Windham life and Times – November 18, 2016

Frederick Bessel

Among the items purchased by Frederick Bessell while at camp in Windham, were gold sugar tongs, military uniforms, flutes, guns, knives a decorated sleigh and plenty of alcohol.

Among the items purchased by Frederick Bessell while at camp in Windham, NH., were gold sugar tongs, military uniforms, flutes, guns, knives, a decorated sleigh and plenty of alcohol.


In a manila file box, held in the collections of the Phillips Library, of the Peabody Essex Museum, are contained all of the claims to Frederick Bessell’s fortune, which were part of his bankruptcy proceedings. In the Prince Family papers, 1732-1839, in Box 1, Folder 11, is referenced “Frederick Bessell bankruptcy.” 1823-1825. Many of the petitions for payment are made by local people, with recognizable names, from the Windham area. There are thousands of dollars in claims! What is truly amazing is the astounding amount of credit, that the good people of Windham and surrounding towns provided to Frederick Bessell.

The claims provide an interesting glimpse into Frederick Bessell’s time in Windham, by detailing the items he purchased, and the various services provided to him while at his camp.

Commonwealth of Mass. August 24th, 1824. Mr. Frederick L.A. Bessell to Abram Pratt Jr. For a short knife: $13.00. November 30th to a silver mounted knife: $60.00. November 30th to a large smooth bored gun: $25.00…

Among the claims are found receipts for copious amounts of alcohol, including, wine, rum, port and brandy.

Then there are the receipts for uniforms, verifying Morrison’s account that Major Dudley used the camp for military training. Among the items in a claim from Amherst, Jan. 10, 1825. Mr. F.L.A. Bessell to Thom. M. Benden. To making a blue uniform coat: $10.00; 5 1/2 yards of gold lace: $9.63; gold chains: $3.50; 6 1/2 …black silk: $8.00; 1 pair of black silk wings: $9.00. 3 yds. Blue cloth: $27.00. 6 gilt buttons: $6.84; The cost of Major Dudley’s coat is as follows: Material Total: $107.85. Labor: $40.00; Gold Wings: $11.00; One brown..$4.00 for a total for $162.85. Must have been a damn fine coat!

Then there were other bills. One has to wonder, if knowing that Bessell was a wealthy man, that they didn’t gouge a little bit with their claims. 1824: Mr. F.L.A. Bessell to William Manning: July 19: Most of Mr. Manning’s bills are mostly for labor and carting material back and forth from Massachusetts to Windham. To horses, wagon and expenses to Windham: $15.00; 2 small wagons, horses and expenses to Ditto: $16.00; …to Windham 6,8 Mr. Manning’s time and expenses: 10.00; Sending man to Windham for you, horse expenses: $3.00; … Merrill’s bill for painting Gig omitted 1823—$14.00; J Sadlers Bill varnishing and ornamenting sleigh: $5.00; 2 pair of lamps 10.00 12.00 –  $22.00… Total Bill for $264.87

Then there is this: F.L.A. Bessell to Robert Barnet. August 1824. Among the miscellaneous charges are: To washing $3.50; To washing: $8.17; to Altering pantaloons: .70; to ribbon: $4.17; Sewing silk ribbon: $1.98; Making window curtains @ 4/6 $5.25; …to Making night gown: $1.75; To Making bed pillows: $2.00…etc, for a total of $37.75.

Attorney J. Thom represented most of the local claimants. In 1824, Isaac A. Smith made a claim for 9 spoons, plate: $2.25; A pair of gold sugar tongs: $25.00; 1 Patent Flute & Flageolet: $10.00 plus other items for a total of $37.75. Bessell played the flute.

The most reasonable claim was from N.W. Pillsbury who worked many days for Bessell and charged just $1.75 per day for his labor with a yolk of oxen.

One of the largest claims was from Thomas and John Nesmith who were demanding repayment and damages of  $300 “for delivery of goods, wares and merchandise.” They operated the store at the Center. Frederick Bessell’s wild time in Windham led to bankruptcy and he became  a man without a fortune but as we will learn later, nothing could extinguish his longing for adventure.

