Connected \\ July 6, 2020

Marking time


Below is the story of one object in PEM’s collection. We call it the calendar stick. The story of this stick, which dates back to 1804, is told in an interactive in PEM’s maritime art gallery. As museums in the area start to open back up, many of us at PEM have referenced this object as it embodies the loneliness, isolation and hope we have felt during the Spring of 2020. Note that the stick bears 161 notches. When we open to the public on Saturday, July 18, our personal sticks will have about 130 notches. We hope this special object inspires you.

Come join us for a close look at one object in PEM’s collection. It’s a long stick, with deep notches all along one side. It’s broken at one end. It’s made of oak with the uncarved parts worn smooth to the touch. Imagine holding it and examining it. To figure out what those marks mean. Some we know about, and some we don’t …


A video screen in a dark round blue space showing the cliffs of an island. This is in a darkened gallery space with paintings of ships on the walls.

“Calendar Stick” story pod in PEM’s Maritime gallery. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


We do know who carved it. James Drown. He also carved that long row of marks.

James Drown, detail of notches carved into the calendar stick made on Tristan da Cunha, 1804. Wood. Museum collection, about 1805. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


The stick was found on a tiny island. The most remote island in the world, in fact.


Tristan da Cunha had been an occasional stopping off point for ships sailing the vast seas of the South Atlantic. A place to find fresh water. There are hardly any trees on Tristan da Cunha. So this incredibly-named “James Drown” must have brought the stick — and a knife — onshore with him. And he must have carved into it as he spent his days in this wild, remote place.


The island of Tristan da Cunha. A volcano shaped island with a drift of clouds above and blue sky and ocean in foreground.

Tristan da Cunha. Photo © Oceanwide Expeditions.


This was 1804. How do we know? It’s on the stick.


The following year, an American sailor comes onshore and stumbles upon the stick. The sailor sees the carved words, “Providence, Rhode Island.” James Drown was a fellow American. It seemed a declaration of existence, proclaiming, “I was here.”


Detail of “James Drown” and “Providence” carved into the stick.

Detail of “James Drown” and “Providence” carved into the stick. James Drown, Calendar stick made on Tristan da Cunha, 1804. Wood. Museum collection, about 1805. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


The sailor took his extraordinary find with him. After he returned to America, the stick went on display here in Salem, where it’s described as a “calendar stick.” That’s because each notch on it marks one day. How did he end up stranded there?


It’s a careful record of time. 161 notches. A little more than five months.


If you look closely at the notches, you’ll see that often every seventh one is longer than the others and topped with a cross shape. Is he keeping track of the weeks passing?

Were there more notches where the stick is broken off? We don’t know.

And Drown’s family didn’t know what became of him. They never received any information about how he got stranded on the island. So much time had passed. What happened to him?

When they came to see this stick, maybe it provided some comfort to them — to be able to see the last thing James made with his hands. A sense of his physical presence. He inscribed the stick to clearly identify himself.


A Google Maps view of Tristan da Cunha with a red pin marking a spot in the ocean.

Google Maps view of Tristan da Cunha.


So to his family from Providence, the stick might have seemed like their son James’s message to them. A farewell. It was all a mystery. Only one thing seemed certain: he was never coming home.

Nearly a decade passed. Then James Drown came back to Providence. His family was shocked. He was alive? Why didn’t he write to tell them he was picked up by a passing ship? Where was he all that time? We don't know. There are no reliable records.

James Drown, Calendar stick made on Tristan da Cunha, 1804. Wood. Museum collection, about 1805. Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM.


So, in a way, this is a storytelling stick. And like all good stories, there are parts for our imagination to fill in — the certainty of uncertainty, of memory and of our vulnerability when we go out onto the oceans.


Tristan da Cunha from the International Space Station.

Tristan da Cunha from the International Space Station. Photo © Nasa.


PEM re-opens to the public July 18 and will be open Thursdays through Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm. Purchase tickets at pem.org/tickets or by calling 978-542-1511. The health and safety of PEM’s staff and visitors is our highest priority. Timed tickets will ensure that occupancy levels remain low—a perk for museum goers who enjoy quiet galleries—while enhanced sanitation measures and environmental health protocols will make you feel confident and safe during your visit. Complete details may be found at: pem.org/safety.


A view of the entrance to PEM with a blue banner that says "Until we meet again...

Photo by Paige Besse/PEM.

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