Captain James Wyer (1816-1899)

Captain James Wyer

Photo courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

Photo courtesy Nantucket Historical Association.

By the time he was 37, James Wyer had spent 16 years at sea. Born on Nantucket on January 20, 1816 to Obed Wyer, Jr. and Polly Gorham, Wyer was the middle child of three boys. Wyer learned two trades that were important to any whaleman—cooperage and carpentry. (Perhaps his skill as a woodworker influenced the baskets he made later in life.)

Wyer sailed on four whaling voyages, including one lasting more than five years. Wyer hoped to sail as a boatsteerer on his first voyage but was hired as a cooper. He would end up doing both jobs. His second voyage upon the new vessel Monticello took him to the Sandwich Islands and the coast of Japan. His third voyage was exceptionally fruitful. Wyer’s vessel returned to Nantucket with 2,600 barrels of sperm whale oil. Before Wyer’s fourth and final voyage of which he captained, he married Harriet N. Thompson in 1851. His last voyage lasted only two years as he was able to purchase whale oil at auction from a condemned ship in the Navigator Islands.

Harriet suffered a long illness and died in 1860. Perhaps this is why after only one voyage as captain, Wyer retired from the sea. Following Harriet’s death, Wyer left Nantucket for California. Many Nantucket men headed west to pan for gold. While the work was dangerous, it was still considerably safer than the business of whaling. He worked there as a carpenter for four years before returning to Nantucket.

Wyer married Lois N. (Pease) Starbuck in 1866. She was the widow of another great whaling captain, Charles E. Starbuck. Lois had two children from her first marriage, Mary Elisa and Henry Pease to whom Wyer became a step-father.

There is no record of how Wyer became interested in lightship (then called rattan) baskets. He did have a relative who served onboard the South Shoal Lightship. Considering his background in carpentry and cooperage, it is not surprising that the retired captain took to basket making in his later years. He made baskets between the 1870s and 1890s, exhibiting his work at agricultural fairs on the island, evening winning first prize in 1879. Wyer showed no sign of slowing down. He was “the first of our octogenarians to attempt to master a bicycle,” the Inquirer & Mirror reported.

Captain Wyer was one of the original purchasers of the Pacific Club, a place for retired sea voyagers to gather. Today, the first floor of the Pacific Club building houses the Four Winds Craft Guild, a maritime craft shop that specializes in lightship baskets. Perhaps Captain Wyer would enjoy that two of his passions are together again.

Captain Wyer died in 1899. “Moored at Last,” the obituary of the great seafarer read.