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Friday, March 15, 2013

Settled Here: At Anchor

Captain William Trotter, merchant ships' master and supercargo retired to Bradford in 1804 after a maritime career that took him to harbors in every part of the Atlantic and Pacific. (Courtesy of Estate of Maranne Force) 

 An illustration depicts the Grand Turk, an American privateer commanded by Capt. Joseph Pratt. During the war it took a number of British ships as prizes.

Captain Joseph Pratt, one of five retired sea captains that found safe harbor in Orford, NH. Pratt made his fortune as a privateer in the American Revolution. He came to Orford in 1791 with "many rousing tales to tell."

The tombs of Deborah and William Trotter are located in the Upper Plain Cemetery, Bradford.  The Trotters retired to Bradford after William's profitable adventures on the sea took him around the world. The epitaph on Deborah's indicates she accompanied him on some of those voyages.  (Larry Coffin)

This enlarged hotel in Bradford was established in the "commodious house" built by Capt. and Mrs. William Trotter in 1804.  Located on the Main Street of Bradford village, it burned in 1887 and was replaced by a larger hotel.  The Merchants Bank is now located on the site.  (Bradford Historical Society)

March 13, 2013


“We have found that sailors sometimes
make very excellent, exact, methodical farmers,
when they leave plowing the deep,
and go plowing the land.”

This observation was printed in an 1847 edition of the Vermont Agriculturalist. It refers to retired sea captains who found it profitable to “devote a part of their hard earnings to the cultivation of the soil.”
While many chose to remain close to the sea, where their numbers “were as common as cranberries,” a few chose to move inland. This column describes that move by sea captains to Orford and Bradford in the early 19th century. Efforts to find examples from other area towns were unsuccessful.

This topic came to my attention with the recent publication of Eighteen-Century Global Trade, The Logs of Captain William Trotter by Maryanne Tefft Force. Trotter lived in Bradford from 1804 until his death in 1822. His logs and other artifacts are still in the possession of the Bradford Public Library. They are kept secure at the Merchants Bank in Bradford, located on the site of Trotter’s Bradford home.

Force and her husband Roland became interested in Trotter in the early 1980s and, as part of their interest in the South Pacific, began researching his adventures. After her husband’s death, Maryanne Force again pursued the project actively until her death in 2010. During that time she traveled extensively researching Trotter’s life, including trips to Bradford from her home in Hawaii.

Funds in Force’s estate made it possible for her voluminous notes to be edited into a finished book by Nan Sumner-Mack, also of Hawaii. Sumner-Mack, who spends time every summer in Waits River, also studied Trotter’s logs and artifacts. Copies of the new book are available at the Bradford Public Library.

Trotter was born in England in 1769. At age 9 he started his maritime career as a cabin boy on a vessel carrying coal to Ireland. As an island nation, Britain had one of the world’s largest merchant fleets protected by one of the world’s strongest navies.

At age 19 Trotter began keeping his logs aboard the British merchant ship Betsy. His careful entries recorded both the details of his voyages and his rise in rank from able-bodied seaman to boatswain and then second mate. As such he was an officer.

Soon after, he signed onto an American sailing ship, never again to sail under the British flag. Over the years he would become master and supercargo on voyages from South America to Europe and the South Pacific to the Pacific Northwest.

A master on a merchant ship was the same as captain. According to Black’s Law Dictionary, a supercargo is defined as “An agent of the owner of goods shipped as cargo on a vessel, who has charge of the cargo on board, sells the same to the best advantage in a foreign market, buys a cargo to be brought back on the return voyage of the ship, and comes home with it.”

Cargos under Trotter’s control included products of industry and agriculture to be exchanged for rare teas, spices and porcelain of the Far East as well as furs from Northwestern North America. Long voyages away from his home port of Providence, RI often lasted up to three years. The need to trade and to replenish supplies led to visits to Hawaii, Tonga, Australia, Rio de Janeiro, Liverpool and Canton.

There were constant dangers from storms, sickness and pirates. Another danger came from protracted war involving Britain, France and Spain. America tried to remain neutral while profiting from trade disruptions among these warring nations and their colonies.

American vessels were in danger of being taken as a prize or being shut out of certain ports. On at least one occasion, Trotter’s valuable cargo was confiscated. It was only the possibility of huge profits that led ship owners to take the risks involved. There was also a personal danger to Trotter of being impressed by the British navy, as he was still a British subject.

Trotter profited from the voyages. One of the most profitable came from the rise of trade with South America. However, Spain restricted the exporting of gold and silver from Spanish colonies to nations other than Spain. Trotter, planning to circumvent these policies, was placed in charge of an initial smuggling voyage to Buenos Aries.

Bradford historian Silas McKeen tells an amusing story about that venture involving Trotter’s wife Deborah who was accompanying her husband on the voyage. They had hidden bullion among her clothing in order to smuggle it aboard. However her straps broke. As she pretended to swoon, Trotter scooped her up and carried her and the treasure safely aboard.

By age 32 Trotter had profited handsomely, risen in society and become a naturalized American citizen and was ready to retire. In 1804 he and Deborah settled in Bradford, building a “commodious house” on Main Street. According to McKeen he became a highly respected member of the community and was known for his “natural kindness.” In addition to his farm, he built a mill on the Waits, established a whiskey distillery, set up a store and a cotton mill and speculated in land.

