Captain Joseph Whitney

Captain Joseph Whitney


American-born Captain Whitney was for over 15 years the best known steamboat captain on both sides on Lake Ontario.  This followed eight years in command of schooners on the lake.  Before that he had over a decade at sea, as a prisoner in Britain’s notorious Dartmoor Prison, and service in the United States Navy.

Born:  9 March 1793[1] [or 1794[2]] in Belchertown, MA

Married: Mary Cooley at Oswego, NY, 1 Mar 1818[3]

Died:  11 Oct. 1841 at Lewiston, NY[4]

Joseph Whitney was born in Belchertown, MA, near Amherst and Northampton.  He was the youngest son of Ebenezer Whitney, who was 46 when Joseph was born, and who died thirteen years later. His father was a native of Woburn, MA, his eldest half-siblings were born in Medford, MA; and the family had moved to Palmer, MA before Ebenezer married Joseph’s mother, Eleanor Bliss, in 1788.  Born Eleanor Sikes, Eleanor was the widowed mother of three from nearby Belchertown, MA where the three children of Ebenezer and Eleanor were born.  Growing up half way across the state of Massachusetts, there was little to suggest that Joseph would make his way in the world as a sailor.

One of his obituaries claimed that he “went to sea when only 10 years old.”[5]  This would have been about 1803, the high tide of American neutral trade during the Napoleonic wars.

Most of the stories told at his death mention privateers, Dartmoor Prison and the US Navy.  Of this the following can be documented.  He was received as a prisoner at the station at Plymouth, England in early 1813.  At that time, he was identified as having been born in Northampton, MA (a larger community a few miles from Belchertown), aged twenty, and a seaman whose merchant vessel had been captured on 1 Jan. 1813.[6]  All of the obituaries refer to Dartmoor Prison, so it is likely that he spent some time there, but he was exchanged back to the United States by the summer of 1813.[7]

According to an obituary:  “in early life he was attached to the American navy, and was in several engagements during the last war.”[8]  More specifically, according to his widow’s pension claim over 60 years later, he joined the USS Peacock, Captain Warrington, on 30 September 1813 and was discharged on 20 January 1815 (478 days).[9] Whitney would have been part of the original crew of the Peacock, joining her the day after her launch on 19 September 1813.[10]  As such he was on board on her first cruise, when she captured HMS Epervier, and her second cruise when she took some 14 prizes on the Grand Banks, off Ireland and Spain and in the West Indies.[11]  Less than a month before news of the peace arrived in New York City, Whitney was discharged and looking for work.

According to one source, by 1816 he was in Oswego and sailing on the schooner Oswego under Barzillai Pease.[12] While a review of Pease’s journals and the accounts for Oswego has failed to turn up a reference, he may still have been on board. Pease was far more diligent about recording names of passengers, shippers than mere crew unless they particularly annoyed him.

Certainly Whitney had gotten his experience sailing on Lake Ontario somewhere because in 1817 he was employed by Mathew McNair as the captain of the Julia, a small schooner built in Oswego in 1811.[13]   She was a familiar sight in most of the small ports around Lake Ontario and the upper St. Lawrence river over the next few years.

Just before the opening of the 1818 season, Joseph Whitney married the 21-year-old Mary Cooley at Oswego. Mary had been born in Rhinebeck Flats, NY (opposite Kingston on the Hudson River). Her family had moved to Oswego, where in 1816 Mary was one of the founding members of the First Presbyterian Church.[14]  The young couple’s first four children were born in Clyde, NY between 1820 and 1826.  Clyde was an up and coming village on the Erie Canal about eight miles east of Lyons and eighteen miles south of Sodus Point. Mary’s brother John C. Cooley was married at Clyde in June 1824, so perhaps there was a family connection to the area in those years.[15]

Despite spending his winters on the banks of the Erie Canal, Whitney remained in command of the Julia on Lake Ontario until at least 1820. In 1822 Whitney was in command of the schooner Mary Ann, of which he was part owner with John Trowbridge. Over the next four seasons Whitney and the Mary Ann continued to make regular passages along the south shore of Lake Ontario and down the St. Lawrence river to Ogdensburgh.[16]

