BATH — While the Sewall family has been in the news recently after its fuel and convenience store company filed for bankruptcy, a new book looks at the family from a different perspective, telling the warts-and-all tale of its heyday as a builder and manager of a vast fleet of merchant ships.
The book by W.H. Bunting of Whitefield, “Live Yankees: The Sewalls and Their Ships,” was published April 1.
While the title may signify a history of ships, Bunting said last week, “to a large extent (the book) is about people. … It is largely composed of captains’ letters, and the records are 315 feet long.”
He was approached by Abbie Sewall, a descendant of the family, to write the book.
“She thought it was time to have someone take another look at the Sewall papers,” he said. “It was a strong belief that this should not be a vanity book. … (Abbie) just believes in the truth.”
The Sewalls gave money to the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath – co-publishers of the book with Tilbury House – and the museum in turn hired Bunting to write it.
“I was very fortunate to be asked to do it,” he said.
“Live Yankees” is essentially a series of short stories that tie together to create a larger story, Bunting explained.
“When they began, (the Sewalls) were one of several … family-owned fleets in Bath,” the author said. “They were among the bigger shipbuilders and shipowners.”
The shipbuilding story dates back to the 1820s, and the first of the family to build ships was William D. Sewall.
“He joined up with a fellow named Clark, and they ran a store,” Bunting said. “In those days, stores were very important because they really were the place where people brought in produce and then exchanged it for West Indian produce. So stores very often got into shipping. A number of the Bath fleets were started from stores … because the store keeper, instead of trying to pay a ship, he decided he wanted to have one built for him.”
Eventually the shipbuilding business became prosperous enough that it replaced the store. Two of Sewall’s sons, Edward and Arthur, started E&A Sewall in 1854, which took over from Clark & Sewall. That partnership dissolved in 1879, causing the company name to change to Arthur Sewall & Co. Included in that new partnership were Arthur Sewall’s son Will and Edward Sewall’s son Sam.
One of Edward Sewall’s sons, Mark, is the namesake for the M.W. Sewall Co., which started serving Mid-Coast communities in 1887.
Arthur Sewall is a key figure in the book. He was William Jennings Bryan’s running mate on the Democratic ticket in the 1896 presidential election.
“It was a very bizarre match-up,” Bunting said. “(Sewall) being a capitalist, and a banker, and a railroad president as well as a shipbuilder. And of course Bryan was a man of the people. There’s no guarantee that Bryan would have won if Sewall hadn’t been his candidate, but having Sewall as his running mate really guaranteed he could not have won. It’s an interesting footnote in American history.”
After Sewall’s death in 1900, his younger partners carried on, although the years to follow saw a period of decline. They sold the business around the time of World War I, ending nearly a century of building and managing a fleet of more than 100 merchant ships.
That fleet included mostly stout, deep-water square-riggers that carried out trade around the world, Bunting explained. The records Bunting sifted through doing his research – such as reports from Sewall ship captains – paint portraits of shipwrecks, plagues, mutinies, “cannibal isles” and other intriguing elements of seafaring life.
The company’s most prosperous era occurred before the Civil War. During that time cotton was the Sewalls’ major trade. After the war, guano – bird and bat excrement used as fertilizer – became a prime product. California grain and case oil were among trades that followed.
In spotlighting the success that the Sewall’s business once attained, Bunting also casts light on the more unflattering aspects of the business’ architects. “They were notorious for being ‘cheese-parers’ – skinflints,” he said. “And they were just interested in every single penny. Their ships were well-supplied with sails and things, but there was nothing extra. That was right through their whole history, and they were just known as very – ‘parsimonious’ would be a kind word.”
Bunting’s love of ships and history is telling in pictures on the walls of his house and in the themes of his books. “Portrait of a Port: Boston 1852-1914,” “Steamers, Schooners, Cutters, and Sloops,” “Sea Struck,” and the two-volume “A Day’s Work: A Sampler of Historic Maine Photographs, 1860-1920,” are among the books he has written.
Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.