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A Profile of Moses Hicks Grinnell PDF Print E-mail
Written by L. Elsa Loeber and Walter Barrett   
Monday, 18 April 2011 21:45

This piece was extracted from South Street, a Maritime History of New York, by Richard C. McKay (1934, 2nd revision 1969), 7 C’s Press, Riverside, CT, currently out of print, and in turn may have been extracted from The Old Merchants of New York, by Walter Barrett, Clerk, and a Brief sketch of the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York, by L. Elsa Loeber. It is written in a rather archaic style, more closely linked with the 19th century. I have made no attempt to modernize the text--to do so would have eliminated the charm of the original text.

Throughout New York’s history, there are few men more prominently identified with her commercial growth and prosperity, also in the advancement of her shipping, than Moses Hicks* Grinnell. Until he was sixteen years old young Grinnell was kept regularly at school, at which time he had completed the course at the academy of his native town, New Bedford, Massachusetts. He was not burdened with special predilictions for scholastic pursuits, and determined to become a shipping merchant. Leaving school he entered as a clerk the store of William H. Rotch and Company, then large importers of Russian goods, and also largely engaged in the whaling trade. The munificent salary of 100 dollars a year was paid him for three years, from which he was expected to board himself. His employers as a special mark of their appreciation of his services, allowed him to make business ventures on his own account, many of these yielding him good financial results. Not yet twenty years old, young Grinnell determined to get beyond the narrow horizon of the then small, quaint seaport town of New Bedford. He shipped as a supercargo in a vessel bound for Brazil, disposed of his goods on exceptionally good terms, owing to the Dom Pedro revolution then in progress, and, loading with coffee, sailed for Trieste. Arriving safely he sailed for Liverpool in another vessel and spent some time in England an don the continent. From Liverpool he took passage on a packet ship for this city.

A story which long ago went the rounds of New York business circles relates that after young Moses H. Grinnell settled in New York, he was soon in intimate terms with Mr. Preserved Fish, then head of the firm of Fish and Grinnell.

One day, Mr. Grinnell met Mr. Fish on the wharf.

“I want to have a few moments’ talk with you. Will you step on board the packet ship ‘Leeds’?” said Mr. Fish to him.

“Certainly,” answered Grinnell, going on board and following Mr. Fish into the cabin.

“You are out of employment,” said Mr. Fish, in that thoroughly practical manner in which he generally spoke. “Yes, sir,” replied Grinnell.

“And you like the shipping business?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I know that you understand the business thoroughly,” said Mr. Fish. “Now to the point. On the first of January your brother will retire from the firm; I sail in this very ship for Europe on Saturday next. I want you to take my place during my absence and your brother’s place in the firm on his retirement.”

“But I have no capital and…” interrupted young Grinnell.

“None is required,” retorted Mr. Preserved Fish in his blunt way. “You have youth, health, ability and honesty, and that is all the capital I require from you; I will furnish the rest. Will you accept my terms?”

“I hardly know what to say; you are very kind; but…”

“No buts; yes or no?”

“Yes,” answered Grinnell, promptly.

“When can you take my place?”


And within a half an hour young Grinnell had entered upon his duties in the place of Mr. Fish. The latter sailed for Europe, established a branch house there and remained abroad, while Joseph Grinnell retired, returning to New Bedford, where he later became a railroad president and congressman, and attained great success in promoting th ecotton industry. Robert Bowne Minturn succeeded him, and thus was the house of Grinnell, Minturn and Company formed in the year 1828, the senior partner being twenty-two years of age.

This was also established a co-partnership, which through the financial shocks of nearly fifty years stood firm an dunblemished. To trace the history of the house of Grinnell, Minturn and Company would be a long chapter. In 1841 the business was located at Seventy-eight South Street, and their ships grew in number until they were seen in every sea. It had not been ruined by the bad legislation of the Western Congressmen who had never seen a ship. They established two lines of ocean packets between New York and Liverpool and London. “The Blue and White Swallow Tail” cleared for the former, “the Red and White Swallow Tail” for the latter. At one time the house owned, wholly or in part, nearly fifty vessels which, laden with valuable freight, were traversing every sea. In 1860 Mr. Grinnell retired from active work, leaving to the house the prestige and unexampled success and an unblemished name. With this is closed the chapter of his business life.

There were few men better known to the citizens of New York than Moses H. Grinnell, and no one has been held in higher estimation for plain and persistent rectitude in business, for honesty in political life, for zealous fidelity to public and private trusts committed to his control, and for those high and generous attributes of the heart, probity of life, warmth of friendship and charming geniality which gave a completeness to character and stability to reputation. He was a clean-cut type of the ideal New York merchant. He belonged to that class whose progress to wealth was by slow and honest means, that class to whom mercantile credit was as dear as honor and life itself. These dominant motives are seen whatever part of his career is encountered; whether he is seen as bank president, as director of other monetary instututions, as a member of Congress, or as president of the Chamber of Commerce.


Last Updated on Sunday, 11 September 2011 11:11