1799: William Gray to Fisher Ames

A portrait of William Gray painted by Gilbert Stuart in 1807

This letter was written by William (“Billy”) Gray (1750-1825) a very prominent early-American Salem merchant. To distinguish himself from several other William Gray’s living in Salem at the time, he often signed his letters, William Gray, Jr., [see Gray’s signature in a 1790 letter below]. He was the oldest son of shoe manufacturer Abraham Gray of Lynn and Lydia Calley of Marblehead.

Gray was one of the first of the Salem merchants to embark in the trade with India and China. His first brig arrived in Canton in 1790. At the end of President Washington’s administration, however, the French Directory broke off all relations with the new American government and French privateersmen began to attack American commerce. American frigates — few in number and supplemented by armed commercial ships (including some of Gray’s) — began to retaliate against the French depredations. One of Gray’s ships — the Essex, launched in 1799 — was one such ship and won lasting fame during the War of 1812 under captain David Porter’s command.

William Gray was the owner — or part-owner — of a large number of ships during his lifetime. In 1806, it is estimated that Gray owned one fourth of the ships that sailed out of Salem harbor. Two of his ships are mentioned in this 1799 letter; the Elizabeth and the Ulysses. The Elizabeth was a 333-ton ship out of Danvers. She was registered in 1796; Daniel Sage, master. The Ulysses was a 340-ton ship out of Haverhill. She was registered in 1798; Josiah Orne, master. The Ulysses won fame for surviving a gale in 1804 and returning to port by the rigging of a makeshift rudder at sea.

Gray, a Federalist — as were all of the Salem merchants, was virtually driven out of Salem in 1809 because he publicly supported the Republican Administration’s passage of the Embargo Act of 1808, which prohibited all shipments from the United States to foreign countries. Though he thought it a ruinous measure, aimed only to harm Great Britain, Gray supported the Act because he believed it a constitutional one, even though he personally suffered financial harm. The bitter animosity toward Gray expressed by fellow Salem merchants prompted him to leave Salem for nearby Boston. When Gray left Salem, he was owner of fifteen ships, seven barques, thirteen brigs, and one schooner; his estate was estimated at three million dollars. [Source: William Gray, of Salem, Merchant: A Biographical Sketch, by Edward Gray (1914)]

Fisher_Ames_-_Project_Gutenberg_eText_15391Gray wrote the letter to Fisher Ames (1758-1808) of Dedham, Massachusetts, a 1774 graduate of Harvard College, who gave up a lucrative law practice to become a member of the U. S. House of Representatives and a champion of the Federalist Party. When Ames entered political life, he looked for a way to invest his law practice savings. He became a venture capitalist with William Gray, realizing double digit returns on most of his investments in the trade of commodities in the East Indies. Not wishing to lose out in this venture, Ames’ father-in-law, Col. John Worthington (1719-1800) of Springfield, Massachusetts, also made similar investments with Gray.

In April, 1798, Fisher Ames ventured $10,000 with Gray for his ship Elizabeth’s voyage to Canton. Half the sum was principal and profit from prior voyages and the other half belonged to Col. Worthington. The journey was made without maritime insurance (the going rates were 27.5%) which caused Ames considerable anxiety. In this letter, written on 25 May 1799, Gray informs Ames that insurance might now be purchased for 10% but the Elizabeth arrived safely in Boston with a rich cargo of tea and satins from Canton before insurance could be purchased, earning Ames and Col. Worthington a sizable profit. [See: The India Ventures of Fisher Ames, 1794-1804, by Samuel Eliot Morison]

The Ulysses with her makeshift rudder

Addressed to Mr. Fisher Ames, Esqr., Dedham [Massachusetts]

Salem [Massachusetts]
May 25, 1799

Dear Sir,

Your esteemed favor of the 24th inst. came duly to hand.

The Elizabeth sailed from Canton in company with the Northern Liberties ¹ 19th December last & kept company until the 9th January when they were through the Straits of Lembeh. While they were in company, the Northern Liberties out-sailed the Elizabeth about 1/12th. Of course it is but just time to expect our ship. She can now be insured at either of the offices in Boston at ten percent as that is ten. Perhaps it may be well for you to write T[homas] Davis, Esq., President of the New Marine Insurance Co. in Boston to get three thousand dollars insured. Your voyage will afford the insurance. I do not think the rigen increased yet.

I shall not fix out any more ships for [East] India until the Elizabeth, or Ulysses arrives, which I expect will be in a few days. When I do, I will write you that you may employ Col. Worthington. Start if you please.

I think we have good reason to hope that the period is near at hand when America will act with spirit when they will exert every nerve to oppose the French & their cursed principals. You must be very much gratified with the Virginia elections.  I think we have done with. I hope we shall soon do all you can wish us to do & that our country will be safe & happy which I fully believe will be the case.

Expecting soon to have the pleasure of announcing to you the arrival of the Elizabeth.

I am with respect your most obedient, — Wm. Gray

Fisher Ames, Esq., Dedham

¹ The Northern Liberties was an armed ship employed in the Canton to New York “tea” trade. She was attacked by a French privateer on 14 May 1798 but her master, Lister Asquith, drove the attacker off with one broadside.

² The Virginia elections were held on 24 April 1799. These elections boosted the Federalist Party which championed a more vigorous ideology of patriotism in the United States of America. Many Americans believed that the French were meddling in American domestic affairs and American rights to trade upon the open seas. President John Adams was criticized for being soft in his diplomatic relations with France (see XYZ Affair).


Griff View All →

My passion is studying American history leading up to & including the Civil War. I particularly enjoy reading, transcribing & researching primary sources such as letters and diaries.

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