Whaling Ship Photograph From Thomas Ferney's Collection
A Story Of Perseverance
A Note From The Author
When we foster the values that our fathers held dear we honor them.
As Americans, we enjoy a way of life granted to us by those who came before. We are all connected in some way to the achievements of people we have never known. People who lived long, long ago and who seemingly have little relevance today. Yet, as a country of immigrants, our way of life exists because of the millions of amazing bold people like Thomas Ferney that dared to dream and work to build a better life.
Thomas's story is extraordinary not because of one grand accomplishment or event, but because it is an example of the spirit and strong character that was and continues to be the foundation of our national identity.
During Thomas's lifetime, just as now, Americans dared greatly everyday in pursuit of happiness and a better life. This story is just one of millions like it, that together paved the way to the lifestyle we enjoy today.
My grandfather's story is inspiring and extraordinary, yet somehow I doubt that he would think it to be anything of the sort.
Capt. Thomas H. Ferney
1821 - 1886
In 1821 Thomas Hussey Ferney was born on Nantucket Island Massachusetts, to James S. and Priscilla ( Hussey ) Ferney. As child born into one of Nantucket's preeminent whaling families at the height of Nantucket's prominence as a whaling port, young Thomas must have had a sense he was pre-destined to be a mariner.
He was a direct descendant of one of Nantucket's founding fathers, Christopher Hussey, who as legend has it, was the first whaleman to successfully hunt and kill a sperm whale.
In the years since then, the sperm whale had replaced the right whale as the primary species hunted by whale fisherman from Nantucket and elsewhere.
Nantucket in those days was clannish and close knit with a predominately Quaker population. Most islanders where kin of some kind and Thomas's early years were no doubt spent surrounded by family, friends and neighbors whose names are recognizable as some of the foremost in America's maritime history.
Under circumstances like Thomas', one might take for granted that one day he would rightfully take his place among the Islands most notable and influential inhabitants.
Fate however had another path for Thomas. Thomas' father James had left Nantucket shortly after wedding Priscilla and before the birth of his son in the wake of what was then a large scandal. James was run off the island and excommunicated from the Quaker Church after it was discovered that he had another wife and child living in NJ.
While Thomas was viewed as the product of a "legitimate" if unfortunate, marraige by the staunchly conservative Quaker elders, the scandal cast a long shadow and Thomas was seen as somewhat of an outsider among his own people.
His mother Priscilla would never fully escape the scandal, she lived into her 90's, never to remarry and Thomas would remain her only child.
Perhaps in an effort to unburden their sister, Thomas was taken to sea by his Hussey uncles from a very early age even by Nantucket standards. A boy just 10 years old, Thomas set out on his first multi-year voyage. He carried with him a bible that would be his constant companion and the steadfast determination of a young gentleman ready to prove he was worthy to take his rightful place among the Hussey family.
The trials of the sea and officers aboard the ship were to provide his upbringing from that point forward and they would forge the boy Thomas into a man of resolute character. Over the next 12 years Thomas would see his Nantucket home only a handful of times, staying no extended period of time on the island. His home had become the sea, a master that measured him by his actions and not the sins of his father.
Capt. Thomas Ferney
Capt. Thomas Ferney's Bible
As Thomas grew toward adulthood, his responsibilities aboard ship increased and he followed the track of an officer. He served as an oarsman, then boat steerer, then mate.
As mate, he began crewing for the very prominent Ricketson family of New Bedford MA.
The Rickeston family were the foremost merchants, oil brokers, ship owners and financiers in the city. By all accounts, the family was fond of Thomas and took to employing the young Quaker officer from Nantucket. It is likely that Thomas's first command was aboard a ship owned at least in part by the Ricketson family. The ships Hurcules and Chili were often under the command of a Ricketson and perhaps one of these ships would have been offered to Thomas as his first command.
New Bedford, with it's deep water harbor was better suited to the increasing size of the "modern" whaling vessels and it began to out pace Nantucket as the dominant whaling port of call. New Bedford also offered Thomas a place to make his own name, away from Nantucket and its deeply rooted ancestral alliances and bias. It's clear that Thomas had a fondness for the place because he would make it his home.
