The Stetsons & the Shipbuilding Industry
By George W. Stetson, August 19, 1911*
Just when the Stetsons began to be interested in the art of shipbuilding I have not been able to ascertain, but in my research for data, I find in the history of Plymouth County published in 1884 under the historical sketch of the town of Kingston, this record: “There was a building yard in what is now Mill Creek now rear Drew & Co’s works, where Caleb Stetson had a building yard previous to 1714.” This data is the earliest one I have been able to ascertain that any Stetson built a vessel.1
Deacon Joseph Stetson, son of Micah Stetson of Scituate, learned his trade of his father. He began building ships at Camden, ME in 1818, having purchased the yard of his brother-in-law, Noah Brooks, for whom he and his brothers (Alpheus and Elisha) had been working. After a little, the three brothers returned to Boston, reaching there about the time that the call came from Lake Champlain for ship carpenters. Deacon Joseph and his brother Alpheus shouldered their broadaxes and walked from Boston to Lake Champlain where they went to work and assisted in building Perry’s fleet. On the completion of this work, the two returned to Boston on foot. Deacon Stetson built 70 vessels all from his own models (the names of these vessels and other Stetson records were destroyed by fire in Camden in 1893). In the early part of Deacon Stetson’s connection with shipbuilding, he built largely schooners and brigs for coastwise trade with the West Indies, followed by larger vessels for European trade. During the later years of his life, he built no ships in his own yard, but superintended the building of ships of large tonnage in neighboring towns. At that stage of shipbuilding when fast sailing vessels were first being called for, he modelled and built a clipper which received great praise in New York shipping circles. In the early 1850’s he built several passenger packets which plied between Boston and the Azores. He died in 1872 at the age of 80.
Joseph’s brother, Alpheus, was, I am told, a successful shipbuilder in South Boston. He eventually established a wood and coal trade in South Boston which has been continued for nearly a century by his descendants. (Ref: DCRS, Book 3, pg 98.)
Deacon Jotham Stetson was born Nov. 17, 1794. In 1822, he moved to Medford, MA where he soon opened a shipyard and built some fine ships of goodly proportions, 32 in number. I have heard it stated that he built the first ship that carried missionaries to the Sandwich Islands. A few years ago several record books and valuable papers containing all the data of Mr. Stetson’s shipbuilding career were consigned to a dump heap and burned. It is unfortunate that this occurred and it would not have happened had a second thought been given the matter by the party who had it done. We hope later to be able to give the list of vessels with their tonnage and the year they were built in printed form.
We can only relate an interesting anecdote or two connected with the good deacon who was a staunch temperance advocate to whom is due the credit of launching the first vessel without the usual flow of rum that was deemed so necessary on such an occasion. Deacon Stetson was a member of Gov. Brooks hand engine No. 1 in Medford and was never absent from the regular monthly tryout of the tub. He seldom staid (sic) to the supper after the playout, but on one occasion he was prevailed upon to do so, and as the steward was naming the man to take the company’s pitcher across the street to get it filled with rum at the distillery, the wag of the company and the greatest drinker of the ardent, stayed the proceeding as his deep sounding voice said, “Mr. Foreman, I move you sir, that the Gove Brooks Engine Co. sell its rum pitcher at auction here and now.” The good deacon at once rose and seconded the motion—meanwhile, great consternation was manifest among the membership of the company. This was however, quickly quieted by a few hurried whispers and the motion was carried by unanimous vote. So elated was the good deacon that he hastened through the doorway, forgetting in his joy his hat, and with quickened steps he made for the marketplace to proclaim the good news of the reform that had taken place in the ranks of the engine company. He had hastened too soon, for, as the flying coattails of Deacon Stetson were passing through the door, the same sonorous voice was heard to say, “Mr. Foreman, I move you sir that a committee of one, to consist of the steward, be appointed to take the proceeds from the sale of the pitcher and go to the store in the marketplace and purchase a larger pitcher to take the place of the one just sold, that on his way back he get it filled with our favorite beverage.”
This motion, like the other, was passed unanimously, and while the deacon was telling his story, his fellow firefighters were drinking to his health.
Deacon Stetson was also somewhat accustomed to play upon words. One day as he was showing a vessel he was building to a stranger, some wedges fell pretty close to the deacon’s head. Slanting his head to one side and glancing up toward the deck through the hatchway, he said in a clear tone of voice, “I am glad to see that wages (wedges) are falling. The workmen on the deck dropped no more wedges into the hold, fearing that their employer’s words foretold a reduction in their pay. Jotham Stetson died April 14, 1876.
