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Explore the history of 14 missionaries who sailed from New Haven 200 years ago

Amos Doolittle, Plan of New Haven, 1824, New Haven Museum
Amos Doolittle, Plan of New Haven, 1824
New Haven Museum
Amos Doolittle's map

New Haven was an active port city in the 19th century with warehouses and businesses by its harbor.

It has transformed into a city known for Yale University and its New Haven Green, which was once the Public Square — the “Google Maps of its time,” according to Sandra Markham, an archivist at the New Haven Museum.

Markham is the curator of the exhibit, “Point of Departure: New Haven 1822,” which explores the travels of a group of missionaries from the city to the Sandwich Islands, which is now Hawai’i. The exhibit tells the story of 14 travelers, who were missionaries and teachers sailing the ship Thames with the goal of teaching English and spreading Christianity.

Using drawings, journals, paintings, maritime documents, and newspaper articles, the exhibit shows visitors the history of the voyagers from the Second Company of Protestant missionaries.

The exhibit’s theme is covered in shades of blue to make visitors feel like they are close to the harbor
New Haven Museum
The exhibit’s theme is covered in shades of blue.

The exhibit’s theme is covered in shades of blue to make visitors feel like they are close to the harbor and “walking into the ocean,” Markham said. The goal is to break down why the missionaries decided to choose New Haven to start their journey, what they saw and did, how the community responded to their voyage, and explore the actual departure of the group.

One of the displays is a map from 1833, which was drawn by a New Haven engraver named John Warner Barber. He mapped out the Sandwich Islands and wrote Hawai’i spelled “Owhyhee.”

“[Look] how far New Haven was from Hawai’i. Back then in 1822, this was a very big trip to make,” Markham said.

The journey took about 158 days — nearly six months. The group of travelers worked with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) to “send Christian missionaries out around the world to convert people into Christianity,” Markham said.

The first group sailed to the Sandwich Islands in 1820 but they realized they needed more help. By 1822, they found more missionaries and reverends to go. “They were looking for a ship to take them from Boston, which was where they were from, but they weren’t able to find a ship to go to the Sandwich Islands,” Markham said. “They found out that there was a ship that will leave in the fall of 1822 from New Haven and they got themselves on that ship.”

Markham said she admired the dedication that the missionaries had to take to leave their families and to leave a place of comfort for years. But they found support in New Haven. “It’s a terrific thing to find and it meant that the community really did support them and come out to give goods and money for missionaries to bring with them,” she said.

Departure of the Missionaries
John Warner Barber, 1822
New Haven Museum
Departure of the Missionaries

In another display, newspaper articles show that the missionaries wanted razor straps to sharpen their knives along the way and even waterproof hats.

“They described things that they want including potatoes, vegetables, apples, cider, codfish, tea, coffee, bedding, cotton and linen clothing, hats and shoes, useful books, small articles of hardware, and tinware,” Markham said.

Articles also profiled the lives of some missionaries who were in the city for a couple of days getting ready.

Other displays depict New Haven’s historic white houses. “There’s very little left. On Elm Street, there are three white houses. Two are owned by Yale and the other is privately owned, but you can walk into them,” Markham said.

This exhibit is part of a year-long commemoration with the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site and Archives in Honolulu, Hawai’i.

On the day of the missionaries’ departure, “the entire community came down to the harbor or the wharf to say goodbye to them and participate in the service that was held on Tuesday afternoon before they left,” Markham said. “They sang songs, and it was a short religious service.”

The exhibit, Point of Departure: New Haven 1822, is on display until May 6, 2023.

Janet is a former news intern at WSHU.