Captain Harry Pidgeon

Tales of his life, adventures and legacy

Harry Pidgeon, Circumnavigator, Adventurer, Photographer
Young Harry Pidgeon would have seemed an unlikely world adventurer. 

Thirty-four years before his birth, Harry's grandfather, Isaac Marion Pidgeon, Sr., sold his South Carolina plantation for $400 and financed a trek westward.  He settled on land about thirty miles inland from the Mississippi River.  It was still wild back country, so he planted winter hay for his oxen and built a log cabin.  Then he retrieved his wife and first seven children, whom he had left for a few months with his sister in Rushville, Illinois.  He was in excellent financial condition, having acquired the land for very little and with industry and hard work his large family flourished.
Harry was born near Salem, Iowa, on the same property homesteaded by his grandfather. Harry was the second son born to Isaac Marion Pidgeon, Jr. and his wife, Mary Ables, but his mother died when he was a toddler.  His father remarried a kind woman and Harry would eventually share this home with the eleven younger siblings he so adored.  The reality of being one of the older of thirteen children might have discouraged him from raising a family of his own or perhaps he just never found the time. 

His father, Isaac Pidgeon, Jr.,  was a politically active person immersed in the social issues of the day but also an experienced and successful farmer.  Although Harry's father believed the way to raise children was through gentle nurturance, earning one's place at the table was certainly a family value.  It is safe to assume that Harry's astounding physical fitness, even in old age, emerged as a result of his early farm training. Perhaps the distance from the ocean also had a bearing on why he never learned to swim. My cousin recently shared his explanation. He was often questioned about this after he was recognized as a master solo mariner. Apparently Uncle Harry used to say that for him there was no point in learning to swim. When you are hundreds of miles from any land, there was nowhere you would be able to swim to!

Harry's social conscience and general life philosophy were greatly shaped by his family's values.  His grandfather founded the first Society of Friends settlement in the State of Iowa.  Commonly known as Quakers (although the term 'Friends' is preferred by members), Harry grew up with wonderfully progressive egalitarian principles.  The Society of Friends' origins in England were based on Christian principles, but the Friends soon distinguished themselves as independent-minded and opposed to the finite hierarchical attitudes of the day.   

The Friends further aggravated the clergy in the 18th century when they accepted principles of science as being superior to those of religious dogma and practice.  This was a particularly offensive affront to the powerful Church of England.  These same underlying principles, however, were carried forward and later inspired members of Harry's family to condemn domestic violence.  The standard of the day had specific limits on the amount and type of beatings men could inflict on their wives and children, but the Friends disapproved of all types of physical punishment.  Further, they believed in promoting the egalitarian treatment of women and lobbied to abolish slavery.  Eventually these beliefs - coupled with others like the Friends' practice of communicating directly with God rather than through an intermediary - were as unwelcome in  America as they had been in Europe.

Just as Isaac Pidgeon, Sr.'s grandparents had left their comfortable homeland in England to pursue religious freedom in America, so too had these conflicts inspired Harry's grandfather Isaac Pidgeon, Sr., to leave South Carolina for the Promised Land across the Mississippi.  Iowa, however, was not the end of the Pidgeon family's grand adventures. 

With the same spirit of adventure and conquest that had spurred his ancestors across oceans, mountains and half a continent, Harry sought more than the adventure found on a farm.  This newspaper article wasn't completely accurate.  It was a 34 foot yawl, not 30 foot. Uncle Harry's boat was built mostly from oak, Oregon pine and Douglas fir. Her dimensions were:  length of 34-ft, beam 10'9", draft 5' and it weighed 19 tons. Although he was the second person (Joshua Slocum was the first) to complete a solo circumnavigation, he was the first to do this through the Panama Canal.

Born in the middle of the Civil War while his parents and grandparents risked their lives to help runaway slaves escape their owners, Harry's childhood was never the traditional farm boy upbringing.  His dreams of wild seas and foreign lands would become reality through his own hand and a dedication of purpose few can claim.  Undoubtedly, his farm chores helped him develop a work ethic and a discipline few could match.  Certainly, his schooling would have provided a welcome relief from this physical drudgery and stimulated a lifelong, insatiable curiosity.  Well-read on almost any subject and a photographer whose photos captured time, it was the freedom of sailing the open sea that he described as, "The happiest days of my life." 

Biographical Information and Family Lore

In February of 1928, National Geographic featured a long article my uncle wrote about his first world cruise on the Islander.  This article became the basis for his book, Around the World Single-Handed, the Cruise of the Islander, and was first published in 1937 as part of a thirteen book Maritime series. 

Harry spent the latter part of his life as a popular professional speaker, often giving presentations to Yacht clubs and civic organizations.  He was awarded several honors, but it was completing his second trip around the world single-handed in a non-motorized yawl that gave him a bigger claim to fame.  Although Joshua Slocum had been the first man to complete this feat, Captain Harry was the first to complete it twice.

He was an unassuming person whether in one's living room or on his boat, even though he had distinguished himself in a way that few others had.  He looked as average as the guy sitting next to you on the bus, but his mind held a storehouse of fascinating cultural experience and exciting stories.   He would go on to inspire many later day adventurers, and younger and younger versions are still trying to emulate his voyages. 

So who am I to think I can contribute anything to this man's magnificent life story?  Frankly, his adventures need no embellishment, but I want to preserve the personal details that make a life interesting.  Harry was not just a self-reliant, world adventurer.  He was also a son, a young man, a friend, an uncle and a husband. He never smoked or drank anything but water, and in the latter part of his life he was a committed vegetarian.  I want to preserve his entire story, which must include the personal relationships.  I also want to share my Uncle Harry's enthusiasm and let him supply the inspiration to those of you who have yet to pursue your dreams. 

