Prologue Magazine

A Notable Passage to China: Myth and Memory in FDR's Family History

Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3

By R.J.C. Butow

© 1999 by R.J.C. Butow

refer to caption

The city of Victoria, Hong Kong, ca. 1860s (detail of a gouache by an unknown Chinese artist), as it appeared when Catherine Delano arrived there with her seven children in 1862. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.)

During the twelve years FDR spent in the White House from 1933 to 1945, he would occasionally escape momentarily from the stress of the Oval Office by reminiscing about the past. If you mentioned the Far East, he would very likely tell you that his maternal grandfather had been active in the Old China Trade of the nineteenth century. He would say that his grandmother, traveling with her children from New York to Hong Kong to join her husband, had narrowly escaped being captured by the Confederate raider Alabama during a voyage undertaken in the midst of the Civil War.

The President spoke with conviction, apparently unaware that he was remembering parts of the tale incorrectly or that he was adding information he had picked up elsewhere to round out the story. The danger posed by predators like Alabama was not a lesson he had learned in a history book. His source was his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, who had told him, during his boyhood years, about going to China on a clipper ship when she was a child.

In the 1880s and 1890s when Franklin was growing up, his mother's parents, Warren and Catherine Delano, lived at their Algonac estate on the Hudson near Newburgh, New York. In summer they would go to the Homestead in Fair Haven, Massachusetts, the property having passed in 1866 from FDR's great-grandfather, Capt. Warren Delano, to Warren Jr., his eldest son and namesake, Sara's father.

FDR's Delano grandparents died while he was in his teens, but their homes in New York and Massachusetts remained in family hands. To visit either one was to enter an environment that was evocative of seafaring and the Far Eastern trade. Being the older of the two, the Homestead became a magnet of memories that attracted the history buff not only in FDR but also in "FAD," his mother's youngest brother, Frederic Adrian Delano, with whom he established a close relationship.

One day in September 1928, while Uncle Fred was rummaging through old books and papers at Fair Haven, he found a "Family Journal" begun by his mother, Catherine, on board the clipper Surprise as she and her children departed on their perilous ocean journey in 1862, the year before he was born. Here was a valuable memento whose very existence had been forgotten within the family. Frederic's discovery may even have helped to persuade his sister Sallie (FDR's mother Sara) to record her own reminiscences for the benefit of her grandchildren. Her brief account, composed two months short of her seventy-seventh birthday in 1931, told how her father had become a partner in Russell & Co., the premier American firm trading at Canton in southeastern China in the 1830s and 1840s; how he had met and married her mother, Catherine Robbins Lyman of Northampton, Massachusetts, during a visit home in 1843; and how he had then returned to Canton with his bride, setting up house in a large residence called Arrowdale in the Portuguese colony of Macao, some sixty-five miles distant. Catherine would remain there whenever Warren's business took him to Canton, because the Chinese authorities were still reluctant to let the female members of a foreign merchant's family reside in the trading quarter, even though it was confined to a closely guarded area outside the walls of the city.

After leaving China in 1846 with a fortune large enough to provide a life of wealth in the United States, Sara's father was obliged to go back a third time, in 1859, because of losses suffered during the Panic of 1857. By then, Canton had been replaced by Hong Kong as the center of foreign trade with China. Although this British crown colony offered good living conditions, Warren traveled alone, hoping to recoup within two years. When he later realized he would need more time, he made arrangements to have his family join him.

In Sara Delano Roosevelt's memory Surprise seemed "more or less like a yacht," a ship that was rightfully called, in her day, "an unusually sightly vessel." Built in 1850 for A. A. Low & Bros., "she was beautifully fitted throughout." One of her captains, Charles A. Ranlett, was succeeded by his son, Charles Jr. In their hands, she made many fine passages, proving herself to be "one of the most successful clippers in the China trade," and "a mine of wealth for her owners."

In her 1931 reminiscences, FDR's mother described the master of the Surprise as "a young man of excellent education." "His name was Ranlett," she recalled, "and before we got to China, he and I had a grand birthday celebration." Indeed they did, as Catherine and the captain each bore witness at the time.

