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
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
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
Jona. Davis Abner
Hicks, and his Apprentice
Lemuel Clark, and his Apprentice
Wm. Jenne 2nd*
and his Apprentice
Richard Grinnell, and his Apprentice
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
Some of the surnames of those lost were prominent in Fairhaven (e.g.
Terry, Taber, Shearman, Jenne, Pease),
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!!”