A Shipbuilding Disaster


While researching the life of New Bedford plane maker, John Marshall Taber (1796 – 1873), I ran across an item published in “A Picture History of  Fairhaven”, a product of Spinner Publications that appeared in 1986.  The item included a picture of a tavern sign that purportedly hung outside the home (and tavern) of Nicholas Taber in the early 1800s  Nicholas was John M. Taber’s father, and was also An early plane maker in Fairhaven.  The tavern was known as the “Rising Sun Tavern”.  Both the building and the sign still exist.  The caption to this picture stated that Nicholas Taber was a “housewright,” ship owner and captain, whose sloop, “Thetis” was lost at sea in 1809.


      Now this did not jibe with what is generally known about Nicholas Taber.  Taber was, among other things, a plane maker who maintained a plane making shop, and passed this skill onto his sons, John Marshall Taber, and Allen Taber (1800-1882).  Nicholas Taber, the plane maker, is known to have died in 1839, and his will, probated in 1844 (the year his second wife died) left his shop to John Marshall Taber, and his plane making tools to Allen (who had relocated to Augusta, Maine in the 1820s).

 For a humble craftsman Nicholas Taber was a relatively prominent member of the Fairhaven (then still part of New Bedford) community.  Among other things, he was one of the “Preceptors” of the first public school, “The New Bedford Academy,” established in 1799, and his name is listed as such in the New Bedford Academy Ledger (“Treasury”)  that was on display in the recent Needlework Exhibition at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.


       He also was charged with a regular (bi-weekly) inspection of that school and was on the committee to dispose of the building when it was deemed superfluous.  At some point his plane making shop was moved from the Fairhaven side of the harbor to the New Bedford side (presumably after 1797 when the first bridge was built across the harbor).  John Marshall Taber inherited this shop,  that was located at 20 Elm Street, and used it from as early as 1820 until his death of “paralysis” in 1873.

 It came as a surprise to read in the “Picture History of Fairhaven” that Nicholas Taber, the plane maker, was also a ship owner and captain, who may have perished at sea in 1809--especially since more reliable records list his death as occurring in 1839.  However, the idea that he owned and ran the Rising Sun Tavern, is credible given that the sign includes his name, “N. Taber”, as proprietor, and it appears in the same font and manner as his planes were marked.  Moreover, his name appears in a list of Fairhaven residents to whom liquor licenses were issued in the early 1800s.  But what about the sloop, Thetis, and its demise in 1809?

 A search of the ship registrations in New Bedford at that time does not reveal (a) that a sloop named the “Thetis” was ever registered in New Bedford, nor (b) is there any record of a master or owner of any vessel with the name of Nicholas Taber.  So a little mystery presented itself --was Nicholas Taber a ship owner/master?  And was his sloop, Thetis, lost at sea?

 A break came when the sharp eyes of Laura Pereira, Librarian of the New Bedford Whaling Museum spotted an item in the reconstituted Vital Records for Fairhaven that indicated a gravestone in a Fairhaven cemetery exists with the notation, “Joseph Terry, lost with sloop Thetis, Nov. 25, 1809.  So, there was a “Thetis” that was lost at sea, and an exact date that this happened.

 Armed with this information it was a fairly simple task to go through New Bedford’s weekly newspaper of the time, “The Mercury,” looking for mention of the vessel and its fate.  The “Marine Diary” in that newspaper for Friday, Nov. 17, 1809 lists among the vessels cleared from the port of New Bedford for that week, “’Thetis’, Taber, Savannah.”  So the Thetis sailed from New Bedford, (actually on Nov. 16) with “Taber” as master, and was bound for Savannah, Georgia.  Was the captain Nicholas Taber?

 Finally I found a news item in a subsequent issue of the New Bedford Mercury, dated Friday, December 29, 1809, reporting the demise of the sloop Thetis, in the region of Cape Hatteras.  The short story is that Captain Taber survived the mishap (really a disaster), and that his name was John Taber, not Nicholas Taber.  So the writer of the caption of the picture of Nicholas Taber’s tavern sign was in error.  And there is no credence to the idea of plane maker Nicholas Taber having been a mariner.  The longer story, however, about the fate of the Thetis, is a compelling and revealing one.

 The Thetis was a sloop (single mast, fore & aft rigged).  Vessels of this type were commonly used in the early 1800s for coastwise trade, and were typically 60 or 70 feet long, with a burden of about 60 or so tons.  Such a vessel would carry a crew of from three to five men.  The newspaper report of the demise of the Thetis, however, reported that she carried 34 men on board.  Such a crew seems extremely large for the size of the vessel—indeed this is the crew size that would be carried by a large whale ship, rated at about 400 tons burden.

 The sloop encountered a “white squall” on Nov. 23, just one week out from New Bedford.  The boat was “upset” and instantly lost 22 of the 34 men on board.  The twelve survivors clung to the hull for 48 hours, during which time two more men perished.  At this point the hull righted itself and the 10 remaining men were able to climb on board.  On the 7th day adrift a large wave washed captain Taber and 8 other men off.  Only Taber and three others were able to regain the ship.  Of the original 34, now only five men remained.  They drifted for ten more days (a total of 17 days since the accident), surviving on “wine and potatoes” that probably were part of the cargo being carried to Savannah.  Then, finally, they were spotted by the ship William Henry out of Newport, RI, with Captain Hudson in command, and were carried to Charleston, South Carolina.

