An American Sea-Captain in a Cardiff Cemetery

Readers of a certain vintage might well remember the layout of Cardiff’s Adamsdown Cemetery prior to the changes of the 1970s.  Opened in September 1848 on land donated by Lord Bute, the size of the site allowed for some 600 graves. After outbreaks of cholera in 1849 and 1854 the cemetery was  soon full.

In late 1968 I visited the site to carry out some family research. At that time the majority of the gravestones were of average size – three feet high by two and a half feet wide.  One however was a much larger structure, a short spire supported by a square stone base bearing the inscription:


Memory of

Franklin Hunter Whitney

formerly of Topsham Maine

and late Commander of the ship

Jennie W. Paine of Gardner

Who died June 10th 1853

Aged 30 Years”

Headstone of Franklin Hunter Whitney at Adamsdown Cemetery in 2015 (photo credit: Cardiffians website)

Reading the words immediately gave rise to questions.  Clearly,  Franklin  Hunter Whitney had been a sea captain and in 1853  the rapidly developing port of Cardiff played host to sailors and ships from all over the world.   But what happened to this sea captain?  How did he die?   Who arranged the burial?  Who erected the monument?  What about the ship, the Jennie W. Paine?

Thinking I’d like to find out some more about Franklin Hunter Whitney and his ship, I copied  the details on to a scrap of paper and then forgot all about it.  Forty or so years later the paper came to  light and it was then that I decided to  pick up where I’d left off. 

In America, the  surname “Whitney”  is so common that,  in 1996,   the “Whitney Research Group”  (the WRG)   was established  as an aid to family research. Taking the WRG  as a starting point, I soon located the name  Franklin Hunter Whitney and from there followed a trail which led along many different avenues and touched on many unexpected areas, including an “on-line” contact with Franklin Hunter Whitney’s great-great-grandson, Lee Whitney of California.

Franklin Hunter Whitney was born in the State of Maine on the 17th January 1823  at Lubec, a small town on the border between the United States and Canada.  His father, Joseph  (1784 – 1841) was Lubec’s Town Clerk and is described in the WRG as a “man of superior character and a surveyor of great skill and exactness”.  His wife, Nancy, a “woman of sterling qualities” was a native of  Topsham, some  two hundred miles further south.  She was the daughter of a sea captain, William Hunter.  Her mother was Mary Patten, a member of a well-known sea-faring family .

Franklin’s elder brother,  Robert Patten Whitney, was born in October 1817.  In 1837, he moved to Topsham, his mother’s home town.  Franklin followed a few years later.  In those days Topsham was a small town consisting of only a few streets.  Of these, Elm Street was the longest and is of interest only for the fact that it was at 47 Elm Street that, in 1847,  Ellen White experienced the “vision” which led her to become one of the founding members of the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

During the next few years the career paths of the two brothers diverged.  Robert remained in Topsham, became a successful trader and, from 1851 to 1860,  attained the post of  Topsham’s Town Clerk.

Franklin, however, decided to go to sea.  This was no surprise. His mother was a Patten and the Pattens owned ships, a great many ships.  Indeed, by the middle of the Nineteenth Century the Patten family, with 65 ships,  owned the largest private fleet in North America.  Thus Franklin Hunter Whitney had descended from one of the most influential and powerful seafaring families in the country.

In those years the sea was a magnet for young people drawn from all shades of Maine society.  Rich or poor, many would prefer to become sailors rather than take up employment in local sawmills.  Whatever their background, life for these young men was extremely demanding.  Voyages could last several months.  On board conditions were challenging with cramped conditions, often  poor food and sometimes very bad weather.  Shipwrecks were a common occurrence.     

Clearly Franklin Whitney possessed the qualities of toughness and endurance to succeed.  Aged only 26, he took command of a ship named the “Sarah Hand”.  This was a “bark”, a ship with three or more masts.  Described as the “workhorse of the golden age of sail in the 19th Century”,  a bark would often follow trade routes which extended across the world.

We can visualise the outward appearance of the Sarah Hand from a painting now in the possession of the  Maine Historical Society.  The name of the artist is unknown.  Here the ship is seen entering the harbour of Naples, Italy, on April 29, 1849. 

Background notes to the painting confirm that that the Master’s name was Franklin Hunter Whitney.  Also that  this ship,  described as a “merchant ship”,   was owned by William Bradstreet and other residents of Gardiner, Maine.  William  Bradstreet (1793 – 1868) is an interesting character.  He might well be described as an “entrepreneur”.  He was certainly well known  in the township of Gardner as a businessman, a shipbuilder and shipowner.

Regarding the painting, one might say that here the Sarah Hand displays a certain jauntiness as she rides the choppy waves and stormy seas.  However, a  few years later things were not so rosy.  In early April 1852, whilst sailing near the Florida Keyes, the Sarah Hand was shipwrecked. The incident is recorded in a newspaper report of the time.

New York Times April 1852

“The ship Memphis, (newly) arrived at New-Orleans, reports the total loss of the bark Sarah Hand, on Sandy Keys, bound to New-York, with a cargo of sugar and molasses. All the cargo was lost except 300 boxes of sugar.”

As no names were mentioned in the report, it is not certain that Franklin was in charge of the ship when it foundered.  However, it is clear that at some point during the period 1849 to 1852, Franklin married and raised two children, a boy and a girl.  His wife was Julia A.H. Foote, born at Topsham in 1827.  His children were named Peter Bradstreet Whitney, born in 1850 and Anna Jane Whitney , born in 1852.

In September 1852  Franklin Whitney, now aged 29, returned to the sea as Commander of a brand new ship.  This was the Jennie W. Paine.  Recently built at Gardner, the ship was once again described as “a bark, thoroughly ventilated, with great breadth  of beam and ample space between the decks”.

