator. We had to go back into the island about three miles for terrapin. The island was uninhabited and there was no water or fruit there. We got lost and wandered around for several hours, and as our water bottles had been broken in going around we were almost dying with thirst. When we finally reached the beach we had to signal to the ship and they came ashore and brought bread and water. We then left the island and went aboard the ship. Then we went on a cruise for a few months, then visited Peru. After another cruise we went down to the South Sea Islands and stayed there about two weeks. The inhabitants are said to be cannibals and therefore uncivilized, but appeared to be harmless. They live without any manual labor, for what they eat grows without any cultivation. It consists of bananas, breadfruit, cocoanuts and other small fruits. They cook nothing but the breadfruit - everything else is eaten raw, even the fish that they catch in the bay. We went from there to the coast of California, which was a good whaling ground. We cruised around six months before going to any port, then we run down across to Chile. After another cruise of several months, we went down to the Marquise Islands again (better known as the South Sea Islands.) There were some missionaries there in Nukaheva bay. They were French Catholics. One of them, with his steward, wanted to go into one of the wild islands in the same group, so our captain took him on board as we were going that way and landed him on one of the islands. I thought I would like to be a missionary, too, so went ashore and ran away from the ship. I stayed there about four months. These islands are not inhabited in the interior, but all live in tribes on the ocean front, each tribe 10 miles apart. Soon after this an English whaler came along and I went aboard of her, and went on a six months cruise with them. They went up to Chile and I left the ship and stayed there a couple of months, there shipped on a whaler bound for the United States, after being gone about four years. This was in 1857 that I got back to Massachusetts. I found business rather slack and after a time drifted into Holliston. There was some excitement there over the cutting down of an old elm tree which stood in fornt of the hotel, and claimed by the proprietor to belong to the hotel property. The selectmen of the village claimed it was on the highway, and therefore belonged to the town, and they had gone to Boston - twentyfive miles - to get an injunction. The tree was dead on top and no longer an ornament to the town. The hotel man wanted to get the tree down before the selectmen returned with the injunction. They got a woodchopper and he went to work, but the officer stopped him. Then they came after me. There was a division in the town - some for and some against cutting the tree down. They offered me $5.00 for the job, but after hearing an explanation of the thing, I told them I would work for $5.00 an hour, though I was no woodchopper. So they told me to begin, and I went to the hotel, where they gave me a new axe and I went to the tree, which was in the middle of a mound two feet high and about eight feet across. I climbed upon the mound and went to chopping. The officer came up and took hold of my arm, and I shook him off, and he fell off the mound into the mud. I told him I was hired by the hotel man, so kept on chopping. Then he got up and deputized three or four men to help him stop me from chopping. They rushed up there and undertook to take the axe away from me ; they didn 't succed, and I went to chopping again. One of the deputies closed his umbrella and stuck it against the tree, and I chopped it off for him. Then they didn't bother me much more. Soon the woodchopper came in on the other side of the tree and went to work. The force went around and took the axe away from him, and took him down to City Hall and locked him up. I hacked away at the tree until noon, and we all went into the hotel for dinner. I got through before the rest and got my axe which the hotel man had locked up for me for safe keeping, and went to chopping again. When I came out of the hotel, there were about 50 Irish shoemakers on the opposite side of the street, who began to cheer me. Then when the officers came out. there were about twenty-five citizens who joined them, and came up in a body and pushed me away from the tree down towards City Hall. I still had my axe. Then these Irishmen all surged down the sidewalk and got between us and City Hall. Then they made a rush and pressed the whole crowd back to the tree again and I got out of the crowd and went to chopping. At 2 o'clock the selectmen came with an injunction and I had to quit. I hadn't chopped very much but had girdled the tree pretty well. I got my $15.00 (three hours work). I afterwards heard that it was proven that the tree belonged to the hotel property and that Wheeler, the woodchopper, sued the town for false arrest, but never got a dollar. The day following there was a column and a half, appeared in the Holliston newspaper, referring to me as the wild man from the South Sea Islands.
