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Two of the more fancy signatures among others on documents in his father-in-law's probate file

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 twenty four, maybe 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. This probably happened by August of 1804, when the New Bedford Monthly Meeting allowed Elisha to attend meetings in Dartmouth and be absent from New Bedford. Elisha and Rebecca annouced their marriage intentions on 17 September, so this may have been a way to acquaint him with the Dartmouth congregants. This may have been all the more important given that Rebecca was only 17.2 According to form, since they were to be married in Dartmouth, several Friends were appointed there from the Women's and Men's Meeting to meet with and see to the "clearness" of the bride and groom for marriage, and another two to attend the ceremony and report how it went. All went well. The marriage records for Friends at this time included the names of those who went to the ceremony, with a separate list for "relations." Of the fifteen people listed in in the latter category at Elisha and Rebecca's wedding, only some are relations. I find no reference to Friends having attendants at their marriages at this time, so I don't know why they're listed this way. The bride's parents and her siblings Gilbert and Sarah appear, as well as Elisha's siblings John, Daniel and Anna. I discuss the others below.

The Apponegansett Meeting House in Dartmouth, where Elisha and Rebecca were married. Historic American Building Survey (HABS)

In the end of December of the same year, Humphry and Elisha announced in the Columbian Courier that they were business partners.3

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 married his 17 year-old daughter, so there was some common sense in involving his 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.4
     By July 1807 Daniel Thornton, Elisha's uncle, joined the firm to create Russell, Thornton & Co., but they parted ways in 1808.5 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. In 1810 and 1811 Humphry and Elisha were co-owners of the ships Fosterand Frances Ann.6 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.7 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.8

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,9 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 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.11 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 Friends 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, an African American ship captain and businessman, to Elisha, Jr., discusses the disposition of a "lad" toward going to sea.12 The author places "teacher" in brackets next to Elisha's name, maybe because of another reference saying "Elisha Thornton [Sr.], assisted by his sons was also employed in both agriculture and shoemaking."13 The "lad" was Charles G. Friberg, a Swede who had indenture papers in Westport in 1807. Cuffe had a Friends school set up on his own property in Westport. Did Friberg attend the Westport school? He says that "Freeburg" would be willing to ship out if he was assured he wouldn't be impressed (which would be an impossible promise to keep). Why he contacted Elisha specifically about this is a mystery, unless the Thorntons assisted in keeping the Westport school. The towns are near each other, so this isn't unreasonable.
Elisha was a director of the Bedford Social Library. An account of 1806 mentions him, aside from being a director, as giving financial support.14 The library was advanced enough to have shares available for it's use, a printed catalogue and use regulations, money for binding and for paying a librarian. They also charged fines, and weren't shy about who was delinquent.

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."15 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.16 In 1829 there is an ad that says "Medicines can be had at any hour of the night by calling at the house directly back of the shop." One of the things you could get at any hour, apparently, was their "worm tea," one of the few specific things advertised by the firm. It wasn't Elisha's house, so he may have had a willing employee.

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.

This ad was put in the Nantucket Inquirer in 1830, and clearly meant to target the shipping trade. And using ships for delivery.

Another ad gets more to the core of the apothecary trade.

