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Luther's New Bedford and New York shipping records and newspaper reports

Luther was born in the whaling port town of Fairhaven, Massachusetts, on the 7 October 1813, the first child of John Briggs and Elizabeth Jenney. He surely was named for his uncle Luther Jenney.1 John Briggs had moved to Fairhaven from Berkely, Massachusetts, probably to begin a life at sea. Gravestones in Nasketucket Cemetery, Fairhaven, say that John and his wife Elizabeth had two other sons, James and John, Jr., who died within days of each other in December of 1821. John returned to this news from what was likely his first voyage as captain of a whaling ship in 1823. Elizabeth died in June of 1824 shortly after John went back to sea. Luther was ten and he was essentially an orphan for the next three years. Who took care of him while his father was gone isn't known, but there were numerous aunts and uncles in the area as well as his grandfather John Briggs and his wife in nearby Berkley. Luther was thirteen when John returned early in 1827. Surprisingly, John was remarried two weeks later. Luther suddenly had a new mother, and soon his father would be gone again for years. This is when Luther is said to have run away from school and onto his father's ship.2 That his father would allow Luther to join him at such a young age and forego a more formal education isn't surprising given that his own mother died when he was 8, and his father was remarried within a year. He at least understood that emotional hardship. On 24 August 1827 John had a proof of citizenship drawn up for Luther, which was customary for seamen before they left port for foreign lands, and Luther appears on the crew list of Wilmington & Liverpool Packet. Perhaps shading the truth purposefully, the protection certificate has Luther's age as thirteen, but the three was then crossed out and overwritten with a four. He is also listed as fourteen on the crew list, but his father knew he wouldn't be fourteen until the following November.3

(coll. of National Archives & Records Adm., Waltham, MA)

a Proof of Citizenship, customary for whaling seamen, was arranged for Luther just before W & L P S left New Bedford in 1827

whether by design or mistake, Luther's correct age, 13, was changed to 14

Luther obviously took to a seaman's life. John took Luther with him again in July of 1831, making him third mate and calling him eighteen when he was actually seventeen.4 John had changed ships, now sailing Frances, of which he was part owner. This was a relatively short trip of less than two years, hunting for whales in the South Atlantic. Luther didn't go with his father again. After two years, probably waiting for a good opportunity, he found a position as first mate on the whaler William Hamilton5 under Capt. William C. Swain. This was a very successful voyage, bringing in an unusually large $110,000 worth of cargo.

a portion of the 1848 Russell Panorama of the New Bedford waterfront showing the ship William Hamilton

The Howland family, principal owners of William Hamilton, hired Luther to captain their ship Logan. Logan left New Bedford in May 1838 when Luther was twenty four. He also left behind a fairly new bride. She was Mary Brown Thornton, daughter of the prominent New Bedford apothecary Elisha Thornton.6 Mary's grandfather had been a prominent minister with the New Bedford Friends Meeting. Her mother descended from some of the founders of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, and later the whaling center at New Bedford that grew from within Dartmouth. The core members of I. Howland, Jr. & Co., owners of Logan, were her cousins. Sylvia Howland, famous in her time for inheriting the Howland shipping fortune (but eclipsed in fame and wealth by her granddaughter Hetty Green), included Mary's mother in her contested will. Luther may have come into contact with the Thornton family through business. Elisha Thornton, as a druggist and as an agent for the medicines prepared by others, supplied medicine chests for ship's captains. Although he didn't advertise as such, medicine bottles with the Thornton's labels can be found in chests at The New Bedford Whaling Museum and at Mystic Seaport. He could easily have provided Luther and perhaps John Briggs with their medicines.

a ship's medicine chest at The New Bedford Whaling Museum, with several bottles from Elisha Thornton's shop

