George Strawbridge Avoids a Steamboat Disaster in 1838

Following is my transcription of a letter to George Strawbridge from his father, John, with an addendum by Mr. Strawbridge and a short noted added by George’s aunt, Elizabeth Taylor (probably the sister or sister-in-law of George’s mother, who was born Frances Taylor). Based on the date of the letter, it appears that this George Strawbridge is the one who lived from 1814 to 1862. He married Jane Van Sise West in 1842. Their son, George, was born in 1844; he was a successful ophthalmologist in Philadelphia.

The John Strawbridge who wrote this letter was born in Elkton, Maryland, in 1780 and died in Germantown (now part of Philadelphia) in 1858. He was the brother of Jane Strawbridge, who married Jonathan Denise Ledyard. John’s second wife, Frances Taylor (George’s mother) died in 1836, two years before this letter was written.

The letter was prompted by the family’s relief that George was not one of the victims of a very recent steamboat catastrophe on the Mississippi River. On April 21, 1838, the steamboat Oronoko exploded on the Mississippi River, killing 100 persons. I am not sure if George was on the boat (which seems doubtful) or just was in the area and might have taken that boat. His father also mentions another great steamboat disaster at about the same time, which he calls the Cincinnati Affair (though he spells it a little differently). In that incident, the steamboat Moselle blew up on the Ohio River at Cincinnati, killing about 175 people, according to one contemporary account. (A later source says only 85 people were killed.) This was a particularly bad time for steamboat accidents; safety valves had not yet been put widely into use, and inspections were not regularly required. After a third such accident in the spring of 1838 (involving a boat called the Pulaski), Congress in July 1838 passed legislation instituting some new safety measures. There were several other bad steamboat accidents in 1837 and before; this letter speaks of three accidents, but it is not clear which was the third one alluded to.

After a rather brief discussion of the steamboat disasters, the letter moves into a fairly intense discussion of business affairs. John Strawbridge was a merchant who got his start through trading voyages to China and India, and he had a lot of advice to give his son about commercial matters.

Here is the text of the letter, as well as we could make it out, starting with the address, which appears on the outside of the folded letter. (Evidently envelopes were not used at this time.)

Mr. George Strawbridge
Care of
Messrs Forster & Foxx
Nashville Tennessee

My dear Son

Thanks to a merciful Providence you are safe from the fatal accident of the Oronoco, & our great anxiety relieved. Tho you mention slightly, it ought to produce permanent & sincere Gratitude in every one of our Minds — near 300 have been murdered in this & the Cincinatti Affair —

Most of these losses are owing to misconduct or ignorance & the Surviving Officers (& some of the missing [?] Passengers ) ought to be hanged. It was so near your fixed time of return & Route, we were very wary [?], tho the lists of sufferers did not include your name. As neither Congress [?] nor the States will act any traveller must go in slow lines & wait for experienced old-fashioned Masters. Your Express from Randolph reached here in 14 days, about 3 longer than the Mail at Memphis. You will get mine of 5th & 14 April at Nashville. 24 March 18 April when Fanny [George’s sister Frances, probably] wrote you 24 April Ann [ his sister] 5 May.

All as usual, anxious for your speedy & safe Return, & none wishing any other than a temporary absence, this to be considered your home & place to start, let the turbulent S & West contain the adventurous, who have neither Friend nor means & some no Character but for such as you, here there only is your Effort to start, with Prudence & Industry, you have as much Capital as is good for a beginner & I never saw ( & others say so too) a better time than the present. Times are in every respect mended. N York & the Eastern Banks pretend to pay species, ours under 1$ & to extend gradually.

All have given fair dividends & want good paper, except S to Tennessee, Alabama, & particularly Mississippi, considerable – — excellent Receipts & more cash than usual – marketing is quite easy. Goods rising & earn at Auction, Exclusive — improved, & million specie in NY, tho Tennessee Bonds sold in NY, — cashed them here & with 500,000 Planters Port etc, you must find it easier to —.