The items in the ad are what it says: "dye stuffs," although a few are also used in medicines. "Nicaragua" refers to the heartwood of the brazilwood tree, which produces brazilin, a red dye. "Fustic" is a type of mulberry and also a yellow dye extracted from it. "Camwood" is another name for an African sandalwood tree, and produces red dye. "Blue vitriol" is a copper sulphate used for medicines and dye-making. "Copperas" is iron sulphate, or "green vitriol." "Annatto" is a yellow-orange dye made with an ingredient from the achiote tree. "Otter" is a phonetic corruption of it. "Roco" is extracted directly from the achiote. "Red Sanders" is a tree (now critically endangered) that grows specifically in India and produces red dye. "Oil vitriol" is concentrated sulphuric acid. "Aqua fortis" is nitrous acid. "Spirits of wine" is a form of alcohol. The "s" is missing in "gum shellac," which is an edible insect resin.
     In January 1830 he brought his son John into the firm, calling it E. Thornton & Son.17 In 1834 there was a curious ad that said "IRISH MOSS A FRESH supply just received, and for sale by E. THORNTON & SON."18 Irish moss is another term for algae, and it's likely he wanted it as an alternative to gum arabic (gum acacia, etc.) due to the expense. Elisha had a use for "Lehigh Ashes. ELISHA THORNTON wishes to purchase 40-50 bushels of Lehigh Ashes, for which a price will be given, equal to the trouble of saving them."19 I can't find any obvious connection between an apothecary and Lehigh (coal) Ashes. In 1837 they advertised "Lemon, Ginger, Sarsaparilla, Strawberry and Pine Apple Syrups, for sale wholesaile and retail." Elisha was also a distributor for medical devices such as hernia trusses. They put in a lot of little ads in the New Bedford Mercury. If you scan the pages you can find, at the store, French medicines and perfumes brought in from New York, boxes of olives and capers, jaundice bitters (made at the store), patent medicines such as Potter's Catholicon (supposedly cures just about anything), Rochelle and Siedlitz soda powders, peach water, first quality Turkey opium ("which will be sold low"), Turkey figs, and a fresh supply of European leeches just in on a ship from Sweden.
     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.20 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), and Octavia (trip made in 1846, no evidence of the ship after 1847).21 At the time he died, Elisha owned a twelfth share in the ship Messenger.22 His son John R. Thornton became a prominent whaling agent, and Messenger was one of his ships. Messenger was made in Salem in 1805 and was fitted for whaling by the Thorntons in 1835.
     Elisha's father was certainly against slavery, and the possibilty has been raised about Elisha, Jr,'s participating in the Underground Railroad. I've seen no actual evidence of this. There's a claim that a fugitive slave named Daniel Fisher, alias William Winters, was sheltered by "Elisha Thornton, Jr." Given the dates of this claim, it was Elisha (III), who continued to live at his parents' house at 20 Seventh Street. 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.23 These apparently were the Joseph Ricketson, Sr. who married Anna Thornton, Elisha's aunt, and then Sarah Russell, Elisha's sister-in-law, and Joseph, Jr. who married Frances Thornton, Elisha's daughter. 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.24
     There is a curious mystery in the 1840 Federal Census, which enumerated two, free African-American females in Elisha's household, one 10-24 years old the other 36-55.25 This was highly unusual, and it was during the brief time that the Thorntons moved to the Long Plain neighborhood of Fairhaven. They bought a farm there, but kept their house on Seventh Street, which they rented. The Long Plain property was just south of the "Ancient" Cemetery on what is now Main Street. Of the 3,951 residents of Fairhaven in 1840 (which included what is now Acushnet), 43 were considered "colored." There were 10 households headed by them and only 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, and no indication they had live-in servants.
      Elisha, Jr., will shows how progressive the Quakers were in regard to human rights. "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 I consider this mode or cause much more important than an equal distribution to all regardless of want and need."28 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.29
     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. A simple entry in the State death register says that Elisha died of dysentery.30 He had somehow contracted this illness either 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. When they determined they couldn't fund the preservation of the structure, they in turn sold it to someone who didn't have the means or interest to prevent further decay. After a neighboring house burned (the former home of Elisha's son Gilbert), water damage to 20 Seventh Street went untreated and 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. They turned down having the ship Charles W. Morgan at their port, which is now a focal point at Mystic Seaport. Zoning apparently allowed 18 Seventh Street to be an SRO flop house, and the owner of 20 Seventh wasn't required to secure or stabilize it. We can thank the National Park Service and the New Bedford Whaling Museum for recognizing that preservation and tourism can be an ecomomic boon for a depressed city. That was a lesson learned in the 1980s in other localities. So much for progress.

