About Preserved Fish
SKETCH OF THE LATE PRESERVED FISH
This singular man, and distinguished merchant, was born in the village of Portsmouth, in Rhode Island, on the third day of July, in the year 1766, and died in New York city on the twenty-third day of July, 1846, in the eightieth year of his age. His father, whose name was also Preserved Fish, was a descendant of the Huguenots, and followed the humble employment of a blacksmith. Of his mother, we have not been enabled to learn anything, only that she died when her son was quite young.
The early history of our friend's life was not particularly distinguished. He was a noisy, unruly youth, and though the son of an honest but poor man, he was unsteady in his habits, and it was with the utmost difficulty that he could be made to work at one employment for any length of time. He labored with his father a sufficient length of time to familiarize himself with all the secrets of the anvil, and then desired to be apprenticed to a substantial farmer. Such an one was soon found, and Master Fish, at the age of fourteen, was in a fair way of becoming a good husbandman. But it so happened that he sickened of his agricultural labors, and throwing away his hoe, he resolved to see what he could do upon the ocean. We then find him strolling along the wharves of New Bedford, in search of a sailor's berth. He was without money, and borrowed a few dollars of a stranger, (who took pity upon him,) with which he purchased a few necessary clothes, and in a few days he was on board of a whale-ship bound to the Pacific. He worked his way up so very rapidly that he became a captain at the age of twenty-one. He followed the sea for many years, and by industry and economy accumulated a handsome fortune. It was at this time of his life that the following event, illustrative of his character, took place :—
The ship that he commanded had been ordered to the eastern coast of Africa, after a cargo of oil. It so happened that soon as he had weighed anchor, it was discovered that the ship had sprung a leak. A good deal of alarm, as a matter of course, was caused by this event, and the crew and subordinate officers insisted upon going back. Captain Fish, how. ever, would not listen to this advice, and swore, by all that was holy, he would continue to prosecute his voyage at every hazard. The indomitable will of the man was triumphant, and the very idea of mutiny was entirely banished—the whole crew performing their duties without a murmur. The voyage was successfully performed, and the cargo of oil turned out to be uncommonly valuable. And thus was it that fortune smiled upon the sailor merchant.
In 1810, Captain Fish settled himself in New Bedford, as a shipping merchant, having given up the sea. His partner in business was Cornelius Grinnell, and the firm was Fish & Grinnell. It was at this period of his life that he became engaged in politics. He was a bitter Democratic partisan, and his many quarrels and disappointments as such, were the cause of his leaving New Bedford. His manner of proceeding on this occasion was also somewhat peculiar. He happened to be passing the stand of an auctioneer one day, while there was a crowd assembled, and stepping suddenly up to the gentleman with the hammer, he exclaimed in a loud voice: "I want you to sell my house!" Without any other notice the house was put up, and knocked down to a gentleman, for about one-half its value. In a fortnight from that time Preserved Fish was settled upon a farm at Flushing, in this State, which he had purchased, with a view of devoting himself to agriculture. While living in Flushing, he .became very intimate with a Mr. Franklin, of that place, but a misunderstanding having taken place between the parties, their friendship was broken off, and Captain Fish declined to be even on speaking terms with his old friend. During the existence of this state of things, it so happened that the captain was capsized in a boat while crossing the troubled waters of Hurl Gate. Mr. Franklin also happened to be near where the accident took place, and it was his fortune to rescue Mr. Fish from a watery grave. After the excitement of this scene was over, and the captain had so far recovered as to scan the features of his preserver, he was perfectly astonished to find him none other than his bitterest enemy. This singular fact threw him into a perfect rage, and uttering an oath, he said that he would have much preferred to die, rather than be saved by the hands of Mr. Franklin.
Soon after this event, Captain Fish sold his farm and came to New York city to reside. He was appointed Harbor Master for the port, and again took an interest in the politics of the day. A great number of lucrative offices were offered to him about this time, but he would not accept any of them. This fact would incline us to believe that he studied politics as a science, (as the true politician always does,) and not as an office-seeker or demagogue. He was a true patriot, and desired to see his country prosper in every branch of business. He was ever true to the principles of his party, but was strongly disposed to go for his friends, whatever their politics might be. One of these friends, whose cause he warmly advocated, was Do Witt Clinton, to whom he proved faithful until the great man's death. But Captain Fish's paragon of a statesman and a man was Andrew Jackson, after whom his own strongly marked character seemed to have been moulded. At this time his property amounted to about fifty thousand dollars.
In the year 1815, he formed a business connection with Joseph Grinnell, who is now an honorable member of Congress. The firm was Fish & Grinnell, and the house did a large shipping business. The reason why Captain Fish was always connected with the Grinnell family was because he had descended from the same stock with the Grinnells. Fish & Grinnell were the founders of that celebrated and wealthy house now known to the whole world as Grinnell, Minturn & Co. Fish & Grinnell were also the first to establish a regular line of Liverpool Packets. Their ships varied from 340 to 380 tons burthen; the ships of Grinnell, Minturn & Co. now measure from 1,000 to 1,300 tons, and are universally acknowledged to be among the finest vessels on the ocean.
