by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
March 14, 2023
In MCHS archives are 16 Crane family letters long dubbed “the Canton letters,” as they chronicle the 1833-5 journeys of Augustus Crane’s older brother John Josiah to Canton, China (today Guangzhou). The fascinating treasure trove provides a surprisingly detailed view of life for the New York mercantile family before Augustus’s move to Morristown. However, what gets lost in the collection’s name is how much of those two years John Josiah in fact spent in transit to and from the faraway port. With today’s technologies and instant communication, the reality of how slow early 19th-century travel was for humans and information alike can be easily forgotten, but comes into sharp focus as the story of the letters unfolds.
In early June 1833, the 20-year-old John Josiah Crane found employment as supercargo of the ship Clematis bound for Canton. Responsible for the ship’s cargo, he would also oversee its purchase and sale at ports along the way. Soon after he set sail, his friend Capt. George Briggs followed behind, carrying a letter from his brother Benjamin Franklin Crane. As was typical of the time, the journey for each ship took well over 100 days, so John Josiah did not receive that first June letter until his friend’s arrival in Canton around November. However, it was the slowness of the letters that followed that would exacerbate a family tragedy.
After just a month or so in the Chinese port city, John Josiah and the Clematis began the lengthy voyage back to NYC in December 1833. Sadly, around the same time, his mother, long in declining health, passed away. His brother wrote to inform him immediately, but even as he wrote, he knew John Josiah would not receive the letter before his return since it would reach Canton long after he left. Thus, John Josiah almost certainly only learned of his mother’s death when he arrived home in spring 1834.
For a few weeks he spent time with his siblings and set his friend Capt. Briggs on a course towards becoming his brother-in-law. Off again to spend most of yet another year at sea, his letters indicate he reached Cadiz, Spain in June; sailed around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope; stopped in Manila, Philippines in December; and reached Canton just before 1834 drew to a close. Following another one-month stay, his 112-day return voyage was one of the shortest legs of his entire two-year adventure, finishing May 25, 1835. Thus concluded one of the best documented chapters of Crane family life. However, the letters that preserve this story, and by MCHS tradition have been called ‘the Canton letters,” should perhaps be renamed “the Clematis letters,” as, thanks to the nature of early 19th-century travel, he ultimately spent many more months aboard his employer’s ship than he did in China.