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    Journal and Letters of Charles Briggs, Midshipman on the USS Nipsic During the Panama Canal-Darien Expedition in 1870-1871. Journal, 8" x 12.5", bound quarter leather with marbled boards, 191 pages (9 blank), dating from September 6, 1870 to April 30, 1871; and 3 letters, dated March 8 to April 1, 1871, from Briggs to his mother from aboard the USS Nipsic. In addition to the journal and letters, are the following: Brigg's appointment as midshipman in the U.S. Navy, 9.5" x 15 7/8" partially printed document, dated October 22, 1866 (effective July 30, 1866), signed by Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Navy, with the stamp of seal of Navy Department; and a hand drawn map (in ink) of Darien Bay, 2 pages (both sides of one sheet) 8.75" x 13.5", circa February 2-3, 1871, showing Western and Eastern shores of the Bay.

    Charles Briggs was a midshipman on the USS Nipsic, a gunboat in the United States Navy, during 1870-71. The ship was launched on June 15, 1863, and commissioned on September 2, 1863. She arrived off the coast of South Carolina in November 1863 to join in the blockade of Charleston, where she served until the end of the American Civil War. The Nipsic served primarily with the South Atlantic Squadron off the coast of Brazil, and in the West Indies, protecting American commerce and interests until 1873 when she was decommissioned and subsequently broken up. In 1871, under the command of Thomas Oliver Selfridge (1804-1902) of the United States Navy, the Nipsic went to the Isthmus of Darien to scout out an appropriate location for the north end of a projected Panama Canal. The Nipsic was part of two voyages sponsored by the United States government in 1870. Three routes were surveyed across the narrow part of the Isthmus by Selfridge, all of which posed obstacles that made the construction of a canal impracticable. He suggested a route by the Atrato and Napipi rivers as perfectly feasible, with an estimated cost of $124,000,000. Selfridge's findings were referred in 1872 to a commission to continue investigations. In the meantime, a French company undertook the construction of a canal between Aspinwall and Panama in 1881, under the direction of Ferdinand De Lesseps, but after spending millions of dollars, the French abandoned the project in 1890. The United States took control of the project in 1904, and finally completed it in 1914.

    Briggs's journal begins in September 6, 1870, when he reported for duty on the Nipsic. His daily entries mention the weather, wind direction, temperature, barometric readings, location, daily activities of the crew, and several disciplinary measures taken against sailors who broke the rules. On September 14, the Nipsic "made sail" from Georgetown Harbor, Prince Edward Island, Canada, and "stood for Colville Bay." Within weeks, the crew witnessed its first court martial. Briggs records that at 1:30pm on September 19, all hands were called on deck to hear "proceedings of a Naval Summary Court Martial in case of Robt. Kearney....Charge Disobedience of orders of Ex Officer. Found guilty and sentenced to confinement in double irons for 25 days on bread and water and 15 days extra duty with musket." After cruising around the Prince Edward Islands for about a month, the Nipsic sailed southward along the U.S. coastline, arriving at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. on November 1, 1870. One the way, there was another court martial held on October 17. According to Briggs, the case involved a crewmember found guilty of "sleeping in his post," for which he was "to be confined for 30 days in double irons on bread and water and to perform extra duty for 30 days." After four days in Washington, the vessel sailed toward Norfolk, Virginia, arriving there on November 7. Ten days later, the Nipsic was back at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. to take on supplies, perform minor repairs and painting, departing from the nation's capital on December 17 to continue its journey southward.

    On December 29, the Nipsic anchored off Key West, Florida and two days later was sailing in the Gulf of Mexico. In January 26, 1871, the vessel reached Aspinwall (now Colón), Panama. On January 30, the Nipsic entered and anchored in the Gulf of Darien, located north and east of the border between Panama and Columbia. On pages 120-121 of his journal, Briggs drew (in ink) a map of the Gulf of Darien, showing the location of the Nipsic, which he completed on February 2 or 3. By February 9, the vessel was back off the coast of Aspinwall. On page 126 of his journal, Briggs drew (in ink), either on February 10 or 11, a map of Limon Bay and Aspinwall. The maps drawn in the journal appear to be initial drafts of the more detailed maps drawn separately. In total, there are four maps.

    By February 15, the vessel was on its way back to the Gulf of Darien to examine a suitable location for a canal. In his entry for February 23, Briggs records the sending of a "party in charge of Lieut. McCormack and Master Lee to establish a station on Pt. Caribana," the northernmost point of the Gulf. Two days later, Briggs writes "Lieut. McCormack...and 13 men left the ship to examine the reef off Point Caribana." By March 6, the Nipsic was sailing back to Aspinwall, but was back in the Gulf of Darien by March 17 to continue its information gathering concerning the suitability of the area for a canal. In a March 11 letter to his mother, Briggs provides personal details that he does not mention in his journal: "we just returned from the Atrato River where the survey is going on....We remained there four days and then went to the mouth of the Gulf of Darien to survey Pt. Caribana and Pt. Arenas....I didn't go out with any of the expeditions that remained away over night, and I assure you it was something very disagreeable, for the mosquitoes are so thick that in two hours one day my hands were bitten so much that I counted 108 bites on one hand, and the other had about as many." After March 17, the Nipsic sailed for the Gulf of San Blas along the Panama coast. On March 23, according to Briggs's entry for that day, an exploring party consisting of "Lieut. Hubbard, Master Greenleaf and seven men left the ship to ascend the Carati Chica River and explore the country to the Divide." In an April 1 letter to his mother, Briggs reported that "We have finished all the work assigned to us, all we have to do now is to go once more to the Atrato River, then unless they find some more work for us we ought to go home soon." Although the Nipsic was a gunboat prepared for battle, it encountered no trouble during this expedition. Briggs's journal entry for April 16, 1871, however, does mention a situation that could have led to a conflict with a native population in the area. On that day, at 9:30 in the morning, while the Nipsic was anchored in the Gulf of Darien near the Atrato River, Briggs wrote, "men on the Point fired from rifles and sent up a rocket. Manned second cutter and sent to find out trouble, which proved to be the landing of a canoe with natives, supposed to be thieves and they fled upon the approach of a boat from the 'Guard.'" Briggs's journal ends with his entry dated April 30, 1871, when the Nipsic was anchored in the harbor of Aspinwall.

    Condition: The journal's binding is weak along the front and back joints, with the top of the spine missing leather and exposing the signatures and the text block. Internally, the journal is in good condition, with small amounts of spotting and toning throughout. The other documents have the usual folds but otherwise are in good condition.


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    April, 2018
    18th Wednesday
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