By the early 1840s Thomas was a veteran officer in his early adulthood and was, according to one account "most often times in command of a whaling vessel". According to another written testament, by the time Ferney returned to New Bedford in his early 20s, he had "visited nearly all the principal ports of the world", hunting whales from one end of the globe to another. It was common for whalemen like Thomas to spend extraordinary amounts of time away from home. Most expeditions would see vessels and their crews at sea for two to three years at a time before returning to home port.
Life as an officer on a whaling ship could be profitable if one could endure its trials. Thomas was fond of both the exotic nature and inherent danger of his work. But it was the sense of pride regarding having forged a good and respected name for himself in spite of his less than auspicious beginnings on Nantucket that gave him the most satisfaction.
The reality of living and working at sea was hard on a man both physically and mentally. Body and soul would be pushed to the breaking point day upon day. Living quarters and comforts aboard ship where minimal even for officers. The smell of boiling whale flesh and black smoke from rendering pots was ever-present and permeated every fiber of man and ship alike. Shipwrecks, death and strandings were fates ever present in the mind of the whalemen. Thomas, like nearly all long time whalemen, lost friends mostly during the hand to hand combat that was necessary to subdue a great sperm whale from the 25ft launch boats that pitched and rolled in cold wet chaos.
For many sailors one voyage was all that they could mange before turning to a different profession. Thomas loved the sea and felt he was born to command a vessel, yet he felt that something was missing... a quiet life, a business, a family and time to enjoy with them. Thomas truly wanted it all, and he; the fatherless boy from Nantucket would find a way to reinvent himself in order to have it.
Sometime around the mid 1840's Thomas began a campaign to educate himself in business aspects of whaling. Turning down an offer of another captaincy, he became a clerk for the Ricketson family in a small upstairs room of their New Bedford business. Thomas worked hard and took on as much responsibility that could be given to him. Even working at the most menial task that many a former ships captain would have thought beneath them, Thomas saw that there was a need to outfit the sailors aboard ships with the specialized tools, clothing and items of comfort that would make their work and life easier.
He used what his experience as a sailor had thought him and leveraged his relationships with other officers to expand the Ricketson's business to new customers. He soon had impressed his employer in this role enough that a confident Thomas would propose to provide his services to the Ricketson family as a partner in an all together new mercantile venture.
How exactly the partnership began is lost to history, but around 1848-9 Thomas persuaded Henry G. Ricketson to be his partner in a new outfitting venture. Henry Ricketson was a well healed, and bright man 21 years Thomas' senior. He had been a prolific whaling captain and now, in his later years, involved himself in looking after the affairs of the Ricketson families various businesses. One of those businesses, Charles Ricketson & Son located at 7 N. Water Street, was a clothier and gave the two men a starting point from which to grow their new venture.
By diversifying from a store that sold only clothing, to offering soft goods, provisions and hardware, Ricketson and Ferney would outfit the ships and men of the whaling fleet. For the Ricketson family, this new venture must provide the highest standard of quality and service, less they spoil the sound reputation the large and respected family enjoyed. Henry put it in simple terms: The family reputation "of the quality" must be preserved or a new venture would not have his support.
Ferney's exploits at sea had given him an appreciation of the harsh open ocean environment that his customers contended with. He had seen for himself how quality equipment could mean the difference between a sailor coming home handsomely paid for his efforts, coming home out of his wits or worse, not coming home at all. He appreciated just how important the tools that he and Ricketson sold were to the sailors they served. Merchandise that bore his name had to be the best; and so it was. Because of his commitment to quality, his reputation and business grew and he and Henry Ricketson were soon counted among the most respected provisioners of New Bedford.
Thomas made good on his promise to uphold the Ricketsons family reputation "of the quality" and to free himself from the stigma of his questionable pedigree. A clear endorsement of Thomas's reputation came in 1848 when Thomas was allowed to wed Henry Ricketson's daughter Harriet.
Thomas Ferney's Pipe Bowl
Thomas Ferney and Henry Ricketson's business grew steadily. From custom made clothing to blankets, navigation equipment and everything else a sailor of the day could use during a long journey at sea. Ferney and Ricketson's company imported goods from manufacturers both foreign and domestic to their red brick store that stood at the "Old Four Corners" not far from the port of New Bedford. The business thrived and the years leading up to Civil War were good ones for Thomas both personally and professionally and he and Harriet welcomed a daughter Mary on February 2nd 1849.