Queenston at York, 1827

Queenston at York, 1827

In the spring of 1826 Joseph Whitney made the most important change in his career: the transition to steam.  He was hired by John Hamilton as the sailing master of the schooner-rigged steamboat Queenston, running the length of Lake Ontario each week between Niagara and Prescott calling at ports on the Upper Canadian shore.[17] That fall, the Kingston Chronicle printed a letter signed by the passengers on the steamboat, that started “under an impression that undeserved censure may be imputed to Capt. Whitney, Sailing Master of the Steam Boat Queenston, for the late inconveniences which attended the said boat in running into and grounding upon the shore of Reed’s Bay, on her passage from Niagara to Prescott …” The passengers claimed that he was “perfectly blameless, as he was on deck the whole of the night.” The problem, they claimed, was the placement of a wire framed lantern near the binnacle which affected the compass.[18] Certainly, Hamilton did not hold Whitney to account for the accident. The following year, he appointed Whitney the captain of the Queenston.[19] This happened despite the fact that Whitney remained an American, who under the British navigation acts should not have been permitted to be the master of a British vessel. Moreover, it was a mere twelve years since Whitney had been discharged from the US Navy at the end of a bitter war where John Hamilton’s brothers had served on the other side.[20]

Whitney would be more than just a steamboat captain, at least for a time.  In late November 1827 the Niagara Gleaner reported that Captain Whitney had men preparing timber for a 60-ton schooner, which was launched the following spring.[21] In mid-December 1828, with the Queenston laid up, Whitney made an extraordinary passage in the George Canning. He sailed the Canning from Niagara down to Prescott (opposite Ogdensburg) and back in 21 hours.[22]  In fact Whitney kept the Canning out for much of that winter. In early February they were still running “wind and weather permitting” between Niagara and York (as Toronto was then known).[23] In March he was back in Kingston preparing the Queenston to sail as soon as the ice broke up at that end of the lake. Two weeks a frustrated Whitney organized a group to cut a channel through the remaining ice and finally got his steamboat out.[24] On his return trip with the Queenston, the Kingston Chronicle complimented him as “well known to the public, for his uniform attention and civility to his passengers, and as an able and experienced seaman.”[25]

Towards the end of Whitney’s tenure on the Queenston, he took her to the assistance of the American steamboat Martha Ogden, aground on a shoal above Snake Island in the western approaches to Kingston.  Unfortunately, they could not get in close enough to help the Ogden, but they did take off the passengers.[26]

Henry Francis Ainslie, Great Britain, June 1839 (Library and Archives Canada)

Henry Francis Ainslie, Great Britain, June 1839 (Library and Archives Canada)

In the spring of 1831, Joseph Whitney was rewarded with the command of John Hamilton’s newest steamboat, the Great Britain, which at 650 tons was the largest vessel on the Great Lakes.[27]  Perhaps as surprising was the absence of sails on the Great Britain. While she would have more than her share of mechanical troubles over her career, Whitney was always able to bring her back to port on one of her two 90 horse power engines. Instead of a weekly schedule, a five-day schedule was announced for the Great Britain, which included regular stops in Oswego as well as her usual Canadian ports of call.[28]

In May 1833 the steamboat United States ran onto the rocks at the head of what is now known as Wolfe Island.  The William IV came to her assistance but broke her cable trying to haul off the grounded steamboat. Subsequently, Whitney and the Great Britain spent the better part of a day, despite having impatient passengers of their own, before they succeeded in freeing the United States.[29] The directors of the company which owned the stranded steamer authorized their agent to tender “such pecuniary consideration as [the Great Britain and its crew] may be disposed to accept.” Apparently there had been no salvage fee asked or perhaps even expected. A month later, the Great Britain was presented a new set of colours (the British Ensign, Union Jack and a burgee).[30]

While still captain of the Queenston, Joseph and Mary had moved their family to Upper Canada.  Their fifth child was born in Queenston (opposite Lewiston, NY) in August 1829, while the next four were born in Prescott between 1830 and 1836.  Of these, their seventh child was named John Hamilton Whitney in honour of Joseph’s employer.[31]

During the 1833-34 winter, a group of businessmen based in Prescott decided to build a new steamboat to run up and down the rapids between Prescott and Montreal.  They were excited by the possibilities presented by the centrewheel configuration developed by Henry Burden of Troy, NY.  Among the members of the Managing and Building Committee was Joseph Whitney.  Although the Rapid was built and her trials were run, she was never successful and was soon abandoned.[32]

Meanwhile, Captain Whitney’s principal occupation was as master of the Great Britain. She came out in the spring of 1834 after getting new boilers and other repairs.  One of the Kingston papers (in which Great Britain would continue to be heavily advertised) enthused:

