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A few Grinnell men of New Bedford and their connections to the whaling trade Part 1 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laura G. Prescott   
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 22:21

We want to thank Laura for granting permission to republish a two-part article that first appeared in the Grinnell Family Association newsletter in 2006.--the Webmaster

by Laura G. Prescott (

When Cornelius Grinnell left his home in Little Compton, Rhode Island, for New Bedford, Massachusetts, he likely had little idea that he would father a dynasty whose descendants would create historical and commercial successes in Massachusetts and the nation. His heirs were famous, successful, and wealthy, profiting from the New Bedford whaling trade through its many connected industries. Yet there were many others of Grinnell descent who made their livelihood by directly pursuing the leviathan on the world's oceans.

According to the Grinnell genealogy (When I use the phrase "the Grinnell genealogy" in this article, I refer to the publication The Descendants of Matthew and Rose (French) Greenell, published in three parts, by The Grinnell Family Association of America, 1997.), Cornelius (#206, 1758-1850) "left Little Compton as a boy to apprentice in the hatter's trade, in New Bedford, MA." Had he pursued that occupation, instead of being swept up in the whaling and maritime industries then just beginning in the fledgling port town, the history of the Grinnells in New Bedford might have been quite different. Instead, he founded an influential legacy with family members ultimately involved in a number of prominent corporations, including Grinnell, Minturn and Co. (formerly Fish and Grinnell), the Marine Bank, Wamsutta Mills, the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad, and the Grinnell Corporation (now known as SimplexGrinnell).

The history of the Cornelius Grinnell family in New Bedford revolves around whaling connections. In a way, each of the Grinnell companies listed above was tied to the whaling trade or was formed using profits invested there from. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, whaling was an enormously lucrative business that consumed New Bedford. Everything in town was connected to it in some way. New Bedford was the most active and successful whaling port in the world. In fact, for a time, it was known as the richest city in the world.

Although Cornelius' interests were supported by whaling, he was also involved in privateering, maritime trade, and shipbuilding. There were many other Grinnell men who were more intimately involved with whaling however. For some it was their only occupation. More often, it was a one-voyage challenge. Grinnells sailing out of New Bedford had positions ranging from greenhand to harpooner to captain, embarking on one tell-tale voyage or several, proving their manhood at sea, or making their fortunes. The whaling trade launched several Grinnell family fortunes.

By going out to sea and becoming quite successful at it, Cornelius was able to influence his children, a nephew, cousins, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. They ultimately owned or became involved at the highest levels in great companies. Before we explore these connections, it is helpful to understand a little about the history of New Bedford and how it influenced Grinnell family history.

Cornelius did not travel far to find his fortune. New Bedford is only twenty miles northeast of Little Compton where he was born. In fact, a dozen years before his birth date, Little Compton was still part of Massachusetts. It wasn't until February 1747 that the Rhode Island boundary with Massachusetts was settled as we know it today. Tiverton and Little Compton were not Rhode Island communities until after that date.

If Cornelius was "a boy" when he left home, let's assume he would be at most 16 years old, making the year 1774. In that year, he would have been bound for Bedford Village, which was then part of Dartmouth, Massachusetts. Today the entire area is known as "Old Dartmouth" since it was historically a large tract of land, just as Plymouth was.

In 1652, Dartmouth was purchased from Massasoit, grand sachem of the Wampanoag nation, and his son Wamsutta. Anyone with a little knowledge of Pilgrim history knows that Massasoit was instrumental in helping the Pilgrims through their early years. You may also know that some settlers to the Plymouth Bay Colony were not fond of the religious practices of the Pilgrims. Quakers, known as the Society of Friends, especially felt compelled to leave Plymouth to start a community in which they could practice their own beliefs.

The wealth ultimately generated from the New Bedford fishing and whaling industries is astronomically diverse from the price paid to Massasoit for Dartmouth. The deed, in part, is transcribed at, and follows:

Massasoit and Wamsutta sold to William Bradford, Captain Myles Standish, Thomas Southworth, John Winslow, John Cooke, and their associates, for thirty yards of cloth, eight moose skins, fifteen axes, fifteen hoes, fifteen pairs of breeches, eight blankets, two kettles, one clock, two English Pounds in Wampum, eight pair of shoes, one iron pot, and ten shillings, that land called Dartmouth.

