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.