A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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  Part I-Chapter 3 : Shipping Merchants  > Index and Introduction  :    Previous  1 -   Next

Thus the American merchants entered the China trade, an activity which fostered the fortunes of many great mercantile families. China was a distant but highly civilized nation and trade was immensely lucrative. The Chinese were wary of the European and American traders and commercial exchanges were restrained to the port of Canton. With their "Empress of China", New York and Philadelphia merchants were the first to send a ship to Canton but Salem merchants followed and through their initiative to establish a local agency, the Boston merchants led by the Perkins brothers emerged as the leading American China traders. Fur from the Pacific Coast was the first major American supply to China, but later it was replaced by silver specie and the profits of the China traders culminated, when opium took the place of first exchange currency in the trade with Canton. Eventually, cloth and other manufactured goods replaced these romantic and speculative commodities, as China trade was normalized and several new ports were opened. 

Merchants were at the origin of much of the wealth creation in American cities as they invested the proceeds of their mercantile business in other activities. Bostonians, Francis Cabot Lowell and Patrick Tracy Jackson started textile mills, a business in which they attracted many merchant princes. New Yorkers, like John Jacob Astor, Peter Goelet  and Peter Schermerhorn, greatly increased their wealth through their investments in Manhattan real estate. In Philadelphia, Stephen Girard nothing less than took over the Second Bank of the United States, when it failed due to the lack of support from president Andrew Jackson. Girard later became the richest man in America and a great philanthropist. In Baltimore, leading merchants and bankers put up much of the initial capital stock of the Baltimore & Ohio railroad. Thus American merchants initiated many of the economic activities that would grow the Nation wealth and their private fortunes likewise.

The shipping business was essentially mercantile throughout the 18th and well into the 19th century. But with strong immigration and the development of the Nation, packet lines were started between England and America, and regular passenger transportation became profitable, notably thanks to negotiated subsidies. Scotsman Samuel Cunard was the first to establish a regular Ocean crossing line, financed by a 275'000 $ a year subsidy from the English government. Edward Knight Collins (1802-78), an American shipping magnate, organized the US Mail Steamship Company with US government subsidies of 33'000 $ per roundtrip. Challenged by Cornelius Vanderbilt, the archetype of the competitor, and after two of his ships sank, Collins failed and lost his business. Others fared much better. William Henry Aspinwall, of the well established New York merchants firm Howland & Aspinwall, was the chief factor behind a subsidized postal and passenger steamship line to California via Panama. But the railroad development soon mobilized financial and promotional energies far greater than the shipping transportation ever could, and merchants in many cities invested to develop these vital highways of commerce, pursuing both economic and speculative goals. 

Shipping Merchants  > Index and Introduction  :    Previous  1 -   Next

Patroons and Manor Lords

Planter  Aristocrats

Shipping Merchants

The Landlords of New YorkCity

Bankers I

Early American Industrialists


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