The savage murder of Captain Joseph White, while he slept in his bed, in Salem, Massachusetts, was the crime of the 19th century. It happened in April of 1830. You’ll remember that Frederick Bessell was Captain White’s clerk on the voyage to the Orient. The crime would become the inspiration for various writings of Edgar Allen Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne. There were thirteen stab wounds and a massive blow to the head, involved in his death. “The possibility that more than one assailant might have been involved and that a conspiracy might be afoot fueled unease. Salem residents armed themselves with knives, cutlasses, pistols and watchdogs, and the sound of new locks and bolts being hammered in place was everywhere. Longtime friends grew wary of each other. According to one account, Stephen White’s brother-in-law, discovering that Stephen had inherited the bulk of the captain’s estate, ‘seized White by the collar, shook him violently in the presence of family’ and accused him of being the murderer.” Since nothing was stolen the murderers motive was unclear. Later it was discovered that the murder was a conspiracy between J.F. Knapp. J.J. Knapp and George Crowninshield. The plot was to murder Captain White, then steal his will, so that when he died without a will, the bulk of his estate would go to the Knapp relatives. Little did the conspirators know, that the most recent will, leaving all to Stephen White, was held securely in his lawyer’s office. At the gathering of the White heirs, just after the murder, we hear the last report of Frederick Bessell. “Stephen White and his four children—son Joseph, the Harvard student, and three daughters, Harriet, Caroline, and Ellen—sat with Eliza Story White and her three daughters, Charlotte, fifteen, Mary, eighteen, and the very pregnant Mrs. Elizabeth Gray, twenty. Stephen’s brother John White was there, and Frederick Bessell…”


Windham Life and Times – November 11, 2016

Frederick Bessell

The Bessell Brothers Return Home

The Bessell Brothers Return Home


Just to recap what we’ve discovered about Frederick Bessell, A.K.A “F.L. Bissell,” the wild and rowdy occupant of “Bissell’s Camp,” who arrived along with Major Dudley, in Windham on a May day during 1823. While we’ve learned a lot about the Bessell brothers of Salem, Massachusetts, we know little about Major Dudley, other than the fact, that the Dudley’s were a very prominent family in Massachusetts and produced one of its earliest governors.  So the question remains, why did young Frederick Bessell, who was about twenty in 1823, end up pitching camp in Windham.  It is most certain, that the tragic deaths of his brothers played a part in his seeking an escape. This is what we know about Frederick Bessell’s brothers and how they died far from Salem but close to home.

“Far out at sea, on board the Salem brig, Mary & Eliza, the Bessell brothers were thriving. They had cleared Marseilles in April 1821, having gone first to Genoa and then back across the Atlantic to Rio de Janeiro, the capital of Brazil and home of Portugal’s King Joao VI… The Salem men noted with interest that Rio had begun direct trade with India and China, only a seven month round trip.”

“The Mary & Eliza sailed once again for the Mediterranean. As supercargo, Mathias Bessel turned over their cargo at Marseilles, perhaps taking on cases of opium as well as a treasure chest of specie. By 1820, American opium exports from Smyrna to the Orient has outstripped those of the British at Bengal. Batavia was the mart for the trade of Java; in Sumatra, especially along the Pepper Coast, each outpost now expected American vessels to bring Turkey opium as well as specie. Specie made the rajahs rich, and opium helped them consolidate power, for the rajahs and their favored lieutenants were the only suppliers for the growing population of addicts.”

“Well into the Indian Ocean by the end of May 1821, near the lonely volcanic island of Saint Paul, the Mary and Eliza ran into a violent gale from the north…The storm grew monstrous, with deafening winds and raging seas…In early June, Captain Beckford finally brought the battered Mary & Eliza up the channel to Padang. Beckford and the Besells conferred. The vessel needed more repairs than they could get there, but they had come all the way around the world to see their old home, and they had a keen desire to set foot on land, any land, after their terrifying experiences…The Mary & Eliza’s men stayed just long enough to get water and supplies and to make emergency repairs. It was a fatal mistake, for cholera morbus was rampant ashore, and Charles Bessell fell ill and died within days. He had gone home to be buried.”

