Sunday, June 29, 2008

Captain Charles Brewer - An Extraordinary Man

The Friend - November 14, 1845

Richards, L.J. 1899
David Rumsey Collection

At the time this map was published, the former home of Captain Charles Brewer was in the hands of his son Edward, and sat directly in the path of the Prince street extension that would soon run from Pond street to Centre street. For the estate as it was in 1874, look here.

Charles Brewer was born in Boston in 1804. His father was Moses Brewer, a direct descendant of Daniel Brewer, who arrived with his wife at Roxbury in 1632. He is listed as both a dry-goods dealer and a ship's captain. His mother, Abigail May Brewer, was of the Jamaica Plain Mays, whose name is remembered by May street, at the bottom of today's Moss hill. Through the Mays, she was also descended from the same Daniel Brewer. After his father died in 1813, his mother moved to her family home in Jamaica Plain, where she remained until she died in 1849 at 79 years.

From the earliest age, Charles wanted to go to sea, inspired at least in part by his reading of Captain Cook's Voyages. While boys as young as 14 went to sea in his time, Charles' mother Abigail refused to let him go, and sent him to a series of schools in hopes that he would loose interest in the sea. During the War of 1812, as a schoolboy he marched with his classmates and others to Long Wharf, where they were carried across to Noddle's Island (present day East Boston) and then Dorchester Heights to work on the fortifications of Boston Harbor.

At the age of 14, he left school and went to work in a store. After three years, his mother relented, and allowed him to take a position as a seaman aboard the brig Palmer, bound for Calcutta. After 16 months at sea, it was only weeks before he heard the call and returned for a second voyage, this time to Liverpool.

In 1823, he sailed on the Paragon to the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii) picking up Sandalwood to sell in China, and returning to Boston with tea. After a few weeks at home, he was back at sea, this time as a second officer. During a trip to Liverpool, he fell 55 feet from the rigging,
damaging one leg permanently. He returned to the Sandwich Islands again, this time as first officer of the Chinchilla. Between 1826-28, they sailed between China, Russia and the Islands, bartering and selling various cargoes.

In 1829, he sailed the Ivanhoe to China for the Bryant & Sturges company of Boston, one of the great merchant companies of its time. After a dispute with the captain, he left the ship and in a short time was offered his first command, a small schooner trading at the Mexican coast.

As a captain, he sailed to Siberia to trade, and brought back the news to American whaling captains in Honolulu that whales could be found in the Sea of Okhtosk - a favorite whaling ground for many years after. Upon returning to Honolulu, he joined another Boston man, Henry A. Pierce, in a trading firm. When Pierce decided to return to Boston, Brewer bought him out, and named the firm Brewer & Co. That firm, which began provisioning New England whaling ships, would later become involved in the sugar trade and join with other American firms to be known as the Big Five. These companies dominated the Hawaiian economy and politics right up until statehood in the 1950s.

During a trip home in 1840, Captain Brewer married Martha Turner, daughter of Rev. Edward Turner. He returned to Honolulu with his wife and aunt. After a trip back to Boston, he returned to the islands with his wife to close out his business interest. On their return in 1849, they sailed on the Tsar, which carried the first gold dust from the California gold rush to Boston.

Back in Boston, Captain Brewer joined in partnership with Henry A. Pierce and James Hunnewell - the original owner of his Hawaiian firm. The three men came to own one of the largest fleet of ships in the nation. He built a house on ten acres of his great-grandfather's land in Jamaica Plain, on a site where Prince street now meets the Arborway..

In 1884, at the age of 80, Charles Brewer wrote his Reminiscences for his children, which inform much of this article. A year later, he died, one of the most distinguished and successful residents of Jamaica Plain. At a time when the use of bicycle helmets is near-universal, we can only look back at such a life with a sense of wonder and awe. His journeys as a teenager were more dangerous than space flight is today. Many of his good companions from his sailing days died in shipwrecks. Each time he returned home safely from a voyage, it was a matter of weeks before he felt the call of the sea and returned. He felt his ship lifted by the massive body of a passing whale, and he was a life-long friend to a Hawaiian king. He was born of Roxbury and Jamaica Plain stock, and he retired to the family homestead. Progress, in the form of the Arborway and Prince street, has wiped out any evidence of the old Captain Brewer estate, but perhaps this article will bring him back to mind for some few commuters as they drive across the Captain's old property.

Other sources: Hawaii's Big Five


  1. You may be interested to know at the Drew Archival Library in Duxbury, MA we have letters and photographs of George W. Brewer, a son of Capt. Charles Brewer. George was born in 1831 in the South Sandwich Islands. He was brought to Massachusetts by Capt. Brewer and given to the Rev. Claudius Bradford and his wife, Maria, to raise. As a child he was called George Wood. Later, Capt. Brewer's wife wrote to Maria Bradford thanking her for raising her husband's child and letting her know that they would do all they could for him.

    George W. Brewer moved out west and settled in San Franisco. He kept in contact with his Bradford step-family throughout his life.

    Carolyn Ravenscroft
    Drew Archival Library

    1. Jill James Brewer here chiming in! I am just discovering this information, but I have had my great great great grandfather's leather-bound book in my possession since childhood and have always wanted to know more about him. It is a delight reading through these webpages that leave hints like breadcrumbs. Thank you to all contributors and commenters. Perhaps I will visit the Drew Archival Library, and I will definitely return to Hawaii.