Modern history


“The Dearest Place in All New England”

Seven years earlier, on September 14, 1864, New Bedford’s preeminent whaling merchant, George Howland, Jr., then fifty-eight years old, gave a speech to an assembly of citizens and merchants on the two hundredth anniversary of the incorporation of the town of Dartmouth, Massachusetts, of which New Bedford had once been a part. The whaling business was still suffering the depredations of the Civil War, which had seen the loss of many whaleships and severely affected the town’s economy; quantities of whale oil brought home by whaling voyages had fallen in recent years, and the market price of whale oil was softening. Yet Howland’s message was unequivocally optimistic:

When I look over our city, and see the improvements which have taken place within my time, and over the territory represented by you, my fellow citizens and neighbors, and then go further, and embrace the whole country, I sometimes ask myself the question, “Can these improvements continue? And will science and art make the same rapid strides for the next fifty or one hundred years?” The only answer I can make is the real Yankee one: why not?

Howland’s boosterism was genetic. His father, George Howland, had made a fortune in the whale fishery. When he died, in 1852, he left an estate including: $615,000 in cash; a fleet of nine whaling vessels; a wharf with a countinghouse sitting on it; a candle factory; property and acreage in New Bedford, Maine, western New York, Michigan, and Illinois; an island in Pacific; and charitable bequests of $70,000. This was great wealth in the mid-nineteenth century, the highest tier of any Fortune 500 equivalency of the day. Yet Howland’s success had been duplicated forty or fifty times over by other New Bedford whaling merchants during his lifetime. Half of these successes had been forged by men named Howland, descendants of Henry Howland, brother of John Howland, who had arrived in America aboard the Mayflower. There were at least twenty Howland millionaires in New Bedford during George Howland’s lifetime, close and distant cousins. Most of them, like George, were devout Quakers.

His sons, George Howland, Jr., and George Jr.’s half brother Matthew, inherited their father’s ships, wharf, countinghouse, candle factory, and whaling business. In 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War, two of their ships, the Corinthian and the George Howland, returned to their wharf in New Bedford with a total of 930 barrels of sperm oil (from the head “case,” or reservoir, of sperm whales) and 8,100 barrels of whale oil (the lesser quality made from boiling down blubber). The gross return from these two voyages was $383,433, from which George Jr. and Matthew first paid themselves back the $50,000 invested in outfitting the ships. Half of the remaining $333,433 went to the captains and crews as their share of the profits; $166,716 was the two Howland brothers’ net profit on these two voyages alone. They received additional income from their candle-making and oil-refining factories and other related businesses. Undoubtedly most of it went back into the business, for as Quakers the Howlands lived simply and modestly, but at a time when a common workingman’s annual earnings might be between $50 and $300, when a federal district judge in the East earned between $2,000 and $3,700 per year, and the president of the United States earned $25,000, the Howland brothers were netting annually around $100,000 each—with no income tax to pay.

It’s understandable if George Howland, Jr., looking back over the improvements made to his city during his own and his father’s lifetimes, could not—or would not—see beyond the incontrovertible facts of his own circumstances. During the previous one hundred years, the town had grown from a scattering of smallholdings along a riverbank to arguably the richest town in America. His father had ridden that growth to unprecedented wealth and passed it on to him and his brother, and at any time before the summer of 1871, George Jr. and Matthew could point only to the continued improvement of their personal wealth and business.

George Jr.’s walk home from anywhere in New Bedford, climbing the gentle hill that rose from the harbor, would have underscored this steadfast belief, for down the hill and as far as he could see in any direction, in tangible brick, wood, iron, and seething human endeavor, lay the whole of reality as he had always known it. Below him spread the waterfront, lined with warehouses, ship chandlers, thousands of barrels of oil, and the countinghouses of merchants whose names had been well known a century earlier. Every foot of wharf up and down both river-banks was jammed with moored whaling ships; others lay at anchor in the river waiting for dock space to unload their cargoes, or to refit and load supplies for another voyage. By any route home, Howland passed the substantial houses of other merchants and ships’ captains who had grown rich on whaling. The town was “perhaps the dearest place in all New England,” Melville had written in Moby-Dick. “Nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses, parks and gardens more opulent than in New Bedford. Whence came they? All these brave houses and flowery gardens came from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. One and all, they were harpooned and dragged up hither from the bottom of the sea.”