The ownership of the Jennie W. Paine is interesting.  A handwritten document, dated September 29th 1852, shows that the co-owners of the ship were William Bradstreet of Gardner, Maine, and the ship’s Commander, Franklin Hunter Whitney.  Bearing in mind the middle name of Franklin’s son, it is possible that Bradstreet’s  relationship with Franklin may have been more to do with friendship than business.  In any case, for Franklin to have a share in the ownership made a great deal of sense as he could now have  a say in important decisions relating to  a voyage. For example, the choice of ports, cargoes and terms of service of the crew. 

In late 1852 the Jennie W. Paine made its first voyage.  This was to the French port of Le Havre.  Again a painting  is available, courtesy of the Maine Maritime Museum.  This time we know  the artist’s name – Henri Louis Casselini.  Clearly a minor artist, Casselini – like many other port artists of the time – knew how to make some extra cash by monitoring  ships entering the local port.  He would then choose a ship, paint it and then offer the result to the captain – for a fee!    

The Museum has offered this additional description of the ship:

“Ship Jennie W. Paine, Franklin H. Whitney Commander, Leaving the Port of Havre. ……..The image is a port broadside view of the ship, which features a black hull and yellowish sails. All sails are set except the main royal staysail, the mizzen course and the mizzen staysails. The vessel is flying a burgee of (sic) the main mast and the ensign off the mizzen halyard. “

In April 1853 The Jennie W. Paine left New York and sailed to Cardiff.  By this time, thanks to the Taff Vale Railway , Cardiff had become a port of world renown as the centre point for the export of high grade iron and coal.  During these years American ships were a common sight at the port as ship owners and businessmen – like Bradstreet – sought to load up their ships with high quality Welsh coal.  This coal, known as “Welsh Steam Coal”  was in great demand  because it provided a high heat and burned without giving off too much smoke or ash.  As such, it was the ideal  power source for the many factories and railways which were emerging in the industrial towns and cities of America.

Franklin Whitney’s voyage to Cardiff would prove to be his last. He died of smallpox on June 10th 1853.  He was 30 years old.  Following his death, for fully understandable reasons, he was buried without delay.  On  June 11th, the next day,  a funeral service was held at St. Mary’s church in Bute Street and from there the body was taken the short distance to the nearby Adamsdown Cemetery.

The Death Certificate is quite specific.  Franklin Whitney, a Master Mariner,  died on board his ship on the 10th June 1853. The cause of death was Smallpox – against which he had not been vaccinated.  The death was registered on June 11th.  Present at the death was one Matthew P. Reed who was, possibly, the ship’s First Mate.

Whilst the manner of Whitney’s death  was, probably, very sad for the crew, the reality of life at sea meant that work  had to go on.  Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that within a few days the Jennie W. Paine, now loaded up with coal, set sail for America, under the command of Matthew Reed.

For some years after his  death, Franklin’s wife and children continued to live at Topsham until, at some point, Franklin’s son,  Peter Bradstreet, left home.  In the 1878 census he is recorded as living in Marin in California and later, in 1880, at Ashland in Oregon. He died there on April 1 1907 aged 57 years.  As for Franklin’s wife, Julia , she remained in Topsham for a few more years and then followed  her son  to Oregon where she died on the 31st July 1887, aged 60 years.  Nothing more is known of Franklin’s daughter, Anna. 

Given his wider family’s wealth and status, it is clear that arrangements were made – probably via the American Consulate at Bristol –  to erect a tombstone to mark the position of Franklin’s grave.  This remained in place for over a hundred years until, with the changes of 1970s, it was removed and replaced near the cemetery’s walls.

What of the Jennie W. Paine?

For the ten years or so after Franklin’s death  she  continued to trade at ports in countries across the world: Panama and Peru in 1854; the Philippines in 1855; Australia and New Zealand in 1860.

In April 1861 American society changed significantly when the long-lasting tensions between the northern and southern states broke out into a full scale civil war.  Almost immediately ships working out of ports such as New York were warned that they should be on their guard when sailing near ports of the South.

New York Times May 1861:-

“Shipowners and captains should be advised that it is no longer safe for vessels to go to any ports in North Carolina.” 

Perhaps it was to avoid the conflict that, during the next two  years,  the Jennie W. Paine left American waters and restricted its trading activity to ports around  Australia and New Zealand.  Thus during the years 1862 to 1863, we find the ship under Commander A. Burke, carrying  “sheep, wethers (lambs) and horses” between the ports of Auckland, Melbourne, Southland and Port Chalmers.

After these years, whilst little information  can be found regarding the Jennie W. Paine, one source –  Lee Whitney of California – suggests that she took an active part in the American Civil War when she was “requisitioned”  by  Admiral David  Farragut of the Northern States  for service in the Battle of Mobile Bay in August 1864.  Whatever the case, it should be remembered that after the Civil War the “golden age” of sailing ships began to decline, not only in America but across the world.  Very soon these  ships would  be replaced by ships made of iron and steel and driven by engine power.  

Did the Jennie W. Paine carry on trading for a few more years?  We don’t know. However it is tempting to think that, at some time, she followed the traditional method of disposal for Maine ships when she was sailed to some lonely river bank, abandoned and allowed to waste away in her own good time.


Guest contribution by Liam Affley, former Chairman of the Wales and the Marches Catholic History Society 

1 thought on “An American Sea-Captain in a Cardiff Cemetery

  1. Interesting & well researched. I found an interesting grave in Hampshire behind those of my paternal ancestors to do with a maritime collision near Jersey, Channel Islands where there is a commemorative statue or plaque. Intriguingly though, and annoyingly, although those who drowned are named, my guy wasn’t on either crew or passenger list!

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