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Monday, June 3, 2013

Capt. Tristram Pinkham Swain: A Nantucket Whaling Captain Caught By Gold Rush Fever

Captain Tristram P. Swain was not just a phenomenally successful whaling captain, he was also the embodiment of a wild fever that gripped many a New England mariner,  changing their lives forever, and the whaling industry as a whole,  in the years between 1848-1851.
Tristram Pinkham Swain was born in 1799 on the island of Nantucket to Uriah and Judith (Pinkham) Swain.  He married Mary Nye (Edwards) on Nantucket, May 1826. Mary’s mother was the daughter of Ichabod and Remember Nye of North Falmouth. During Tristram’s lifetime, he and Mary and their family made their home on Nantucket. Tristram is descended from Richard Swain, one of the original settlers of Nantucket.

Census records show Tristram and wife Mary, with children, living on Nantucket in 1850.  He would die later that same year, Aug 12th, and be “buried at sea.”

From 1860 to her death in 1887, Mary Swain lives in North Falmouth with her children and a sister, thus explaining why the headstone for Mary and Tristram resides in the North Falmouth Cemetery. In my research of Falmouth mariners, I include him in the list of Falmouth mariners lost at sea, not just because of the location of his gravestone and his wife's ties to Falmouth, but also because he sailed with many Falmouth men during his life at sea. His career as a successful whaling captain is remarkable. When he heeds the siren song of California Gold and imagined riches, as so many mariners did in 1849, his life takes a sudden turn.

The following information details the activities of Tristram P. Swain as shipmaster, ship owner and gold seeker.

Swain’s whaling trips were enormously fruitful, sending home at times thousands of barrels of sperm oil and baleen oil. And on his trip aboard the New Bedford, he additionally brought home 14,721 lbs. of whalebone!

In 1849, the lure of the rich gold mines of California turned the heads of many a whaling mariner and town tradesmen. Ships set sail from New England to California in huge number to seek the mother lode.  The Gold Rush severely affected the whaling industry.  Some whaling crewmen even jumped ship, mid- voyage, to find their fortune in California.

One of the first ships to set sail from Nantucket to California was the Henry Astor, departing for California in March of 1849. The Gold Rush had officially begun, for Cape Cod and the Islands. The Henry Astor was a Nantucket whaling ship purchased by the Astor Mining Co., a Nantucket company formed specifically to be outfitted and voyage to California in search of gold. She would arrive in San Francisco, September 1849.[1]

Swain and Russell purchase the Emily Farnham

In 1849, Tristram P. Swain, Thomas Russell of Nantucket, and several other men from New Bedford, together purchased the brig Emily Farnham of Boston with the intention of a voyage to California. A July 20, 1849 news clipping from the New Bedford Mercury announces that the “fine brig” Emily Farnham will sail for San Francisco with Nantucketers Tristram P. Swain, Russell (his wife and child), Alexander Chase, and others, on board

And from the July 18, 1849 edition of the New York Herald, this passenger list:[2]

Passenger List of the Emily Farnham, to San Francisco

The fact that co-owner Thomas Russell of Nantucket had brought along his wife and child, indicates that the Nantucketers might be planning to stay in California for some time.

It seems clear that Tristram Swain made that voyage. A year later, leaving his friends and the Emily Farnham in San Francisco, he boarded another ship bound for Panama, either on business, or possibly to make his way home to Nantucket - the very ship to first leave Nantucket for California - the Henry Astor. The sad news of his death arrives via the New Bedford Mercury newspaper, August, 1850:  (see bottom of item)

On board the ship “Henry Astor,” traveling from San Francisco to Panama, Tristram P. Swain of Nantucket, age 48, died August 12, 1850.”[3]

His body was committed to the sea, and his simple gravestone with his wife Mary Nye Swain, stands quietly behind the North Falmouth Congregational Church, in the North Falmouth Cemetery.  

[1] Nantucket Historical Society; Downey, Judith; Consequences of California Mania: Nantucket and the Whaling Industry; “Historic Nantucket,” Vol 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999), p. 25-26; accessed NHS website:
[2] California Bound, 1848-1873; John Ireland, “”; website:
[3] Coincidentally, Capt. O.F. Fosdick, former whaling master of the, Henry Astor, died about a year later, Dec. 3,1851- on board the “Emily” three days out of San Francisco. Though no cause of death is reported for him, another crew member on same voyage died of dysentery, an all too common cause of death, aboard ship at sea. Source:

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1 comment:

  1. If he was born in 1799, and died in 1850, then he was not age 48 at death...