“The crippled Mary & Eliza moved on eastward, toward the Strait of Sunda. Captain Beckford sailed on to Batavia, where Governor Franz Bessell had worked for the old Dutch East India Company. Here too they found great sickness, as was so often the case; but they had to stay. They came to anchor, and the surveyors inspected her. After hundreds of thousands of miles, eighteen years since her launch at the Magoun shipyard—at a point about as far away from Salem as one could get on the planet—The Mary & Eliza was finished.”

“During the same Thanksgiving season, the White family learned about the Mary & Eliza. Stephen White was especially anxious—losing Charles was a bitter blow, and he could not rest until Mathias was home. He opened Captain Beckford’s letter, and it was not good news. The Mary & Eliza had been condemned at Batavia. As passenger on another vessel, Captain Beckford and the crew were on their way, but not the supercargo; Mathias Bessell had died on July 17, aged twenty-three, a month after his brother. The sudden loss of Charles had been a fatal blow, leaving Mathias deeply depressed and unable to fight the effects of the Batavia epidemic.”

“It seemed impossible that the two brothers had been lost on their voyage of adventure and homecoming. Stephen White and Captain Joseph White experienced terrible grief in the deaths of these young men and in the brutal finish to the story of Joseph White Jr. and the two little boys whom he had promised to raise into gentleman.”

“Stephen composed and elegy for the Register, recounting the arrival of the boys and how, in ‘a family of strangers they were cherished with all the interest and care which the nearest ties could have claimed or created.’ Mathias himself—suave, generous, friendly, talented—was ‘truly, a virtuous man. He valued virtue for it intrinsic excellence, scanning and regulating his actions by its most rigid precepts. Integrity and honor were stamped upon all his transactions with mankind—it was not, however, that appearance of honesty, which circumstances and occasions and interest exact of us for effect, but an habitual and indelible principle upon the mind.’ ”

The tragic death of his only blood relatives, his brothers Charles and Mathias, must have had a devastating impact upon the young Frederick Bessell. It was after this personal blow, that we find him establishing his camp in Windham.



Windham Life and Times – November 4, 2016

Frederick Bessell

A View of the Don-nai River near Saigon from the book History of a Voyage to the China Sea

A View of the Don-nai River near Saigon from the book History of a Voyage to the China Sea


John White published the History of a Voyage to the China Sea in 1823. It is a fascinating account of the merchant ship Franklin exploring the “Orient,” in the early nineteenth century. It seems a decision was made by Captain White and his backers in Salem, to make this voyage in order to establish contacts and to open trade in Cochin China.  After setting sail from Salem to Batavia, the Franklin sailed for Saigon. And on this journey of discovery we also find our intrepid Frederick Bessell acting as Captain White’s clerk.

On May 24, 1819, having entered the Straits of Banca, they were attacked by a large contingent of Malay pirates in their well armed proa canoes including 12 pound cannons. These pirates were notorious for the cruelty toward European, and were known to slowly torture them to death. Having successfully repelled the pirate attack, Captain White entered Mintow, a Dutch settlement where he was told that the pirates were well known as being violent and jacked up on copious amounts of opium. Mintow, which must have been very much like Padang, where Francis Bessell was born, describes the population as being Chinese, Malay and “half-casts,” being the children of Malay, Chinese and the Dutch inhabits. The Franklin then sailed on to the Don-nai River, arriving on June 7th and entered a small bay at Vung-tau, where they awaited permission and a guide to take them up-river to Saigon.

The Captain and crew, upon meeting the local chief by the name of Heo, found him insatiable in demanding that they bestow on him gifts from the ship. In Canjeo “I prepared to accompany them to the village, taking with me Mr. Bessell, a young gentleman who acted in the capacity of clerk…” After spending many days trying to get permission proceed to Saigon, and after many meetings that ended in subterfuge on the part of the locals, a frustrated Captain White and crew departed to explore the coast of “Cochin China.” At Cape Turon, they learned that the king, had left Hue and was doing battle to recover land lost in a recent civil war. They also learned that two French trading vessels were to arrive soon, and the only items valued by the king were side arms which he could use in battle.

