More than one man’s treasure

Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU Professor Jesse Walker with the ship's log and sea trunk.
Advocate staff photo by BILL FEIG -- LSU Professor Jesse Walker with the ship's log and sea trunk.

Sea chest, contents from Civil War era donated to LSU

LSU recently became the beneficiary of an old Civil War-era sea chest whose contents researchers believe could be of significant historical importance.

The only holdup is determining which items inside the sea chest belonged to its original owner, an old sea captain, and which items were put in the trunk later by his descendants.

But among the old pocket watch, monogrammed silverware, eyeglasses case and 1824 almanac, there is a stash of old shipping log books and personal diaries that one LSU researcher is convinced has some historical value.

The sea chest’s original owner was William A. Lord, a merchant who captained ships that sailed to China, India, Europe and Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of South America.

Later, the chest belonged to the late Evelyn Lord Pruitt, a donor to LSU’s Department of Geography and Anthropology, and sponsor of the university’s Coastal Studies Institute.

She is known for donating more than $900,000 to LSU to “educate women in the field of geography;” being named the first president of the national advocacy group, The Coastal Society; and receiving LSU’s Doctor of Humane Letters degree in 1983. She died in 2000.

While she was alive, Pruitt maintained a friendship with Harley Jesse Walker, an LSU Boyd professor emeritus in the Department of Geography and Anthropology.

Walker, who has spent large portions of his career studying Arctic river deltas in northern Alaska, occasionally would travel to Washington, D.C., on business. During certain trips, Walker said he would sometimes stop by Pruitt’s apartment building in Arlington, Va.

“I’d been to her apartment and seen the chest,” Walker said. “I expressed interest in it years ago.”

But Pruitt’s neighbors claimed the chest after her death. Walker said it wasn’t until recently when those neighbors decided to move to Florida that they offered him the chest.

“They shipped it two weeks ago,” Walker said Friday. “The only stipulation was that we find a university museum; or a maritime museum to put it in; or find some way it could be used to help students. It was like Christmas when we got it and opened it up.”

Walker and other faculty members will eventually take inventory and catalog the entire collection, but he said he hopes a student will take a special interest in it and perhaps use the chest as a basis for a thesis.

Flipping through the log books, Walker learned about the sea captain’s trips to Peru to collect guano, the manure of sea birds and cave-dwelling bats, to be shipped to Liverpool, England. The log books include some information about one ship with ties to LSU called the Emily Farnum.

On Oct. 3, 1862, the Emily Farnum, captained by Nathan Parker Simes, was captured and later released by a Confederate ship known as the Alabama. The Alabama’s captain was Raphael Semmes, who become a professor of philosophy and literature at LSU after the Civil War. The street running in front of LSU’s Student Union is named after Semmes.

The Emily Farnum was one of the only ships boarded by Semmes that wasn’t destroyed.

The diaries inside the sea chest with entries from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s offer “very detailed information of where the ships went and what they saw,” Walker said. Reading through them, he said, is akin to getting a glimpse of life immediately before and after the Civil War.

“My decision now is just what to do with all of this,” Walker said.

Amidst the brass bracelet affixed with the Lord’s picture on it and an old Union Army plaque recognizing an unnamed soldier’s promotion to corporal are several items Walker believes could have belonged to Pruitt and not her grandfather.

There are tiny antique salt and pepper shakers and something that looks like a unfinished, hand-painted Christmas ornament.

Walker said LSU will have a better idea of what those and several other unrecognizable items are once they are appraised.

“There are definitely some mysteries in here,” Walker said.