Deja Vue All Over Again

A lithograph produced by New York-based Currier and Ives showing the Harvard and Oxford crews getting ready to start their race on 27 August 1869.

10 September 2019

By Thomas E. Weil

A supplement to Chris Dodd’s HTBS article “When The Crimson Met The Blue”.

The history of modern parenting is littered with anguished questions and admonitions by fathers and mothers regarding the time spent by their spawn on entertaining pastimes that are thought by their parents to be, at the least, a waste, and perhaps more often, a dangerous distraction. (Jimmy Joy, my college coach, recounts with amusement the time my father approached him 50 years ago and voiced his displeasure regarding my apparent fixation on rowing to the exclusion of my studies. He recalls my father saying, “What is Tom doing spending all this time rowing?  I thought that he was supposed to be getting an education here”, to which Jimmy responded, “He is, sir, he is.”)

This parental concern regarding hours spent on sport instead of school is nothing new, however, and Chris Dodd’s excellent article on the 1869 Harvard-Oxford race brings to mind a related occasion 150 years ago that could have happened yesterday. But first, that race also provides a powerful reminder that history is not always what some of its documentation says it was.

A magnificent large photograph titled “Harvard International Crew, 1869” (below), which was clearly intended for commercial distribution, depicts the original Harvard crew that took passage to England as W.H. Simmons ’69, who had raced in the victorious Harvard crews of 1867 and 1868, at stroke, G. Bass at three, S.W. Rice at two, and bow man Alden P. Loring ’69, who had been in victorious Harvard boats in 1866, 1867 (as stroke and captain) and 1868 (again as stroke). Neither Bass nor Rice had ever raced in a Harvard varsity before.

However, the apparent authority of the photograph notwithstanding, as rowing historians and coaches are all too well aware, programs prepared and team photographs taken in advance of the race day do not always reflect the actual boating in the contest.  As noted by Chris, Rice and Bass were subsequently replaced by veterans J.S. Fay, of the Law School, and sophomore Francis (or Frank) O. Lyman ’71, both of whom had remained in the States to successfully race against Yale, and then taken passage to London to join the international crew.  That photograph survives as an interesting curiosity, but it also constitutes a misleading bit of evidence for anyone who is not aware of the makeup of the 1869 Harvard crew who ultimately raced against Oxford.

The lesson to be learned? While formal team photographs (which are often taken prior to the occurrence of a contest) and printed race programs (which must by definition be compiled before the occasion) may generally show and/or state the correct boatings, changes made by the coach, or events such as an illness, may result in a different race day lineup, whether including new individuals or just a re-arranged seating within the boat. The actual boating should be confirmed by reference to post-race reports (and even then, if the reporter took his information from an erroneous program instead of the facts on the day, it would not be accurate).

Indeed, as noted by Chris, after the fact accounts may differ substantially as well. His article refers to descriptions of the race margins as ranging from one half to three quarters of a length of clear water (the judge’s verdict) to three to four lengths (some Oxford fans), and other sources show a margin of six seconds (Harvard’s official records) and the annoyingly ambiguous “easily” (Sherwood, Oxford Rowing [1900], which is reported to mean by four or five lengths or more). Results times are also susceptible to irreconcilable variations. Where Sherwood offers 22 min 20 sec as Oxford’s time, the Harvard source gives it as 22 min 41.5 sec.  So, history can certainly be a messy and literally disagreeable business, and Dr. Heisenberg should probably be its patron saint!

As to whether father always knows best, the crew that Harvard sent to the line, with Burnham coxing, Loring at stroke, Simmons at 3, Lyman at 2 and Fay at bow, was one of the most capable that could have been assembled out of the available material. But not everyone was pleased with this overseas venture.  We don’t have copies of the correspondence by Lyman with his father, a missionary in Hawaii, mentioning his desire to travel to England with the Harvard crew, or of the father’s plaint to an old Harvard friend, Richard Henry Dana, Jr., the author of Two Years Before the Mast, expressing his concern regarding his son’s plans, but Dana’s reply to Rev. Lyman succinctly sets forth a compelling defense of the younger Lyman’s conduct and character, and a strong justification for the overseas trip, that could just as well be put forth today in support of a young athlete’s desire to participate in sport as well as academics.

The Rev Mr. Lyman                                                                                                July 29, 1869

Revd and dear Sir,

Desiring to send you an account of form for Frank’s boating honors, it occurs to me that they may go by mail in a letter, giving me an opportunity to write to you and Mrs. Lyman which, for a long time I have not had.

Frank’s honors as stroke of the University crew, victorious at Worcester, are very great.  I dare say it seems very strange to you that so much should be made of such a thing at a literary university, – but so it [is] – the boat champion is a hero, and his name goes all over the country, and as at Harvard the ball and boat men are often men of high character & scholarship, this honor does not hurt them, and perhaps gives them friends & opportunities.  I did not advise Frank to take the post, but only put before him the danger of either overworking in both directions, scholastic and athletic, or of selecting one.  But Frank is a man of high character, who understands himself, and comes to pretty sound conclusions.  He is much respected by his class and by the Faculty, and has had a good influence upon his boat’s crew, [breaking] up some of the growing habits of lounging at the boat-house after rowing, &c.

I can truly congratulate you on his opportunity to go to Europe, in connection with the international race.  He will do and see a great deal very much to his advantage, for a very small cost, which he probably never would have allowed himself otherwise.

Believe me, my kind friends, Mr. and Mrs. Lyman, [to be] your grateful friend,

Rich H. Dana Jr

Would that every rower whose parents might question his or her devotion to the sport had a champion as eloquent as Richard Dana! In any case, whether with or without his father’s consent (we don’t know), Lyman did embark for England to race against Oxford for Harvard, and, whether out of gratitude for Dana’s support or not (again, we don’t know), it just so happened that Frank Lyman married Richard Dana’s daughter eight years later …

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