Two events would mark the beginning of the end of the comfortable life that Thomas had built in New Bedford. The first successful drilling of an oil well in August of 1859 and sessesion of South Carolina from the United States in December of 1860 which would prove the perfect storm that marked the end for whaling industry and with it, Thomas' way of life.
The whaling fleets of Nantucket and New Bedford where being stripped of officers and crew who now enlisted in the US Navy or returned home to the South to defend their home states. As much as two-thirds of the whaling ships were sold into service to the US Navy. Large and slow moving factory ships; whaling barks were not well suited to conversion into fighting vessels. They were however, valuable for roles as hospital or prison ships. As the war dragged on, many once proud whaling ships were unceremoniously towed to the port cities of the South and sunk in shallow harbors as barricades to aid in the the blockading of the South's maritime commerce.
By his 40th birthday Thomas found himself without a viable business and in a world that had literally changed overnight. All he had worked to achieve had seemingly evaporated into the bleak uncertainty. His business had brought him a comfortable life and means for a man of his day. He contemplated staying in New Bedford and living out the second half of his life with his wife and daughter Mary in a safe and familiar place.
For the first time in his life Thomas found himself without a clear purpose. He had prided himself on being a man of action and yet what to do next perplexed him to the point of malaise.
In an effort to regain his sense of purpose Thomas made the decision to return to the life that had made him. Thomas, accepted a junior commission in the US Navy, entering service as an Ensign in 1862.
The US Navy General Register of Commissioned Officers shows that Thomas rose quickly to the rank of Master and was charged with commanding the New Bedford Rendezvous vessel. Thomas Ferney served on active duty with the Navy stationed in New Bedford until the end of the war when mustered out in April of 1865.
With his naval career seemingly drawing to a close, Thomas contemplated his future in New Bedford. His home, family and many beloved friends were still there, however the war had dealt a devastating blow to the city. The whaling fleet was shattered, and a new commodity, petroleum, had begun replacing whale oil. It was a new world and tens of thousands of young Americans just released from military service were looking to the western territories to find their fortunes. New Bedford would never be the same again, and Thomas knew it.
He had once been a successful business man, a merchant class civilian and a well respected pillar of his community but those days seemed so far away now. The war had changed so many things. For Thomas there was one constant in his life that he could turn to. Thomas re-entered active Naval service almost immediately after his short visit back to New Bedford serving until 1868.
Thomas had never been one to allow circumstance to dictate his life. He had reinvented his life twice before, and he would do it again. At 47 years old Thomas Ferney would move his family South accepting a Captaincy from the United Sates Navy - Coastal Survey.
During the reconstruction years Thomas sailed the coastal waters of the Southern United Sates while scientists mapped and charted its coast lines. A report to the superintendent of the Navy identifies Thomas as "rendering important service" as the Captain of the Schooner USC ARAGO during an expedition to chart depths in the Pamlico River, NC. in the Spring of 1871,
By all accounts Thomas was taken with the culture of the South and the beauty he found in the Low County of the Carolinas. Like the United States, both North and South the war had changed his path forever. There was no option to lament a past in New Bedford that had been lost. For Thomas that meant building a new life for his twilight years in a new city. He settled into the final stretch of his life in Washington DC where he continued his work for the US Coastal Survey.
In the later days of his life Thomas must have felt a sense of quiet satisfaction from his achievements. He had built a comfortable and respectable life in spite of circumstances that were less than ideal not once, but twice. From his beginnings as a boy of questionable legitimacy to his rise and fall as a merchant and then his reinvention as an officer of the US Navy; he had wrestled with the challenges that life threw at him and he had not broken but rather made pivots and persevered.
He would live to see his only child Mary wed a prominant Washington D.C. lawyer, and he would see the births of her two children. His granddaughters it was said, were the lights of his life and he considered his time in Washington D.C. assisting with their upbringing to be the most treasured time of his life.
Thomas saw opportunity in the reconstruction of the South and lobbied the family to move with him and reestablish in a suitable city along the coast of the Carolinas, but he would not live to see a fourth chapter for his life. Thomas Ferney died in Washington DC in 1886 at the age of 65 years old. He had had lived what can only be described as a life of honorable perseverance.
In accordance with is wishes, his daughter Mary Ferney Boswell returned to Thomas's adopted home of New Bedford, MA to bury her father near the sea and the place that had welcomed him as a boy. The grave of Capt. Thomas H. Ferney can still be found in New Bedford's historic Oak Grove Cemetery.