The 5 survivors were subsequently the subject of a “subscription” for their aid (so reported by a Charleston, SC newspaper), as they were, “in a most helpless condition, with scarcely any clothes to cover them, and from the bruises they had received, were incapable of laboring for their support.”  The survivors most likely made their way back to Massachusetts at some point.  These included John Taber, the master, Asa French Taber, Braddock Gifford, Amos Kelley, and Thomas Snow.  There are subsequent records that may relate to two of these survivors:  John Taber from Harwich, Mass (Cape Cod) who owned and was master of  the sloop “Lark” in 1811 and master and owner of the schooner “Carolina” in 1825;  and Asa F. Taber was a part owner of a ship, William and Henry, that made several whaling voyages from New Bedford in the 1840s.

But there also is another John Taber in Fairhaven's early history.  In the 4th edition of "A guide to the Makers of American Wooden Planes" by Emil and Martyl Pollack, revised by Thomas L. Elliot (2001), there is a listing for a little researched plane maker, "J. Taber" who made planes about 1790, and whose planes bear a marked resemblance to those of Nicholas Taber.  It is presumed that "J. Taber" may have been a relation of Nicholas Taber's.  In ledger of the shoe maker, Jethro Delano, (see footnote 1), I find the following account for one "John Taber" of Fairhaven in the years 1803-05:

 In it, Delano itemizes repairs of shoes and the making of shoes, for John Taber, his daughter, "Eunice" (his wife?), and one "Tripp."  Could this have been the John Taber, captain of the Thetis, and "Housewright" reported in the Pictoral History of Fairhaven?  More research is in order.

The question about the large size of the apparent crew of the Thetis still remains.  What were all of these men doing on a sloop heading to Savannah, Georgia in late November of 1809.  After all, they were hardly “snowbirds.” 

 An answer to this question may come from looking at the list of those victims of this tragedy.  They were:


Joseph Terry (he whose grave stone was key to unlocking the story) and his Apprentice

Jona. Davis                                                            Abner Hicks, and his Apprentice

Th’s Manchester                                                   Henry Toole
Bradford Williams                                                 Joseph Crowel*

Timothy Taber                                                       Lemuel Clark, and his Apprentice

Wm. Jenne 2nd*                                                                      Nathaniel Shearman*

Joseph Francis                                                       Josiah Hammond

Consider Smith, and his Apprentice                      Richard Grinnell, and his Apprentice

Nathaniel Proctor                                                   Samuel Proctor

Samuel Wing                                                          Ariel Shearman

Wm. Shearman                                                       Wm. Washburn

Claghorn Pease                                                      Nathan Butler

Nath’l Williams                                                     

The striking feature of this list, of course, is that six of the men lost were accompanied by their apprentices (all unnamed).  Clearly these six were craftsmen of some sort, and it is likely that many of the others were also engaged in some sort of trade.  The most likely trade or craft in which these men were engaged was probably ship building.

 Southeastern Massachusetts was a center of ship building in the early 19th century in order to supply the fleet of merchant vessels that plied the coast between the Maritime Provinces of Canada and the Caribbean.  And which crossed the Atlantic to England and Europe.  The whaling business burgeoning on Nantucket and spreading to New Bedford was demanding more and ever larger ships—beyond that which could be built on the relatively treeless Cape Cod, Nantucket, and Martha’s Vineyard.  The closely connected Massachusetts towns of Westport, Dartmouth, New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Rochester were all active in ship building.  While they could get much of the oak and pine for planking from local forests, the favored wood for knees and framing was live oak, and this could only be gotten from the southern live oak forests of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.  So, it was a common practice for ship carpenters to move to the south during the winter months in New England, cutting and roughly hewing live oak (and pine) when the snow and weather put a crimp on ship building activities in the north.  Almost certainly the Thetis was transporting such a crew to Savannah for timber gathering. 

Incidentally, while collecting hand tools in the New Bedford area, I have several times obtained groups of tools that descended directly from 19th Century ship builders.  At least one of these groups included (along with larger gouges, slicks, augers, etc) a ship builder’s adze marked by a Columbia, SC maker not listed in the EAIA Directory of American Toolmakers.  I’ve always interpreted this as a tool, purchased “on site” by a ship builder on a winter’s southern foray for wood, and then carried back to New Bedford  One can also suppose that this group of men on the Thetis represented several shipbuilding concerns. 

Some of the surnames of those lost were prominent in Fairhaven (e.g. Terry, Taber, Shearman, Jenne, Pease)[1], and others (e.g. Hicks, Manchester) have a Westport ring to them.  It would make some sense that several shipbuilding firms pooled their resources to transport their various crews on the same chartered sloop.

 In terms of life in 1809 the magnitude of the loss of this many men had to be great.  The communities of Fairhaven, Westport, Rochester, and even New Bedford, were each populated at that time only to the extent of a few hundred to a thousand or so souls. The loss of as many as 29 skilled shipwrights, their trainees, and mariners had to have had consequences hard to imagine on the scale of 29 deaths to these communities today.  Yet the disaster provoked only two reporting paragraphs in the New Bedford Mercury, summed up with the sentence, “New Bedford weeps for this melancholy havock of her sons!!”


[1]   A 1802/03 ledger from a Fairhaven shoemaker, Jethro Delano,—later to be a ship builder—lists Joseph  Crowel, Wm. Jenne, and Nathaniel Shearman (all of whom died in this event) as among his customers.