The State Galley of the Viceroy of Don-nai from Captain White's Account of Cochin China

The State Galley of the Viceroy of Don-nai from Captain White’s Account of Cochin China

“At dawn on September 7, (1819) the Franklin of Salem, became the first American vessel to reach Saigon. The crew dropped anchor a mile below the city and admired a wide river filled with ‘boats of light and airy construction, each, in many cases, managed by a single woman, in picturesque costume,’ while ‘great number of native vessels, of different sizes, plying in various directions upon the stream, gave a busy and lively interest to the scene.’ That first night, White and Bessell stayed in a typical riverbank house, standing on pilings two feet above the mud, sided with boards and roofed with enormous palm leaves. Inside were teenage girls, big jars of fish-pickle, pigs, ducks and fowls, a ‘blear-eyed old woman, furrowed and smoke-dried ,’ and asleep in a hammock, a miserable child, covered in filth and vermin, and emancipated with disease.’ The morning tide brought the Marmion, a Boston ship that White had encountered at Manila. Captain Brown and his supercargo, Mr. Putnam, came ashore, and they and White and Bessel were ‘surrounded by a bevy of woman, soliciting employments as merchandise brokers and offering assistance in purchasing cargos.’ He did not realize that they were eunuchs, designated as their culture’s trader caste. The Yankees demurred and went on to Saigon, where their appearance caused a sensation. At the ‘great bazaar or market-place,’ an ‘immense concourse of the wondering natives,’ manhandled these improbable don-ong-olan, strangers from the West, with their unreal faces like pale masks.”

“The Franklin and Marmion swung at their anchors for almost four months as their masters endured insults, indifference, and occasional rock peltings as they laid siege to the traders of Saigon. Through it all, the Yankees kept smiling, trying gamely to break through. Finally, the two captains understood. Women were forbidden to make bulk deals; and Western armament was wanted not goods. Giving up their dream of starting a new commerce, the two captains paid Spanish gold for half cargoes of sugar, promised to return with guns, and sailed away in their tall ships. Each had been given a parting gift of a young royal tiger and pen full of squirming puppies.”

“At Batvia, Brown sold White his sugar and the Franklin sailed for home on April 29 (1820).” The trip home was a disaster. When the tiger ran out of food because of bad weather White was forced to shoot her. Several men died of fever and sickness, and another died after falling from the topsail. Then a most violent hurricane struck, forcing the men to cut away the spars to prevent the ship capsizing. “Diseased and death haunted after two years at sea, Franklin staggered into Salem with an unprofitable cargo and three stumps where the masts had been.”  So ended Frederick Bessell’s harrowing, two year journey, to the Asia.


John White,  History of a Voyage to the China Sea in 1823. Free e-book:

Death of an Empire, Robert Booth


Windham Life and Times – October 28, 2016

Frederick Bessell

Stephen White mansion in Salem MA. where the Bessell brothers were raised.

Stephen White mansion in Salem MA. where the Bessell brothers were raised.


So the three Bessell brothers, “with large trust funds” arrived in Salem Massachusetts with Stephen White on separate ships in 1805 and 1806. Their father also arrived in 1806.  One question I couldn’t answer is if  the boys ever lived with their father while he was alive. It appears that they did not and were rather raised in the Stephen White mansion that was built in 1811.

“After his brother’s death, Stephen White stepped up: he had many new responsibilities, as a Republican politician, principal of an international merchant house, head of two families of young children, and guardian to the three teenage Bessell brothers.”

This period was difficult on the Salem merchant houses because Britain had again risen to dominate international trade, especially in Asia. One profitable line for the Salem merchants was opium. “White continued to send his tall ships to ports all over the world, although specie was scarce. Now he turned to the Mediterranean, where he did a large business in wine and fruits and marble; and he pushed his vessels farther east to Smyrna, in Turkey, to enter the opium trade. Turkish opium was better than that of Bengal, but London had forbidden British carriers to take it to the Orient. Since 1800, however, Boston vessels had been shipping opium to Europe and America, where apothecary shops sold the drug mixed with alcohol as a sedative known as Laudanum.”

Mathias Bessell was employed in Stephen White’s merchant house. In August of 1816 , at seventeen years of age, he sailed to Sumatra on the ship Mary & Eliza as supercargo. A “supercargo” is “the  representative of the ship’s owner on board a merchant ship, responsible for overseeing the cargo and its sale.” So young Bessell was given a great deal of responsibility at a very young age. “Ships sailing under his (Stephen White’s) tricolor house flag represented America in its relationships with the world. He savored the moment, in which foreign trade had at last recovered, thanks to lucrative coffee and pepper voyages; and White’s success were multiplied throughout the town. America had a hunger for these commodities, as did Europe, and somehow, despite many competitors, the demand still exceeded supply.”