In 1813 Deborah died. Less than two years later Trotter married Hannah Davis Brooks. Apparently Trotter’s business activities were not as profitable as his sailing ventures for by 1821 his fortune had “gradually diminished.” This decline in his fortunes may have been accelerated by poor economic times in Vermont caused by the War of 1812, the year-long cold of 1816, periods of inflation and economic panic.

Trotter passed away in 1822 and is buried beside Deborah in the Upper Plain Cemetery. Because he died without a will, the town received $4,356, a major portion of his estate. That is the equivalent of over$80,000 in today’s money. Over the years the Trotter Fund has been used by the Bradford school district to provide scholarship aid to local graduates. In 2012, almost 190 years after being established, the fund still had a balance that is close to $10,000.

The Trotter home on Main Street was enlarged to become the Trotter House and welcomed guests until it burned in April 1887. The Merchants Bank is now located on that site.

While I was able to find the most details about William Trotter, he is not the only sea captain to retire to the area. A number of seafaring men settled in Orford before 1810. In his 1865 Centennial Celebration remarks, Orford’s Joel Mann said that these wealthy men were attracted by “the natural beauty and fertility” of the riverside community. He said they “helped greatly the religious and educational interests of the town.” Details of their lives in Orford come from Thanks to the Past, The Story of Orford, N.H. by Alice Doan Hodgson and internet sources.

William Simpson, originally from Portsmouth, commanded a vessel in the West Indies trade. He came to Orford in 1777. He became “an extensive land owner” in the village and ran a tavern at his home, the only house on Orford’s Ridge at that time.

Mann describes him as “of commanding and dignified bearing [and] a very prominent man in town, acting for many successive years as moderator of town meetings and filled various town offices.” He served as both a legislator and a member of the Governor’s Council and held the rank of Colonel in the militia. He died in 1823 at age 81.

Captain Alexander Story came to Orford around 1789. He was born in Ireland in 1752 and came to America during the Revolution. He was a privateer and commanded the Race Horse, a ship with 8 guns and a crew of 25. He was also the master of the sloop Three Friends.

Privateers operated under letters-of-marque from the government. These were licenses that allowed them to attack and capture enemy ships, committing what would otherwise be piracy. These privateers inflicted major damages on British commerce during the Revolution, resulting in significant income for the crew and owners.

Using his share of the profits from these ventures, Story purchased 228 acres on Orford’s Lower Street and built a new house. Hodgson quotes one local description of his wealth: “He put butter on his doughnuts and drives a stud hoss.” He actually rode in Orford’s first hooded top chaise, a “luxurious vehicle.” He also owned a grist mill on Jacob’s Brook.

After 1821, his fortunes declined as legal judgments were rendered against him by his creditors. He lost his home place, but continued to live there as a tenant. By 1830, his property was limited to two cows and no horse. He died in 1834 at age 81. His farm eventually became the S. S. Houghton Pavilion Stock Farm, a show place with a mammoth barn.

Joseph Pratt was also a retired sea captain from Salem, MA and came to Orford in 1791. He had gone to sea at age 14 and at about age 47 retired to Orford with “many rousing tales to tell.” Hodgson writes that his “most thrilling adventures occurred during the Revolutionary War.” Pratt was also a privateer during that war. Pratt commanded the Grand Turk, a privateer outfitted with 24 guns and a crew of 100. This ship took a number of British merchant ships as prizes.

Pratt had two engagements with British warships. His first encounter was with a heavily armed British frigate. Pratt, whose ship was outgunned and outmanned, succeeded in outsmarting his opponent and took the prize without a shot fired. In a second encounter, he took as prize another British man-of-war without receiving return fire. These "rousing tales" were retold by his son Nathaniel and may have been exaggerated for effect.

He came to Orford wealthy with the proceeds of these adventures and purchased a home opposite the north end of the Common. He had a “thriving farm,” as well as a sawmill and potash works on Jacob’s Brook and a village store “where liquor was a profitable commodity.” Captain Pratt died in 1832 at age 87.

Two brothers, George and Hardy Ropes, from Salem, MA, purchased farms in Lower Orford around 1800. Hardy was described as a shipmaster and owner who “suffered losses” due to plundering by French privateers. In failing health, he moved to Orford and remained there for the rest of his life. Captain George Ropes did not remain in Orford as he “became weary of a farmer’s life [and] returned to Salem and resumed a seafaring life.” He died at sea.

In 1859, Boston’s The Magazine of Agriculture observed that “retired merchants and sea captains make very poor agriculturalists.” If the story of these six sea captains is any guide, it might be said that some were successful at farming and others not. Some retirees made good merchants and others didn’t. Some managed their wealth and others lived beyond their means. Some contributed to the betterment of their adopted towns in ways that outlived the contributors.

Other than George Ropes, they seemed content to exchange the excitement and dangers of the high seas for the more placid life of the rural gentry. We might assume that on long winter evenings, now anchored in their safe local harbor, they regaled family and neighbors with tales of high adventure.

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