George Jr.’s own four-story brick mansion and carriage house on Sixth Street, occupying an entire east-west block, and half a block north-south between Bush and Walnut streets (where it still stands today), was the most solid, unassailable measure of his substance, and of the permanence of his business. He had designed the house himself, had it built in 1834, and had lived in it for more than thirty years. Barrels of whale oil and bricks and mortar were equally solid to George Howland, Jr., and his sense of security about his business and the business of New Bedford was unshakably strong. How could he not think so?

The smart money agreed with him. R. G. Dun & Co., the early credit-reporting and business-information agency, described and rated George Jr. and Matthew Howland in 1856 as being: “of the middle age both of them, men of good character and habits, and of business capacity; each with several hundred thousand dollars—ship owners, dealers and oil manufacturers. Good and safe.”

George Howland, Jr., married Sylvia Allen, a distant cousin, the grandchild of another Howland. They had three sons, but two died in infancy, and the third at the age of twenty-eight. Perhaps grief propelled him out of his house to lose himself in service to his community. A family biographer writing in 1885, when George Jr. was seventy-nine years old, noted that “he has been frequently sought for to fill public positions of trust.” He was a member of the town’s school committee; he represented New Bedford at the General Court of Massachusetts; he was twice the city’s mayor; a member of the State Senate; a trustee of the New Bedford Institution for Savings and of the Five Cent Savings Bank; a trustee of the State Lunatic Hospital; a trustee of Brown University; a trustee of the New Bedford Public Library, to which he donated his first two years’ salary as mayor ($1,600); and in 1870 he was one of the commissioners appointed by President Grant to visit the Osage Indians in Oklahoma, where he spent a few weeks living in a tepee. In New Bedford, George Howland, Jr.’s, pronouncements were as good as the Delphic Oracle’s. If he said business was good, it must be so.

Laboring in the shadow of his older half brother’s eminence, Matthew Howland maintained far less of a public profile. He was at times a director on several bank boards, and an active member, elder, and clerk of the New Bedford Monthly Meeting of the Society of Friends, but he wasn’t a statesman or a dignitary or a great traveler. Almost every day of his life after the age of fourteen, he walked downhill to the Howland countinghouse on the waterfront, where he busied himself primarily with the daily management of the family whaling business. While George was about great civic deeds, it was Matthew who oversaw the fitting out and repair of vessels at the Howland wharf, the sale and shipment of oil to many foreign ports, the running of the candle-making factory, the hiring of captains and crews. It was Matthew who wrote to his shipmasters a long letter at the commencement of each voyage: “We give thee the following orders and instructions which thou will attend to during the present voyage. . . .”

Matthew’s home was four deep blocks farther inland from George Jr.’s and the grander mansions on the hill above the harbor. The homes along County Street, which rode the crest of the hill north and south, and those immediately below it on its eastern flank, where George Jr.’s sat, looked down over the harbor and the Acushnet River, and were in turn seen by those below. Matthew’s house on Hawthorn and South Cottage streets offered no view and occupied an unobtrusive position in a flat, leafy neighborhood of solid but not grand houses. (It, too, is still there, today housing medical offices.)

But Matthew made the showier of the two brothers’ marriages, landing what could only be called a trophy wife in terms of the Quaker community. Rachel Collins Smith was a great beauty—dark hair, a pale complexion, fine features, and huge dark eyes, “wondrous beautiful” according to Massachusetts governor John Andrew, who met her at a reception in New Bedford during the Civil War—and of significant pedigree: she was related to William Penn, the Quaker founder of Pennsylvania, and came from a family that was much concerned with politics and the abolition movement. “The Smiths were a contentious family—” wrote Rachel and Matthew’s descendant Llewellyn Howland III, a hundred years later in a family history, “evangelists, crackpots, faddists.” They were also fighters for just causes. This energy was a marked contrast to Matthew’s plain, insular lifestyle, and the narrow focus of his concerns. Rachel, too, presumed she had made a stellar connection: a fabulously rich Howland brother, of a most pious, observant line. Until she married him, Rachel did not know that Matthew was an epileptic, and probably a depressive. There must have been a considerable curve of adjustment early on in the marriage, but it became a strong one. Matthew continued in his stolid, almost shut-in habits, the daily commute to and immersion in the Howland counting house, a preoccupation with prices, barrels of oil, pounds of whalebone. Rachel, a strident woman who was “inclined to tyranny,” according to Llewellyn Howland III, became a firebrand Quaker minister, the queen of New Bedford society, a mover and shaker pushing for social improvement and charitable causes throughout the American Quaker community, and one of the most powerful women in the country. She was intelligent—probably much more so than Matthew—and passionately outspoken. She fought against slavery with her contemporary and friend Harriet Beecher Stowe, and, when she felt it necessary, visited President Lincoln in the White House to offer him her views on the subject.