“When he sought a new partner, he turned to his brother-in-law, Franklin H. Story, now twenty-one. who entered the White brothers employ in 1809 or so alongside the Bessell brothers. By the age of eighteen, in1813, he had been signing company documents and serving as a member of Stephen’s militia company. (is this how Frederick Bessell became acquainted with Major Dudley?) In 1817, Stephen made him co-owner of a brand-new brig, christened with his name, Franklin.”

Stephen White completed the outfitting of his fifth vessel, the 251 ton brig Franklin, with new rigging and several additional cannon, to use on the pirates of the eastern seas. She would be commanded by Stephen’s older brother, the gallant Captain John White, forty, assisted by captain’s clerk Frederick Bessell, twenty, bound for Sumatra to Vietnam in Conchin China, a place not visited by a Salem vessel in sixteen years.” So here we have  the another mention of our Frederick Bessell of “Bissell’s Camp” notoriety. What is amazing in reading the accounts is how young the captains and crews of many of these ship were.

The brig Franklin on which Frederick Bessel was captain's clerk when it visited Saigon, Vietnam.

The brig Franklin on which Frederick Bessel was captain’s clerk when it visited Saigon, Vietnam.

“In a light rain of an April afternoon, Stephen White and the Bessell brothers, his former wards and current associates, walked from Washington Square down to Derby Street, past the big distillery and the warehouses and workshops and out to the dock of White’s Lower Wharf. One block from the ship yard where she had been built, Stephen’s Mary & Eliza waited, refitted and ready to begin her twelfth voyage to the Orient. Mathias Bessell, twenty-two, was supercargo, and Charles, twenty-three, was captain’s clerk. Their brother Frederick, was still at sea as clerk to Captain John White in the Franklin…Coming into the family when Stephen was sixteen, Charles and Mathias were more like his younger brothers, essential members of the clan. White’s affection, confidence and privilege had produced a pair of tall, smart young American gentleman. Mathias, in particular, consciously aimed for a life of personal virtue and honor and integrity in his dealings as a merchant.”  Next Week, The tragic deaths of his older brothers Mathias and  Charles Bessell, may have been the reason a depressed Frederick Bessell sought solitude, solace and a place to numb the pain at “Bissell’s Camp” in Windham.

All quotes in this section are from “Death of an Empire,” by Robert Booth. Also see, Captain John White’s book, A History of a Voyage to the China Sea, written in 1823, which talks about the incredible voyage and Frederick Bessell being in Saigon Vietnam.


Windham Life and Times – October 14, 2016

Frederick Bessell



“It was to the ‘rich East,’ indeed, that Salem owed its brief but dazzling period of commercial glory. In the two decades following the American Revolution, Salem’s sailing ships returned from China and East India (as Americans then called India, Indochina and the Malay Archipelago) brimming with tea and spices, silks and porcelain, ivory and gold dust. “Boston was the Spain, Salem the Portugal, in the race for Oriental opulence,” wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison in 1921. Salem’s hugely profitable trade with the Orient transformed this hardscrabble New England seaport into a global powerhouse and, by the early 1800s, the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.” Read more: Doug Stewart, 2004

“The origins of Salem’s multi-million dollar pepper trade with Sumatra are somewhat mysterious. Although the intrepid ship captains of Salem had long undergone lengthy and hazardous voyages to the East, the trade with Sumatra seems to have begun with Captain Jonathan Carnes who discovered an island teeming with pepper that could be bought directly form the suppliers without the charges of Dutch middlemen.”