In recording these memories, Sara said very little about the long passage by way of the Cape of Good Hope, Java Head, and the South China Sea, but this vacuum is filled by her mother's "Family Journal," supplemented by Captain Ranlett's log of the voyage, which FDR received as a gift in the autumn of 1941, shortly after his mother's death. Together, these rich sources allow us to join the Delanos on board ship for an experience that only novelists or moviemakers could duplicate today.

Such a journey was not to be undertaken lightly. Catherine was thirty-seven years old at the time. She was leaving the safety of her home on the Hudson to travel across thousands of miles of ocean to a Far Eastern port of call on the opposite side of the globe. Trooping on board with her were seven children, ranging in age from sixteen to two: Louise, Dora, Annie, Warren 3rd, Sallie, Philippe, and Cassie (Kassie). The baby was jokingly dubbed the "posthumous child" because she had been born in 1860, months after her father had departed for Hong Kong. Assisting Catherine with last-minute details was a Delano cousin, Nancy Church of Fair Haven, who would assume the role at sea she normally filled at Algonac. Additional help would be provided by Cassie's nurse, Davis, and a maidservant, Ellen. There would be no other passengers because Warren Jr. had secured the vessel for his family's exclusive use. In addition to enough clothing for everyone to wear in all kinds of weather, and reading materials to help pass the time, Catherine had a piano sent on board to provide entertainment and to permit the older daughters (Louise, Dora, and Annie) to continue their music lessons.

The family's departure was memorable. Guns were fired and cheers were raised on Wednesday, June 25, 1862, as friends and relatives waved their goodbyes from a steam tugboat moving in company as a second tug towed Surprise down New York Bay to a point just outside the bar, where the harbor pilot departed. "We need not say," Catherine wrote, "it was sorrowful to leave our friends, but we must look forward to the happy meeting with our husband and Father at Hong-Kong."

At the outset, seasickness struck, as the captain noted in the idiom of the day: "Miss Louisa sickest of any of the girls and Dora smartest of the lot." Even "CRD," as Catherine referred to herself in her journal, fell victim to this malady, with Nancy, Davis, and Ellen no better off. To add to Catherine's concerns, her five-year-old son Philippe "suffered with a tooth-ache half the night, but was relieved toward morning by Laudanam."

"It took Sallie till noon to get dressed," her mother wrote, but Dora, a hardy fourteen, felt up to playing "Bonnie Doon" on the piaNo. After saying she did not like "this day-day," Baby Cassie won praise as "one of the best of sailors." Sixteen-year-old Louise, however, and her thirteen-year-old sister Annie were a sorry sight, the former lying on a mattress on deck and the latter stretched out "in the long Chinese chair." The ones who were feeling "bright" began to eat, but Louise and Annie could tolerate only congee. 1

A few days out of New York, the captain believed that his passengers were "gradually getting over their sea sickness . . . getting very smart & lively," but his optimism was premature. The most persistent sufferer was Louise. On the twentieth day out, she ate breakfast at the table for the first time but became seasick again that evening. A few days later, when a heavy southerly swell caused the ship to jerk about badly, Captain Ranlett noted: "Louise more miserable to day than Ever." Thirty days out (still months away from reaching Hong Kong) he wrote: "Louise almost as sick as Ever, again, to day." After nearly three months on board, Catherine's eldest daughter confessed: "I always have more or less vertigo. . . . I can say without exageration that I have been sick every time it has been at all rough."

Captain Ranlett was accustomed to dealing with the usual hazards of the sea, but a voyage during wartime meant greater risk. The journey to China had scarcely begun (Surprise was less than 500 nautical miles from Sandy Hook) when trouble seemed headed his way. The pertinent entry for Sunday, June 29, 1862, is laconic: "A large Eng. iron propeller passed near us bound South." Catherine's journal supplies the missing details: "About ten o'clk a steamer was in sight to leeward of us, and the Captain was quite anxious about her thinking she might be a privateer. . . . She came across our stern and Captain Ranlett [now] thought she might be an English mail steamer going to Bermuda." "CRD," her journal states, "was perfectly cool and not at all frightened."