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

children of Elisha Thornton and Rebecca Russell:

i. Joseph Ricketson b. 8 August 1805
ii. Sarah Ann b. 15 November 1806
iii. John Russell b. 8 October 1808
iv. Gilbert Russell b. 31 December 1810
v. Mary Brown b. 15 January 1814
vi. Elisha b. 1 August 1815
vii. Rebecca Russell b. 16 March 1817
viii. Daniel, b. 28 April 1819
ix. Virginia R. b. 11 July 1821
x. Frances Moore, b. 31 October 1823
xi. Catherine R. b. 28 June 1826

vital records sources: 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 recorded in the Dartmouth Monthly Meeting records and New Bedford Monthly Meeting? (doublecheck)

1. Men's Minutes, New Bedford Monthly Meeting, 1792-1808, p. 209 (LDS microfilm)
2. Ibid, 213. He is mentioned in New Bedford town meeting minutes as a committeeman, 23 Sep 1805, 229.
3. Also on the list were Mary and "Eliza" Greene, daughters of Rebecca's aunt Elizabeth (Russell) Greene. Eliza Greene married Elisha's brother John several years later. The identities of Eliza Thornton (maybe Daniel's wife), Eliza Russell, Susan Russell, Sarah Russell and Nancy Howland can only be guessed at. A young first cousin, William T. Russell, is in the pool of other witnesses. Elisha's parents were in Smithfield, Rhode Island, and obviously didn't make the trip south. Rebecca's grandfather Joseph Russell had died just before the marriage, which could explain why her grandmother Judith (Howland) Russell didn't attend. Her maternal grandparents, Isaiah and Sarah (Delano) Eldredge, also didn't attend. Although they weren't Quakers, people of other faiths were allowed to go to Quaker weddings.
4. Columbian Courier, 21 Dec 1804, 3.
5. See note 2.
6. New Bedford Mercury (hereafter NBM), 14 August 1807 and 29 Apr 1808, both p. 3.
7. Ship Registers of New Bedford, Massachusetts, vol. 1 (Boston:1940), 108, 110 respectively.
8. Lloyd V. Briggs, History of Shipbuilding on the North River, etc. (Boston:1889), 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, 1). The first notice found of her sailing was 26 June (Columbian, 3).
8. NBM, 14 August 1807 and 29 Apr 1808, both p. 3.
9. Ibid, 28 Aug 1812, 3.
10. Ibid, 8 Oct 1813, 3.
11. Ibid, 31 Dec 1813, 4.
12. Rosalind Cobb Wiggins, Captain Paul Cuffe's logs and letters, 1808-1817 (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1996), 262.
14. possibly from Zora Klain, Educational Activities of New England Quakers (Philadelphia: Westbrook Publishing Co., 1928), 42-44.
15. Twenty-first Annual Report of the Trustees of the Free Public Library of New Bedford (New Bedford:1873), 39.
NBM, 30 Aug 1811, 3.
16. NBM, 30 Aug 1811, 3.
17. Ibid, 12 Apr 1822, 3.
18. New Bedford Gazette, 29 Sep 1834.
19. NBM, 11 Jan 1830, p. 3.
20. NBM, 4 March 1829, 4.
21. New Bedford city directories.
22. Ship Registers of New Bedford, Massachusetts, vol. 1 (Boston:1940), 330, 86, 200, 236 respectively.
23. ibid, vol. 2, 170.
24. 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.
25. New Bedford city directory for 1841.
26. Elisha Thornton household, 1840 US Federal census, NARA microfilm publication M704, roll 178, p. 335.
27. Humphry Russell's Bristol Co. probate record, Elisha Thornton, executor, case 22113. need cemetery article source.
28. Daniel Ricketson, The History of New Bedford, Bristol County, Massachusetts (1858), p. 325.
29. Bristol Co. probate record, case 25666.
30. Bristol Co. probate record, case 25674.
31. New England Historic Genealogical Society online database, "Massachusetts Vital Records 1841-1910," 84(N):83a.

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