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John Codman, 1814-1900
 John Codman

From Dictionary of American Biography ?

John Codman (Oct. 16, 1814-Apr. 6, 1900), sea captain, author, was born in Dorchester, Mass., the son of John and Mary (Wheelwright) Codman. His father, son of a prosperous merchant of the same name, was pastor of the Second Parish in Dorchester from 1808 till his death in 1847 and a sturdy upholder of the old orthodoxy against Unitarians and other schismatics. His hospitable mansion was a favorite gathering place for clergymen, who would stop there on their way to Boston and furnish the children of the family with an extensive though disorderly theological education by arguing doctrinal questions hot and heavy from dinner till bedtime, the while making devastating inroads into their host?s supplies of rum and smoking tobacco. To them young Codman listened with interest, but with even more interest to the reminiscences of his maternal grandfather, a Newburyport sea captain.

After two years (1832-34) at Amherst College he went to sea in a clipper ship. His nautical career lasted till the close of the Civil War. He made numerous trips to China and the East Indies, during the Crimean War commanded the William Penn, which carried troops from Constantinople to the Crimea, and during the Civil War was captain of the Quaker City, which transported stores to Port Royal, S.C. Once, when his ship had been run down in mid-ocean by a larger vessel, he nevertheless succeeded in bringing his command safely to New York; for this feat the underwriters presented him with a silver service. In December 1864 he took the steamer Cotopaxi to Rio de Janeiro and sold her to the Brazilian government. The next year he returned to Brazil and for a few months engaged in the coastwise trade.

On many of his voyages he was accompanied by his wife, Anna G. Dey of New York, whom he had married Nov. 3, 1847. Throughout his active life he was an enthusiastic horseman, sometimes traveling from Boston to New York on horseback. At one time he owned a ranch in Idaho. He wrote vigorous English, his books being Sailor?s Life and Sailors? Yarns (1847), ?by Captain Ringbolt,? Ten Month ins in Brazil (1867), The Round Trip (1879), describing a tour of the western states, Winter Sketches from the Saddle (1888), and An American Transport in the Crimean War (1896). He was also the author of numerous pamphlets in favor of free ships and shipbuilders? materials and against subsidies for the merchant marine. He died at his daughter?s home in Boston after a short illness.

[W.D. Orcutt, Good Old Dorchester (1893); Boston Transciprt, Apr. 7, 1900; W.L. Montague, ed. Biog. Record Alumni Amherst Coll. 1821-71 (1883). For his father cf. also Hist. of the Town of Dorchester, Mass. (1859), by a committee of the Dorchester Antiquarian and Hist. Soc., and New Eng. Hist. and Geneal. Reg., LXVIII (1894), 490-13.]

Captain John Codman, William D. Codman,
John & Richard Codman

Captain John Codman was born in Dorchester in 1814, being the oldest son of the Rev. John Codman. His daughter was Mrs. F. V. Parker, his two brothers were William C. and Robert Codman, and his sisters were Mrs. Charles K. Cobb, Mrs. Otto Pollitz, and Mrs. William A. Peabody.

Captain Codman always showed a great fondness for the sea, and as soon as he saw an opportunity he shipped on one of the famous clippers. He used to say that the best Boston families were founded by the old ship-masters. He made many voyages to China and the East Indies and commanded several vessels. While second mate of the ?Carolina,? when that vessel was at her dock in London, he went ashore and sat on the wall of the Duke of Devonshire?s palace and saw the future Queen Victoria on her way to Westminster, Abbey to be crowned. During the Crimean War he commanded the ship ?William Penn,? which was used as an army transport to carry troops from Constantinople to the Crimea, and during the Civil War he was in command of the steamer ?Quaker City, which was engaged in carrying stores to Port Royal.

During his voyages he had many exciting experiences and several narrow escapes. On one occasion he was bringing home a tea-ship from China and had a tough lot of men on board on the trip from New York to Boston, having discharged his good crew in New York. On the first morning out his men refused to holystone the deck, whereupon the Captain, upon inquiry, learned that the seamen thought that washing decks was not in the contract. ?Well, what is?? replied the Captain, cheerfully, to which the men answered: ?To make sail, steer the ship, hoist anchor, etc.? ?Very good,? said the Captain. ?Then you can let go the anchor thirty fathoms and we will keep hauling it in and dropping it again until the gentlemen are satisfied.? The crew saw the point at once, actually bursting out laughing, and immediately began to scrub the decks without another word.

Another time, in taking troops to Turkey, the steamer's engines broke down just at the time the ship - was to be inspected; he was determined, however, to keep these facts from the inspectors, therefore, after inviting them on board and entertaining them, he started a donkey engine in order to create a noise resembling the regular engine, and sailed down the Bosphorus without creating a suspicion that the vessel was not entirely shipshape.