Nothing is known about John or Luther's education. Their more recent ancestors were Bristol County farmers. Not wealthy or particularly active in local affairs, but they must have put some importance on schooling their children. The Marsh diary (mentioned later) shows that Luther was educated beyond the basics despite leaving school at thirteen. He liked reading Byron and wrote messages eloquently in the diary.
     The records of the New Bedford Monthly (Friends) Meeting note that Mary, whose family were members, was in conflict by marrying Luther, whose family were Congregationalists. She was asked about her frame of mind in doing this and she said she would be attending a different church with her husband. Luther and Mary were married by Rev. Charles W. Morgridge of the First or North Christian Church in New Bedford. Although she was disowned by the Friends, family tradition says she wasn't particularly shunned by the church and that there were Friends at their "wedding supper." This very likely took place at the Thornton house at 20 Seventh Street in New Bedford.
     The Thornton house was bought in a somewhat dilapidated state in 2000 by the New Bedford Historical Society to save it from the cliche destiny of a parking lot. Unable to restore the building themselves, they sold it back into private hands without any easements to protect it. The new owner allowed it to deteriorate for years and after severe water damage from a fire next door (the house of one of Mary's brothers), the house was demolished - and became a parking lot. Luther and Mary lived there with her parents for several years before renting rooms across the street at 17-19 Seventh Street in what had been the New Bedford Friends Meeting House. It was owned in the mid 19th century by Nathan and Polly Johnson, an African-American couple. The Johnsons, therefore, were the Briggs' landlords. About this time Frederick Douglass was brought to New Bedford by several of the town's Friends who were active in the Underground Railroad. Joseph Ricketson, Jr. was one of them. Joseph was Luther's brother-in-law, having married Mary Thornton's sister Frances. Joseph Ricketson, Sr., married Mary Thornton's aunt Anna Thornton and later her maternal aunt Sarah Russell, making the Ricketson/Thornton connection quite strong. The Johnsons housed Douglass for a time at their own house next to the old Meeting House.

The former Friends Meeting House across the street from the Thornton house.

The Briggs, Thorntons, Johnsons and Douglasses undoubtedly had social contact. Mary's grandfather Elisha Thornton, Sr., was a "Quaker" minister, and spoke against slavery. Not long after she married, her parents moved out of their house briefly to another one in Acushnet. It happened to be in 1840, when the Federal census gives a snapshot of who was living there. In the Thornton household was a free African American woman. They were back in their house, leaving it a mystery as to why they were in Acushnet. Their house in New Bedford was rented to a man who was co-owner of one of Luther's father's ships.
     This leaves little doubt about the family's position on civil rights, however limited the definition of it was at the time. Mary's father made a specific point to give legacies to his daughters that were to have no interferance from their husbands. I've found this in other Friends wills, according with their progressive views in general. It's also significant that the Unitarian church that Luther's father and stepmother helped to found in Rochester, New York, hosted the first woman's suffrage convention. John Briggs had left the Congregationalists to join the Unitarians while still in New Bedford. Luther and his family were known to attend at least one service by civil rights advocate Henry Ward Beecher at Plymouth Church, Brooklyn, although the subject of the sermon isn't known.7 Crew lists reveal that the men (and boys) who populated whaling ships were multi-national and multi-racial. Natives of Portugal, Sweden, Scotland, Peru, Chile, Hawaii and Tahiti were represented among John and Luther's crews, as well as African and Native Americans.
     Logan was at sea between May 1838 and December 1841.8 The ship was in "Otahieta," a spelling ocassionally used for Otahiti (Tahiti), by July 1838 and the crew was in that area for nearly a year. They sailed to (or near) "Santa," perhaps Santa Elena, and the ports of Tumbes and Paita in Peru between March of 1840 and August of 1841. In April 1841 Luther took the ship to "Charles Island" (Floreana) in the Galapagos, where they stayed for about a week. This was about six years after Darwin's visit and nearly the same time that Herman Melville was there as a crewmember of the Fairhaven whaler Acushnet.

Darwin had this to say (about Floreana? double check) in his account:

This archipelago has long been frequented, first by the bucaniers, and latterly by whalers, but it is only within the last six years, that a small colony has been established here. The inhabitants are between two and three hundred in number; they are nearly all people of colour, who have been banished for political crimes from the Republic of the Equator, of which Quito is the capital. The settlement is placed about four and a half miles inland, and at a height probably of a thousand feet. In the first part of the road we passed through leafless thickets, as in Chatham Island. Higher up, the woods gradually became greener; and as soon as we crossed the ridge of the island, we were cooled by a fine southerly breeze, and our sight refreshed by a green and thriving vegetation. In this upper region coarse grasses and ferns abound; but there are no tree-ferns: I saw nowhere any member of the palm family, which is the more singular, as 360 miles northward, Cocos Island takes its name from the number of cocoa-nuts. The houses are irregularly scattered over a flat space of ground, which is cultivated with sweet potatoes and bananas. It will not easily be imagined how pleasant the sight of black mud was to us, after having been so long, accustomed to the parched soil of Peru and northern Chile. The inhabitants, although complaining of poverty, obtain, without much trouble, the means of subsistence. In the woods there are many wild pigs and goats; but the staple article of animal food is supplied by the tortoises. Their numbers have of course been greatly reduced in this island, but the people yet count on two days' hunting giving them food for the rest of the week. It is said that formerly single vessels have taken away as many as seven hundred, and that the ship's company of a frigate some years since brought down in one day two hundred tortoises to the beach.

Logan's last port of call was Talcahuano, Chile. Ever since Luther stepped onto William Hamilton, he had departed and arrived at the I. Howland, Jr. & Co. dock at 20 Water Street and the foot of Commercial Street.

