by Morgan Greene
The Beekmans of New York established themselves very early on in New Amsterdam. William Beekman left the Dutch Netherlands for America in late 1646 under the command of Peter Stuyvesant. Beekman was leaving for the New World specifically to become the Director-General of New Netherland.1This title suggests that the Beekmans were prominent members of New York society before they ever stepped foot on American soil. However, the first few generations to live in America, though wealthy and powerful, are more easily identified as working in public, government positions than in mercantile endeavors such as dry goods and species trade.
Dr. William Beekman, the grandson of the first American Beekman and the son of Dr. Gerardus Beekman, was a medical doctor by training. However, he took a particular interest in profiting from the sea. There are sparse records of his life, but from as early as 1721, when he was reported to have been in London, there is evidence that he had business connections across the water in England. Having purchased waterfront property in the 1720s and 1730s, he set himself up as a participant in sea commerce. By the 1740s he was trading extensively with England, selling provisions to both the Caribbean and other places in America, and sharing ownership of ships that he commissioned out to privateers and other merchants2. Privateering earned him reasonable profits, but outfitting merchant ships proved less successful. Nonetheless, it seems that Dr. Beekman dabbled in many styles of sea trade, as seen in the multiple conversions of the William from a merchant ship, to a privateering vessel, and finally, back into a merchant ship.
James, Dr. William Beekman’s son, born in 1732, shared his father’s for trade with England. Both men allowed the other merchants in the area to focus on the silver and specie trade with the Caribbean, preferring to import dry goods. James’ first two attempts at profiting from ocean commerce failed, but in 1752 he married the daughter of another wealthy merchant family, Jane Keteltas, in 1752, and he rekindled some of his fathers’ correspondence with British merchants and obtained New York customers. During the Seven Years’ war he experienced great prosperity, importing dry goods from London, Bristol, Liverpool, and Amsterdam, and then selling the goods throughout the New York area, especially to the military oriented Albany.3 These goods came from the overseas ports to the Port of New York, what we know as South Street Seaport, and in turn were distributed throughout the area. With the close of the war, his business dropped due to harsher British regulations and his patriotic stance on the revolutionary issues, which were coming to a head. Beekman refocused his business aspirations, finding that there was more profit in shipping other people’s goods than on his own dollar. At the beginning of the Revolution, over two-thirds of his ₤20,000 fortune was a result of his own success in business, but when the English captured New York in 1776, the Beekman family was forced to flee. He lived in exile for eight years, and his fortune declined greatly between 1776 and 1784. He never would import goods on his own account, preferring commissioned accounts4. Illegal practices in trade were commonplace in this time, butt James avoided this approach to business. This cannot be said for James’ cousin, Gerard Beekman, another prominent trader of the day, and the son of Dr. William Beekman’s brother, another Gerard.
Gerard Beekman’s business style differed from that of his cousin and uncle. He was a shrewd man with intense prejudice, who, like the rest of the Beekman’s, was born into the “royalty” of New York merchants. Gerard chose to focus his interests on the trade of flax seed, selling the seed to Irish linen companies, who sold the linen through London5. This was what truly differentiated him from James and William, as he chose to focus not on England, the West Indies, or the Southern colonies extensively, but instead on Ireland and the New England colonies, particularly Connecticut and Rhode Island. Like James in his later years, however, he was reluctant to trade on his own account and made the majority of his fortune from commissions. He also changed his trade patterns during the period of the Seven Years War, as it was the only time he actually owned vessels (between wars he hired vessels as needed), but his wartime policies were not as profitable as his family members’, and he liquidated his “fleet’ as soon as the Seven Years War was over6. Gerard did not possess the same moral values as his cousin James, and his fortune grew mostly out of his willingness to do anything that would make him money. Although the Port of New York was not the original source of the Beekman family fortune, the power and influence of the family was only increased by Dr. William, James, and Gerard’s business endeavors through South Street. Beekman Slip, a street in the Seaport area, is a reminder of their presence that serves to emphasize how important the family was at one point in the port’s history.
The Beekmans heyday as sea merchants was during the late 18th century came before the actual heyday of the Port of New York, which took place between about 1815 and 1860. Their trade was focused more on England, Ireland, the Caribbean, and other colonies. After the rise of the Port of New York, sea traders focused instead on China, the Midwest (after the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825), and California. Gerard only had one son, and James’ sons took more political roles. With the technology of faster ships, easier routes, and the discovery of more profitable trade routes to China and California, the focus of trade shifted to opium, silk, gold and other items. With the shifts in changes, the names of the families prominent in trade were changing as well.
One of those names was the house of N.L. & G Griswold. The Griswolds were a Connecticut family that established themselves in the South Street Seaport area in the 19th century, first on Front Street, then on Burling Slip. Originally they shipped flour to the West Indies, but like many other merchants of their time, the Griswolds began to invest in the China Trade, owning three ships, all named, the Panama. The house of N.L.G. Griswold, as reported by Joseph Alfred Scoville in the Old Merchant Houses of New York, first published in 1863, was known for an uncommonly large number of voyages to and from Canton in their three, identically-named vessels7. Though they made their largest profit in trading tea with China, the Griswolds also made money in shipbuilding, which required a large amount of capital but brought in a steady stream of profit. The Griswolds also made money not only in shipping but also in shipbuilding, though they made their largest profit in trading tea with China, which required a lot of capital but also brought in a very steady stream of profit. As New York emerged as a center of commerce and sea trade during the nineteenth-century, the house of N. L. & G. Griswold cashed in on this period of economic growth, as did many other wealthy New York families.
Money meant everything when it came to sea trade, as it was impossible to make a profit unless the entrepreneur had the capital to even begin the endeavor. Though trade on the sea was profitable if successful, it was also very risky, and therefore it was not unusual for a voyage to result in a loss of money. The Beekman’s tried to avoid risking their own money by working on commission on other people’s accounts, but the Griswolds, who owned the vessels they used in entirety, risked incredible sums of money on each journey. These two families represent just two of the many families, such as the Lows, the Keteltas, and Smith and Dimon, that controlled the mercantile aspect of the seas in the early days of New Amsterdam and New York, in two juxtaposed time periods, but they by no means encompass all of the trade of the Port of New York. With respect to shipbuilding, trade, shipping, shipping insurance, importing, exporting, and all of the businesses required to sustain a maritime environment indirectly, such as hostels, saloons, churches, etc, New York (and New Amsterdam before that) was a sea-oriented city, and the most prominent families made or increased their fortunes off of maritime activities.
1. Philip J. White, The Beekmans of New York in Politics and Commerce 1647-1877 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1956), 12
2. ibid, 316-17
3. ibid, 362.
4. ibid, 541
5. ibid, 534
6. ibid, 536
7. Joseph Alfred Scoville, The Old Merchants of New York City (New York: Carleton 1863), 161-62.
Philip J. White, The Beekmans of New York in Politics and Commerce 1647-1877. New York: New York Historical Society, 1956.
Joseph Alfred Scoville, The Old Merchants of New York City. New York: Carleton 1863.
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