The City That Lit the World

I am the granddaughter of the sea faring folk of New Bedford, Massachusetts…a direct descendant of the Bennetts, the Jennings, the Tobeys, the Spooners, the Grays and the James families.  It was a fascinating and uniquely new experience to me as I began the research in Bristol County, Massachusetts. And the voyage had just begun.  Most of my genealogical research has been based upon the farmers, merchants and tradespeople that populate my ancestral lines.  Folks whose lives centered around the income they could tease from the land or by providing products and services. Those that trod solid earth every day of their existence. Farmers. Masons.  Blacksmiths.  Innkeepers. Stage Coach drivers.  Tailors.

I understand those ancestors.  I am an earthbound spirit.  I dig in the earth and tend my growing things and count my travels by miles instead of leagues.  But somewhere in my DNA there is a primal gene that activates a shivering pleasure when I smell water…fresh or salt.    I grew up in the Finger Lakes area of central New York where everyone I knew had a boat, fished or swam in “the lake” and where my New Bedford, Massachusetts ancestors settled in the early 1800’s.

When I first discovered my Jennings roots going back to Rhode Island and Massachusetts in the early days of the New World and into the mid 1800’s of a young America, I began to research their whaling communities and their seafaring merchants.   My copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s “In the Heart of the Sea” became dog eared from re-reading passages as I began the process of understanding life in the whaling communities of New England and the precariousness of a life at sea.  A stack of books began to accumulate for further reading.  And then…like every other genealogist I know, another ancestor discovery had me off to another place and time and the Jennings waited.

I received my great great grandmother’s death certificate a few weeks ago and was pulled back to New Bedford in short order.  I learned that Harriet J. James Jennings’ parents were Webster James, Jr. and Orinda Bennett.  Webster and Orinda were from Rhode Island and Massachusetts – an area where the boundary lines are dotted lines through deep water as opposed to land….where you were apt to traverse the waterways and bays to conduct your business, ply your trade, visit your kith and kin.   Where young men traveled to court New England’s lovely daughters.

After days of gathering information on Webster James and his family, I took up the challenge of Orinda Bennett of New Bedford.  Her son, John Tobey James, gave me the first insight into the possibility that “Tobey” was the surname of one her grandparents.   In “Tobey (Tobie, Toby) Genealogy, Thomas of Sandwich and James, of Kittery and Their Descendants” on page 74, I found Salvina Tobey married to Daniel Bennett.  Salvina…the daughter of John Tobey.   At place to begin.

The New Bedford and Fairhaven records at this point are not as revealing about all relationships, but the Bennett’s daughters Harriet and Ardelia and Sophia are recounted in New Bedford birth records, but no Orinda or her sister, Almira.  Orinda named her daughter, my great great grandmother, Harriet…and Harriet’s older sister was Almira.  All roads…or shipping lanes…point to the Captain and Salvina as Orinda’s parents.  And to New Bedford for more detailed, local research.  For the moment, I work with the assumption in search of proof.

Cobblestones and Sails

A number of seaports in New England supported the whaling industry, but one town – New Bedford, Massachusetts – became known as the world’s center of whaling and for a time was one of the richest cities in the world.  More than 700 whaling ships sailed on the world’s oceans in the 1840s and of those 700…more than 400 called New Bedford their home port. Wealthy whaling captains built large houses in the best neighborhoods, and New Bedford was known as “The City that Lit the World.”

The cobblestones of New Bedford knew the footsteps of Herman Melville and Frederick Douglass.  Between 1840 and 1860 three hundred to seven hundred escaped slaves were living in New Bedford.  Frederick Douglass was one of those escaped slaves.  In 1838 Mr. Douglass arrived in New Bedford from Baltimore carrying another sailor’s protection papers.  In the 1860’s Herman Melville was a frequent visitor to his sister, Katherine and her husband, engineer and poet, John Hoadley.  The restored Italian Empire house in New Bedford now serves as a bed and breakfast.

And what of the women of New Bedford…what of my grandmothers?  While the men were away at sea…for months and sometimes years at a time, the women of New Bedford were critical members of the commercial life…not as retiring women of a household..NO INDEED.  They ran the business of real estate and finance and trade with a sharp eye and keen minds.  After all, there was a great deal of wealth involved and managing it and safeguarding it was a way of life in New Bedford.  Salvina Tobey Bennett, my 4th great grandmother, was one of those New Bedford women.  She was the daughter of John Tobey and his wife, Mary Bennett.  The alliances of the Tobey and the Bennett families formed some of the most prosperous mariner enterprises and merchant and real estate entities in the history of the area.

New Bedford Mercury 2 October 1807 Notice

When Captain Daniel Bennett died in 1807 in the old port city of Newry, Ireland, during one of his many trading voyages, Salvina took up the family business and over several years headed the business of settling Daniel’s estate.  She was forty-nine years old and  had given birth to four daughters, Almira, Sophia, Harriet, Orinda (my 3rd great grandmother) and Ardelia.   What Captain Daniel’s financial circumstances were, I do not know at this point.  Risk on the high seas was a reality…of life and limb…and fortune.  One disastrous voyage could be ruinous.

The NOTICE in the New Bedford Mercury on October 2, 1807 has Salvina acting as administratrix to Daniel’s estate “represented insolvent”.  Essentially that indicated the inability to pay debts as they fall due in the usual course of business.  Three years later, Salvina is still managing Daniel’s estate declaring to Creditors that “a third Divend (sic) of said Estate is made and they are hereby requested to call upon the subscriber and recieve (sic) their dues.”

It seems reasonable to conclude that the settlement of the personal estate was protected by this process and a business or interest was sheltered that generated money so that Salvina could pay creditors as the revenue came in.  Perhaps this was standard practice that the voyagers had in place to protect their family’s security.

More Research?  Lobster…Perhaps?  Certainly!

While I research online, read through countless hard copy books, haunt archival material, I hear my grandfathers…Captain Jeremiah Bennett and his son, Captain Daniel Bennett…calling me to New Bedford.  Salvina’s history awaits me.  Somewhere in archival records..a will perhaps…I hope to find the names Salvina and Orinda…mother and daughter.

How exciting to read the old log books housed there…written by the hand of a mariner that is my ancestor.  Perhaps turn the tender pages of old broadsides, search through the Bennett Family Papers and spend time among the cobblestones wandering through the port and down to the docks where Daniel’s ships, the “Keziah” and the “Dolphin” once were moored.

The more I write the words “seems” and “perhaps” when recounting a piece of history, the greater my need becomes to learn more.  Generations of my ancestors lived and worked in and out of New Bedford.  Of interest…the  New Bedford Whaling Museum houses the Bennett Family Papers which contain business records and personal papers of Thomas, Robert and James Bennett of Fairhaven and New Bedford.

Will I learn about Jeremiah or Daniel from these papers…what of the log books of the “Keziah” and the “Dolphin”….and why did Daniel die in Ireland at the age of 47?   Perhaps my questions will not be answered or  perhaps I will learn something that never occurred to me. It seems likely that it will be a bit of both.

What is certain is that I will travel to New Bedford and the good historians of the “City That Lit the World” will once again provide illumination…to one of their daughters of New Bedford.  Accompanied by steamed lobster and a side of butter, of course!

Deborah Martin-Plugh

Author, Historian and Genealogical Researcher

(c) Copyright 2012.  All Rights Reserved

3 thoughts on “The City That Lit the World

  1. Not sure if this “Tobey” is related to you or not, but I have a picture of some whaling captains, which includes a John B. Tobey (who married Flora T. Ellis) – if interested, please drop me a line.

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