Joseph Holmes Collection

Manuscripts Collection 142

Overview of the Collection

Repository: G. W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport
Creator: Holmes, Joseph, 1771-1863
Title: Joseph Holmes Collection
Dates: 1771-1863
Extent: 42 linear feet
Abstract: Correspondence, accounts and financial papers, insurance policies, charter-parties, deeds, writs, wills, vessel bills of sale and other papers, concerning shipbuilding, and the affairs of a merchant family of the 19th century. Includes materials relating to Holmes’ sons, Alexander, Edward, Horace, and Paraclete; his sea captains and business agents; the family’s interest in the Alabama claims, and West Indian, coastwise and trans-Atlantic trade; and vessel accounts, disbursements, etc., for various Holmes’ vessels, including brig Trident (Built in Bridgewater), ships Lucy, Nathan Hannau, Brunett, Joseph Holmes and Raritan, and schooners November and Risk.
Identification: Coll. 142

Biography of Joseph Holmes

Joseph Holmes (1771-1863) was an active shipbuilder and shipowner for 62 years. His first shipyard was located near Taunton, Massachusetts. His Bridgewater-built vessels had to reach the ocean – some 40 miles away- by means of the Taunton River and Narragansett Bay. In 1801, Joseph Holmes built at Bridgewater for his own account the brig TWO POLLYS, followed the next year by the brig ALGOL and later, by the brig TRIDENT and the schooner ALEXANDER. Joseph Holmes built his first vessel at Kingston, the ship LUCY, in 1806. From 1806 to 1837, Holmes was the registered builder of 42 vessels (and he most probably built several of the craft of which the builder is unidentified.). From 1838 to 1863, he built alone, and later with Edward Holmes, his talented son, as master carpenter. During this period, Joseph Holmes was the registered builder of 24 vessels, and from 1864 to 1874 (the end of the shipbuilding operations at Kingston), Edward Holmes ran the yard himself, building 8 vessels, 7 of which were for his own account. Of 215 vessels built at Kingston and 270 – all told – built at and owned in Kingston, Massachusetts, from 1776 to 1898 inclusive, members of the Holmes family owned 101, wholly or in part.

Joseph Holmes, a former minister who graduated from the College of Rhode Island (later called Brown University) did not build “Down Easters” but he and his son Edward did design and construct full-bodied and good cargo-carrying vessels that were unusually seaworthy and reliable sailers under severe conditions of wind and sea. They were modeled more like the fuller-bodied trans-Atlantic packets, and such craft, incidentally, made splendid whalers as well as general traders, for they had the ability to keep the seas. Like many of the relatively bluntbowed sailing packets in the North Atlantic “shuttle,” the Holmes ships, whereas no designed for speed, made fair average passages, and most of them were credited with occasional very good runs. They had full bows and heavy quarters and sterns, and it was said that “when afloat, one end looked about as full as the other.” The Holmes ships were consistent, regular money-makers; they enjoyed no phenomenal years, as did the California Gold Rush clippers, but they paid steadily year after year a very good return on their investment and throughout the days of wood sail were very profitable to their owners.

The Holmes, however, proved that they could build very seaworthy vessels with a good turn of speed. It is said that their trans-Atlantic Mediterranean “fruit ships” (the Barks ANN & MARY, FRUITER, ABBY, SICILIAN, NEAPOLITAN, FRUITERER, and the Brig BIRD OF THE WAVE- built from 1849 to 1857) were “very fast, and it is probable that their model has never been improved on.” In model lines, carrying capacity, and spread of canvas, these vessels resembled somewhat the very much larger Down Easters built in the 1870’s and early 1880’s in Bath, Maine.

It is said that at mid-century Joseph Holmes “was one of the largest individual shipowners in the United States,” and again, “He was a wealthy man, and all his money had been made in the operations of ships, of which he owned about a hundred.” He got in the habit early of taking risks in the operation of his vessels, and as their numbers increased, he decided to insure the ships himself, “take all risk, and pay no premiums to others.” He kept his vessels in excellent physical condition, by insisted on making all possible repairs and reconditioning at his own (Kingston) yard. His letters to shipmasters read: “In case of accident, always remember you vessel is not insured and expend nothing but what is necessary to make your vessel seaworthy.”

