Captain John O. Morse and his House
John Osborn Morse, Whaling Captain
by Malia Rigler
from the Morse Society Newsletter Summer 2006 issue #124
John Osborn Morse was born on May 22, 1800 in Edgartown, Massachusetts. He was the second of eight children born to Uriah Morse and Prudence Fisher Morse. Uriah Morse ran the small ferry from the foot of Morse Street to Chappaquiddick Island. John 0. was 5 feet 6 inches tall with a light complexion and brown hair. It is no surprise that he became a sailor. He was raised in Edgartown on the island Maratha’s Vineyard surrounded by the sea and maritime life. His father was Uriah Morse, was from Beaufort, North Carolina, and was a cooper and shipwright. Three of his four brothers who survived to adulthood were known to be mariners at one time or another in their lives.
John 0. married twice. His first marriage was to Joanna Pease, daughter of Marshall Pease and Elizabeth Vincent. They were married in Edgartown on December 7, 1823 and had 3 daughters, Sally Mirick, Sarah M., and Elizabeth Pease. Joanna died on September 30, 1833 while John 0. was at sea. After his return on November 4, 1834, John 0. was married again to Mary Smith, daughter of Ebenezer Smith and Mary Hulsart. They had seven children: Joanna P., John Osbom, James L., Jennie C., Josiah Gorham, Mary H. and an unnamed baby daughter who died in infancy.
Life At Sea
John 0. spent a large part of his adult life at sea. The first record we have of his maritime adventures is a crew listing of unknown position on the ship, HECTOR, which sailed to the Pacific Ocean whaling grounds and was gone from New Bedford from August, 1826 to April, 1829. Two months after his return to New England, he again sailed out of New Bedford on the HECTOR, this time as her captain. (See the table for information about his whaling endeavors as a ship’s captain. All of these vessels went to the Pacific Ocean whaling grounds.
|Date Left||Date Returned||Ship||Port Sailed From||Sperm Oil|
|20 June 1829||8 June 1830||HECTOR||New Bedford||2,600 Barrels|
|23 June 1832||2 October 1834||HECTOR||New Bedford||2,500 Barrels|
|Early Oct 1835||Before July 1838||ELIZA ADAMS||Fairhaven||2,600 Barrels|
|28 August 1845||17 January 1849||RUSSELL||New Bedford||2,500 Barrels|
John 0. is mentioned in Alexander Starbuck’s seminal work on whaling, History of American Whale Fishery, in which an event reminiscent of Moby Dick is related as follows:
“In October 1832, the ship HECTOR of New Bedford, Capt. John 0. Morse, then ninety days from port, “raised” a whale, and lowered for him. But while the crew were proposing offensive operations, the whale himself took the initiative, and just as the harpoon struck him he struck the mate’s boat, staving it badly. By drawing sails under her and bailing, the boat was kept afloat and the attack resumed. In the mean time Captain Morse came to his assistance, and the mate warned him of the character of his antagonist, but Captain Morse told him he had a long lance and he wanted to try it. Accordingly the Captain advanced to the whale, which immediately turned, and taking the Captain’s boat in his mouth*, held it on end and shook it to pieces in a moment. Not satisfied with this he chewed up the boat-kegs and whatever appurtenances to, or pieces of the boat came in his way. The mate now offered to pick a crew and boat, and renew the fight, to which suggestion the captain assented, and with the best and most experienced men of the crew, Mr. Norton again essayed to capture the wrecker of boats. As the mate’s boat again approached, the whale again assumed the offensive, and the order was given to “stem all” for their lives. For half a mile or more the chase continued, the crew striving, as only men in a desperate situation can strive, to keep clear of the enraged whale, which followed them so closely as several times to bring his jaws together within 6 or 8 inches of the head of the boat. By watching his chance, as the monster became exhausted and turned to spout, Mr. Norton succeeded in burying his lance in the whale’s vitals, killing him almost instantly. On cutting him in, two irons were found belonging to ship BARCLAY, and it was afterward ascertained that about three months before the first mate of the
BARCLAY had lost his life in an encounter with him. He made ninety barrels of oil. Mr. Norton mentioned this as the first instance within his knowledge where a whale attacked a boat before being struck.”
(*In attacking a boat the sperm whale will sometimes tum upon his back, resuming his natural position to breathe.)
