ancestral chart father mother index home





vitals sources
go to Rebecca Russell's page






bio editing in progress

     Elisha may have been born and raised on a farm on Great Road north of what is now the village of Slatersville, Rhode Island. It's very likely, given that his mother's family were neighbors. She moved back to this farm from New Bedford after her husband died. Elisha, Jr., moved from Smithfield to New Bedford in the Spring of 1804 when he was 24, perhaps for business opportunities. On 19 June 1804 the men's meeting minutes of the New Bedford Friends say that they "received a removal certificate from Smithfield Monthly Meeting on behalf of Elisha Thornton, Jr., which has been read and accepted."(1) Rebecca Russell, his future wife, lived in nearby Dartmouth, but her Russell grandparents and other relatives were in New Bedford. Elisha probably met her soon after he arrived in the area at the New Bedford Friends Meeting House, since he was accepted to remove his worship to Dartmouth in August even though he continued to live in New Bedford.(3) They were married at the Apponegansett Meeting House in Dartmouth in October.



In the end of December of the same year, Humphry and Elisha announced in the Columbian Courier that they were business partners.(5.5)



How early this scheme was conceived isn't known. Humphry and Elisha may developed the idea together or Humphry, already thinking about joining his father and brothers as tradesmen in New Bedford, brought Elisha into his fold. Elisha was a young man of 24 who married his 17 year-old daughter, so there was some common sense in involving Elisha's financial future with his own.

     Elisha first appears in New Bedford town meeting minutes in September of 1805. It was voted that "the practice of smoaking segars in the streets [was] very improper at all times." Elisha was on a committee of seven who were directed to enforce the law. This would normally be the job of the constable, but there may have been too many offenders for one man to handle.(3.5)

     By July 1807 Daniel Thornton, Elisha's uncle, joined the firm to create Russell, Thornton & Co., but they parted ways in 1808.(6) The items listed in their advertisements over the years were widely varied, including anchors, molasses, fabric and marble. It had all the appearances of a general store, which was at "The Four Corners," the heart of commercial New Bedford. Their stock was probably partly dependant on what was being brought into port. Both Humphry and Elisha had shares in ships that sailed out of New Bedford. In 1805 the ship Dartmouth was registered with Humphry as one of the primary owners.(7) In 1810 and 1811 Humphry and Elisha were co-owners of the ships Frances Ann and Foster. Although registered in New Bedford, Frances Ann was primarly a New York ship, where John Wady and Gilbert Russell, also co-owners and sons of Humphry, had a mercantile business.(6.5) Newspaper reports say that her trade was across the Atlantic to Liverpool, where such goods as salt, coal, crates and Liverpool ware (crockery and china) were purchased. Foster was a New Bedford ship, and noted in newspapers as trading along the Atlantic Coast and down to the West Indies.
     Advertising for dry goods suddenly stop in 1809, then reappear in 1812 showing a new business making brushes.(9)



There are several additions still evident at Humphry's house, and the brushes may have been made in them. They were "one door south of the Friends Meeting house" later the same year,(10) but this description is too vague to place them specifically other than on Seventh Street between Spring and School Streets. It may have been there that Seth Russell auctioned the cartel-brig Ann Maria and the merchandise on it.(10.6) The newspaper advertisement places the ship at Rotch's wharf, indicating it was a Rotch-owned ship, but why the auction was at "Russell & Thornton" isn't noted. Seth was a relative of Humphry's but there is no indication found that he was part of a business with him and Elisha. The Mercury announced in December of 1813 that they had moved to Main Street a door west of William Rotch's house.(10.5) That ad ran up to 7 January. Russell & Thornton may have dissolved when the War of 1812 and the Embargo Act made a drastic economic impact on some East Coast towns. The business hasn't been found in any later newspapers, nor has any mercantile activity involving Humphry, who probably turned his interest farming.