Captain Codman was very fond of riding, and once, when about seventy-five years of age, he rode from New York to Boston in the middle of winter. He had a horse which he called ?Grover Cleveland? in order to show his admiration for the President, and he always caused great interest when on the hotel registers he signed his name and underneath it ?Grover Cleveland.? He also wrote a number of books and newspaper articles and made many speeches on travel shipping, and tariff. He used to say that ?his little Latin and his less Greek had been very useful to him.? ?It was like being vaccinated,? he said. ?You may not feel it, but it is there all the same and does you a heap of good.? Captain Codman owned a ranch in Idaho and a house at Cohasset, the latter being so near the water that people used to remark that his villa on some boisterous night would undoubtedly go to sea without taking out clearance papers. He gave up the sea for the last thirty years of his life, but still owned a number of ships which were most successful, one of them, the ?Morea,? in one year?s time making for him one hundred thousand dollars in tea. He was a graduate of Amherst College. He died at the age of eighty-six.

William C. Codman was a younger brother of Captain Codman and was a well-known supercargo and merchant of Boston, trading chiefly with Calcutta and the East Indies. He wrote many newspaper articles telling of his early life in Dorchester, which are all most interesting, especially his description of his purchase; with a number of friends, of the old tub ?Shawmut No. 8.? Through this purchase, which was effected with the help of Mayor Lyman, these young Dorchesterites were able to join an engine company, which was the ambition of every youngster at that time. One day the fire-alarm sounded and Codman and his friends ran to the fire, which proved to be a bad one and which was not handled with great success on the part of the firemen. On the way home an old woman came out of her bakery and yelled at them: ?Boys, my windows are awful dirty. If you will wash ?em I will give you as many seed cakes as you can eat.? There was great indignation among the young firemen, who voted then and there to disband and to sell the engine. The apparatus was soon disposed of and was later used by a resident to water his garden.

Another account of Codman?s youthful days describes a parade which was held at the time of the Harrison-Van Buren Presidential election in 1840. At dawn he and his two brothers each mounted one of the family horses and started for the assembling place. William C. Codman drew the old black, which was supposed to be the quietest horse in the barn. As soon as the bugle blew, however, he started for the front. Soon young Codman didn?t much care whether Harrison or Van Buren were elected, his only thought being to stay with his mount. It wasn?t long before he was leading the parade. Later on, the marchers encountered many red flannel petticoats hung along the line of march, signifying that their candidate was an ?old granny? and should not be elected. On reaching Captain Ebenezer Eaton?s store at Meeting House Hill they were jeered at by the Democrats, and this fact combined with the sight of another red flannel petticoat hanging from a tree was too much for one of the old sea-captains who happened to be in the parade. He rushed from the ranks, tore the petticoat from the branches, and bore it back triumphantly.

Another account describes four Dorchester sea-captains, Captain William M. Rogers, Captain Dorr, Captain John White, and Captain Eben Wheelwright. The former commanded one of the ships in the East India Company. He was very fond of racing his ships, and when, he retired from the sea he got his excitement in driving a fast trotting-horse. He and other parishioners used to tie their horses along the fence during church and after the service the boys of the village would collect at the church to see the fun. The old captain, accompanied by his wife, who gave the chaise a heavy list to port, would allow the other drivers a considerable start, and with a yell from the bystanders of ?fill away the main yard,? he would start off in his chase to overhaul his competitors. It was a safe bet that the old sea-captain before they came to Nixon?s corner at the end of the road would pass all his competitors.

Few realize that Dorchester about 1832 was interested in whaling. Codman describes how Nathaniel Thayer, a brother of John E. Thayer, founder of the firm of Kidder, Peabody & Co., Elisha Preston, Josiah Stickney, Israel Lombard, and Charles O. Whitmore formed a syndicate to whale in the Pacific, Indian, and North Atlantic oceans. The ships bought by the company were the ?Charles Carroll,? of Nantucket; ?Courier,? ?Herald,? and bark ?Lewis.? The wharf was at Commercial Point. Codman described how in his youth he used to board all these vessels, mount the shrouds, and creep through the lubber hole, conscious, as he expressed it, that he had performed a gymnastic feat that would have rivalled Blondin. The business was successfully carried on until 1840, when the syndicate disbanded, and, to use the description of an old merchant, ?the rats then ran about the wharf with tears in their eyes.?

Codman visited many European cities. Once when he was stationed at Shepard?s Hotel in Cairo he registered his name and then added after it ?Dorchester, Mass.? At this hotel were many officers and others who had long titles after their signatures. Codman felt that he was not receiving proper attention from the servants and accordingly erased the words ?Dorchester, Mass.? replacing them with the initials ?U.S.M.S.? He said he found that the change was most satisfactory and that every one paid much greater attention to his wants. Some time later, as he was about to leave, some one asked him what the initials? ?U.S.M.S.? stood for, and he replied, ?United States Merchant Service.? He then left Cairo on his way to Calcutta to bring home a cargo to Boston. Among other cargoes taken to the East by Codman was a load of ice on the ship ?Nantasket.? The vessel was not well provided with food, and salt junk was in abundance during the voyage, the kind described in Dana?s ?Two Years Before the Mast,? in the following lines:? ?Old horse! old horse! what brought you here??