From 1840 to 1845, John 0. took a break from whaling to establish himself at home, in Edgartown. He was engaged in many land transactions. He purchased land near the waterfront and built a large house with porch that overlooked the harbor. The house is still standing on the corner of North Water Street and Morse Street.
Vineyard Mining Company
When news hit Edgartown of the gold found in California, it stirred the islanders’ imagination. In 1849, several ships sailed from Martha’s Vineyard to California. John 0. organized one of those expeditions. He purchased an old bark named SARAH in Warren, Rhode Island. With several other leaders of Edgartown’s community, he formed the Vineyard Mining Company and they outfitted the bark to take its members to California. On September 3, 1849, the SARAH left Edgartown to much fanfare. Forty-four ofthe 52 on board were from Martha’s Vineyard. One of the passengers, William Pent, kept a log of the voyage to California that you can view in the online archives of the Library of Congress or through the Mystic Seaport’s online collection at the following link:
The SARAH arrived in San Francisco and discharged its crew on April 16, 1850 after a harrowing passage around Cape Hom and visits to several South American ports. After being in California for less than a year, John 0. decided to take the SARAH for a short whaling cruise. He died on this trip. His last entry into his journal was made on February 24, 1851 where he states “Commences with fine weather, wind SW,steering by to the SSE, the boat having returning a favorable report.” At this point, he was at the island of Gorgona, off Colombia. He took sick and was taken sick off the SARAH and left to recover in Paiti, Peru. Captain Henry Pease reports that he died there of dropsy on May 27, 1851. There is a memorial stone for him in the Memorial Grounds Cemetery of Edgartown.
Special Thanks to
Ricardo Rain, Marcia Morse Mullins and Catherine Mayhew
Banks, Charles Edward. The History of Martha ‘s Vineyard, Dukes County,
Massachusetts. Volume 3: Family Genealogies.
Edgartown: Dukes County Historical Society, 1966.
Crew Lists. Whaling Collection Archives. New Bedford Library.
Deeds and Documents Edgartown Town Hall Records, MA.
Railton, Arthur R. Walking Tour of Historic
Edgartown. Edgartown: Martha’s Vineyard
Historical Society, 1986.
New Bedford Mercury (New Bedford, MA’
Volume 29, issue 6 and 20.
Starbuck, Alexander. History of the American
Whale Fishery. NY: Argosy-Antiquarian, 1964
Vineyard Gazette (Edgartown, MA) 1 Jul 185 and 26 Jul 1985.
Vital Records ofEdgartown, Massachusetts, to the year 1850. Boston: NEHGS, 1906.
Notes by Platt Johnson
Has spent summers in the house from 1955
We are very pleased to have been the family to live in this historic house for the past half century and to be able to ofer it now as a vacation rental home. We have tried to keep it as original as possible while still offering the latest in accommodations and amenities.
Captain John O. Morse, for whom the street and home are named kept his ships at the foot of Morse Street. It is easy to imagine him strolling out of the front door of his home and walking the 200 feet down to the water to view his ship and gaze out to sea. His father was a cooper and the building across the street might have been one of the families holdings back when it was a store.
He was Married twice, first to Joann Pease December 7th, 1823 in Edgartown. Captain Morse remarried when she passed away and enlarged his family. He married Mary Smith October 3, 1834 in Edgartown and had several children. The house was quite large and listed these members of the household in an 1850 census:
|John O. Morse||1803||47|
|Mary Smith Morse (spouse)||1822||38|
|Elizabeth P. Morse||1830||20|
|Joanna P Morse||1836||14|
|John O. Morse||1840||10|
|Kames L Morse||1841||9|
|Jane A C Morse (Jenny)||1844||6|
|Josiah G Morse||1846||4|
|Mary H Morse||1850||0|
|Sarah G. Brown
(Listed as African American on this census but listed as a mixed for’ner in 1861. She living with the Native American Plantation on Chappaquiddick Island. Married William Martin – the only African American Master of Whaling ships from M.V.)
|Henrietta H Pease||1847||3|
|Nancy S Pease||1821||29|
|Silvanus L Pease||1817||33|
|Joseph Salus born in Indiana||1828||22|
He is listed as having carried the huge hand hewn beams of red pine for the Edgartown Methodist Church from Maine on the whaling bark “The Rhine”. History of Timbers.