Matthew’s fortune was the earning machine and springboard for Rachel’s social works, and her philanthropic deployment of the prodigious wealth generated by whaling.

EVIDENTLY, the precise and careful numbers from Matthew’s counting house were in line with George Jr.’s bully optimism. In 1866, after the return to port of the Corinthian and the George Howland, R. G. Dun noted that they had “made money very fast lately in the whaling business.” So confident were the two brothers that year of the long-term prospects for the whaling industry that they decided to add a tenth vessel to their fleet of whaleships. They commissioned the shipyard of Josiah Holmes and Brother, of neighboring Mattapoisett, with the building of the new ship. The selection of the Holmes brothers by the Howland brothers says everything about the quality of product expected from them. “The bark’s frame is of pine and oak . . . all timbers carefully selected and cut in the vicinity of Mattapoisett,” reported the New Bedford Mercury. The Holmeses, or their master carpenters, would have spent considerable time in the woods looking at great numbers of trees, observing their aspect to the sun and the prevailing winds and the winter cold—all of which affected the density of the cellulose—noting the health of the bark, examining the crooks of the boughs that would make the knees that would knit together deck and hull. Such men saw in a tree what a sculptor sees in a piece of marble, knowing the shape he wants to bring out of it and how the material’s grain and properties will help or hinder him. The shipbuilders were keenly aware of the stresses and hardship their vessels would be subjected to, and every aspect and detail of the ship’s construction was given the highest degree of forethought and artisanal craftsmanship. The shipbuilding businesses that had developed around New Bedford during a century of continued growth of the whale fishery had been like the concentrated tooling-up of industry that comes with a great war—and the heyday of whaling was indeed a hundred years’ holy war that saw untold losses of men’s lives. The men building the ships they sailed off in understood this. Shipbuilding techniques were developed, improved, and refined with economy and ingenuity. Whaling historian Everett S. Allen wrote this about the whaleship builder’s method of fastening plank on frame:

The trunnel [a contraction of “tree nail”] was a superlative device, an ingeniously contrived wooden nail, usually of white oak or locust. It was square on one end, gradually turning to round at the other; it was driven into the plank far enough so that the square portion was embedded and thus would not turn or loosen. The trunnel head was sawed off flush with the plank, split slightly with a chisel, and a wooden wedge driven in. This fastening was more durable than iron and could only be removed by boring it out. . . . Leave it to the Yankee Quaker to find a use for a square peg in a round hole.

The Howlands’ new ship was christened Concordia. At $100,000, when fitted out, it was the most expensive whaleship, then and later, ever built for the New Bedford fishery. It was “bark-rigged”: square sails on the fore- and mainmasts, while setting fore and aft sails on the mizzenmast, making it more close-winded than fully square-rigged ships, and more maneuverable. At 128 and a half feet long, she was average-sized for a larger whaleship, but unusually fine in the appointments, with decorative faux graining of the pine paneling below to make it resemble curled maple, rosewood, and satinwood. This was a rare touch on a Quaker-owned vessel, including those owned by the Howland brothers, who eschewed ostentation and generally saw their ships’ interiors painted and finished in the plainest utilitarian manner. But something about the Howlands’ commitment to the building of the Concordia brought out a rare fulsomeness of attitude toward the endeavor. She was a beautiful ship, unlike most whalers, which were square and boxy. “She did not have to be so un-Quakerishly pretty,” wrote Everett S. Allen, “yet she was.” Never again would such prettiness or care be lavished upon the shapeliness and decoration—the unpractical, irrelevant aspects—of a whaleship.

The brothers’ plan for the lovely new ship was, however, nothing but pragmatic: she would be sent to the unforgiving Arctic, the only remaining spot on earth where such an expensive ship—or any ship in the late 1860s—might have a chance of a profitable voyage.

The Howlands built the Concordia with the same faith that had set Noah to building his ark. The concord between them and their God had taken George Howland, Sr., his Quaker merchant contemporaries, and all their Quaker ancestors very far. There was no basis for George Jr. and Matthew to question Him.

The Concordia was launched on November 7, 1867. With routine care and refurbishment, she might have lasted forever. She would have a life of only four years.

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