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 – 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.