William Stetson was born in Robinston, Washington County, ME on the banks of the St. Croix River; entering the shipyard as an apprentice at the age of 16, he rapidly rose. He learned the trade in the yards of his native town, Eastport, and across the line in New Brunswick. He went to Thomaston, ME with his tool chest and a thorough knowledge of the shipbuilding industry in 1837, and the vigor of his brain and hands made him a commanding presence in Thomaston and in a very few years he entered into the business of getting out frames in the southern states. He supplied the yards of Maine with scores of frames, all fitted and ready to be set up on their arrival at the building yards. Mr. Stetson built, and superintended the building, of eleven large ships and a like number of smaller vessels all of his own drafting. He died July 7, 1878.
Elisha Stetson, the youngest of eight children of Micah and Sarah (Copeland) Stetson was born in South Scituate, May 8, 1799. He left the old fireside when a young man, apprenticing himself to his brother, Alpheus, in South Boston to learn the ship joiners trade. IN 1825, he moved to Medford, starting a business for himself as a ship joiner. He was very closely identified with the shipbuilding industry all his life, being the greater part of the time a moulder or designer. He was twice burned out, once in Medford and once in East Boston, both fires destroying all his tools as well as work on hand. With the courage characteristic of the Stetsons, he started again continuing in active business as long as the industry flourished in Medford. He died Feb. 16, 1869.
Abner Stetson, son of Abner and Susanna (Day) Stetson, was born in Newcastle, ME Jan. 26, 1800. A few years after his birth, his parents moved to Nobleboro, where he was brought up on the home farm and where he remained until he became of age, his father refusing to give him his time.
At 21 years of age, he left home taking all of his belongings on a stick over his shoulder, making his way to one of the little coast towns in Nova Scotia. Here he learned the trade of ship carpenter and builder. He then returned to Nobleboro, now Damariscotta, and worked in the shipyards there. About the year 1830, he started building for himself and built between 20-30 ships. The custom records were destroyed by fire in 1845, so a complete list is not possible to obtain. Mr. Stetson retired from active business about 1862 or 63. During the Civil War the rebels sunk one ship of which he was half-owner, his share valued at $30,000. He was considered the most successful shipbuilder in that section of Maine and for many years was the wealthiest citizen in the community in which he resided. It may be of interest to us to know that Mr. Andrew Carnegie was brought to this country, an infant, in the staunch ship Wiscasset, built by Mr. Stetson. He died Nov. 4, 1878.
I have been unable to obtain any data of Micah Stetson, other than he was a shipbuilder and that his sons learned their trade from him.2
There is on record at the Registry of Deeds at Plymouth a lease from Matthew Stetson to Ebenezer Stetson of a part of his farm, including the shipyard at Bald Hill, in which appears a clause “permitting the said Ebenezer Stetson to build vessels in the shipyard.” The lease bears the date of 1747. It is, therefore, to be inferred that the vessels built by him, his son Snow Stetson, and grandson Seth Stetson were all built at Bald Hill. That vessels were built at this yard is substantiated by the account book kept by Matthew Stetson.
John Stetson, son of Sergeant Samuel, 4th son of the Cornet, bought the Wanton estate in 1730. This included the Wanton shipyard and here he built several ships as also did his son Samuel.
In 1880 Edward and Isaiah K. Stetson, both members of the Kindred, the latter a member of the Board of Directors, formed a partnership under the firm name of E. & I. K. Stetson and built in their shipyard at Bangor, ME ten vessels. They sold their shipyard in 1906.
Galen James was born in Scituate in 1790 and descended from Cornet Robert Stetson through Eunice Stetson, daughter of Benjamin, son of Benjamin. He came of a long line of shipbuilders and learned his trade of his father. He went to Medford before he became of age and worked in the yard of Thatcher Magoun. Later he worked in the yard at Milton and then in several other towns where his father had taken contracts. He again went to Medford and in 1816 formed a partnership with Isaac Sprague, hired land on the banks of the Mystic River and began to build ships. A year later they purchased land. They built 63 vessels. Mr. James died April 14, 1879.
Robert L. Ells, the oldest son of Edward Eells and Sarah, daughter of Micah Stetson and Sarah Copeland was born in Medford Nov 22, 1808. He learned the ship joiner’s trade and for those years that his native town was noted for her ships, he worked on them, first as journeyman and then as contractor, employing as many as 15 men at times. Later he was a foreman at the Navy Yard, Charlestown. During the Civil War he was superintendent of building ironclad war vessels at New Albany, Indiana and Cincinnati, Ohio. At the close of the war he was made inspector of timber at the Charlestown Navy Yard. He died Sept. 6, 1883.