This was about the time of the panic of 1858 and 59. Business was suspended, factories closed and we couldn't make a living. 1 took my $15.00 and shipped from Boston to New Orleans on the bark " Egypt," to go to Liverpool. We started in tow down the Mississippi river. There was a tough looking crew, half of them drunk, and I made up my mind not to go to Liverpool, so just before we arrived in New Orleans, I went below and put on two pair of pants and two shirts, and came up and dropped over board. I had left my shoes behind because I couldnt' swim with them. This was Saturday night. I landed on a good road on the levee; the mosquitoes were bad and chewed by feet and made them swell, putting them in bad condition. I went back of a plantation and climbed into a large tree, covered with long Spanish moss. This moss is equal to a mosquito net. I went to sleep and slept till noon the next day. Then I got up and went on down the levee. By this time I was getting hungry and hadn't any money. I happened to find a little silver five-cent piece in my pocket and it looked like a loaf of bread to me. I came out onto the levee in front of the plantation Sunday, about noon. There stood a planter, and three or four white women and several slaves. I spoke to the planter and asked him if there was a store near. Instead of answering me he looked me over and said, "You look to me like a man who has just run away from a ship." I told him he was a good guesser. He said, "If I should do my duty I should have you taken up and sent back to the city." I told him it was none of his business and that I had a right to travel on the levee if I wanted to. He said, "It sets a bad example to the niggers." I said I'm not a nigger and I don't care anything about your niggers - and you had better not molest me. He said no more to me and walked on. There are sugar plantations all along the river joining each other. I went on to the next plan tation and there I found a small store on the levee and I got a loaf of bread with my five cent piece. It looked as if it had been baked a month. I dipped part of it into the water to soften it and ate it. I saved the rest till supper. I could have eaten it all easily. Just then I saw a little darkey come over the fence on the next plantation with a good sized watermelon. He kept looking back as if he had stolen it. I hollored at him and told him to drop that melon. He dropped it and skipped back. I happened to have a sheath knife with me, so I sat down and had my desert, after my bread dinner. Then I went on and travelled till night. I didn't feel like going into the slave quarters ; there was a row of bitter orange trees along the levee, more for ornament than shade. I went up into one of them and pulled off a lot of Spanish moss enough to make me a bed to lie on, and to make a covering to keep the mosquitoes off. It was hardly dark when I turned into my new bed. A great many of those plantations were owned by French people at that time. Some French people came along and invited me to come in and stay all night, so I did and in the morning I got up and the planter brought me a pair of boots. I could have gotten them on ordinarily, but my feet were swollen and I couldn't wear them. After breakfast I studied about it awhile, then I left the boots and went on down the levee. About noon I came to a plantation where they had a saw mill on the levee. About that time there came up a shower and I went into the saw mill to keep from getting wet. While I was sitting in there, the shower being pretty nearly over, along came a big darkie and he kept looking at me. He said, "If the overseer saw you in there, he wouldn 't like it. " I told him it was none of his business ; if the overseer didn't want me in there he could tell me himself." In about two or three minutes a white man came in, presumably the overseer. I told him I took the liberty to come into the saw mill to get out of the rain. He wanted to know which way I was traveling and I told him "down the coast." I told him I had left the ship and didn't want to go back to the city for a few days. The overseer went into the house, and in about five minutes he sent a little darkie girl out and told me he wanted to see me in the house, and he invited me to take dinner with them. He told me that the planter who owned this plantation was on a cotton plantation that he owned above the city, and he left him in charge of this one. I told him I would like to go to work somewhere for a few days until I got ready to go back to the city. He told me if I would stay there till he got ready to go to the field about 1 o'clock, then I could take it easy, and go down to the next plantation and the owner of that plantation would get about half drunk every day after dinner. He was an old man and employed a number of white men around the place - and if I could get him when he was half drunk, there would be a chance to get in with him, and get work. When I got down there I went to his residence about 2 o'clock and found him as represented. He came to the door himself and said, "Well, my man, what can I do for you?" I told him I would like to go to work for a few days. He looked me over and said, "I would like to know what it means a likely looking fellow like you around here barefooted? " I said ' ' It means I couldn 't swim with my shoes on. " ' Oh !' " he said, "you ran away from the ship, did you?" and I said, "I certainly did." He called out for the women folks to come and look at me. He said "Have you been to dinner?" I told him I had and he said, "I don't believe it." He called to one of his servants and said. "Get this man some dinner. Did you ever drink any whiskey?" and I said "Oh, I have tasted it." "Well, you won't get any of it here. Then he said, "Adele, get him a bottle of ale; I'll see you later, down by the saw mill.' About four o'clock the old man came down horseback. He said, "Well, my man, what can you do?" He had a schooner up a bank of the river, high and dry. I said "I can fix that schooner up and put her afloat and run her for you on the river." "Well," he says, "I don't want that done just now: do you know anything about harness making?" I had worked in leather, so I said "Yes, I am somewhat familiar with it.' So he said, "You're just the man I want." He took me around to his harness shop where there was a young darkey about 18 years old, working: Then he asked me about wages, and I told him I didn't want anything. He said, "That won't do," so he offered me something and I agreed to it. I worked at harness making till he had all the harness made up that he wanted. Then he said I could fix the schooner, so I worked about two weeks on it. I got it fixed up and put it afloat. He wanted to send it to New Orleans to carry up some stuff that he had on the plantation and bring back something else. Then after I got it all fixed and ready to go he told me that he had a man who had run the schooner on the river and knew all the ports, etc., and he wanted him to go as captain, and I could go as mate. It had a crew of three darkies. I didn't say anything but I made up my mind when I got to the city I would leave him. He was giving me $25.00 a month. The first trip that we started on was about four o'clock in the afternoon. We got down opposite the plantation where I had taken dinner with the overseer when the new captain run her on to a mud flat hard and fast.