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A few Grinnell men of New Bedford and their connections to the whaling trade Part 2 PDF Print E-mail
Written by Laura G. Prescott   
Wednesday, 11 May 2011 22:28

Here's Part 2 of Laura Prescott's excellent history of the Grinnells in New Bedford.-- the Webmaster

by Laura G. Prescott (

When we last visited the Grinnells of New Bedford, the whaling industry was waning. As the leviathan became harder to find, and petroleum was discovered in Pennsylvania, the period 1840 to 1860 heralded a time of economic transition for New Bedford. While it was losing its reputation as the whaling metropolis of the world, New Bedford was gaining prominence in other areas. As the city prospered, so did the Cornelius Grinnell family.

As immersed as the Grinnells were in whaling, the family had diversified into plenty of other commercial enterprises. They built their fortunes around related industries and continued to thrive as the age of the railroad reached its prime and New England's textile industry flourished.

It is important to note that although New Bedford was a hub of commercial enterprise, Bristol County, Massachusetts, home to numerous Grinnell families, was widely agrarian. Of the 29 male Grinnells between the ages of 15 and 55 living in Bristol County in 1880, only two were seaman. Most of the others were either carpenters or farmers. Reflecting their times, however, one Grinnell male worked in a cotton mill and another was a signalman for the railroad. Both lived in city neighborhoods filled with mill workers: men, women, and children.

Bringing this back to the city level, we can view snapshots of New Bedford businesses, industries, and citizens earlier in this transition period, by reviewing New Bedford city directories of the era. Three are available online through Google Books. Visit, type "New Bedford Directory" in the search box, and the link should appear at the top of the list of hits. Click on the "More Editions" link to find 1849, 1852, and 1859 directories. After clicking "The New Bedford Directory" link, you can view the books online or download them to your computer.

Searching on the word "Grinnell" in the 1859 directory results in many hits simply because there are companies and streets named after the family, in addition to the six Grinnell men and women arranged in the directory listing. Of those six, two are especially prominent: Joseph Grinnell and Lawrence Grinnell, Joseph's neighbor and nephew. Joseph, as we know was a leading citizen of New Bedford. He is listed with affiliations to the Marine Bank, New Bedford and Taunton Railroad, Wamsutta Mills Corporation, and the New Bedford and Martha's Vineyard Steamboat Company. Lawrence was a merchant, treasurer of the New Bedford and Taunton Railroad, and engaged in "oil and candle manufactory."

Joseph Grinnell

Joseph Grinnell's prosperity is something every Grinnell family member can be proud of. Yet, none of us are descended from him. Joseph had no children, aside from an adopted daughter, Cornelia Grinnell (1825-1904), youngest child of Joseph's brother Cornelius who died in 1830, at the age of 40.

While Joseph stands out as one of the most successful and prominent Grinnells in history, he had brothers and cousins who were quite successful as well. Several of these family members were discussed in a previous newsletter. We'll follow Joseph through the rest of his entrepreneurial lifetime, and then see where his siblings and their children made their impressions in New Bedford, New England, and the world. Some of the most interesting history of Joseph Grinnell's life can be found in the Grinnell Genealogy on page 439.

Historical trends help us understand the people who lived in particular time periods. And, in reverse, those who were influential help us decipher history a bit better. Since New Bedford and the descendants of Cornelius Grinnell were especially influential, we can't help but intertwine the history of the region and the family.

The Marine Bank was incorporated March 3, 1832. It was one of the more successful institutions of its time, and Joseph Grinnell was its first president. He served in that capacity until 1878, and continued as a director afterward. The Marine Bank later became First National. Joseph's signature is on the Marine Bank's notes. [I've provided an example courtesy of New Bedford, MA- Marine Bank $3 Note Jan. 1, 1856, found at Heritage Auction Galleries]

The railroad came to New Bedford in 1840. It was a vital link between Boston and the rest of the world, not only for purposes of commerce and trade, but also for people who no longer had to rely on stagecoaches to get them to the port city. The railroad was organized in 1838 and named on March 26, 1839, before construction began. It continued under this name until 1873 when it was fully absorbed into New England's larger Old Colony Railroad.

Joseph was a director and president in the company. His nephew Lawrence was a treasurer. Just as Joseph's signature appears on bank notes, in Lawrence's capacity as treasurer, we can find his signature on the extant company's stocks and bonds. [These images are from the Scripophily Collection of]. The descendants of Cornelius were literally making their marks on New Bedford commerce.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum website provides an especially pertinent description of the railroad's influence on New Bedford:

Opened in 1840, the rail line penetrated the city right along the waterfront, paving the way for its future usefulness to the wharves, whale oil refineries, flour mills, and textile factories that were to flank it left and right. From the outset the company offered low rates and attractive rebates to woo freight contracts away from the seaborne freighters and packets that had hitherto carried all of New Bedford's wares to market. As the century wore on, significant growth of manufacturing, and the increasing need for raw materials, iron, and coal that heavy industry required, rendered the rail connection increasingly indispensable; and in 1883 the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company–better known as the Reading Railroad–selected a New Bedford waterfront site for its largest branch, a rail depot, coal scuttle, and land-sea junction of ships and trains.

Because of New Bedford's link to the sea, textile mills popped up along the waterfront. The location was ideal for dumping wastewater as well as because of its access to shipping ports and railroads to get the goods to market. Even now, a century later, the waters of New Bedford suffer the effects of the dies and solutions so disposed.

