Excerpts below were taken from The Leonard Papers by Elisha I. Leonard which are in the New Bedford Library, MA. This article was written while Joseph was still living.
Our venerable citizen, profoundly respected in the community, brings to the discharge of his daily duties that clearness of mind and great practical judgement for which he has been so noted. He was born in New Bedford on the 17th of November 1788. The constitution of the United States had just been accepted, Washington had not yet been inaugurated President - Franklin was still living. George III was King of England, Louis XVI was King of France.
His father was Capt. Cornelius Grinnell, who had, in the Revolution, served his country on land and on the sea. After several years, spent as Commander in the Merchant Service, he established himself in business in New Bedford, where he died in 1850 in the 93rd year of his age, honored and respected. His mother was Silvia (sic) Howland to whose lovely character and steady discharge of duty her children were largely indebted for the success and honors at which they arrived. She deceased August 1, 1837, in the 72d year of her age.
Mr. Grinnell commenced his mercantile life, as a clerk to his father and uncle, on central wharf, in this city (New Bedford). At twenty one years of age, he was appointed Deputy Collector and Surveyor at this Port- After a few months spent in the counting room of the celebrated Jacob Barker, in 1810, he commenced business in New York in company with his uncle, John H. Howland, under the firm of Howland & Grinnell. Their business was very successful until the war in 1812, when nearly all their vessels were captured and condemned. In 1814, this firm was dissolved. In 1815, he formed a co-partnership with his cousin, Capt. Preserved Fish under the firm of Fish & Grinnell. Capt. Fish continued as partner until 1825. Upon his retiring, Mr. Grinnell admitted his brothers, Henry and Moses H. as co-partners, under the style of Fish, Grinnell & Co. At the close of 1828, his health becoming impaired, he withdrew from the firm.
Early in 1829, with his wife and adopted daughter, he sailed for Europe. Returning in the latter part of 1830, he concluded to settle in his native town (New Bedford). He built the elegant mansion in which he resides in 1831 and 1832. At the same time, he contracted with Messrs Benjamin Barstow & Sons of Mattapoisett to build the Ship, Oneida, and with Messrs Jethro and Zachariah Hillman to build the Ship, George Washington. The former was employed in the China trade, and the latter in the New York & Liverpool Line of Packets......
In 1832, the Marine Bank (now First National) was chartered and unexpectedly to Mr. Grinnell, he was elected as President. Under his administration, it proved very successful. He continued in office until 1878 when he insisted upon being relieved. He still continues as a Director.....
In 1838, a movement was made towards building a Railroad from this city to Taunton and a charter obtained. At the organization, Mr. Grinnell was urged to accept the Presidency and he finally consented- and continued at its head as long as it remained a separate corporation. In 1840, he was chosen one of the Directors of the Boston and Providence Rail Road and in 1841 its president......
In 1843, Mr. Grinnell was elected to Congress from this District, to serve the unexpired term of Mr. Barker Burnell who had deceased. He was reelected for the three succeeding terms, making a service of eight years in the House of Representatives. He declined serving longer-.....His practical ability and large knowledge of mercantile affairs made his services very valuable. He had the respect of the whole house, and every Bill introduced by him was passed. To him and other members of the House, we are indebted for the reduction of the Postage to five cents for a single letter to any place in the U.S.A.- For the ventilation of Ships and hence the disappearance of Ship Fever. For the establishment of Life Boats at various stations upon the Coast - and various other matters of national benefit.
In 1843.....About this time his mind was strongly impressed by the necessity of some other business than that of the Whale Fishery, being introduced into his native town. He saw clearly that the time was fast approaching when that pursuit would become precarious and unprofitable, and if there were no other calling offered, that the town would gradually decay and be deserted by the coming generation..
A charter was obtained in 1846 for a Cotton Factory in the Corporate name of the Wamsutta Mills.. ...but Mr. Grinnell at that time declined to embark in the enterprise on account of the high price of everything connected with the business. In 1848, a reaction took place - material and machinery became cheap and then he came forward and urged the erection of a Factory for the manufacture of cotton cloth and a charter of 160,000 Dollars was subscribed with the understanding that he should be the President, although he was reluctant to accept the position as he had no practical knowledge of the business- Having accepted however he gave his whole mind to the work- Mr. Grinnell still remains President and daily gives his attention to the general supervision of affairs.
Mr. Grinnell has been twice married. His first wife was Sarah, the daughter of Mr. Abraham Russell of this town, to whom he married May 14, 1812. For 50 years she was his help-mate, filling her place with a dignity and kindness that endeared her to everyone who approached her. She deceased July 27, 1862. The second wife was Mrs. Rebecca Kinsman, daughter of Abijah Chace of Salem, a lady of superior mental ability- to whom he was married September 19, 1865. With her, he again visited Europe in 1869 partly in the interest of the Wamsutta Mills (and) partly to gratify the strong desire felt by his wife and himself to attend the Friends’ Yearly meeting in Dublin and London. They returned in the fall after a six months’ absence. In July 8, 1882, he was called upon to part with his wife, as Mrs. Rebecca Grinnell deceased.
His great age sits lightly upon him. His long life is almost coeval with his native town. From a small village he has seen it grow to its present proportions. Its industries, business and wealth have all been created within his knowledge and many of its enterprises have had his fostering care and assistance. He has mingled freely with the leading men of the nation and is widely known and honored. Strict integrity, a prompt discharge of duty, a clear head and strong common sense have placed the subject of this sketch in the position of one of our foremost Citizens.
Mr. Elisha I. Leonard was a genealogist in the late 1800s, living in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Much of his collection is with the New Bedford Library.