Joseph Holmes engaged principally in trade with the West Indies and in this, the trans-Atlantic, Mediterranean, and later the Cape Horn service, lost very few vessels at sea or when making port. Holmes kept his fleet together and built or had each vessel built exactly to the type desired and in full harmony with his ideas; he operated them personally and made a lot of money “steadily and with amazing regularity throughout the years.” He died in 1863, “a rich and highly respected man.” His son Edward sold many of the Holmes ships during the Civil War (at the time that so many American ships were being “sold foreign”), and gradually the Holmes fleet, built up and operated so profitably by Joseph, was dispersed following his death.

(Extracted from: Fairburn, William Armstron, MERCHANT SAIL (6 v.) Fairburn Marine Educational Foundation, Center Lovell, Maine, 1945-1955, Vol. V, p 2881-1883.)

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Restrictions on Access

Available for use in the Manuscripts Division.

Restrictions on Use

Various copying restrictions apply. Guidelines are available from the Manuscripts Division.

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Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in the catalog of the G. W. Blunt White Library. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons or places should search the catalog using these headings.

This collection is indexed under the following headings in the catalog of the G. W. Blunt White Library. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons or places should


Holmes family
Holmes, Alexander (1803-1868)
Holmes, Edward–Shipbuilder
Holmes, Horace
Holmes, Paraclete

Corporate Entities:

Brunett (Ship)
Joseph Holmes (Ship)
Lucy (Ship)
Nathan Hannau (Ship)
November (Schooner)
Raritan (Ship)
Risk (Schooner)
Trident (Brig)


West Indies–Commerce–Massachusetts


Alabama claims
Coastwise shipping
Holmes family
International trade

Document Types:

Bills of sale
Insurance policies



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Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Coll. 142, Manuscripts Collection, G. W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport Museum, Inc.

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Detailed Description of the Collection

The following section contains a detailed listing of the materials in the collection.