His principle boat was the Hector. He is noted on page 291 of “The story of New England Whalers” by John Randolph Spears as having been in a whaleboat off the Azores when a sperm whale attacked his mates boat and then his boat. Morse’s boat was crushed and he and his crew thrown into the water. He was rescued by the other boat commanded by his mate Mr. Norton. They then were pursued by the whale and barely survived numerous charges before finally killing the whale. Full Story Here For this and other reasons the Hector was known as the luckiest whaling ship afloat. He is also listed as being the master of the sailing ship R. R. Cuyler.
In the fall of 1849 John Morse and some like-minded individuals “took our departure from the wharf with fifty three souls all told on a voyage off gold hunting.” They rounded the Horn with some difficulty (according to a later account they suffered damage which was repaired by a single brave crewman). The Captain faced down an insubordinate seaman, and they reached San Francisco in March 1850. One of the passengers, William Pent, kept a log of the voyage to California that you can view in the online archives
of the Library of Congress or through the Mystic Seaport’s online collection at the following link:
Whaling was never far from Morse’s mind, however, and he departed on a whaling voyage the following December. He sailed to central America, taking some blackfish and almost losing the second mate, stopped at the Galapagos Islands, then put in at Paita, Peru where he died. The ship resumed it’s whaling and changed hands in July 1851, from Callao, because (again, according to a later source) a man named Stephen Kidder Raymond took over. The ship continued blackfishing and sperm whaling off Peru with some success, occasionally going ashore for refreshment, until Jan. 28, 1852, when the ships log ends, with the ship headed north along the coast. There is a receipt from the gold field, sent home in March, 1850. A second shows that, upon his demise that Morse had $1449, which was sent home, so he must have had some success in San Francisco.
Many people lived in the home including a mixed native American from the Chappaquiddick Plantation, Sarah Brown who married William Martin, the only African American whaling Master from Martha’s Vineyard. There is a long entry on Martin here.
History of whaling by Starbuck. Starbuck’s Neck is just down the road from the house.
Details above are from from http://www.tenpound.com/169/51.html
the great-great-great grandson of Capt. John O. Morse.
Capt. Morse’s son, also named John O. Morse, was Acting Master on the R.R. Cuyler during the Civil War. The R.R. Cuyler was built in 1860 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_R._R._Cuyler_(1860) ) and was one of the fastest steamers in the Union’s Blockade of southern ports.
Capt. Morse died, probably at sea, off the coast of Colombia. His death was reported at Paita, Peru. This can be deduced from the dates of his death and of the last logbook entry on Bark “Sarah”. Capt. John O. Morse was in 1850 one of the wealthiest residents of Edgartown (as can be deduced from the value of his real estate holdings in the 1850 census). – One of the passengers on Capt. Morse’s last trip to the Gold Regions in California in 1850 was a future State Senator for Massachusetts, Edward Crocker of Brockton, Ma. Crocker’s youngest brother Frederick (a whaling and clipper ship captain) later married Capt. Morse’s daughter Joanna in 1855. – Frederick Crocker and Joanna Morse resided in Edgartown between 1855 and 1865–possibly at Capt. Morse’s house. They had three children born in Edgartown between 1856 and 1860. – Acting Volunteer Lt. Commander Frederick Crocker had a very distinguished career in the US navy during the Civil War. He participated ably in several battles (Roanoke, Sabine Pass, Camp Bisland, Butte la Rose, and others) and was promoted for gallantry, and faithful and meritorious services in the War against the Rebellion. –
Frederick Crocker, his wife Joanna and their children , and two of Capt. Morse’s sons, John O. and James L. Morse, moved to South America after the Civil War, where the two brothers were captain and first mate, respectively, of the river steamer “Villa del Salto” on the River Plate (Rio de la Plata). On this steamer the two brothers helped to save 67 people from the waters of the River Plate in the night of Christmas Eve in 1871, when a luxury steamer “America” burst in flames, killing 141 passengers and crew members, in possibly the worst maritime disaster in the history of the River Plate.
Frederick Crocker was named US Consul in Montevideo, Uruguay, under the Grant administration, in 1875. – A great-great granddaughter of Capt. Morse, Fay Crocker, born in Montevideo, was a top international golf player, winning two LPGA majors in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Most of the above can be fairly easily checked on the Internet. Best regards, Roberto Joos Genolier, Switzerland
If you would like to add to this page please email me. This is a living project and will be expanded with your contributions.
