Records of a Salem Vessel in 1803: Featured Documents from the National Archives at Boston

Speaking of Custom House

This online exhibit from the National Archives about early 19th century merchant shipping and its paper trail is amazing. I’ve referred to it again and again as I continue with Book Two revisions.

From the exhibit’s introduction:

This exhibit features early federal records that document the first voyage made by the Ship Mount Vernon of Salem, Massachusetts in 1803. At that time, tall ships from Salem, like the Ship Mount Vernon, traveled around the world exporting and importing cargoes from the West and the East, including exotic locations such as Canton and Sumatra. These documents, and the information recorded on them, are typical examples of records for thousands of American ships of that time. They are also documents that were an integral part of the daily life of seamen, merchants, and officials.

All of the documents in this exhibit are from records created by officials of the Salem and Beverly Customs District for keeping track of American vessels, the cargoes that they carried, and most importantly, to account for the import and tonnage taxes that were the main source of federal revenue in those early days of the Republic.

As Josiah, my lead male character, says, “Paperwork is Custom House’s raison d’être.” While I would never bore my readers with the intricate details of said paperwork (snooze…), it’s always fun to see historic documents and artifacts. If you have a few spare minutes, head over to the National Archives site and take a look!


Let’s keep in touch!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

From Nothing to Something: Nathaniel Silsbee

Josiah, the male lead of my historical work-in-progress, is not only first mate on a merchant ship, but a small-time merchant himself. His captain allows him a share of cargo space in exchange for a cut of his profits. Josiah has made a small fortune off of his investments, which he squirrels away in boxes hidden beneath his kitchen floorboards. He is saving to build his own ship.

When I first wrote this scenario, I merely assumed it was possible. Would an 18th century merchant-captain share cargo space with his ambitious young officer? Sure! Why not?

Fortunately, as I found out later, this scenario has historical precedent. Elias Hasket Derby, the wealthiest shipowner in Salem, Massachusetts, made it his policy to encourage and facilitate his young employees’ small-time investments in foreign trade:

He allowed his apprentices to put their savings into small ‘adventures’ in foreign trade, for which he gave them space in his vessels. Even his seamen were allowed 800 pounds of freight apiece, to exchange for foreign products.

Alexander Laing, Seafaring America, pg. 69

One of Derby’s young ship masters, Nathaniel Silsbee, was so successful in his investments that

…he retired from water, wealthy, at the age of twenty-eight, to manage his [own] ships from on shore. He made it a family enterprise by bringing in his brothers, William and Zacariah, when they, too, duly swallowed their anchors at the proper age of twenty-eight. Both had become shipmasters at nineteen.

ibid. 69-70

Not only did Silsbee become a wealthy shipowner, but he eventually entered politics, serving as a U.S. Representative, U.S. Senator, and member of both the Massachusetts House and Senate.

Nathaniel Silsbee. (Public Domain)

Josiah’s fictional and Nathaniel Silsbee’s real-life stories are very similar. Both their fathers experienced financial failure. Both went to sea at a young age in order to support their families (Josiah leaves home at fifteen; Silsbee at fourteen). And both are determined young men with enough business savvy to take advantage of the financial opportunities that came of working on a merchant ship.

The scenario works. And the novelist wipes her brow with a, “Whew!”


Let’s keep in touch!

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.