"?From Sacarap to Portland Pier
I?ve carted stone for many a year;
Till killed by blows and sore abuse
They salted me down for sailors? use.
The sailors they do me despise;
They turn me over and damn my eyes;
Cut off thy meat and scrape my bones,
And pitch me over to Davy Jones.??

About one thousand natives assembled around the ?Nantasket? to see the unloading of the ice. Finally one was sufficiently brave to touch it and became much frightened. He wrapped his girdle around his injured finger, crying for ?Tunda Pannie,? meaning cold water, and rushed away followed by the other alarmed natives. A young ?Parsee,? representing one of the largest mercantile houses in Bombay, asked Codman: ?How this ice make grow in your country? Him grow on tree? Him grow on shrub?how he make grow?? Another time while the ice was being discharged, a coolie purchased a small cake, which he placed near him while he was completing some work he had to attend to. Upon looking around later he discovered that it had disappeared, whereupon he yelled: ?Mr. Mate, me buy one piece ice of you. Somebody make steal him. Me no find. Me want more piece ice.?

Mr. Codman also described a curious incident that happened in 1826. Samuel and Edward Austin sailed from Calcutta to Boston on the ?Topaz,? which was one of the four ships belonging to a New York-Liverpool line which were named after precious stones. The vessel was never heard from. Some years later an American sailor, while drinking at a bar in Cadiz, heard the fate of the ?Topaz? discussed by several rough-looking men, and he noticed on the counter an embroidered handkerchief which he recognized as the one given by his sister to the first officer of this unlucky vessel. The discovery was promptly reported, and the pirates admitted that they had plundered the vessel and murdered all of the crew. The villains were all executed. Charles and Lewis Austin, the former acting as supercargo and the latter as his clerk, were on this vessel. The Austin firm consisted at that time of William, Samuel, and Edward, and traded with the East Indies, Dutch, and Russian ports.

Mr. Codman amusingly described a Mr. G. in his lectures on American humor. Mr. G. was financially embarrassed, and the receipts from his lecture had been trusteed just as he began to deliver his address. Mr. G. said that the incident reminded him of two men who were upset in a river, whereupon the landlord of a small tavern near by rushed out and yelled, ?Save the red-headed man.? He was brought safely back to land, but his companion was drowned. ?Why,? asked the bystander of the landlord, ?were you so anxious to save the red-headed man?? ?Because he is of some use in the world; he owed me money,? was the rejoinder.

When Mr. Codman was a lad of about twelve years he attended Dummer Academy at Byfield, near Newburyport. He was homesick one day, and leaving the Academy at 4 A.M. he walked to his father?s home in Dorchester, a distance of over forty miles. When he arrived about nine o?clock the same evening, the family were all out, and he fell asleep on the sofa. His father, the next morning, shipped him back to school by stage-coach without his even having had his clothes off. He retired from his business firm of William C. Codman & Son, Real Estate, on his eighty-first birthday and died about a year later. At the time of the great Boston fire in 1872 he was president of the Lawrence Fire Insurance Company, whose stockholders and directors were almost all old merchants and sea-captains and his lifelong friends.

Honorable John Codman was born in 1755 and died in 1803. He was for some years in business with his brother under the firm name of John & Richard Codman, his brother living for many years in France. The firm owned many American-built ships, and exported and imported from Holland, England, France, and Russia. Although John Codman died young, he left what was in those days a considerable fortune, chiefly in real estate, one of his most valuable buildings being Codman Wharf, which is now the present site of Quincy Market. For twenty-five years he and his sons, as executors of his estate, were obliged to protect their claims against one William Vans, whose claim grew out of some supposed transaction which Vans had with Richard Codman while in France. There have been a number of books written about this famous case which was finally decided against Vans.

Codman was very loyal to his family and his country. Margaret Russell was the mother of Rev. John Codman, of Dorchester, and Charles Russell Codman, who owned 29 Chestnut Street, was the father of the late Colonel Charles R. Codman. The second wife, Catherine Amory, was the mother of Francis Codman and of the daughters Catherine and Mary. His daughters were Catherine, who married John Russell Hurd of New York, and Mary, who married William Ropes, father of the late John C. Ropes. John Codman?s father of the same name was a merchant of Boston, who died in 1775. His grandfather was a merchant and sea-captain of the same name, who was poisoned by his slaves; his great-grandfather was Stephen Codman, a captain who died in 1708, and his great-great grandfather was Robert Codman, who settled in Salem in 1630.

Free genealogy resource from
Source: Other Merchants and Sea Captains of Old Boston, State Street Trust Company, Boston, Mass., 1919

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Created: July 27, 2005   Modified: September 20, 2009