Benjamin Russell

Is your surname Russell?

Research the Russell family

Share your family tree and photos with the people you know and love

  • Build your family tree online
  • Share photos and videos
  • Smart Matching™ technology
  • Free!

Benjamin Russell

Birthplace: New Bedford, Massachusetts
Death: March 03, 1885 (80)
Immediate Family:

Son of Seth Russell and Elizabeth Russell
Husband of Hannah Russell

Occupation: Whaleman, Artist, Entrepreneur
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:
view all

Immediate Family

About Benjamin Russell


Benjamin Russell (1804-1886) rightly deserves the accolade of New Bedford’s definitive whaleman artist as only a few professional American artists ever went whaling and none documented the fishery in its many myriad events and moods as thoroughly as he. Not only did Russell use his own whaling experience to document details and actions only ever captured by his fellow whalemen in private journals and scrimshaw, but he moved his art into the public sphere, painting ships and scenes on commission and publishing a series of prints as well. The son of Seth Russell, Jr. (1766- ), Benjamin was born into one of the oldest mercantile families in New Bedford, the brothers Seth and Charles Russell. Their progenitor, Joseph Russell, first settled the village in 1765 specifically intending to develop it as a whaling port. At various times, the Russell family held interest in thirty-eight whale ships and as merchants invested in cargos in many other vessels. In 1814, for instance, Seth Russell, Jr. received a large cargo of rum and sugar from the Swedish schooner Kutusoff. (See ODHS #B83-8, U.S. Custom House Impost Book) The Russell’s also owned the brig Clitus that was built to their order at Warren, Rhode Island in 1817. Both the Kutusoff and the Rhode Island town of Warren would come to figure significantly in Benjamin Russell’s later history. He got his start in business dealing in groceries and hardware across from the toll-house at the New Bedford/Fairhaven bridge around April 16, 1824. This is when the corporate name in the New Bedford Custom House records changes from Seth Russell Jr., to Seth Russell and Sons and when Benjamin first places his business advertisement in the New Bedford Mercury. He married Hannah Howland of New Bedford in 1827. Throughout his 20’s he invested in whaling voyages and owned shares in the family merchant vessels as well. His investments corresponded to the accepted successful pattern of oil returns so systematically practiced by New Bedford whaling merchants, i.e. a sperm whaler out between two to four years, a right whaler out for one year and another vessel or two out for two years with instructions to return a mixed cargo of sperm oil , whale oil and whalebone. With this pattern of investing New Bedford whaling agents were assured of a steady supply of oil for their markets. Benjamin also owned shares in the vessels used to move oil around and which were also used to return merchandize from abroad. As far as Benjamin was concerned though, his risks were great. For instance, one of the vessels in which he invested, the ship John Adams, Thomas B. Swain, master ,1831-1835, was out four years and returned 900 barrels of sperm. After such a poor showing, Swain never captained another whaling vessel. On the other hand, another of the vessels, the Frances Henrietta, Uriah Russell, master, returned from the coast of Chile after one year with 2300 barrels of sperm oil. They took thirty-seven sperm whales in six months,1833-34. Whaling was risky and highly profitable when a voyage went smoothly but potentially an economic disaster if it did not. 

A list of voyages in which Benjamin Russell invested:

  • 1826 Clitus (brig) of New Bedford not whaling → used to transport oil.
  • 1826 Missouri (ship) of New Bedford, Moses Sampson, master, owned by Seth Russell & Sons, sold abroad made no returns.
  • 1827 Galatea (ship) of New Bedford, Abraham Russell, master, owned by Seth Russell & Sons, one year on the Brazil Banks, returned with sperm and right whale,
  • 1829 Clitus (brig) of New Bedford not whaling.
  • 1829 Frances Henrietta (ship) of New Bedford, 407 tons, Abraham Russell, master sperm whaling to the Pacific returned 2300 barrels,
  • 1830-1832 Amanda (bark) of New Bedford, three unsuccessful right whaling voyages between owned by Phillips, Russell and Co.,
  • 1830 Rajah (brig) of New Bedford, , not whaling
  • 1831 John Adams (ship) of New Bedford, returned after 4 years with 900 sperm (Thomas B. Swain never made another voyage as master).
  • 1831 Ceres (ship) of New Bedford, Moses Samson, master, right whaling.
  • 1831 Hercules (ship) of New Bedford, Albert G. Goodwin, master, returned 2500 barrels of whale oil in one year.
  • 1833 Joseph Maxwell (ship) of New Bedford, Joseph Sampson, master, returned in 1834 with sperm and right whale.
  • 1833 Frances Henrietta (ship) of New Bedford, Uriah Russell, master returned in one year with 2300 barrels sperm. Caught 37 sperm whale between October 1833 and April 1834, on the coast of Chile.
  • 1833 Ceres (ship) of New Bedford, John J.. Parker, master, combined sperm and right.