If you have more information on this period I would be happy to include it here for you. Just drop me an email.
The Dinsmore family were the second owners of the house. Clara F. Dinsmore owned the Captain Morse House for many years. She was a great reader of books and many can still be seen in the house today. The also published several books herself including one on the 1944 Martha’s Vineyard Hurricane. You can see pictures she took of the storms aftermath here. She also wrote “One hundred and ten Edgartown whaling captains. 1820 -1890” a photo book that is in the Hawaiian Historical Society Historical Photograph Collection.
Martha’s Vineyard dealt with its most damaging natural disaster in 1944. The 1944 “Great Atlantic Hurricane” [September 14, 1944] killed 390 people—nearly all of them at sea. The “Vineyard Lightship,” serving in the Vineyard Sound, was destroyed and its crew lost. Island homes were pulverized by the 85 m.p.h. winds and the main roads in Edgartown and Vineyard Haven were flooded.
From Monday, Sept. 18, 1933 issue of Time Magazine
“Jockeying for the start of the first of six races for a “women’s national sailing championship” off Cohasset, Mass. last week, Skipper Lorna Whittelsey of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club’s crew had a piece of hard luck. Two of the other six boats in the race—sailed by crews from Bellport, L. I. and Cohasset—collided with her, sailing broad off when she was closehauled. The judges disqualified Bellport. An Edgartown boat won, sailed by Clara Dinsmore. In the afternoon, with airs so light that the 17-ft. Manchester one-design sloops were sometimes impossible to steer,…”
Clara won the Prosser Cup for Edgartown 6 times from 1931 to 1933 and from 1937 to 1939. The trophy is for the Southern Massachusetts district finals for the National Women’s Championship
Read more: Sport: Off Cohasset – TIME
Above is a picture of who I think was Clara’s mother. Her husband founded the Edgartown Golf Club.
The only big changes that the Dinsmore’s did to the house that I know of relate to the addition of a large addition to the back North side. The created a large bedroom (the green room) and spaces for two new bathrooms. In the old days almost all houses were square with a long wing coming off the house to create an L shape. This long wing hid the working area of the house where the laundry dried and where the trash was stored. These items were kept carefully hidden from the public. With the advent of washing machines and dish washers these areas were space wasters and so the area was built on. One very strange result was that the underground fuel tank measuring 4′ x 10′ long was built over by the addition. This was later to cause problems.
My father lived in New York and was a member of the New York Yacht Club. With his father and his nephew they used to sail annually in the New York Yacht Club cruise. The cruise has a long history with the fleet sailing through Long Island Sound, New England, Boston and Maine. During several of these cruises my father saw and fell in love with Edgartown harbor.
In 1955 I was born and my parents decided to start getting out of New York for the summer. My father put in an offer on the Captain Morse House and also on a property in South Hampton Long Island. Nothing much happened and neither seller was to interested in accepting my fathers offer. Then something strange happened, Eisenhower had a heart attack on September 24, 1955 while visiting his wife’s family in Denver. The news was kept quite, as was the fashion of the day, and so it was that on Monday, September 26, Wall Street panicked. The Dow Jones plunged 6.5%. That evening the Dinsmore representative called while my parents were playing Bridge. My father took the call and after returning to the table announced to my mother that we now owned a residence in Edgartown. The very net morning the South Hampton seller also called to accept but it was to late. On such a simple thing began our history with the house.
The first thing my father did was start some renovations to the home that were badly needed. Two new kitchens were installed so that he could rent the back of the house out to supplement the large costs of carrying the house which was, after all, painted entirely in white. Over the years the furnace and hot water heater were replaced and several small things were added. The house was decorated and furnished beautifully by my mother but no other major projects were undertaken until after my fathers death in 1997. I then started doing several delayed maintenance tasks including another furnace replacement, roof replacement, bathroom renovations and major repainting.
When my mother passed away in 2008 I began a series of major improvements which are detailed on this page. Now most of the big items are taken care of and the house is mostly in need of routine maintenance which is only affordable through the income we receive for seasonal rentals. Just like the grand houses in England, but on a much smaller scale, we now keep the house in the family by sharing it with others.