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History of American Sailing Ships Named Oracle

The ship named Oracle, launched from Bath, Maine, in October, 1876,1 was a cargo ship intended for the California wheat trade. Loading upwards of 2000 tons dead weight, it managed the journey from New York to San Francisco in as little as 109 days, with an average voyage of 127 days on five outbound trips to various ports.2 There are records of the ship making port in San Francisco in January and May, 1877, after voyages from Baltimore.3 A painting of the Oracle can be found here.

After six years and three months of service, having visited ports as far apart as Queenstown, New Zealand and Liverpool, England, the Oracle wrecked in a hurricane near Cape Horn on a voyage from San Francisco in January, 1883.2

An earlier ship named Oracle was built by the firm Chapman and Flint and launched in 1853 from Thomaston, Maine.4 It was apparently re-launched from Thomaston in 1863, after repairs, and sold to British interests immediately, a practice not uncommon during the civil war. Flying under a Peruvian flag in 1876, it was engaged in the Guano trade from Pabellon de Pica, Chile.3 It disappears from all Registries by 1879.

There were no restrictions on the naming of ships. Several with the same name could be sailing at the same time. The managing owner would often name one after a large shareholder or a member of his family. Companies owning fleets of ships would sometimes name them always with the same first letter, or, always ending in the same suffix such as -ia. Still other fleets were named after characters in books by the same author. Ships were named capriciously after all manner of subjects and sayings. Why and how either Oracle received its name may be lost in time.

It was common to assign an older, experienced captain to command a new ship until its original purchase price was earned. Once the ship was paid off, a younger, less experienced captain was assigned and that is when many sailing speed records were set. Profits were higher per year, but these captains took more risks and were more likely to wreck the ship.


1. Record of American and Foreign Shipping, (1878), New York: American Shipmasters' Association.
2. Frederick C. Matthews, (1930), American Merchant Ships, 1850-1900, Salem, Massachusetts: Marine Research Society.
3. New York Maritime Register, (March 7, 1877 and June 6, 1877).
4. William A. Baker, (1973), A Maritime History of Bath, Maine and the Kennebec River Region, Portland, Maine: The Anthoensen Press.

This information was provided by the Maine Maritime Museum and the Patten Free Library, Bath, Maine.