Without doubt there were other Stetsons connected with this industry as builders of vessels, but of them I have no knowledge. I have, however, knowledge that there were Stetsons by the hundreds who were skilled mechanics, masters of their trade, all of whom found ready places at the highest wages of the day. It was to these artesans that the success is largely due, which attended those to whom I have referred more at length as the builders of ships.
* Reprinted from “Booklet No. 3, Stetson Kindred of America, Inc.” comprised of papers read at the Reunions of 1910 and 1911, and an article and list of Vessels built by the Stetsons written by George W. Stetson, dated August 19, 1911. George lived in Medford, MA and served as one of the early Secretary/Treasurers of the Kindred.
1 This was no doubt Caleb, son of Thomas, son of Cornet. Caleb lived in that part of Plymouth which was later set off as a separate parish and afterwards incorporated as the town of Kingston. From Vol. 1, No. 1 of DCRS, page 42, we read “Caleb was a shipbuilder at Jones River at a very early date. On Nov 12, 1814, Ephraim Bradford granted to Wrestling Brewster 13 acres “att Jones River near ye landing Place where Caleb Stetson’s building yard was wont to be.” (Plymouth Deeds, 11/76)
2 “Micah was a ship joiner and builder. He represented Scituate in the Legislatures of 1815 and 1816. He was a “Minute Man” and marched on the alarm of April 19, 1775; was later a corporal in Capt. Joseph Stetson’s company. (Mass. Rec.) He resided in the “Mansion House” in Scituate built by his grandfather, Jonah 1st. (DCRS, Vol. 1, No. 2, pg 155)
VESSELS BUILT BY STETSONS
ABNER STETSON (Tonnage not known)
Note: This list in incomplete as the custom records were destroyed by fire in 1845.
Year Class Name Year Class Name
1832 Brig Everett 1849 Schooner Damariscove
1833 Ship Galen 1850 Bark Utah
1834 Ship St. James 1851 Ship Southampton
1834 Ship Creighton 1852 Ship Western Empire
1838 Ship Camera 1853 Ship Alleghanian
1841 Bark Mindora 1854 Brig Adaline Sprague
1845 Ship Amulet 1856 Ship Abner Stetson
1846 Ship Susan 1860 Ship Arthur Child
1847 Ship Seth Sprague 1862 Ship E. W. Stetson
1847 Ship Martha J. Ward 1865 Ship J. H. Stetson
1848 Ship Delaware 1877 Sloop Leader
1849 Ship William Wirt
Year Class/Tonnage Name Year Class/Tonnage Name
1833 Bark / 300 Ruble 1842 Ship / 694 Laura
1834 Ship / 461 Nantasket 1843 Ship / 574 Lapland
1834 Ship / 510 Franconia 1844 Bark / 310 Azoff
1835 Bark / 287 Gulnare 1845 Ship / 325 Corsair
1835 Ship / 556 William Goddard 1845 Ship / 578 Faneuil Hall
1835 Ship / 368 Mercury 1846 Ship / 590 George H. Hopley
1836 Bark / 383 Frederick Warren 1847 Ship / 665 Georgia
1836 Ship / 555 Rajah 1847 Brig / 160 Frank
1837 Ship / 592 Star 1848 Ship / 758 Living Age
1837 Bark / 258 Madonna 1849 Ship / 589 Magellan
1837 Ship / 641 Zenobia 1849 Ship / 886 George Green
1838 Ship / 351 Stephen Phillips 1850 Ship / 682 Prospero
1839 Ship / 706 Damascus 1850 Ship / 743 Sachem
1840 Ship / 655 Loochoo 1851 Ship / 737 Coringa
1841 Ship / 656 Probus 1852 Ship / 1061 Champion
1841 Ship / 256 Cairo 1853 Ship / 1061 Sea Flower
VESSELS BUILT BY STETSONS
EDWARD AND ISAIAH K. STETSON
Year Class/Tonnage Name
1882 Schooner / 313 Isaiah K. Stetson
1883 Schooner / 398 Edward Stewart
1884 Schooner / 412 Henry Crosby
1885 Schooner / 123 Louise Hastings
1887 Bark’tine / 840 Thomas J. Stewart
1889 Schooner / 375 Gertrude A. Bartlett
1902 Schooner / 1038 Samuel W. Hathaway
1903 Schooner / 1376 Horace A. Stone
1904 Schooner / 1589 Augustus H. Babcock
1905 Schooner / 830 Augusta W. Snow
EBENEZER AND SNOW STETSON (at Bald Hill Shipyard)
1748 George Stetson
1749 Schooner Capt. Jonathan Tilden
1749 Brigantine William Clift
Snow Stetson is also credited with building the “Hope” in 1783, “Industry” in 1785, “Sally” in 1786 and “America” in 1787, all schooners.