Before the Rockefellers, there were the Rotches, Part 1 of 13

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Three generations of Rotches dominated Nantucket’s politics, economy, and society. The rise of their family was inextricably linked with that of the island just as their troubles mirrored those of the island. Their decision to relocate from the island to the mainland assured that New Bedford would become the whaling capital in the nineteenth century.

Much about the early life of Joseph Rotch, William Sr.’s father, remains elusive. He claimed to be from Salisbury, England, but family historians believe he was most likely born in Salem, Massachusetts. Even his birthdate of 1704 is only a best guess. We do know that he was initially a cordwainer (shoemaker) and that he emigrated to Nantucket (from Salem) around 1725. We also know that he soon met and married Love Coffin Macy, the daughter of two Proprietor families, and joined her father’s very successful trading firm. He claimed to have converted to Quakerism – likely because of his wife’s dedication to the Society and her good standing in meeting – but, even if he became a Friend, he was never noticeably devout during his life.

The couple had three sons: William, Joseph Jr., and Francis. The eldest son, a ship captain, died at sea, while William and Francis joined their father in business. Much of the family’s initial success was due to timing and luck. Joseph struck out on his own at some point in the 1730s, forming the new eponymously-named firm, Joseph Rotch & Sons. Deep-sea whaling had begun on Nantucket in 1712, after legend holds that Christopher Hussey killed the island’s first sperm whale, but the key period of expansion spanned the 1730s – 1750s. In essence, Joseph Rotch & Sons rode a wave of prosperity that propelled many island merchants toward unparalleled prosperity.

The rising tide did not raise all boats, however, and many competitors complained repeatedly and publicly about the Rotch family’s unethical business practices. By the 1760s, Joesph Rotch & Sons was the largest seller of the spermaceti in New England and his young son William let it be known that he intended to open his own candleworks – essentially monopolizing not only the supply chain but the entire process of production itself. Aggressive tactics like these may have inspired an anonymous rival to report the Rotches to British customs officials, accusing them of smuggling headmatter – a charge the family vehemently denied and for which no hard evidence ever surfaced. Nantucket competitors and Rhode Island buyers accused the Rotches multiple times of conspiring to keep the price of oil high in violation of the 1763 United Company of Spermaceti Manufacturers Plan of Union, but again, the family rebuffed the allegation and no official sanctions resulted. In the end, no one could ever prove the they had committed any legal or moral infractions, but an air of suspicion remained wherever the family was concerned – perhaps because the Rotches made no apologies for their parsimonious business philosophy: “all the Friendship that can be expected in trade is to let your friend have a thing at the same price that others would give for it.”1

William struck out on his own in 1764, but he would eventually be joined by a third generation of Rotch merchants (sons Benjamin, William, Jr., and Thomas, along with son-in-law Samuel Rodman). The interwar period was a time of significant economic growth for Nantucket, an island with a population nearing 5,000 on the eve of the Revolution. As this exhibit will demonstrate, however, the period following the War for Independence was difficult for whalers and ravaged the island’s economy. The Rotches adapted to the new economic terrain, sending members of the family firm to France, then Wales. Eventually, all three generations of Rotches relocated to New Bedford, probably the most significant factor in New Bedford’s eventual eclipse of Nantucket as the whaling capital of the world in the nineteenth century.2 After a series of transatlantic moves and business failures, Benjamin permanently settled in England and Thomas in the Ohio territory, but the Rotch whaling empire run by William Jr and Samuel Rodman ensured their family and their town would remain among the wealthiest and most powerful in the 19th-century United States.

1 Letter dated 7 month 31, 1764 from Joseph Rotch & Sons to Rivera & Co., Robinson, Lopez, Hart, & Naph may be found in Box 338, folder 6 of the Brown Papers (#BFBR B298) at John Carter Brown Library, Providence, RI.

2 Joseph Rotch’s removal to New Bedford was not without controversy – the Quaker meeting opposed it. Also, his house was burned by the British in the American Revolution.

Published as part of a series

  1. Before the Rockefellers, there were the Rotches
  2. For those who fail at business…there’s always politics
  3. The Tea Party: bad for business
  4. A different kind of sunken treasure
  5. The Falkland gambit
  6. “No step between being clear, and death”
  7. Patriotism…and false flags?
  8. America’s first trade war: bad for business
  9. You can run but you can’t hide (in France)
  10. Whaler, traitor, coward…spy?
  11. Can you ever go home again?
  12. Post-script: Jefferson’s accusations and Adams’s
  13. Adams’s revenge

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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