Thomas and Eliza 1803 - 1861

The work of a curious fellow
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In the summer of 1803 a man named Earnest Wallace stopped at his sister's house in Salem on his way to Boston from his home in Bath up in the Maine. Mr. Wallace had caught a boat ride with a fish trader from Bath to Newburyport and detoured through Salem to visit his relative. She had recently purchased a beautiful oak wardrobe made by Tom Dustin and showed it off to her brother. He asked if he could meet the carpenter who had built it and in due course was introduced to Tom.

Mr. Wallace was a partner in a shipbuilding operation in Bath and on his way to Boston to show some ship designs to prospective customers. He was also in the market for some skilled carpenters with an eye for form and function. He spent a day with the Widow Dustin and her son Tom and at the end of the day had the agreement of Tom and his mother that Tom would accompany Mr. Wallace back to Bath on the return trip, to try his hand at shipbuilding. So it was that Tom Dustin made his way to Bath in August of 1803 to start a new chapter in his life.

Shipbuilding was an expanding business in those days so there were quite a number of young men paid a good wage for reasonable hours. As young men with money and time on their hands will do, the shipbuilding boys lived a somewhat rowdy life. Tom participated to the fullest and for about two years often woke with a hangover in the company of some woman who looked a lot better at closing time than in the morning.

One Sunday morning, for no particular reason, Tom decided that he did not like his life and set out to change it. He went to church for the first time since leaving Salem. At the close of the service, Reverend Dunton shook Tom's hand and said he hoped to see him again in church. So Tom settled down.

Shipbuilding agreed with him and so did the life at the shore. Soon he was sailing his own sloop on the Kennebec River up as far as Augusta, the county seat of Kennebec County. Tom did continue attending church and Reverend and Mrs. Dunton first invited him to come to supper on New Year's Day in 1806. There for the first time he met Eliza, the Dunton's daughter who had been away at Portland for two years with her aunt to soak up some of the culture of the big city.

It wasn't exactly love at first sight but Tom and Eliza enjoyed each other's company and over the course of the next year they spent more and more time together. About a year after they met they got engaged and married in April of 1807.

The downturn in shipbuilding brought about by Mr. Jefferson's embargo in 1807 pinched the Dustin finances so Tom took to building houses in his spare time. During this interval he built a house for William King, who later became the first governor of the state of Maine. In 1810 he invested in a scow schooner to move building materials up and down the Kennebec river in support of his house building sideline.

The Duntons waited anxiously at first for grandchildren, then patiently, then without much hope. It wasn't until June of 1812 that Tom and Eliza had their first child, William King Dustin. About two years later their daughter was born and named Sophie after Tom’s sister Sophia.

The war of 1812 also not only depressed further the shipbuilding business but got Tom involved in a sort of off hand way. In 1814 the British marched into eastern Massachusetts (Maine) from Canada and occupied the territory east of the Penobscot river, declaring it “New Ireland”.

On September 3, 1814 British forces advanced up the Penobscot river to the town of Hampden where Captain Charles Morris, USN was having his ship repaired. The Wikipedia article on the battle of Hampden sets forth some of the details. The quick summary is that the superior British force drove Morris and his 150 men out of Hampden. They made their way up river to Bangor and thereafter returned to their base in Portsmouth New Hampshire. The Wikipedia article fails to explain how Morris got from Bangor to Portsmouth in less than six days.

Captain Morris got to Bangor with about 100 of his men before dark on September third. They lay low until morning waiting for the remaining men to show up. Shortly after daylight on the fourth of September, still missing about 50 men, they set out to walk to Augusta on the Kennebec river at the head of navigation, leaving two men behind to locate the missing and bring them along the same trail as soon as they could.

It was rough country and Morris knew that slogging through the woods was a hard way to travel. His plan was to avoid the British along the Penobscot and return to Portsmouth with the least overland travel possible. Still it was about fifty miles of tough going. Morris worked out the compass bearing from Bangor to Augusta and held that line as best he could given the obstacles of ponds and steep ground.

Travelling all the daylight hours and part of each night they arrived a Augusta about 10 o’clock the morning of the seventh to find Tom Dustin making preparations to head down river with his recently unloaded scow schooner. By 10 pm on the seventh Morris and his men were transferred to a brigantine planning to start sea trials in the morning after refitting at Bath. By three pm on the ninth Morris had disembarked at Portsmouth New Hampshire. The last of his missing men came to Portsmouth during the next two weeks. Not one was lost.