         “… the Great Britain is undoubtedly the Queen of all the vessels which navigate the Western waters, and few persons can regard her without feeling mixed emotions of pleasure and astonishment; pleasure at the sight of her unrivalled size and beauty, and astonishment that a country so new and so poor as Upper Canada, should have had the laudable temerity to build so stupendous a steamboat, a steam-boat that would do credit to the wharves of the first commercial city in the universe.”[33]

It also described Whitney as a “sterling navigator.” Another paper described Whitney with the classic adjectives used of captains in the period:  urbane and experienced.[34]

When John Hamilton’s next steamboat, Traveller, came out in the late fall of 1835 Captain Joseph Whitney was temporarily in command.  Traveller had been designed to take advantage of the fact that the head of Lake Ontario was often open much of the winter.  Modelled on the British steamers that ran year round on the Irish and English channels, she had a flush deck and schooner rigging. Hamilton hoped to run her between Niagara, Toronto and Hamilton (or at least Burlington Beach). Whitney’s experience over the winter of 1828-29 made him an excellent choice for the command, even had he not been Hamilton’s best captain.[35]

When spring came around again Whitney shifted back to the larger and more important Great Britain, leaving Traveller in other hands.

“This excellent Boat [Great Britain] has, during the winter, undergone material improvements, and has been fitted up with such perfection of taste, that its present appearance greatly surpasses its former elegance. We cannot, in this hasty notice, dwell particularly upon those improvements, but it will be quite sufficient to say, that all have been done under the immediate direction of Capt. Whitney, whose well known taste in these matters well accords with his universally admired ability and prompt and undeviating attention to every thing connected with his business.”[36]

A striking difference in the 1836 business is that John Hamilton chose to jointly advertise his Great Britain in conjunction with the American steamboat United States.  Their advertisement especially targeted American travellers taking the Northern Tour, a trip which included the Niagara Falls, a trip across Lake Ontario, and passage through the Thousand Islands.  After dis-embarking from the steamboat, the traveller would pass down the rapids of the St. Lawrence river to Montreal and perhaps on to Quebec before returning to upper New York state via Lake Champlain.  When the ad was renewed for the 1837 season, Whitney’s brother-in-law, Robert Cooley was named as their agent in Oswego.[37]  Despite some concerns about the poor business on the lakes in 1837, Whitney ran Great Britain until early November when she was laid up, as usual, in Kingston.[38]

nited States and Great Britain, 1837

from the Boston Traveler, 22 Sept. 1837, p. 4

Less than a month later, Whitney found himself in the news when the Upper Canadian Rebellion broke out.  A letter printed in the Buffalo Journal from Queenston claimed that Capt. Whitney and the Traveller had just arrived from Toronto with news that the capital was attacked and taken by the radicals. Other accounts in the same issue were more restrained, noting that Toronto had not yet fallen, although the lieutenant governor was aboard the Transit in Toronto harbour in case of that possibility.[39]

Over the course of the 1838, Whitney remained in command of the Great Britain, even as her owner, John Hamilton, chartered a number of the other steamboats on the Upper Canadian side of Lake Ontario.  Frequently, she would be carrying troops and the mails or other official dispatches and eventually, the new lieutenant governor started to question the wisdom of having an American in command of a vessel with those responsibilities.[40] There were other concerns, especially after the burning of the Sir Robert Peel in May that there would be efforts to damage the Great Britain whenever Whitney brought her into Oswego. Eventually John Hamilton was forced to let his best captain go.

Whitney moved back to the United States, with his youngest child born in just after Christmas, 1838 in Port Ontario, New York.  The family moved on to Lewiston on the Niagara River, while Whitney was in command of the steamboat United States the following season.  That vessel’s previous commander, James Van Cleve, had become somewhat persona non grata in Upper Canadian ports because of her role in the invasion of Canada that ended rather ingloriously in the Battle of the Windmill and the vessel’s seizure for breach of the neutrality laws.[41]  Whitney, on the other hand, retained a sterling reputation on both sides of the border.

In the summer of 1840, the United States had a fairly serious accident very reminiscent of the one seven years earlier.  While upbound from Ogdensburg, en route to Sackets Harbor, she ran aground on the head of Point Peninsula.  Two days passed as several steamboats attempted to tow her off, until, once again the Great Britain came to her rescue, drawing her off “without material damage.” Once again the newpaper accounts of the accidents absolved Captain Whitney of any blame, instead declaring “much credit is due to him for his coolness and ability…”[42]

After a decade and a half operating the floating hotel that was the passenger steamboat, in 1841 Joseph Whitney became the “landlord” of the Frontier House in Lewiston.[43]  Built in 1824 the Frontier House was the pre-eminent hotel at the western end of the voyage across Lake Ontario, and Whitney was particularly qualified to manage it had he chosen to settle down there.