The false alarm experienced on board should have been enough excitement for one day, but dealing with the unexpected was fairly commonplace at sea. About eight o'clock that evening, a seaman fell from the bows. The captain "hove him a rope" as he floated by under the starboard quarter and hauled him back on deck—all "in a twinkling" in Catherine's words. "Luckily for him," she added, "we were going slowly. We have two causes for gratitude, first that we are not in the hands of a privateer & secondly that this man's life is safe."

Each Sunday throughout the voyage, the captain conducted a religious service for the family. Usually he would read one of Spurgeon's sermons, a Chalmers discourse, or something by Huntington. The congregation could thus dwell on "the friend that sticketh closer than a brother" or be reminded that "My House is a House of prayer." 2

On the Fourth of July, the ninth day at sea, Surprise was dressed appropriately, with all her flags flying. At noon Ranlett "Fired a National Salute of 13 guns" with the cannon he had on board. Young Warren, oblivious to mistakes in spelling, described the scene in a shaky sentence he added to his mother's journal: "We have had thirteen cannons fired and as sone as w[e] had fired them the men had what they called splicing the main brace witch was only taking a glass of whiskey."

Catherine noted that the seamen greeted this indulgence with three cheers. "The Captain [is] interested in getting out Champagne [for himself, CRD, and Nancy]," she wrote, "and having ice-cream made." The ship's steward produced a frosted cake at tea time, and as evening came on Ranlett allowed Louise, Dora, Annie, Warren, and Nancy to fire a gun. Later, there were blue lights and rockets, which "lighted the deck finely," and firecrackers. After "a poetical effusion" helped adorn the occasion, the captain joined the family in a musical entertainment featuring "The Star Spangled Banner," "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep," and "Yankee Doodle." Everyone then sang "the national airs."

Soon after this expression of Northern pride, a spell of light wind and clear skies encouraged Ranlett to believe that he was momentarily safe from Confederate raiders that might be lurking just over the horizon. He "lowered the gig and went out to row [round the ship] with Annie and Dorina." Later, when an inward-bound English barque was sighted, he urged his passengers to seize the opportunity to write home. After signaling to the ship, he sent a boat to her to deliver a packet of letters. In return for the favor he was asking, he handed over "the late New York papers and a large piece of Ice" (His supply of this luxury lasted all the way to the Cape.)

refer to caption

Cassie Delano at age eleven. (Franklin Roosevelt Library)

Adjusting to life at sea, Nancy Church began classes, with Dora, Annie, Warren, Sallie, and Philippe in attendance. Louise was feeling too poorly to take part; Baby Cassie, a "perpetual motion" when awake, was too young to go to school. The captain participated whenever he could, studying French.

On July 11, Warren 3rd celebrated his tenth birthday. Louise, Annie, and Davis were "under the weather," but Catherine tried a concoction offered by the captain, consisting of bitters mixed with champagne, "alias a 'cocktail'." Louise, sitting on deck to get some fresh air, was "pleased to have a lump of ice." No one felt up to attending school— just as well, perhaps, because the teacher had a headache, a recurring indisposition that was not severe enough (as CRD noted) to curb Nancy's appetite.

On July 13, Captain Ranlett read a Sunday service and one of Spurgeon's sermons. The adults toasted the health of Warren Jr. in distant Hong Kong—it was his fifty-third birthday. After dinner, everyone listened to a reading of "Springles," a long story from the pen of Cousin Lizzie Babcock, who had written it especially for the family, to help charm away the hours that dragged at sea.

Day in, day out, the captain recorded the weather and the progress Surprise was making. The sighting of ships was noted. If close enough, the homeward-bound ones were "spoken to," quite often with the request that the encounter be reported so that family and friends could learn that all was well.

