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This article by Allston-Brighton historian Dr. William P. Marchione appeared in the Allston-Brighton Tab or Boston Tab newspapers in the period from July 1998 to late 2001, and supplement information in his books The Bull in the Garden (1986) and Images of America: Allston-Brighton (1996).  Dr. Marchione is the author of several books on Boston-area history, including the recently published, “The Charles: A River Transformed.” These articles are copyrighted in the name of the author. Researchers should, however, feel free to quote from the material, with proper attribution.  

Brighton's Remarkable Winships

Brighton’s Winship Street and Winship School commemorate the important contributions that four generations of Winships made to that community’s history. Nineteenth century Brighton was both the headquarters of New England’s cattle trade and an important horticultural center, and the Winships were responsible for founding both of these local industries.

Less well known, but of even broader historical significance, were the contributions the Winships made to the Pacific trade. For a time the members of this Brighton family were were so dominant in that trade as to be called the “Lords of the Pacific.”

The Winships, who hailed originally from Lexington, settled in Brighton (then called Little Cambridge) just before the outbreak of the American Revolution. Cambridge, of course, served as the headquarters of the Continental Army in the 1775 to 1776 period, and General Washington’s troops badly needed provisions. Jonathan Winship I and Jonathan Winship II, father and son, responded by putting out a call to the farmers of Middlesex County and other outlying areas to send their cattle to Little Cambridge. As this livestock arrived, the Winships purchased and processed it for the army.

The importance of the Winship contribution to the Patriot cause was noted by Willard M. Wallace in his military history of the Revolution: “There were so few hungry soldiers in the siege lines around Boston that winter that one might say it was with food rather than with troops and arms that Washington kept the British locked up in the city.”

The Brighton Cattle Market continued to prosper after the war. By 1790, Jonathan Winship II had become the largest meat packer in Massachusetts, putting up some 5,000 barrels of beef a year for foreign markets alone.

It was the next generation of Winships that ventured into the Pacific trade. In the period 1796 to 1816 Jonathan Winship II’s four sons---Abiel, Charles, Nathan and Jonathan III---outfitted and directed a succession of daring Pacific expeditions, ventures so energetic that maritime historian Samuel Eliot Morison was prompted to label these men “the remarkable Winship brothers.”

Abiel, (1769-1824), the eldest of the four, initiated these expeditions through his Boston-based mercantile house, Homer & Winship. As early as 1795, when “Trader Abiel,” was still in his twenties, he held a major interest in eight vessels engaged in trade with Europe and the West Indies. Although Abiel never ventured into the Pacific himself, his keen business sense paved the way for his younger brothers who had a significant impact on the Pacific trade.

These adventures began in 1799 when Charles Winship set sail for the Pacific as Captain of an 111-ton brig, Betsey, owned by Homer & Winship, reputedly the first American vessel to unfurl the U.S. flag upon the upper and lower California coasts.

The Winships were lured to Spanish California by the prospects of huge profits from seal and otter hunting. A ready market for the sleek pelts of these animals existed in China. While this initial voyage proved profitable, it also ended in personal tragedy for the Winships when Charles, jailed by the Guarda Costal  for poaching in Spanish coastal waters,  contracted “a malignant fever of the climate” and died at the age of twenty-three. The Winships were put off by this tragedy not one wit, however.

A problem that needed to be resolved if the future profits of this trade were to be maximized was the relative lack of skill that American crew members possessed when it came to hunting, slaughtering, and skinning seals and otters.

This difficulty was overcome through collaboration with Alexander Baranov, the Governor of Russian America (Alaska). An arrangement was worked out with the Russian official whereby he would furnish the Winships with Aleut hunters for seal hunting and skinning, in exchange for badly needed supplies and firearms.

The Russian colony was in dire condition in the early 1800s. It had not been provisioned from its home base in several years and was facing severe shortages. In addition its various settlements were threatened by hostile natives. Joseph O’Cain, an Anglo-Irish mariner familiar with the situation, brought it to the attention of the Winships.  Abiel not only eagerly embraced the idea of opening up trade with the Russians, but undertook to outfit a 280-ton vessel specifically for that purpose, naming it the O’Cain, after the man who was to serve as its first captain. Jonathan Winship III (1780-1843) was sent along as first mate on this initial expedition.

For the next six years the Winships engaged in this highly profitable trade with Alaska. Jonathan III captained the O’Cain  in all but the first of these voyages. The provisions and firearms the Winships carried to Russian America have been credited with saving that colony from extinction.

The most profitable of of the various Winship Pacific expeditions was that of 1805-08.  When the O’Cain  arrived at Canton, China in December 1807 it bore a cargo of pelts valued at more than $136,000, an enormous sum for that day. This voyage marked the apogee of the family’s fortunes in the Pacific trade. After 1808, however, the position of the Winships in the Pacific steadily deteriorated in the face of formidable competition and a series of misfortunes.
For one thing, the Winships had hoped to secure a monopoly in the trade with Russian-America, but Governor Baranov proved firmly resistant to the idea (the Russian imperial government had no wish to become permanently dependent upon Yankee traders).

Moreover, by 1808 the general situation was changing. The number of vessels in the Pacific (both American and foreign) was on the rise, creating a much more competitive situation.

The Winships, however, were not about to give up. They sought to offset these disadvantages by establishing a trading station at a mid-point on the Northwest coastline, a station that would be both close at hand and well-supplied with Yankee goods, thereby giving them a competitive edge in dealing with the Russians. The location they selected was the Columbia River Valley.

In 1809 a second Winship vessel, the Albatross, was dispatched to the Pacific under the command of Nathan Winship (1778-1820) with instructions to build and provision a fort and trading post on the Columbia. Construction of the facility was begun in May 1810 some 40 miles up the Columbia opposite present-day Oak Point, Washington.

This imaginative plan was doomed, however, by unforeseen developments.  First, only four days after construction began, flood waters inundated the site. Then, when work was resumed on higher ground, a massing of hostile Chinook warriors (who feared their displacement as middlemen in the local fur trade), prompted Captain Nathan to abandon the building project altogether.

Had the Winships succeeded in establishing this trading post on the Columbia, their’s would have been the first permanent settlement by white men on that river, predating John Jacob Astor’s Fort Astoria by several months.

After leaving the Columbia, the Albatross  traded along the northwest coast until October 1811, when it crossed to Honolulu. Here it redezvoused with the O’Cain  and a third Winship vessel, the Isabella.. The flotilla then added Hawaiian sandalwood to its cargoes. A ready market for sandalwood existed in China, where it was used in incense burners as part of Chinese religious rituals.

The Winships had earlier assisted the King of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha I, in his negotiations with local rulers to secure the unification of the island chain. In July 1812 Kamehameha granted the Winships, who he trusted and liked, the exclusive right to export sandalwood from Hawaii. However, with the outbreak of the War of 1812, the British, who enjoyed naval dominance in the Pacific, pressured the Hawaiian monarch into canceling this potentially lucrative monopoly.

The War of 1812 administered the coup de grace to the declining fortunes of the Winships.  After 1813, their vessels were effectively driven off the high seas by the powerful British fleet. The O’Cain, under Captain Jonathan Winship, eventually took refuge in Whampoa [Canton], China. It was here that Jonathan, during a period of forced leisure, acquired the skills in horticulture that led to his founding in 1820, in partnership with his youngest brother, Francis, of Winships’ Gardens, Brighton’s pioneer horticultural enterprise. Later Captain Jonathan Winship also played a key role in the founding of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society, serving as that organization’s Vice President from 1835 until his death in 1847.

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