However, for the 1841 season he retained his command of the United States.  On his last trip up the lake he was in a long conversation with General Winfield Scott, a fellow veteran of the War of 1812, who was on a tour of the northern frontier after his promotion to major general and command of the United States Army.  The next day, if the Buffalo Commercial Advertiser is to be believed, he took to his bed in the family’s Lewiston home where he died on October 11.  According to one obituary:

“His body was borne to the grave by some of those hardy tars who had weathered many a storm with their old captain – his coffin was covered with the star-spangled banner and union jack, the flags which had for years floated over him, and as a token of respect to his memory, the flags of both nations were hoisted at half mast, from the time of his death until the earth closed upon his remains.”[44]

Captain Joseph Whitney is another in an intriguing list of people who spent much of their lives in the Great Lakes region who crossed the border looking for work whenever it was convenient.  A naval veteran of the War of 1812, and proud American, he raised his family for years in Upper Canada.  For much of that time he vessel was the Great Britain.  That he crossed back into the US was the result of a nervous officialdom in the wake of the Upper Canadian rebellions.

[1] Jay Mack Holbrook, Massachusetts Vital Records: Belchertown, 1765-1893 (Oxford, MA: Holbrook Research Institute, 1986 which reproduces the original town book) p. 72. Also referenced in Whitney Research Group website <,_Ebenezer_%28c1747-a1800%29>

[2] John C. Cooley, Rathbone Genealogy: A Complete History of the Rathbone Famly, Dating from 1674 to Date (Syracuse, NY: Courier Job Print, 1898), 2:818 says “He was born at Bitchertown, Mass, March 9, 1794…”.  Given that the birth date is the same and that Joseph’s family grew up some distance from Massachusetts, the corruption of Bitchertown for Belchertown is perhaps understandable.  The entry is for a branch of the Rathbones that were Joseph’s wife’s family, the Cooleys. <>

[3] Rathbone Genealogy, 2:818

[4] Rathbone Genealogy, 2:818 reproduces one of the obituaries. Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 3 Nov. 1841. New York Spectator, 27 Oct. 1841, p. 2.

[5] < > The obituary rings true, but isn’t properly cited.

[6] The index of these records did not indicate on which ship he was serving, but 25 others were listed as having been captured that day including four mates, and thus likely from two separate vessels.  Ira Dye, trans. “General Entry Books of American Prisoners of War at Plymouth,” ADM 103/268, 269, 270, p. 100. Thanks to Michael Dun to manages the site.

[7]  In at least one version, he was in Dartmoor in 1815 when the American prisoners rioted and were fired upon.  This appears to be the natural merging of stories when remembered by an acquaintance over 60 years later.  Oswego Palladium, 5 Feb 1877 <>

[8] Kingston Chronicle and Gazette, 3 Nov. 1841. <>

[9] NARA, US Navy, War of 1812 Pension File, Joseph Whitney, Widow’s Claim, #WO23394, Certificate #WC16959.  The claim was under the 1878 pension act which didn’t discriminate about whether the veteran was married before or after the peace treaty was ratified.

[10] <>

[11] Although one of the obituaries refers to the encounter with the East India Company brig Nautilis in June 1815, like the Dartmoor riot story, it appears that people conflated the story of Whitney and the Peacock without knowing his date of discharge.

[12] Oswego Palladium, 5 Feb. 1877.  < courtesy of Richard Palmer> Barzillai Pease’s journals are in the Archives at the Syracuse University Library <>.  Whitney’s name does not appear in Pease’s journal and accounts for the 1816 season, but neither document has an explicit accounting for each sailor he employed.

[13] Kingston Gazette, shipping entrances and clearances, April to June 1817. US Enrolments, Port of Oswego, no. 3 of 1817 (courtesy Gerald C. Metzler)

[14] Crisfield Johnson, History of Oswego County, New York, (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, & Co., 1877), p. 160.   Her brother Robert would be one of the founding vestrymen of Christ Church (Episcopal) in Feb. 1822.  (ibid. ) <>

[15] Rochester Telegraph, 8 June 1824, p. 3. Rathbone Genealogy, p. 815-16.  Three of his children were born in Sodus Point before John Cooley’s family moved to Syracuse where he died in 1844.