By the late 1820s, the firm of Seth Russell & Sons was a successful commercial merchant firm and in 1832, Benjamin sat on the first Board of Directors of the newly established Marine Bank. During the Jacksonian-era banking crisis of 1833, when President Andrew Jackson attempted to consolidate America’s private banks into one national bank, the Russell family’s creditors, representing every bank in New Bedford, demanded payment to stabilize their holdings. While the profits from such voyages as the whaler Frances Henrietta, and the traders Clitus and Kutusoff and others were doubtless good they could not offset the debts of credit compiled over the years by the family firm. Benjamin, who made regular deposits in his account at the Merchants Bank, abruptly stops doing so in October of 1833.

Wherever it was that Benjamin Russell was living in the mid-to-late 1830s, in 1841 he shipped as a boatsteerer on board the ship Kutusoff of New Bedford, William H. Cox, master, on a whaling voyage to the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Joseph Dunbar and Co., of New Bedford managed the vessel, and it is a curious coincidence that Benjamin should sign aboard a vessel with the same name as one that had proved so profitable to his father back in 1814. (See: Dennis Wood Abstracts, Vol. 1, p. 597; Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript, June 1845; original Shipping Paper in the collection of the New Bedford Free Public Library). On this cruise, the Kutusoff whaled around Australia, the Central Pacific and the Northwest Coast of North America before sailing for New Zealand, Tahiti and then home around Cape Horn touching at Rio de Janeiro on her homeward passage. She arrived back in New Bedford in March of 1845 with a good cargo of sperm and whale oil having sent home 10,000 pounds of whalebone. Upon his return Russell’s wages barely covered his debts, and at this time he embarked upon an ambitious project to make some money. (MSS 69, Ser. B, Vol. 1) He and a local sign painter, Caleb Purrington, painted a traveling panorama which Russell intended to tour around the country selling tickets and narrating as he went. Such panoramas were the equivalent of motion pictures today. They completed their “Grand Panorama of a Whaling Voyage Round the World” in 1849 and Russell took it on tour. His position as boatsteerer, or “harpooner” in lay parlance, allowed him a very broad and continuous view of how exactly a whale ship looked at sea from the position of one who was down in the boats chasing whales. This perspective he employed to great advantage and is entirely consistent with (if of a higher quality than) most of the art found in whalers private journals and on scrimshaw of the period. The panorama is painted with tempera on cotton sheeting. All of Russell’s other known paintings are watercolor on paper and this is the only painting done in cooperation with another artist. The ships and scenes are undoubtedly in Russell’s style. The landscapes, however, particularly those of the islands in the Pacific seem to bear a more conservative, less sprightly quality than much of Russell’s work and may have been strongly influenced by Purrington. Russell later made a career out of painting mostly ships and scenes on commission for local whaling agents, ship masters and insurance documentation pictures. Between 1862 and 1871 he also published a series of whaling prints described by many as the finest scenes of American whaling ever created. Benjamin Russell’s career of painting whaling vessels and whaling scenes in a town and region entirely devoted to the whaling industry at the height of its success meant that his work would be judged by the most stringent of critics. While his paintings are arguably not great art compared to other painters of the day they are nonetheless among the finest of pictorial documentation of the industry ever produced and are certainly the finest ever produced by an American for public sale.

Russell’s work was very well-considered, and he, along with whaling master Charles Melville Scammon and New Bedford painter Charles Sydney Raleigh were chosen by the United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries to illustrate the whaling history and methods volume of The Fishery and Fishery Industries of the United States, by George Browne Goode, Section V, History and Methods of the Fisheries (Washington, 1887). The above left engraving by H.W. Elliot is a detail directly derived from Russell’s 1848 lithograph, “A ship on the Northwest Coast cutting in her last right whale. Same ship homeward bound.” The engraving above right, while purported in the caption to have come “from a French lithograph designed by B. Russell,” appears in no such identified antecedent. It may have been drawn by Russell specifically for this volume.

Source: "Benjamin Russell: New Bedford's Definitive Whaleman Artist"

view all

Benjamin Russell's Timeline

October 16, 1804
New Bedford, Massachusetts
March 3, 1885
Age 80