As yet neither Cotton nor Cash to me from Memphis, I have left all to your discretions, as for the 500 endorsement note I asked of you, I got it on deposit my Kensington [?] —

Denman [?] leaves Louisville for Nashville about now & will be there at same time as yourself. I have suggested your proper Course in any Event, if he wishes you to return here or give up the (poor trifling unfettered friends) do so on his written receipt, taking care to retain — in Notes if there is no Cash a very handsome allowance for your great Responsibility, toils & dangers – look at the note below. I and the 2 Ds appear to think you might as well stay & allmost work for nothing as you would find few openings here – at least such is the import of their Words. They magnify your cleverness but trebly glorify the value of this chance of distinguishing yourself & the —— it will give you as an agent, not dreaming you can (& will) go on your own –.

If you are to return, write all interested per express mail and obey their orders strictly. Anyhow I cannot see the use of your remaining out longer than 1 July, all the crop is realized by 1 June.

One word as to carrying money or Notes about You, tis my greatest fear, do be careful & put all in Banks wherever you stay a few days. As to your — Union (no dividend yet) 92 Planters 93 Memphis the safest 85 – watch well there & I will sell if you have any suspicion of their solvency. As they constitute your all, this is the more necessary; if it were as ¼ of my property, I would see it out as long as they are solid, they pay good dividends. But Memphis is in poor credit, the — sells at 74, the interior Shops nobody likes.

All the Cotton Country will come round but the price is so bare that it requires 2 Crops to pay their debts for lands & negroes, they must work close & learn to save, or they never will get square. As to what plans you may bring home, I cannot tell; you ought to know & be respected by most of the clever People & if you do start, come in as a good beginner for the best chances & much of that Cash which every one new must bring more or less, but they cannot as a Mass expect such indulgence as heretofore & no Man would be fool enough to risk the Large Capital requisite to — on the old plan, he could live like a prince on its income here.

The effort is to mix a little of this, with other cash & short Credit trade in 3 or 400 miles Vicinity. Never were better times in this line.

But on all those matters when we meet, that I — in my letters to such matters that you may found good houses as you go along.

Hughes is law clerk to Brown & Co. of Pittsburg his brother poor Jos. fell down the — hatch & broke his Thigh & Leg. What a distrest Family. C & D let poor H 10 penny less –, even for his work done & terrible duty he performed since 15 February. All last year his work was most horrible to any sensitive minds & yet he is only secured by assign. If you return thro Pittsburg call & see him, he is attached to You.

By the bye, coming that route do look at our canal.

You are affectionately & favorably mentioned by many & your course commended. The more so, tho most think you had a bad Pattern in every way. An auditor showed a copy of WL’s statement, miserable indeed. You have an agent for Banks & others 15 times as much to collect – don’t be influenced by old rates or serving Mr. C cheap, he has no heart nor D either.

[A second note or addendum followed, on the same paper, as follows:]
May 8, 1838
Dear George

On reflection I leave this part open, as I may tonight hear from you at Memphis to 26 or 27th April. The SW Express Mail is discontinued as well it may if it took 14½ days from Randolph. The 3 Steamboat disasters, excite a strong feeling! Will it do any good, or procure any Law. You are in peril of life & from Robbers, abounding in S.Boats & Hotels, do be carefull & especially try & get home without losses of money Notes etc.

I understand Bill [?] & Penn [?] have written you. In meal or malt your faithfull prudent deportment must do you good. Be not afraid to ask & insist on a satisfactory compensation from Mr. D who is nominally somebody but really nobody as the Banks hold the leading strings, as Mr. C, you cannot expect any thing from head or heart either. He has dwindled to nothing, all the Anecdotes of his Career are unfavorable. You now are in truth looked to & depended on alone. I pray God help & keep you.

Affectionately, JS

[Finally, one more note followed, from another relative:]

Dear George

I have just heard of the wonderful escape and preservation you have had from the steam boat. I cannot express to you my gratitude and thankfulness, to Almighty God for this great preservation. May you be always sensible of it and may you be always greatful and thankful for all his goodness and mercy unto you. I hope you will [write?] to me soon. I remain your ever affectionate Aunt Elizabeth Taylor