On July 23, after nearly a month at sea, the captain weighed his passengers. When he repeated the exercise nine weeks later just before reaching Java Head in the East Indies, the results were predictable. By then, Louise had already concluded that everyone, except herself, had "gained flesh." In a letter to her Uncle Frank, she revealed that several female members of the family were wearing dresses that could not be fully buttoned— they had been obliged "to let out a reef." 3

On Friday, July 25, Catherine wrote: "Today we have crossed the line ten minutes past one o'clk. As we are in winter now, Captain Ranlett came to the dinner-table with his overcoat on." According to his reckoning, Surprise had bisected the Equator "30 days from New York & log distance sailed 4,442 miles."

Two days later, land was in sight. As Surprise sailed past Fernando de Noronha, an island-group in the South Atlantic used by mariners as a navigational point of departure, houses came into view and a Catholic church. "This is a convict settlement from the Brazils," Catherine noted. "Saw the 'Hole in the Wall' of which I believe they have a picture at Fathers in FH [at Captain Delano's in Fair Haven]."

A model of consistency, Catherine kept writing in her journal: "Sallie and Philippe enjoy their visit to the sailmaker who is decidedly a resource [nearly seventy years later, FDR's mother remembered crawling into the sailmaker's loft to listen to 'wonderful tales of the sea, and of Sweden and Norway']. . . . The Captain took some India Beer before [our midday] dinner. CRD assisted [him by drinking some, too] and was obliged to take a nap. . . . The Captain read [aloud] in a book of Anderssons travels in S. Western Africa which is quite interesting." 4

On August 5 Catherine reported that they had covered more miles on their course during the preceding twenty-four hours than they had at any time since crossing the Equator. The next day a pig was killed, providing roast pork for dinner the following afternoon. "The Captain gave me some brandy," she wrote, "which seems to do one good after eating pork. The pigs do better at sea than sheep." These animals, together with geese, turkeys, and chickens, were confined in pens on board to keep the family's table well supplied, but there was no cow, contrary to a recollection recorded by FDR's mother.

Soon, the sea became rough. As a safety precaution, the captain ordered lifelines rigged round the poop deck (they remained in place for the next five weeks). The family's cold-weather trunk disgorged cloaks and other warm things that could now be put to good use.

When seabirds visited the ship, gliding in company as Surprise cut a path through the waves, Warren and Philippe decided to capture some specimens. "Phil stands by on such occasions," Louise wrote, "with a little salt to put upon their tails when they fly near, or else he fishes for them with a crooked pin."

During breaks in the weather, the tedium of the voyage could be relieved by spending time on deck, but when the sea was dangerous the family stayed below, sewing, mending, reading. Catherine had brought novels by James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Marryat, Theodore Winthrop, and others. Old issues of The Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Weekly, Putnam's, and Vanity Fair provided variety. Evenings were given over to more reading, usually aloud to each other. The captain would participate whenever he could, offering selections from Travels in Africa, Buckles History (a two-volume work that seemed to be popular with his passengers), or from some other worthy opus. 5

The adults "varied the time" with cribbage, whist, even a little poker; they also played games: "Proverbs," "Consequences," and "My Ship goes to China loaded with _______." Music offered diversion, as did the simplest of pleasures—conversation. One evening "the Captain explained some of the theories of storms." On another occasion, he talked about "photographs of the heavenly bodies." Much later in the voyage, Catherine wrote: "We had quite a discussion about the Bonaparte family."

When Ranlett's duties permitted, he diligently continued to study French under the tutelage of Nancy Church, with Annie Delano, half his age, as his fellow-student. He was dissatisfied with the pace of the voyage, describing it as the "most ra[s]cally passage I Ever had anything to do with."

Sixty-four days from New York, Surprise passed the meridian of the Cape of Good Hope and soon thereafter cleared Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa. Over the next two days fresh gales were followed by very squally weather with some hail. Laboring considerably, Surprise tumbled about in a heavy sea, taking on much water forward.

Through it all, Catherine kept writing in her journal as August passed into September, with one day fading into the next. It was now so wintry in the southern latitudes that great care was needed. On September 4 Ranlett "heard some 'Penguins' whistling at 8 P.M." Since the air and water were frigid, he thought there might be floating ice not far off.