In 1826, Captain Fish, having acquired a fortune of one hundred thousand dollars, dissolved his connection with Joseph Grinnell, when the firm of Grinnell, Minturn & Co. was ordained, and Captain Fish went to Liverpool. He there formed a connection with a couple of English merchants, Edward Carnes and Walter Willis,—followed the shipping business for two years,—lost about thirty thousand dollars, and returned to this city, completely disgusted, as he said, with the English methods of transacting business.
His last partner in business was Samuel Alley, Esq., with whom he remained, however, only about six months. The immediate cause of the dissolution was as follows: Mr. Alley entered the orlice one morning, and seeing Captain Fish busily employed, he expressed a little surprise at his smartness, and added :—" Hope you are well this morning, Captain Fish;" whereupon the captain, who seemed to be in an unhappy mood, returned answer—"This is the place for business, sir, not for compliments." Mr. Alley answered the supposed insult in a manner peculiarly his own,—and, in a few days, the firm of Fish & Alley was dissolved by mutual consent. In this city he remained out of business for about seven years, when he was elected President of the Tradesman's Bank, to whose interest he devoted his undivided attention until the day of his death.
The causes of Captain Fish's success were his sound judgment and his unwearied attention to business, together with his daring in conceiving, and his perseverance in carrying out his various commercial plans. Whenever he said that a ship must sail, she was always sure to sail, at any rate. On one occasion, when the pilot did not make his appearance at the very moment a certain ship was to sail, he went on board, and piloted her to sea himself. The integrity of Preserved Fish was never impeached, and he ever considered the fulfilment of his engagements as the most sacred of his duties to his fellow-men. He was not what we call an educated man, and not at all conversant with accounts. He was, however, a sound thinker and able reasoner. He kept his business plans to himself, and always acted upon the principle that it was better to be sure of a small profit, than risk all by ah unnecessary delay. He was always devoted to business, but more on account of his passion for excitement, than on account of his love for gold.
Preserved Fish was married three times. His first wife died at New Bedford, in giving birth to a child. His second died in this city, when he married his third wife only four months after the death of his second. A short time previous to this singular proceeding, he was dining with Henry Grinnell, Esq., when he astonished his friend by stating his matrimonial intentions. Among the characteristic speeches that he made on the occasion was the following :—" On the first of next month, I shall be in my seventy-third year, and the husband of a new wife. The fact is, I am getting to be an old man, and I want to be happy while I continue in this world. I don't care a farthing for the opinions of the world—J live for the living, not for the dead!"
He left behind him no children. He had, however, an adopted son, named William Fish, whom he ruined by treating too kindly. William Fish died a disgraced man, but left one child, who will probably inherit the property of his adopted grandfather. The will, however, is conditional: the youth must renounce his mother on arriving at the age of twenty-one. Preserved Fish left two sisters, to each of whom he bequeathed a handsome farm; one resides in Vermont, and the other in Ohio. Another singular circumstance connected with this man is, that he never informed the present Mrs. Fish of the fact that he had two sisters.
The story that Preserved Fish had been picked up, when a child, on the ocean's shore, is a mere fiction. Its origin has been traced to the following laughable incident :—While on one of his trading voyages, Captain Fish was hailed by a Revenue Cutter with the question—" What's the name of that brig?" "Flying Fish, sir!" "What's your cargo?" "Pickled Fish!" "Who's your captain?" "Preserved Fish!" The revenue officer became quite angry, and immediately boarded the brig, to revenge himself for the insult. When he found, however, that only the truth had been spoken, he enjoyed the joke, and vowed that he would preserve the memory of Preserved Fish, as an ocean wonder.
Instead of his history being obscure, it is well known that his father was descended from the Huguenots, and that he is claimed by one of the best families in this country, as of their kindred. Preserved Fish was undoubtedly a rough, obstinate, and eccentric man ; but, after all, his heart was without guile. He was charitable, and gave away to worthy objects a great deal of money. To those whom he had reason to respect and love he was always true. Among his intimate friends he numbered many of our most distinguished fellow-citizens. He was an early riser, and invariably temperate in his habits. He was brought up a Quaker, but for several years previous to his death, he was a consistent member of the Episcopal Church. With all his faults, he was a distinguished merchant, and an honor to the city where his ashes repose in peace.
*Note: All the biographical information I have been able to find on Preserved Fish states that his father was also named Preserved and was a blacksmith by trade, and his father was Thomas. However in genealogical information he is said to be the son of Isaac and Ruth Grinnell Fish. I haven't found proof for either. ---Leslie Ann
Captain Preserved Fish's Timeline
July 3, 1766
Porsmouth, Rhode Island
New Bedford, Massachusetts, United States
July 23, 1846
New York City, New York, New York