Dartmouth was incorporated in 1664 within Norfolk County. It included today's communities of Acushnet, Dartmouth, Fairhaven, New Bedford, and Westport. The Quakers started the first ecclesiastical body in 1699 and, in the early 1700's, the Russell family began to form the town now known as New Bedford. The town was officially chartered in 1787, and called "New" to set itself apart from another town named Bedford, north of Boston.

Nantucket had long been the center of New England whaling. New Bedford's history as a whaling port began with Joseph Rotch, already active in the trade. He and others felt that Nantucket had such a monopoly and stranglehold on the whaling trade, that they would begin their own whaling business, with all its attachments in New Bedford. The new port enjoyed an early rivalry with Nantucket as the premier whaling port and soon overtook it. There is quite a long and involved story about the fierce competition between Nantucket and New Bedford. Natives of both ports continue to relate it today with the intensity of college football rivals. Ultimately, more whaling ships than in all other American whaling ports combined left the New Bedford harbor. Whaling peaked in 1855. After that, because of depleted whale populations and the discovery of oil in Pennsylvania in 1859, the industry withered.

Rotch launched the first ship from New Bedford in 1767 when it was little more than a village. His ship Dartmouth was one of those famously emptied of its cargo of tea in Boston Harbor in 1773. Once the revolution was in full swing, Rotch, New Bedford, and Cornelius Grinnell were actively involved in the war at sea.

After the war, whaling grew swiftly as an economic boon to the area. Herman Melville came to the town in 1840. As author of Moby Dick, Melville called New Bedford "a queer place." He wrote, "Had it not been for us whalemen, that tract of land would this day perhaps have been in as howling condition as the coast of Labrador." He called it "the dearest place to live in, in all New England. It is a land of oil, true enough; but not like Canaan; a land, also, of corn and wine. The streets do not run with milk; nor in the spring-time do they pave them with fresh eggs. Yet, in spite of this, nowhere in all America will you find more patrician-like houses; parks and gardens more opulent, than in New Bedford."

Cornelius was the eighth of nine children and among the first in his direct line from Matthew to leave for Massachusetts, following his uncle Benjamin and brother, Moses. Like many men of that time period, he most likely left home because his older brothers were left in charge of family property and, as land became scarce, he had to make his own way.

Cornelius claimed whaling fame when he captained the Rebecca, the first American whaler to double Cape Horn, returning with Pacific whale oil. After that, it appears Cornelius left the captaining of whaling ships to others and built up related industries around them, most specifically trade of whaling commodities. Whale byproducts include sperm oil, spermaceti, whale oil, whalebone or baleen (a precursor to plastic.) Cornelius's sons prospered through his whaling ventures, but most left New Bedford for New York.

Son Joseph started Fish & Grinnell with his cousin Preserved Fish, son of Cornelius's sister Ruth and Isaac Fish. Preserved Fish bears a name that is a curiosity to all who hear it for the first time and wonder if it's a joke. (It is not.) Fish & Grinnell later became the very successful shipping company, Grinnell, Minturn and Co., headquartered in New York. It employed many Grinnell descendants. Joseph however, became ill and returned to New Bedford where he was highly influential in founding the Marine Bank, Wamsutta Mills, and the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad. Oddly enough, though sickly most of his life, he survived his siblings, and lived to be 96 years old.

Cornelius, Joseph's brother and son of Cornelius, died rather young (age 44) but was very involved with Grinnell, Minturn, and Co. Son Moses was equally involved, became quite wealthy, and famously launched a ship on a rescue mission to the Arctic, but that's another story. Son Lawrence manufactured sperm oil and candles. It was his son, Frederick, who started Grinnell Fire Protection in New Bedford in 1850. It is now a subsidiary of SimplexGrinnell, a unit of Tyco Fire & Security.

Although Cornelius was one of the first Grinnells in New Bedford, his legacy and those of his descendants involved tangential enterprises requiring only rare opportunities to board a vessel and actually hunt whales. The New Bedford Free Public Library and the library at the New Bedford Whaling Museum have very good collections of whaling history, including logbooks, newspaper accounts, diaries, and corporate papers. Many include Grinnell history, as well. More Grinnell men, with a broad range of descent from Matthew, included captains, harpooners, first mates and others who did take to the sea.

One of the earliest logbooks archived at the museum library is for Parnasso, a ship, built at New Bedford, described as a whaling vessel, "out of New Bedford, Mass., mastered by C. Covell." The log covers a voyage from 8 December 1820 to 5 July 1823. It sailed to the "Pacific, Southeast Pacific, Chile Coast, and Peru Coast whaling grounds." The owner-agents are William T. Russell, Cornelius Grinnell, William Howland, and others.