By 1820 the shipbuilding business was picking up but Tom had developed such a demand for his homes and farm buildings that he could not return full time to the boat yards. He hired and trained a few helpers and focused on shore bound carpentry. The Bath shipbuilders did call on Tom for the interior finish work in those vessels where the owners wanted a touch of luxury in the captain’s cabin.

In the March of 1830 tragedy hit the Dustin family when Sophie at age 15 fell through the ice while playing on a nearby pond and drowned. She had been the darling of the family and her mother suffered depression after her death. In the fall of 1830 Eliza took her own life.

William had always dreamed of going to sea and Tom had encouraged him in this, seeing that he was well educated in navigation and ship handling. After Sophie’s and Eliza’s death he wanted to get away. Tom, through his connections with commercial shipping people, secured a position for William on a round the horn voyage in early 1831.

So at the age of 47 Tom Dustin found himself pretty much without responsibilities except for his employees and customers. He decided it was a good time to take a financial risk. He sent a note to William King and asked for a meeting to discuss a business idea that he was considering. Governor King promptly replied and they met on March, 17 1831.

After some greetings and catching up they got down to business.

“Governor, how much money would I have to raise to have a brig of about 300 tons and 110 feet long built and fitted out for passengers or cargo on the Boston - Bristol route, ready to sail?”

brig rig
Brig Under Sail

“Well Tom, we would be talking about 34 or 35 thousand dollars. It would depend a bit or perhaps a lot on the timing. If we found a builder waiting for a new commission with idle workers you might get a bargain.”

”I have about 11 thousand saved up. I would like to find a half dozen men who would invest 5 thousand each. That would provide building expenses and some working capital for the company. I have to tell you that my boy is presently on his first voyage around the Horn to China before the mast. If he does well he might go a junior mate on the next trip. He has the education for it. I would like to have a good Captain take out the vessel for a year and train up the boy when the time comes.”

“You have obviously given this a lot of thought Tom. It is wise to take on a smaller vessel than the big cargo haulers. The investment is modest and it will be easy to keep her busy with passengers or light cargo.”

“Commerce is on the up swing. I will contribute 5 thousand and I can direct you to others who might want to hear your proposal. Not all of them men though… There is the widow Benoit. She has the means and better than average business sense.”

Rosannah (Small) Benoit, a widow of 44 had inherited her husbands estate in 1829 when Henri Benoit died of consumption. He made a substantial fortune dealing in land and timber. William King wrote to her recommending Tom’s plan to form a company to build and operate a merchant vessel and suggesting she contact him.

So it happened that in mid-April Tom received a letter from the widow Benoit asking him to her house in on Federal street in Brunswick. Tom hitched up the one horse shay to his favorite trotting horse and drove to Brunswick to call on Mrs. Benoit.

The house was a modest one and a half stories in good condition but not what Tom would have expected of a family with five thousand dollars to spare. Tom dropped his tether weight in the front yard and knocked on the door.

The woman that answered was not at all what Tom had imagined a well-to-do widow lady to be. She had clearly been baking and wiped her hands on the apron she wore as the door swung open. She was average height and slender, with auburn hair done up to not hinder her cooking chores. She looked to be younger than Tom by several years.

“You must be Mr. Dustin” she said. “Please come in and sit in the kitchen. I will pour some tea for you while I finish putting the buns in the oven.”

“Thank you Mrs. Benoit. My name is Tomas Dustin. I am glad to meet you.”

“I hope we will become friends. Please call me Rosannah.”

“That will be my pleasure. I go by Tom.”

“Alright Tom. I was intrigued by Governor King’s letter. Please tell me what you have on your mind.”

They sat for over an hour, shared their histories and plans. Rosannah was the daughter of Ephraim Small of Bowdoin. She married Henri Benoit in 1807 and lived in their home in Bangor until he died. Henri inherited the Brunswick place from his mother on her death. Rosannah moved in to be closer to her family in Bowdoin. Tom left with a bank draft for five thousand dollars and an invitation to return for dinner in on Friday next.

Tom, with the help of Governor King, filled the other positions in the board of the company and placed an order with a Bath builder for the vessel. Construction started in July of 1831. In the fall of 1832 Tom and Rosannah married.

Tom lived on until 1861 when he was injured in a carriage accident and died a month later. Rosannah died in 1870.

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