As first mate and then captain, Luther's duties on shore were centered here. It was an easy walk to the Custom's House, where paperwork would be taken care of and to such places as the Thornton's apothecary shop to pick up medical supplies. The rectangular notch in the wharf is where ships would be tied. This wharf and several above have since been joined to make what is now State Pier. Below is the New Bedford Customs House, where captains filed their papers before and after their trips. Completed by the mid 1830s, Luther's father came here for his last trip on Frances and Luther for all his trips as master mariner in New Bedford.

Meanwhile, Mary waited, as she would for much of her married life, with hopes of Luther's safe return. She was pregnant when Luther left. Their daughter Mary was already three years old when he came back. This may have lead Luther to temporarily give up his life at sea. There is no evidence that he captained a ship for another three years. By 1844 the family had moved to Brockport, New York.9 He is on the subscription list of the first (1844) edition of European Agriculture and Rural Economy. Father John Briggs had moved to Rochester, New York, in 1840-1841, about 18 miles to the east. He was also a subscriber. Luther, Mary and the children obviously moved to Brockport to try a new lifestyle, but it didn't take. They were back in New Bedford by November of 1844, when Luther took the whaler Formosa out to sea. He left Mary pregnant once again, and this trip would turn out to be the longest she had to endure.
     Formosa was a 451-ton ship built for the packet business between New York, France and England in 1829. The Swift family, doing business at 17 Middle Street, New Bedford, bought it and fitted it for whaling. Luther took it on it's maiden voyage to do harder labor in the Pacific.10
     Among the crew was blacksmith Orondo (crewlists erroneously call him "Orlando") Beardsley. In two letters to his family he reveals a few interesting things about this trip. "I am leaving this Port soon, probably on the third, for another voyage around Cape Horn to China and the Cape of Good Hope."11 The Cape of Good Hope wouldn't normally be a part of a whaling trip to the South Pacific, which is where they went, unless they circled the globe as Luther did in Logan. He may have been confused when referencing China - I haven't come across any whaling trips involving China. He advises that letters to him should be sent in care of Franklin Seabury, who, on receiving a letter from Orondo's father, wrote back to say

I am some acquainted with your son, O. Beardsley, and must say that his habits while in this place were good. And during his residence amongst us he behaved himself with the utmost propriety. In fact he appeared to be so much of a Gentleman, that I became much attached to him. He sailed in the Whale Ship Formosa on a whaling voyage to the Pacific Ocean, and will probably be absent from two to three years. (He sailed Nov. 5 last.) He has sailed in a first rate ship and with a good captain and officers. The letter for him shall be forwarded by the first ship.12

Orondo had his fill of whaling by April 1847. He says in another letter

I ran away from the whale ship Formosa in the Port of Talcahuano on the first day of April 1847. I left the ship with about eighty dollars due me, but I got a good situation immediately with employ that is lucrative. I am well satisfied with the climate and my situation...As to the time that has passed since I was last in the United States: It has been at sea, some of it has been very pleasant, some of it has been very unpleasant. The Captain and I were very intimate together but I did not like whaling. It is a dirty but lucrative business, if you are lucky, which is not often the case. No young man will have my advice to follow whaling, although many make fortunes at it. But never before the mast, and they cannot expect to be Officers until they have experience in the business which takes two or three years at least, and the Officers are generally rough and inhumane especially to those on the first voyage. I was never abused, however which was very lucky for all.13

     In its shipping news, The New York Post mentions that Formosa arrived in Honolulu on 6 March 1848. Hawaii, then known as the Sandwich Islands, was a stop-over point for whalers heading west to Japan. A log for the ship Vesper of New London mentions seeing Formosa in the Sea of Japan in the middle of June 1848. With the French ship Moise, the group joined in the "game," sighting and chasing whales.14