General business accounts, receipts, notes, etc.; 1796-1883
Box Folder
1 1 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1796-1799
2 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1800-1803
3 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1804-1805
4 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1806
5 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1807
6 Market report (Liverpool, England); 1807 Apr
7 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1808
8 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1809-1810
9 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1811-1815
10 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1816-1820
11 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1821-1823
12 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1824-1825
13 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1826-1828
14 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1829-1830
Box Folder
2 1 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1831-1833
2 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1834-1835
3 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1836
4 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1837-1840
5 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1841-1845
6 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1846-1854
7 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; 1855-1883
8 Bills, accounts, notes, receipts, etc.; undated
9 Bank notes; 1827-1841
10 Bank notes; 1841-1845
11 Bank notes; 1849-1850
12 Bank notes; 1850
13 Bank notes; 1851-1855
14 Cash book; 1838 Jan-1841 Mar
15 Cash book; 1848 Oct-1850 Mar
Joseph Holmes; incoming correspondence; 1812-1861
Box Folder
3 1 Correspondence; 1812-1824
2 Correspondence; 1825
3 Correspondence; 1826 Jan-Apr
4 Correspondence; 1826 May-Dec
5 Correspondence; 1827-1828
6 Correspondence; 1829 Jan-Apr
7 Correspondence; 1829 May-Dec
8 Correspondence; 1830 Jan-Apr
9 Correspondence; 1830 May-Dec
Box Folder
4 1 Correspondence; 1831-1836
2 Correspondence; 1837
3 Correspondence; 1838 Jan-Feb
4 Correspondence; 1838 Mar-May
5 Correspondence; 1838 Jun-Aug
6 Correspondence; 1838 Sep-Oct
7 Correspondence; 1838 Nov-Dec
8 Correspondence; 1839 Jan-Apr
9 Correspondence; 1839 May-Sep
10 Correspondence; 1839 Oct-Dec.
Box Folder
5 1 Correspondence; 1840-1841
2 Correspondence; 1842
3 Correspondence; 1843
4 Correspondence; 1844
5 Correspondence; 1845
6 Correspondence; 1846
7 Correspondence; 1847
8 Correspondence; 1848
9 Correspondence; 1849
10 Correspondence; 1850
11 Correspondence; 1851 Jan-Jun
12 Correspondence; 1851 Jul-Dec
13 Correspondence; 1852 Jan-Mar
14 Correspondence; 1852 Apr-Aug
15 Correspondence; 1852 Sep-Dec
Box Folder
6 1 Correspondence; 1853 Jan-Jun
2 Correspondence; 1853 Jul-Dec
3 Correspondence; 1854 Jan-Feb
4 Correspondence; 1854 Mar-May
5 Correspondence; 1854 Jun-Dec
6 Correspondence; 1855 Jan-Mar
7 Correspondence; 1855 Apr-Jul
8 Correspondence; 1855 Aug-Dec
9 Correspondence; 1856 Jan-Apr
10 Correspondence; 1856 May-Oct
11 Correspondence; 1856 Nov-Dec
12 Correspondence; 1857 Jan-Apr
13 Correspondence; 1857 May-Dec
14 Correspondence; 1858 Jan-May
15 Correspondence; 1858 Jun-Dec
16 Correspondence; 1859
17 Correspondence; 1860
18 Correspondence; 1861
19 Correspondence; undated
Letters, essays, etc. written by Joseph Holmes; 1800-1858
Box Folder
7 1 Letters written by Joseph Holmes; 1822-1858
2 Essays, etc. written by Joseph Holmes; ca. 1800
Related correspondence involving persons other than Joseph Holmes; 1826-1887
Box Folder
8 1 Related correspondence; 1826-1829
2 Related correspondence; 1830
3 Related correspondence; 1831-1839
4 Related correspondence; 1840-1849
5 Related correspondence; 1850-1857
6 Related correspondence; 1858-1887
7 Miscellaneous; undated
Sailing orders; 1807-1858
Box Folder
9 1 Sailing orders; 1807-1827
2 Sailing orders; 1828-1829
3 Sailing orders; 1830-1833
4 Sailing orders; 1834-1837
5 Sailing orders; 1838-1839
6 Sailing orders; 1840-1858
Vessel accounts, disbursements, etc.,; 1805-1859
Box Folder
10 1 Brig Trident; 1805-1807
2 Ship Lucy; ca. 1806-1810
3 Ship Lucy; insurance claim relative to an incident at sea in 1807; 1831
4 Ship Lucy; undated
5 Schooner Alexander; 1807-1808
6 Brig Brunett; accounts, etc. at Liverpool; 1807-1808
7 Schooner January; certificates and articles for codfishing voyage; 1838
8 Ship Herculean; 1839
9 Ship Herculean; 1840
10 Ship Herculean; 1841-1842
11 Ship Herculean; 1843
12 Ship Herculean; undated
13 Ship Nathan Hannau; 1851-1856
14 Schooner November; 1845-1846
15 Ship Joseph Holmes; ca. 1852
16 Ship Raritan; 1852-1854
17 Schooner Risk; ca. 1859
Miscellaneous, related material; 1811-1863
Box Folder
11 1 Capt. Costoff’s accounts with J. Barbe and Howe (re. Ships Henri IV and Francois I); 1833-1837
2 Marine insurance policies; 1812-1839
3 Charter parties; 1807-1851
4 Vessel bills of sale; 1811-1863
5 Spar dimensions for ship Kingston and two others; ca. 1822-1840
6 Last will and testament, Joseph and Jedediah Holmes; 1831 and 1829
7 Summons, warrents, legal documents; ca. 1815
8 Land deeds and transfers; 1836-1857
9 Math workbooks, William and Andrew Holmes; 1837 and 1842
10 Miscellaneous, unidentified; undated

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