In a shoebox filled with old letters from the Gould and Mead family, I found two written by Romeyn Mead, the brother of my great-great grandmother Lois Rebecca Mead Treadwell, in the 1840s. The exact dates aren’t clear as his handwriting is hard to decipher.
One was written in New York City prior to Romeyn sailing to San Francisco (via Rio de Janeiro and around Cape Horn at the tip of South America); and the other on board a ship headed for Canton (Guangzhou), China through the Indian Ocean. Romeyn would eventually sail as far as Calcutta (Kolkata), India, and become a sea captain. He addresses the letter to Sister, and I believe she is Rhoda Ely Mead, since he mentions his other two sisters, Maria and Lois, in the letter.
How did a young man who grew up in a rural town in upstate New York wind up sailing around the world?
Romeyn was born on 22 March 1827 in New York City, the son of the abolitionist and educator Merlin Mead and his wife Polly (Clark). The family moved to the small rural town of Cadiz, about 60 miles south of Lake Erie, where Romeyn was raised with three sisters and four brothers, two of whom died young.
In 1843, or so Romeyn later reported, he left Cadiz for the sea. He is on a citizenship list, dated 11 Feb 1848, of American seamen in New York City.
The two letters, curated by my grandmother Mabel Gould, reveal why he chose the life he did. In the first letter, he is waiting for the ship to sail from NYC. He is optimistic, confident and excited about his chosen career – and plans to save his wages and also “trade” on the ship so that he can repay some debts and then take time off to visit his sister. He writes, “I have no doubt but I shall come back capable of taking a 2nd mate’s birth… I shall then get much higher wages and better fare so on the whole I think my prospects are flattering. Capt. E— has spoken very highly of me.” He assures his sister that this job is no less safe than any other. He also asks her not to marry before he gets back. (It turned out that Rhoda Mead never did marry.)
In the second letter, he writes from aboard a ship bound for Canton, China. I’m not sure if it’s the same ship as in the first letter. He says they just passed “two little rocky islands called St. Pauls and New Amsterdam.” These small volcanic islands are in the triangle between Australia, Antartica and southern Africa in the Indian Ocean.
The crew had to keep watch around the clock for “shoals and coral reefs.” He writes, “…Since we have been in the vicinity of the Cape we have had the albatrosses flying about quite thick” but as they sailed on, there were none. (The ship must have sailed around the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa and then into the Indian Ocean.) He also tells about the crew catching a porpoise, an animal he’d never seen before, and the captain hooking a shark with a fish. They “hauled the shark on board and to make sure that he would bite no one poked a stick of wood about 6 inches in diameter about 2 feet down his throat…”
Romeyn mentions passing another “bark” called The Pilgrim, also headed to Canton, which could be the same ship described in the book Two Years Before The Mast, by Richard Henry Dana. It would have been from the same time period and shared similar routes, so the image below of a modern replica shows a ship of that era.
I haven’t found much more information about Romeyn’s travels, except this mention on a website about shipwrecks. “Kendall. Schooner of 157 or 180 tons, (perhaps 180/157 tons). Captain Romeyn Mead. Returned from Calcutta to Melbourne on 16 June 1856, then Newcastle. From Newcastle on 25 August 1856 for Melbourne with coal, wrecked on the Kent Group. crew were later picked up by the brig River Chief and taken to Twofold Bay. ” In Romeyn’s obituary, he is said to have lived in Calcutta for 14 years.
Much later in 1897, Romeyn returned to Cadiz for a reunion with school classmates. The Buffalo Commercial recounted on 22 Sept 1897: “He left Cadiz in 1843, sailed the ocean for 30 years, lived in India for several years and located in Tennessee.”
On 12 October 1871, Romeyn married Jane B. McGuire, a captain’s widow from Massachusetts with a young son. At some point he moved to Tennessee, where he was a merchant farmer in McMinnville, a small city between Nashville and Chattanooga. He owned horses, grew corn and co-owned a store called Mead & Ritchey. “For nice white corn and fresh corn meal, go to Mead & Ritchey,” the Southern Standard recommended on Aug. 15, 1885. He lived in a large suburban house, according to newspaper accounts of social gatherings.
In 1878, Romeyn filed a patent for a box fastener that made it easier to package and ship eggs and other grocery items. Some ten years later, he became the Coal Oil Inspector in McMinnville.
Romeyn became stepfather to his wife’s son John G. McGuire. The couple apparently adopted a daughter from Chicago, though I couldn’t find any other mentions of her.
In his old age, Romeyn lived with his stepson, his son’s wife and their four children. He died on 22 April 1906 at the age of 79 while running an errand in McMinnville.