     There are references to the Thornton family being involved in promoting the concept of a Friends school. Elisha, Sr., was widely known for his school in Smithfield, and he was one of the first trustees for the New Bedford school when it was incorporated on 29 February 1812. A letter from Paul Cuffe to Elisha, Jr., discusses the disposition of some boys toward going to sea in a ship mastered by Cuffe. The author places "teacher" in brackets next to Elisha's name in the Cuffe letter quote, with a citiation dating the letter of 5 December 1813. He adds the following quote in the citation: "Elisha Thornton [Sr.], assisted by his sons was also employed in both agriculture and shoemaking," which apparently appears in Zora Klain, Educational Activities of New England Quakers (Philadelphia: Westbrook Publishing Co., 1928), pp. 42-44. This may be a quote from Cuffe himself made elsewhere, but the citation is cryptic as written. Cuffe said he kept a school in Westport, which may be the location of the boys he mentions, but it isn't reasonable to think that the Thorntons were teachers there. Why was Cuffe writing to Thornton? If Elisha, Jr., did teach, where, and what source says so? It's hard to imagine that if he did turn to teaching and away from a mercantile life, it would have financially sustained a growing family. It's more likely that he kept a hand in business, perhaps a minor one due to the war. The author may be confusing the two Elishas.

     On 19 June 1819 a New Bedford Mercury notice tells us that Peter Barney and Elisha Thornton became partners in an auction and commission business at Barney's store at the head of Gilbert Russell's wharf. In November they added to this an insurance business. Another ad for goods ran in The Mercury until 19 February, but this was short-lived. The following 26 February they announced that Peter would continue the business by himself.

     No indication has been found of what Elisha did after his split from Barney until 1822. This was the first year of his long association with the apothecary business. In 1811 Dr. Alexander Read moved his office to "Elisha Thornton Jr's."(10.75) Where Elisha was and what he was doing that year is a mystery as well, but in 1822 they announced that they were opening an apothecary store.(11)



Capitalizing in part on the whaling industry that dominated the town, they advertised "Medicine chests, for ships and families, put up and repaired on short notice." It seems Elisha learned the apothecary trade from Alexander Read, maybe since as early as 1811. His partnership with Read lasted to about March of 1829. In April Elisha was advertising on his own. He was still on Main Street in New Bedford, but no number for the store has been found. In January 1830 he brought his son John into the firm to create E. Thornton & Son.(11.25) The shop was at various addresses including 64 North Second Street at the corner of Middle Street, and at 67 Union Street, corner of Bethel.(11.5) The New Bedford Whaling Museum and Mystic Seaport have ship's medicine chests with Thornton products. Elisha and his sons Elisha, Jr., John and Gilbert were also partners in the whaling trade. They had shares in vessels that sailed out of New Bedford, including William C. Nye (trips made in 1833 and 1837), Elizabeth (trips made in 1835 and 1836, lost at Pico, Azores), Maria Theresa (trips made in 1844 and 1847), Moctezuma (trip made in 1844), and Octavia (trip made in 1846, no evidence of the ship after 1847). At the time he died, Elisha owned and eighth share of the ship Messenger. John R. Thornton became a prominent whaling agent in his own right, and Messenger was one of his ships. His father and brother Gilbert were among the co-owners. Messenger was made in Salem in 1805 and was fitted for whaling by the Thorntons in 1835. Elisha was co-owner of this ship up to his death. His estate inventory lists an eighth share.
.....Elisha's father was certainly against slavery, and a question has been raised about Elisha, Jr,'s participating in the Underground Railroad. Other New Bedford Friends actively aided fugitive slaves. Joseph Ricketson and his son Joseph are documented as doing so, and one of them assisted Frederick Douglass in getting to New Bedford and establishing himself there.(13) These apparently were the Joseph, Jr. who married Frances Thornton, Elisha's daughter, and the Joseph, Sr. who married Anna Thornton, Elisha's aunt, and then Sarah Russell, Elisha's sister-in-law. Frederick Douglass lived with the Johnsons, an African-American couple who were equal-rights activists. Their house was directly across the street from the Thorntons. The Johnsons also owned the former Friends Meeting House next to their own house, where they rented rooms to other African-Americans. About the time Douglass was living with the Johnsons in their house, Elisha and Rebecca's daughter Mary and her own family also rented rooms from the Johnsons (or sublet from her brother John) at the old Meeting House.(14) It is said that either Elisha (2nd) or Elisha (3rd), who had his own apothecary shop, trained an African-American man in the druggist trade.(15) Direct evidence that the Thorntons themselves participated in the Underground Railroad has not been found, but there is a curious mystery in the 1840 Federal Census, which enumerated two African-American females in Elisha's household, one 10-24 years old the other 36-55. This was highly unusual, but the fact that the entire family was living temporariliy in Acushnet, not New Bedford, makes it very odd. Of the 3,951 residents of Fairhaven, 43 were considered "colored." There were 10 households headed by them and 11 white households with "colored" members. The easy assumption is that they were employees, although one household only had a "colored" child under 10. Based on other censuses, the Thorntons apparently never had anyone living with them in their houses who weren't relatives. A probate record from 1843 and a newspaper notice regarding a Fairhaven cemetery also says Elisha lived there.(8.5) The 1841 city directory says they were still at the Seventh Street house, but the -- directory has (Vose?) as tenant. The 1850 census for the area in which the Thorntons lived in Fairhaven in 1840 shows it was rural, but the path or record keeping of the enumerators appears to have been different from one census to the next, leaving in question where exactly the Thorntons were. Further confusing is the above cemetery reference that says they lived near the "South" cemetery. This suggests Nasketucket, North presumably being the old yard in Acushnet, but Nasketucket is in what is now Fairhaven, and the 1840 census neighbors were most likely Acushnet residents.
.....Elisha Thornton, Sr., is portrayed in at least one account as a gentle and sensitive man.(16) He seems to have passed at least an aspect of this on to Elisha, Jr., who's will is unusually explicit. "I give to my beloved wife the use, income and improvement of all my Estate both real and personal for her use, enjoyment comfort and benefit, together with such of our children who may wish, need and require a home with her. My wife to have the management, control and direction of the same..." After several specific bequests to his three unmarried daughters, "the remainder of my estate I leave for my wife to divide and distribute in the family, as there may be a change of circumstances in it at the time when a division must be made, which would enable my wife to make a far more wise and just disposal of the Estate than I could possibly now do...as I consider this mode or cause much more important than an equal distribution to all regardless of want and need."(17) In her will, Rebecca went so far as to specify that the estate given to her daughters was to be controlled by them alone and not by their husbands.(18)
.....Elisha, his wife Rebecca and some of his children and grandchildren are buried in adjacent plots in Rural Cemetery, New Bedford. Their stones are simple, reflecting their Friends heritage. Elisha's stone now sits on the ground in front of its base. It was like Rebecca's, which is still in its original position. A simple entry in the State death register says that Elisha died of dysentery. The spaces for parents and place of death are empty.(19) Given that all evidence says that he lived in New Bedford, his death notice in The Republican Standard of New Bedford has the unexpected report that died in Brooklyn, New York. This is the only source for this information. He isn't in local New York city papers, and the 1854 death register for Brooklyn no longer exists. There is no reason to think the notice is wrong. Elisha, his wife Rebecca and perhaps other relatives were probably visiting his daughter Mary Briggs and maybe daughter Rebecca as well, who is known to have lived with the Briggs soon after. He must have been infected while in Brooklyn. It's curious that his wife, also a known resident of New Bedford, died in Brooklyn 15 years later, probably under similar circumstances.