Library of Congress "American Memory" website, above and below

coll. New York Public Library

sperm whale

Formosa returned home on 11 May 1849. The Post says the ship left Honolulu on 23 December with 1000 barrels of whale oil, 606 barrels of sperm oil and 12000 lbs. of bone. The ship also brought 403 barrels of sperm oil as freight (on consignment, rather than from on-ship production). Another newpaper notice mentions the ship was "not full," which is readily apparent when considering that John Briggs brought back more than that 15 years earlier in what was undoubtedly a smaller ship and in significantly less time. It may never be known why more product wasn't brought back. Some whalers sent product back on other ships, presumably when their own ships were filled, but I haven't find a news notice that mentions it.
     The discovery of gold in California sparked a commercial fire-storm. Shipping companies and speculators rushed to get ships to San Francisco to capitalize on the need to transport people, supplies and cargo. When Luther died, his obituary, which was probably written by his son Luther, Jr., appeared in several papers. Three versions have been found, each different, but all with enough comparable wording to indicate there was one original source. They apparently were all edited, which altered some of the original statements. One claims that Luther "brought the first shipment of gold that was made to New York from California around Cape Horn." (clipping, paper not identified). Another (Brooklyn Daily Eagle) says "after the '49 his vessel was the first to bring gold as freight from California." Perhaps without any editing, another version says "His vessel was one of the first to bring gold as freight from California." (NY Herald) He certainly wasn't the first to do that, but he was one of the earliest and may have been the first in New Bedford.
     Ships sometimes made stops along the very long route home, so who was where and when is largely speculation, excepting their final arrivals. Sophia Walker sailed into Boston harbor on 7 May 1849 with gold on consignment, (Brkln Daily Eagle) and that ship not only is the first found to date in newspaper reports to have gold as freight, but an author stated in 1898 that it was the first as well, without giving a reason. (Frederick Hastings Rindge, "Happy Days in Southern California") An earlier report mentions gold arriving in private hands - not freight - with a passenger on Mt. Woolaston within the week before in New Bedford. (Milwaukee Sentinel, 5 May, from Boston Atlas) Several other ships came into New Bedford with private stashes on the 9th and the 11th. (NH Patriot) Formosa brought $9,000 worth of gold dust (a very small amount compared to the other ships) to Samuel Morse and Deming Jarves on the 11th. (Pittsfield Sun and NH Patriot) Both of the latter men were from Boston. Morse was a merchant involved in some degree in shipping and Jarves was head of the New England Glass Company (better known as Sandwich Glass).15 Gold was used in the making of ruby glass, but after consulting with a historian in Sandwich, it's unlikely the gold Luther brought had anything to do with that. Some newspapers mention that English ships were also early in this commerce, and research into that may show they were even earlier than the US ships. Oddly, none of this activity in gold transport is mentioned in The Bedford Mercury, the usual source for shipping news in out-of-town papers.
     Luther probably never took Formosa to California. Ships sailing into San Francisco during the Gold Rush were known to lose their entire crews to the lure of finding gold. All references to New Bedford ships bringing home gold were whalers leaving from Honolulu, the foremost port among the Pacific Islands. Despite the distance, trade between Honolulu and California was brisk. Morse and Jarves probably had an agent on Oahu who bought the gold and arranged passage on Formosa.

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1. His birth date comes from a New York Evening Herald obituary, obviously originating with information from his family, and matches what the family put on his gravestone in Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn. Luther's full name is in numerous family notes and in two public records. Thornton Briggs' (second) marriage certificate (Manhattan 1886 #62988) refers to him as Luther "Jennie" Briggs, surely a phonetic mistake. Luther himself signed a ship's passenger manifest "Luther Jenney Briggs."
2. His obituaries mention this event occuring when Luther was 13. In 1857, Luther said that he had been a seaman for 30 years (Celia Marsh diary).
3 Alternatively, the ages stated for these documents may have been how old the person would be on their next birthday, but this doesn't seem likely. John says that Luther was 18 on the crew list of July 1831. He was actually 17, and as third mate, it may have been all the more useful to make the crew think he was a bit older.
4. see details about this trip at Luther's trip record page.
5. Ibid.
6. Vital Records of New Bedford, Massachusetts, to the Year 1850, vol. 2 (Boston:1932), 77.
7. Celia Marsh diary, mss at New England Historic Genealogical Society.
8. see details about this trip at Luther's trip record page.
9. Thornton's second marriage and death certificates say he was born there: Manhattan marriage certificate, 1886, #62988; MA State Health Department, deaths, 1898, 483:430.
10. see details about this trip at Luther's trip record page.
11. Letter from Orondo Beardsley to his family in New York State, 1 Nov. 1844, published in "The Heritage Newsletter" of the Linn (County, Oregon) Genealogical Society, vol. 18 (Sep. 2004), p. 87.
12. Ibid, p. 88, letter dated "12 month 21 1844," in the Friends (Quaker) mode.
13. Ibid, vol. 18 (October 2004), p. 91, letter dated 1 June 1847.
14. "Journal of a Voyage from New London to the North West coast of America in the Whale Ship Vesper Captain Clark," transcription at The Library of Congress "American Memory" website (http// 15. Samuel Fairbanks Morse, 1850 census, Boston, "Saml. S. Morse," see OneWorldTree database for family information. No business information has been found other than a reference to Samuel F. Morse & Co. involved in shipping commerce in Mystic Seaport archives. Jarves was also a ship owner (Some Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston (1918), p. 53).

all text and photographs © 1998-2020 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted