I used to love a ship’s launch—rubbing shoulders with the masses along the water-buffed docks that creaked and groaned under foot. Father brought me often in my youth, well aware that Follow My Leader and porcelain dollies enticed little of my impressionable mind. Rather, it was the rhythmic spanking of riggings against mast, the scent of boiling crabs newly plucked from the merchant woman’s pot, and the massive bobbing hulls varnished and gleaming under the sun’s promised blistering that heightened my senses. Sights and sounds and smells that burrowed under my skin until I itched for open seas and longed for distant shores. But not today. Not ever again. I was twenty and alone, shunned by my family, and I was leaving, forever, the warmth of Maribeth Grady’s smile.
From on deck, I could see her now, shoulder-pressed, hand waving high, nose red and raw in the frigid February afternoon, though, much like me, lacking celebration as the square-stern rigger, Brooklyn, prepared to embark from New York’s Old Slip of the East River.
Maribeth loved me as no other friend could, and she had come alone to the pier, risking virtue among the rabble of dock workers and pickpockets who earned their living along the waterfront. No one supported her. Neither father, mother, brother, or sister upheld her decision to see off nearly two hundred thirty men, women and children who believed in angels and golden plates, and who had followed the martyred Prophet Joseph and now the Prophet Brigham Young.
“I shan’t forget you, dear friend,” I yelled, my glove-clad hands waving wildly, tears stinging hot in my eyes. The wind collided with my words, whipping them up and over the water, far from Maribeth’s ears.
Though I imagined her yelling back her response, “I’ll love you forever, Eliza Savage. I’ll find you somehow, someway.”
I clutched the railing as the 445-ton Yankee trader lurched and moved away from its moorings. The bow parted the steaming, foam-capped ripples as the ship headed into the stream. With handkerchief in hand, I waved a last desperate farewell, blowing kisses through the wind-swept blankets of salty mist between my friend and me. Three cheers peeled out from the crowd along the diminishing wharf, and in response, everyone around me bellowed three chants in return.
The Steamboat Samson came alongside then, made fast to the Brooklyn to direct her out to sea. Once past the Narrows, the captain gave the order and passengers hugged their loved ones for the last time, mothers weeping for their daughters, fathers shaking their sons’ hands and falling on their necks. Our destination lay 2,400-miles away, around the Horn and onward to upper California where the small mining town of Yerba Buena resided. Those not joining us on the journey boarded the Samson with tears and good byes. The vessel pulled away and, too soon, disappeared from view.
As the ship swung around the pier, I fought my way through the company along the length of the icy deck. By the time I reached the aft, we were some distance from the wharf, and I watched its moorings grow smaller and smaller until it was but a dot in the site of the ship’s wake. When I could see nothing but the faint outline of the distant shore, I finally hung my head and wept. We were leaving the United States, and for how long, I could not say. I trembled to think what lay ahead on the distant Mexican shores.