Halfway across the world and back again

Kathleen Major has been volunteering in the Manuscripts Department at AAS for several years and just recently processed the diaries of nineteenth-century serviceman, adventurer, and housekeeper Frank Nash. Kathy worked at AAS from 1976 to 1984 and was Keeper of Manuscripts for a portion of that time. After leaving the Society to care for her children, Kathy worked at the Gale Free Library in Holden, most recently as head of technical services, until her retirement in 2014.

Francis Alvarez Hartley Nash (1834-1898), the son of a farmer in Abington, Massachusetts, was determined to seek a life of adventure—and he did exactly that—before settling down to help his wife keep house.

In fourteen volumes of diaries, kept from 1852-1867, Nash tells us that he joined the United States Navy at age eighteen and was assigned to the store ship Supply, which was part of Commodore Matthew Perry’s famous Black Ships Cruise to Japan, a type of gunboat diplomacy to open trade—forcibly if necessary—with Japan.

Nash describes visiting a library, a brothel, and a bowling alley all in one day (Saturday, August 5, 1854)

The experience proved to be insufficient adventure for Frank Nash. Although he had a wife and three children, he joined the U.S. Coast Guard when the Civil War began. Because he deemed the pay insufficient, he quickly decided to rejoin the Navy and participate in the blockade of Southern ports. Nash later joined the 38th Massachusetts Infantry, but, due to a gap in the diaries, we don’t know why Nash decided to fight in the land war instead of the Navy. He also participated in the siege of Port Hudson, Louisiana. Finally, in July 1865, he was sent home to his family and life as a bookkeeper in Abington, Massachusetts.

The fourteen volumes of Nash’s diaries contain wonderful descriptions of life at sea during the Black Ships cruise, life in China and Japan (where Nash hired a courtesan), and Perry’s success with the Japanese. While home in Abington he wrote of his devotion to Unitarian Universalism, his family, and abolitionism and the Union (at one point contributing money to help a father free his son from slavery). He was also a progressive who helped his wife with housekeeping and child care and “had no doubt that woman’s sphere will be greatly changed in 20 years from now [1860], and without their losing their feminine traits of character, of mildness, gentleness, and loveliness.” 

Nash’s diaries are a remarkably descriptive account of both family life in the mid-nineteenth century and a life of adventure during a turbulent time. Molly McCarthy says in The Accidental Diarist that keeping a diary became so popular and so common as to be a “national pursuit” for Americans in the nineteenth century, and it is true that diaries from this period abound (AAS has over 240 in its collection). But the record of each unique life details an individual world that can never be reduced to generalizations.

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