In 1795, Jonathan Peele, a wealthy distiller of Salem, purchased and altered a large schooner called the Rajah, fitting her out for a long voyage to procure a cargo of pepper. The command was given to Captain Carnes. The Rajah was armed with four iron guns, and she carried a crew of ten men. This voyage was to last eighteen months. After arriving in Padang Sumatra, he procured intelligence that he would find large quantities of pepper to the north. “Without chart or guide of any kind, he made his way among numerous coral reefs, of which navigators have much dread even at present day, as far as the port of Analaboo, touching also at Soo-Soo, where he succeeded in procuring a large portion of his cargo.” With his vessel gone so long, Mr. Peele began to grow anxious over his investment in the ship. “But one fine morning, October 15, 1799, a vessel entered the harbor, with colors flying, and as rusty as a coal barge. The people hurried to the wharves, and great curiosity was manifested to learn what part of the eastern world Captain Carnes had been so successful in loading his vessel in so short a time with pepper. The cargo had been purchased of the natives for a few boxes of trinkets and hardware of comparatively little value, and was sold in Salem for thirty-seven cents a pound. The long absence of Captain Carnes was owing to the necessity of remaining in port until a second crop of pepper had ripened and had been gathered. There had never been so much pepper brought in one vessel to the United States. It is worthy of remark also, that at this time  period a vessel of 150 tons was deemed large enough to bring the whole crop raised on the west coast of Sumatra. The cargo was sold at a profit of seven hundred percent.”  Salem Vessels and Their Voyages: A History of the Pepper Trade with the Island of Sumatra.


     “Carnes managed to keep the source of his cargo secret from the other Salem ship-masters for one more voyage on the Rajah before it was discovered. Needless to Say, the other ship owner and masters in Salem were eager to get in on the action.” “Pepper was exceedingly valuable, as both a spice and a preservative, but the Dutch and the British had forfeited most of their Atjeh trade through futile efforts at conquest. Salem men were recognized as a different breed of ‘white devil,’ and Salem’s merchants took full advantage to corner the American pepper market while also shipping to Europe and the Caribbean. They insisted that their ship-masters show respect to the rajahs and exercise great restraint if provoked. Living up to their ideals, they found themselves winning friends and growing rich.” “A typical Salem ship was “loaded with valuable cargoes: on typical merchantman of three hundred tons burthen might carry away goods worth $50,000, or tens of millions of dollars in today’s prices.” “The pepper ports known to the Salem merchants…are located in what is now known as the Aceh Province. In the years between 1799 and 1846, 179 ships sailed between Salem and Sumatra, with even more landing their cargoes in other American or European ports…” Death of and Empire, The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. Robert Booth

“The pepper trade was extremely dangerous. The island was surrounded by treacherous reefs and the natives of the island were often hostile and extremely eager to captures American ships, killing crew members and plundering their cargo while ships lay in port. It could be days before a ships holds were full, exacerbating the risk of midnight raids by pirates. The actual trading of pepper occurred on dry land—the captain and a couple of crew members would go ashore with scales (Hopefully leaving the ship adequately guarded) to weigh the pepper and negotiate prices, which could change during the transaction, based on supply, the local authorities whim, or whether another ship happened to arrive in port and offered a higher price. As the pepper trade went on, captains were sometime captured while trading onshore and held for ransom. In the eyes of the Salem captains, however, the rewards outweighed the risks.” To the Farthest Points of the Rich East: Salem and the Sumatra Pepper Trade. Massachusetts Historical Society August 2012


“The Salem Captains found that adopting the ways of the natives helped with trade and lowered the amount of violence. Captain “Nichols moved easily among the natives, picking up their language and adopting their mode of dress, in the tropical heat: a turban, a short, open jacket, and striped silk cutoffs, with a kris, or dagger, and a short sword tucked in the waistband. He respected their reputation for violence and never spent a night onshore…In showing respect to the locals by dressing in their attire and learning some of their language and speeding time with them, Captain Nichols won a trading advantage. ‘Nothing pleased the natives more than to find me ready to conform to their customs. I often walked arm-in-arm with their leading men, went into their huts to light my cigars, and, offering them some. Would sit down and smoke with them.”

Friendship, improbably, would permanently mark the relations between Christian Salem and Muslim Sumatra, good partners across the waters separating a sophisticated Western capital and a scattering of bamboo villages. For all of their daunting reputation, the Atjehnese would not cause problems for the ships and sailors of Salem; and trade along the Pepper Coast would be preserved in unbroken peace over the course of hundreds of voyages and many millions of dollars in profits.” Death of and Empire, The Rise and Murderous Fall of Salem, America’s Richest City. Robert Booth

Next week:  Franz Bessell goes native.