[16] The Rochester Telegraph ran a regular “Marine List” of arrivals and departures in 1824-25, in which the Mary Ann routinely appeared.  US Enrolments, Port of Genesee, as abstracted in the Great Lakes Vessel Database of Gerald C. Metzler.  This dataset also associates him with the Genesee schooner Fame in 1825-26 as master. US Enrolments, Port of Genesee, no. 1 of 1822 (courtesy Gerald C. Metzler).  Whiting was last noted as master on Mary Ann‘s enrollment of 1 April 1826.

[17] Kingston Chronicle, 26 May 1826, p. 3 ( Command in 1826 was vested in Captain Whiting, no first name ever given.  When a sailing master was advertised it was usually because the nominal captain had more business than sailing experience.

[18] Kingston Chronicle, 6 Oct. 1826, p. 3 (

[19] Kingston Chronicle, 25 May 1827, p. 3. (

[20] John was the youngest of the seven Hamilton brothers and was only ten when the war broke out. (Dictionary of Canadian Biography.)  Note that there are some errors in this biography, including the reference to the Queenston Steamboat Company.

[21] Quoted in Montreal Gazette, 10 Dec. 1827, p. 2 ( Colonial Advocate, 17 April 1828.

[22] Kingston Gazette and Religious Advocate, 12 Dec. 1828, p. 246 ( Kingston Chronicle, 13 Dec. 1828, p. 3 (

[23] Kingston Gazette and Religious Advocate, 6 Feb. 1828, p. 311 quoting Niagara Herald. (

[24] Kingston Chronicle, 28 Mar. 1829, p. 3 (; 11 April 1829, p.2 ( Canada Herald, 15 April 1829, p. 3 (

[25] Kingston Chronicle, 18 April 1829, p. 2 (

[26] Kingston Chronicle, 9 Oct. 1830 (

[27] The account even suggested that she might be the largest steamboat in North America.  Oswego Palladium, 1 June 1831 ( Quoted in Kingston Chronicle, 11 June 1831, p. 2 (   She would remain the largest until Great Western came out on Lake Erie in 1838.

[28] Kingston Chronicle, 2 July 1831, p. 3 (

[29] Upper Canada Herald (Kingston, ON), May 15, 1833, p2 ( quoting the Ogdensburgh Republican.

[30] Upper Canada Herald (Kingston, ON), June 26, 1833, p. 2.  ( While in modern times the burgee is almost exclusively thought of as a yacht club pennant, historically it was used to present the name of the vessel.  Paddlewheelers usually put their name on the paddlebox, but schooners and propellers might fly a burgee with their name on it.

[31] Cooley, Rathbone Genealogy, 2: 818-21(

[32] Chronicle & Gazette, 25 Jan. 1834, p. 3 ( Whig (Kingston, ON), Feb. 11, 1834 (

[33] British Whig (Kingston), 2 May 1834, p. 2 (

[34] Chronicle & Gazette, 3 May 1834 (

[35] Chronicle & Gazette, 18 Nov. 1835 quoting Oswego Palladium.

[36] Chronicle & Gazette, 20 April 1836. (

[37] Chronicle & Gazette, 13 May 1837. (

[38] Chronicle & Gazette, 8 Nov. 1837. (

[39] Baltimore Sun, 14 December 1837, p. 2 quoting New York Star which was quoting the Buffalo Journal which cited a letter and an extra of the Telegraph and Advocate (Lewiston, NY).

[40]   Walter Lewis, “Until Further Notice”: The Royal Mail Line and the Passenger Steamboat Trade on Lake Ontario and the Upper St. Lawrence River, 1838-1875 (  Arthur to Colborne, 28 May 1838 in Charles R. Sanderson, ed. The Arthur Papers (Toronto Public Libraries and University of Toronto Press, 1957-59) I: 124 “The Steamer Great Britain the largest we have on the lakes belonging to Mr. Hamilton is (very improperly) commanded by an American Master.”

[41] Chronicle & Gazette, 13 April 1839 (

[42] Chronicle & Gazette, 1 July 1840 quoting Sacketts Harbour Journal, 27 June 1840. (

[43] Oswego Palladium, 12 May 1841 quoting Lockport Democrat, 5 May 1841. ( The quote is also cited in the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal, 1 July 1964, p. 23.  The Frontier House had been built by Bartons. (,_New_York)) It is perhaps no co-incidence that Mary Cooley Whitney, Joseph and Mary’s eldest surviving daughter on 20 June 1841 married Peter Porter Barton, youngest son of one of the men who had built and owned the Frontier House. (See the Rathbone Genealogy again)

[44] New York Spectator, 27 October 1841 quoting Commercial Advertiser (Buffalo), 21 Oct. 1841.

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