.....The Thornton house at 20 Seventh Street was slated to be demolished in 2000, but the New Bedford Historical Society intervened and purchased the property, which was abandoned and had been home to squatters.(20) When they determined they couldn't fund the preservation of the structure they in turn sold it to someone who did nothing significant to prevent further decay. After a neighboring house burned (the former home of Elisha's son Gilbert), water damage to 20 Seventh Street, which apparently was also unattended to, made the house so structurally unsound that it was demolished as a safety hazard. These houses were in the middle of a nationally-designated historic neighborhood, which is now permanently diminished. There are a number of other historic homes in this area of New Bedford in a dilapidated state, but the municipality of New Bedford has had a long history of disregard for the city's historic assets.

..........
Elisha Thornton, Jr.'s, house, 20 Seventh St., New Bedford several years before it was demolished.


children of Elisha and Rebecca (Russell) Thornton:

i. Joseph Ricketson, b. 8 August 1805
ii. Sarah Ann, b. 15 November 1806
iii. John Russell, b. 8 October 1808, m. Sophia B. Spooner, 1835
iv. Gilbert Russell, b. 31 December 1810, m. Sarah H. Barker, 1837
v. Mary Brown, b. 15 January 1814
vi. Elisha, b. 1 August 1815, m. Mary H. Allen, 1838
vii. Rebecca Russell, b. 16 March 1817
viii. Daniel, b. 28 April 1819
ix. Virginia R., b. 11 July 1821, m. William L. Gerrish, 1847
x. Frances Moore, b. 31 October 1823, m. Joseph Ricketson, 1843
xi. Catherine R., b. 28 June 1826, m. John Hoskins