As his grandniece I don't really remember whether my memories are my own or my father's. The mention of Uncle Harry's name would create a level of admiration, reverence and awe my father had for no others.  My father's eyes lit up when he re-discovered a yellowed newspaper article in his desk. As soon as he unfolded it he held it out for me to see.

"This is my Uncle Harry," he had said with such pride I couldn't help but be impressed.  "He married one of my favorite relatives, Aunt Margaret.  Here they are as they start their cruise around the world."  My Great Uncle was the first published author in the family incidentally, and now my son is the second.

As my father was a quiet man any outburst of enthusiasm was a rare occurrence, but there was much more to it.  My father remembered the amazing photographs Uncle Harry had taken during his travels and an artist himself, greatly admired Harry's powers of observation. 

The Los Angeles Times's article had a picture of the charming older couple as they embarked for Hawaii.  My teeny little great aunt wore a gigantic smile, a lovely outfit she designed and made herself and high heels.  Harry stayed in the background, obviously content to have her entertain the journalists.  It was obvious even to me that Great Aunt Margaret would need to change before they could cast off, but she was happily standing on the deck of the Islander adoringly posing for the photographers.  

They did leave soon after for Hawaii, but sadly it was to be the yawl's final cruise.  While moored at New Hebrides the Islander was caught in a typhoon and ended up wrecked on the rocks.  Captain Harry had initially wanted to try to outrun the storm, but Aunt Margaret had refused to re-board until the storm passed.  Twenty-five years his junior, she was not eager to take that chance.  Who knows if they would have made it? 

My father was impressed that Uncle Harry never criticized others but seemed to instinctively understand them.  The example he gave was that even when Harry's previous yawl was in bits and pieces - which was slated to be accepted into the Smithsonian at the end of their trip -  he never even considered that Aunt Margaret might be to blame.  Perhaps because of his Friends' upbringing and his own enlightened thinking, he never harbored any racism or even a wisp of bigotry.  His conversations and his behavior reflected the highest respect for others, their cultures and societies no matter how foreign.  My father once remarked that this tolerant and loving acceptance was undoubtedly one of the many reasons why Captain Harry was welcomed with open arms wherever he went.  

Every conversation with my father about Uncle Harry always ended the same way. My father would smile and with a quiet laugh, shake his head from side to side, ending with a sigh. "Uncle Harry was quite a sailor," he would say wistfully.  Then he gaze would drift to the open sea.  It was the look of an old salt who perhaps no longer pines for his youth, but remembers its sweet freedom, the enduring rhythm of creation as the surf crashes and the wild, unpredictability of the open sea. 

* * * * *

Impulsively I left New England and moved to California at 19, certainly much less prepared than Captain Harry was at the same age.  Unlike my uncle, I didn't ride in a pony cart from Mexico to the Canadian border, nor did I photograph the high Sierras, live in a wild logging camp or visit Alaska during the Gold Rush, but I enjoyed being daring.  I am sure he braved things I could not imagine, and I believe he could have made lemonade out of a potato.  He might have appeared impulsive or carefree and untethered, but he was focused and planned each and every detail with precision.   He fed the wanderlust in his nature, but only after he had saved enough to finance the building of his boat and had a guarantee of solvency during his adventures. 

Who knows?  Maybe real men in those days weren't afraid of anything.  There were plenty of wolves and bears roaming the forests during his adventures in the Northwest and Alaska to easily cut his life short.  Traveling alone would also have left him vulnerable to opportunists, bandits or even pirates, but Harry was not a man who cultivated fear.  That majestic wildness was Uncle Harry's element.

Family and friends alike remark that Captain Harry Pidgeon was a genteel, fascinating man who was always a charming, entertaining companion.  My father, aunts and uncles all report that he  favored the girls in the family.  He expected the boys to comport themselves like the little gentlemen their mothers expected them to be, but the girls?  Well... he obviously had a soft spot for them and consequently they got away with plenty, often at the expense of their brothers and male cousins.  I like to think of Harry as a ladies' man, but in the best possible sense of that phrase.  He built a dollhouse as a gift to his future wife and my other great aunt, and it was the most beautiful piece of sailor's craft you could imagine. 

Each window had tiny panes of glass with miniature hinges so that they could be opened and closed.  The roof was made of slate, and there were tiny pieces of furniture, little china plates and silver.  A doll from any class would have been delighted to call it her home.  It was large enough to cover a card table and as my grandmother inherited it, my sister and I were charmed to make its  acquaintance.


Uncle Harry executed and financed his dreams with grace, charm, friendship, helpfulness, work and amazing luck.  Sadly he left no children to carry on his adventures or to keep his name alive, so I hope to preserve his life story.  Uncle Harry never saw the impossible and therefore he was able to live his dreams and become his highest and best self along the way.  My Uncle respected others and gave people the benefit of the doubt, even if they thought, lived or worshiped in a different way than he.  In a world consumed by partisanship, religious fanaticism, misused power, nuclear proliferation and an obsession with the acquisition and hoarding of wealth, we can all learn from him. 

If you knew him or of him, I would love to hear from you.  If he inspired you in any way, I would be thrilled to hear your story.  If you just love the sea, Harry can be your hero too.  I know you'd like him.  Everybody did.

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