Logbooks contain rather dull entries of each day at sea, listing weather, longitude, and latitude. When whales are sighted, however, the descriptions can be more interesting as the recorder of the log describes how a whale was ultimately caught and who was involved. It is nothing as exciting as the narrative of Moby Dick, but if your ancestor were named as the harpooner, perhaps it would be interesting for you. It is also delightful to see whale images stamped next to the account of a successful day – one for each whale caught, and shaped according to the type of whale caught. For instance, a sperm whale image is different than a blackfish.

Captains of vessels included offspring of Benjamin (#197), who arrived in New Bedford early, like Cornelius. His son Joshua and grandson Joshua are named as whaling captains. Joshua (#793) captained the Eagle on a voyage to the Pacific from August 1833 to November 1836 and he was captain of the Barclay, which left for the Pacific on December 11, 1843, and returned July 9, 1844. Isaac Grinnell is also listed as a whaling captain in the shipping records. Most likely this is Isaac #3786, but that is not completely confirmed since there are a couple Isaac Grinnells who lived in New Bedford at the time. Among his many voyages, Isaac Grinnell captained the William Henry of Fairhaven, which sailed December 5, 1855 and returned in 1859. This is a testament to the very lengthy voyages many of these men undertook, often returning with fewer whales and their byproducts than was profitable during these ebbing years of the industry.

The owners of ships typically received 60 to 70% of the profits, with the rest divided between captain and crew. The division is known as their "lay," and it can vary from 1/14 for a captain, to 1/20 for a mate, to 1/210 or 1/190 for a "greenhand" or "boy." "Greenhand" is a term used for the men, or more often boys, on their first whaling voyage.

Some records at the New Bedford Free Public Library are available online through the "Whaling Voyages Crewlist" link at Therein are 89 entries for Grinnell men who sailed on whaling voyages. Some men are listed more than once, a testament to their seamanship.

As an example, Asa Grinnell is listed as the 2nd mate on the bark Champion which left Westport on May 30, 1841. He earned 1/35 of the lay, while Isaiah, a greenhand, earned 1/135. The vessel returned on October 7, 1842, after a relatively short voyage. Abraham and George Grinnell took a two-year voyage to the Indian Ocean on the bark Otranto. Abraham was a mate. He received 1/20, while George was an ordinary who received 1/120. On that same ship, the Otranto, yet on an earlier voyage in 1841, James Grinnell is listed as a cooper who "did not return from voyage."

The William and Henry, captained by Isaac Grinnell, with Edson as a greenhand and Abel as a boatsteerer (harpooner) made a three and a half year voyage to the Pacific. Returning in June 1859, the profits were divided 1/14, 1/190, and 1/90 respectively.

It is complicated to match each Grinnell man listed on the voyage manifests to those in the Grinnell genealogy. Also, the 1850 census of Bristol County lists 78 Grinnells (men, women, and children), with 20 living in New Bedford. Making sense of who is who rarely seems to connect between all three places – the Grinnell genealogy, the list of mariners at the library, and the census. Of the men listed in the 1850 census, however, the following are linked to the sea, with only Joshua and Isaac being easy to identify among all three sources:

  • Joshua, 48, Fairhaven, mariner
  • John, 30, Westport, sailor
  • Isaac, 55, Fairhaven, mariner (m. Chloe)
  • Andrew B, 38, New Bedford, sailor (m. Mary A.)
  • Henry Grenell, 22, New Bedford, sailor
  • Ebenezer Grinnell, 21, Fairhaven, boat builder

Obviously there are some great stories hidden among the whaling records in New Bedford with their terse facts of each ship that sailed. Little is actually elaborated upon by others so it is up to the reader to take simple accounts of voyages and the industry and from them create imaginative stories. If you have the opportunity to visit New Bedford (perhaps after a future Grinnell reunion), you'll have ample resources to explore the "city that went to sea" through the archived accounts in the libraries and museum, by walking the streets of the historic districts, and at the National Park Service's New Bedford Whaling Historical Park. Many of the "patrician-like houses, parks and gardens" referenced by Melville are still evident, evoking the glory of the era.

In the next part of this extended article, there will be small excerpts and images gleaned from the records of the archives so readers can view a logbook, a Grinnell, Minturn, & Co. code book, as well as newspaper accounts, and diaries of the various - and the very interesting - Grinnell men and women of New Bedford.

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 September 2011 11:34