Elisha's birth date appears in a family Bible, as noted in the published New Bedford vital records (owned by Mrs. Otis N. Pierce when the New Bedford vital records were published in 1932) and also recorded in the Smithfield Friends records.. The Smithfield and Bible records differ as to the day in April. The Bible says 6th, the Friends record says 11th. His gravestone says he was 74 years and 4 months old, indicating he was born on the 3rd. The accuracy of the transcription from the Bible isn't known, nor is the accuracy of the Friends records and their transcription. His gravestone, presumably ordered by his immediate family, is probably a more reliable source. His marriage is (also?) recorded in the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting records and? (check)

1. Men's Minutes, New Bedford Monthly Meeting, 1792-1808, pg. 209 (LDS microfilm)
3. Ibid, pg. 213. He is mentioned in New Bedford town meeting minutes as a committeeman, 23 Sep 1805, p. 229.
3.5. Ibid 5.5. Columbian Courier, 21 Dec 1804, p. 3.
4. shipping papers, New Bedford Public Library website database at .
5. Information about the Ricketsons and Frederick Douglass in New Bedford come from Douglass' own accounts and the National Park Service's brochure on New Bedford.
6. New Bedford Mercury, 14 August 1807 and 29 Apr 1808, both p. 3.
6.5. Lloyd V. Briggs, History of Shipbuilding on the North River, etc. (Boston:1889), p. 230.
Built in 1810 by Elisha Foster and son in Scituate, MA. A newspaper ad says the ship was 340 tons, and available for freight or charter (NY Gazette, 8 Jan 1812, p. 1), but another says she was 330 tons, and "six months old," putting her construction about May 1810 (Mercantile Advertiser, 6 Nov 1810, p. 1). The first notice found of her sailing was 26 June (Columbian, p. 3).
7. ship registrations for the Port of New Bedford.
New Bedford city directory for 1841.
8.5. estate papers of Humphry Russell, Elisha Thornton, executor. 9. see note #6.
10. NBM, 28 Aug 1812, p. 3.
10.5. NBM, 31 Dec 1813, p. 4.
10.55. Daniel Ricketson, The History of New Bedford, Bristol County, Massachusetts (1858), p. 325.
10.6. NBM, 8 Oct 1813, p. 3.
10.75. NBM, 30 Aug 1811, p. 3.
11. NBM, 30 Aug 1811, p. 3.
11.25. NBM, 11 Jan 1830, p. 3.
11.5 New Bedford city directories.
19. New England Historic Genealogical Society online database, "Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-"
20. Online news report.
17. Bristol Co. probate record.



all text and photographs © 1998-2005 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted























In addition to the Thornton household, the free colored persons enumerated in Fairhaven were Sally Simonds, 55-100; Isaac Jones, 24-36 and a female 10-24; a male in the Thomas Stoddard household, 10-24; 2 males in the Rufus Allen household, under 10 and 24-36; John Williams, 24-36, with two females 10-24 and 24-36; a male in the John D. Thompson household, 10-24; a male in the Lucy Gibbs household, 10-24; Ann Fuller was a free colored person and head of a household with one male 24-36 and females under 10, 10-24 and 36-55 (prob. Ann); a male in the "Rolana" (Roland?) Fish household, 10-24; a female in the Charles G. Allen household, 24-36; John Washington, 36-55, with a female 24-36; Abigail Christopher, 10-24, with a female 10-24 and 2 males under 10 and one 36-55; a male in the household of John Alden, 24-36; John Bracy, 24-36 (a Christopher Bracy b. Norfolk, VA, living in NB, b. ca1812, sailor on whaleship Logan); Charles Miller, 36-55, with a male under 10 and females 36-55 and 55-100; Thomas B. Hall, 36-55, with a male under 10, 3 females 10-24 and one female 36-55; a female in the household of Anna Sharper, 55-100; a female in the household of James "Mana," 10-24; Fairhaven Alms House ("Eliza Taylor" written below) had females under 10 and 55-100 and males under 10 and 24-36; a female in the household of Jabez Taber, 10-24; a female in the household of Clark Earl, under 10; Judith Wilson, 36-55. Of a total population of 3,951, 43 were African American, Indian or perhaps islanders from the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.