James Byers Hatch: Sea Captain
James Byers Hatch, of Springfield, Mass., was an able and successful seaman, having sailed the oceans of the world for nearly forty years. He commanded some of the finest ships out of New York and Boston, among them the Barnstable, the Loo-Choo, the Horsburg, and the Great Britain.
Born in Springfield in September of 1815, James was raised in a home on State Street where the City Library presently stands. His father was employed in the commissary store kept by James Byers near the Springfield Armory. At the age of 15, having completed only two years of high school, Hatch left his native city to find his career at sea.
His first voyage was made as third mate on the ship Alert from Boston to Canton, China in 1831. Over his long career, he worked his way up to first mate, captain, and eventually, ship owner. He never lost a ship or cargo and ran aground but twice.
In 1848, the U. S. government chartered the Loo-Choo, with Hatch as master, to transport part of Col. Stevenson’s 7th Regiment of New York Volunteers to San Francisco “around the horn.” They arrived in San Francisco in March of 1849 at the height of the gold rush.
In an article about Hatch, a Springfield newspaper wrote of those times: “When the California trade began there were still more fabulous profits. Sometimes as high as $75 a ton was paid for freightage. People were willing to pay anything to get a few of the necessities of civilization on the unsettled Pacific coast. This was an even more precarious trade, however, as there were no storehouses, and if a thing was not in demand at once it was a total loss. Whole cargoes of beans and tobacco were dumped into the water to make a landing. He was in San Francisco when only three houses stood there, and bought gold from there before the finds that gave California fame had been made. After the gold fever broke out the sailors would make a rush for the mines the moment they landed and it was almost impossible to get men to sail the ship back.”
After forty years at sea, Hatch was able to retire in comfort. He built a handsome mansion on Maple Street in Springfield which he filled with interesting and valuable items he had accumulated in his travels, including a closet-full of rare china made to order for him.
Hatch is mentioned in Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana’s classic memoir of life as a sailor. Dana recalled Hatch thus: “The third mate, Mr. Hatch, a nephew of one of the owners, though only a lad on board the ship, went out chief mate the next voyage, and rose soon to command some of the finest clippers in the California and India trade, under the new order of things, — a man of character, good judgment, and no little cultivation.”
Capt. Hatch had his own thoughts about Richard Henry Dana and his classic book. He once said, “I think the things he says are true, but he stretched them so as to make them read well. He especially stretched the truth when he made himself out to be a good seaman, for he was only a boy without much experience.”
In a supplementary chapter to Dana’s book entitled “Seventy-Six Years After,” Dana’s son tracked the fate of many of the sailors mentioned in Dana’s book. He says this of Hatch: “Captain Hatch lost his only son, a lad of seven, on a voyage to Calcutta. ‘The boy,’ said he, ‘fell from the top of the house on the poop deck and died in about a week.’ His wife and married daughter both died in 1881. He himself settled in Springfield, Mass., his birthplace, and lost almost all he had saved in some unsuccessful business venture in that city, and lived a rather lonely and sad life. In the above letter he said, ‘I am now ready and anxious to leave this earth and take my chance in the next.’ He died at Springfield soon after, in 1894.”
James B. Hatch donated some of his log books and other items to the Springfield City Library and they now reside at the new Museum of Springfield History.