Understandably, Joseph Grinnell, the man with interests in so many successful enterprises, was a significant figure with one particular mill, Wamsutta. The original corporation began in 1846 and became famous worldwide for fine-thread cotton clothing and textiles. A tour guide in New Bedford relates that there is something "in the air" in New Bedford – a combination of humidity and temperature – that made it an ideal spot for this industry. The mill was closed in the 1950s after decades of competition from southern factories edged it out of the market. The building is now being renovated for apartments.

The next Grinnell reunion may want to offer visits to related museums – sea, rail, mill - to learn more about our nineteenth-century family heritage. While many of us are not descended from this Grinnell line, we are kin, and therefore share the traditions, culture, and influences in which these Grinnells participated.

More children of Cornelius Grinnell

Although other Grinnells settled in New Bedford, we tend to think of Cornelius (#206) as the patriarch of the New Bedford clan, especially since he had nine children, all but one of whom lived beyond infancy.

In its early days, as evidenced by the 1890 census, there were three Grinnell households in New Bedford. In addition to Cornelius, brother Moses Grinnell, and cousin Benjamin Grinnell, lived there with their families. But for shear numbers and perseverance, it appears that the family of Cornelius was at the foundation of New Bedford society and commerce.

Cornelius Grinnell married Sylvia Ann Howland, daughter of Gideon Howland and Sarah Hicks, in 1785. If you're descended from Cornelius and Sylvia, and think you're a shoe-in for Mayflower lineage because of the famous Howland name, don't count on it. Gideon's immigrant ancestor was Henry Howland, younger brother to John Howland of the Mayflower. Henry didn't make it to New England until 1632.

The couple had nine children, Francis died in infancy. Their only daughter, Sylvia (1791-1844), joined with another prominent New Bedford family through her marriage to William Tallman Russell in 1819. They had seven children. Another son, James Madison (1807-1854) has not been thoroughly researched, but we know that he and his wife both died at fairly young ages (46 and 44 respectively), leaving seven children, all but two of whom were under 18 years old when orphaned. Perhaps that explains how, although they grew up in New York and Connecticut, they were more geographically dispersed than any of their cousins, living in Kansas, Minnesota, and Washington.

Abraham B. Grinnell (1801-1824) is another son of whom we know little, mainly because his life was even shorter than his brother's, although perhaps a more adventurous one. He was a sea captain and died on his 23rd birthday at Havana, Cuba. Another of Cornelius's sons, William Palmer Grinnell (1797-1850), was influential in New Bedford commerce, died on a trip to San Francisco at age 53, and left a legacy of six children in New Bedford.

According to an inventory of the Grinnell Family Papers, archived at the New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library, Cornelius (1786-1830), oldest son of patriarch Cornelius worked for the Grinnell companies in New York but "returned to New Bedford to raise sheep." Additionally, he entered the insurance business, and manufactured oil and candles.

Son Cornelius, like his father, raised a few prominent sons of his own. Lawrence was with him in New York and also returned to New Bedford, eventually living near his uncle Joseph. We've already described his connection to the railroad and to his father's candle business. Lawrence's son Frederick was the founder of Grinnell Fire Protection Systems. To learn more about this company, originally based in Providence, RI, visit Another son, Joseph G. Grinnell, was a partner in Taber & Grinnell, an iron foundry and rivet factory located on Water Street in New Bedford.

The remaining two sons of Cornelius and Sylvia, Henry William Grinnell (1799-1874) and Moses Hicks Grinnell (1803-1877) were born in New Bedford but made their fame and fortune in New York. Despite their brother Joseph's profound influence on New Bedford and New England, these brothers are better known on a national and even international level, primarily through their financing of two Arctic rescue missions in the 1850s.

Sir John Franklin was charged with finding and mapping the legendary Northwest Passage. On his fourth attempt, in 1845, his ship was lost. Numerous attempts to find his ship and crew were made, two of which were championed and funded by Henry Grinnell. It was not until 1859 that another expedition confirmed Sir John Franklin's death in 1847. The stories relating to the doomed expedition and its many rescue attempts are prolific and easily found in books and online. But the influence of Henry is, of course, a Grinnell story as well.

Henry was an advocate of sailors and exploration. He was the first president of the American Geographical Society , founded in 1851. If you ever travel to the new Canadian province of Nunavut, be sure to visit Grinnell Land in the northeast part of Ellesmere Island. It is named for Henry William Grinnell.

The last son of Cornelius mentioned here is Henry's brother and partner in business and exploration finance, Moses Hicks Grinnell. He was involved in not only the Grinnell businesses in New York, but also in Florida real estate, and politics. His life's work, in business, politics, and prolific philanthropy, earned him a sterling national reputation.

Little mention is made above regarding the spouses of the Cornelius Grinnell offspring, mainly for lack of space and time. However, the Russell family figures prominently in this generation. Cornelius Jr. first married Eliza Tallman Russell, daughter of Gilbert Russell and Lydia Tallman. After she died in 1827, he married her sister Mary. Cornelius's sister Sylvia Grinnell married William Tallman Russell, and brother Moses married Susan Russell. Four Russell siblings married three Grinnell siblings. It appears the families were extraordinarily close, and no wonder, as the Russell family is acknowledged as founder of New Bedford. Both Grinnells and Russells crossed paths many times and partnered in many commercial enterprises in addition to their marital unions.

Thus ends a brief introduction to the New Bedford Grinnells, children of Cornelius, descendants of Daniel, Richard, Daniel, and ultimately Matthew. They are not your typical New England, small-town family. Yet, because of their circumstances and commitments, they are representative of much of our nation's history.

Last Updated on Sunday, 11 September 2011 11:35