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.

 

 

 

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* 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
 

JOTHAM STETSON              

 
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

shipping

 

 

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.

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