"When the Captain got his reckoning," Catherine wrote on September 11, "he found that we had made an excellent run of two hundred and sixty-nine miles in the last 24 hours. We passed the Island of St. Paul [in the southern part of the Indian Ocean] which . . . could have been seen if the weather had not been thick. In the afternoon the sea became very lively. . . . [As] late as eleven o'clk a 'gale of wind' came on. Sails being taken in, and both watches called on deck. Rain falling. Captain out all night."

The next day was no better: "Damp, drizzly, nasty weather. . . . Sailors sung while working the capstan. The chorus of the song was 'Oh you Sailor, I love you for your money.' The sailors sung with some spirit having been treated to a glass of whiskey this morning after the rough night. . . . [The captain] looks tired and shows the effect of being up all night and wet. Nancie & I feel that a sailors-life is a dogs-life except in smooth and even weather."

As Surprise proceeded into warmer latitudes heading toward the East Indies, a "perfectly lovely day" raised Louise's spirits. "I cannot tell you," she wrote to Uncle Frank, "how we appreciate the fine dry weather, which is rapidly growing warmer . . . Capt. Ranlett says it would be necessary for people [sic] to go to Hell for a little while that they might appreciate Heaven."

Baby Cassie, growing "very plump and healthy," was unobtrusively observing everything around her, storing snippets of speech in her active mind until the moment came to repeat what she had heard, demonstrating how "very cunning" she was, to use Louise's description. "She is so bright," Louise wrote, "that Captain Ranlett says China will be a very bad place for her, for she will be spoilt."

As a sign of better days to come, the captain now began wearing his straw hat. Surprise was "twelve weeks out." The awning was spread once again over the deckhouse. "This carries us back," Catherine remarked, "to six weeks ago and it is very agreeable to go on deck without an accumulation of clothing."

By the third week of September, Surprise was escaping from "the debatable doldrums of Capricorn." The southeast trade winds were coming on handsomely—not butt-end first. These drying winds, blowing normally from southeast to northwest on the south side of the Equator, were driving Surprise closer to the Indies, a way station on the route to China. Since Ranlett was already thinking ahead to the day when he would turn his ship homeward, these welcome trade winds were carrying him "nearer New York."

Catherine expressed regret that she had not brought along "some red, white, and blue sugar plums to put on the cake" the steward was making for consumption the next day. Perhaps because Sallie Delano was the youngest of the family to have a birthday on board, or because Sunday, September 21, 1862, happened to be the captain's birthday as well, the day was treated as a special occasion. Looking out through the weather-port early in the morning, Catherine saw the sun breaking the horizon, as though it were rising right out of the sea—"a lovely morning." Sallie received numerous gifts as she sailed proudly into her eighth year that day in the Tropics. Ranlett, who turned twenty-six, was favored as well, remarking in his log that he "was the grateful recipient of a number of beautiful presents from the Misses Delano's."

The usual Sunday service was held, the captain reading a discourse by Chalmers to the congregation, which had gathered on top of the deckhouse because the weather was so fine. A sheep was killed for the men, and Ranlett "spliced the main brace" with all hands, instructing them (Louise noted) "to drink Sallie's health, which they did. They had duff with plums in it, & they told Warren they wished birthdays would come a little oftener."

The family and the captain dined on roast goose, boiled ham, corn, peas, tomatoes, and rice. "Drank champagne," Catherine wrote, "& did not get tight." To supplement the birthday cake, the steward offered "some tarts made in the shape of a palm-leaf." After tea, everyone sang on deck. Later, Dora played "Swallows" on the piano, and the captain shaved off his whiskers.

To her brother-in-law Frank Delano and his wife, Laura, Catherine wrote: "The Captain is a very good seaman and an intelligent man and we have got on more comfortably than I supposed so large a party could have done. . . . We have found [him] always kind and jolly and we feel confidence in his ability."

As the ship approached Java Head, Catherine noted in her journal that thirteen weeks had passed since they had quit New York. "The sailors buried their dead horse," she wrote, "which they marched round the capstan with, and plunged into the briny sea out of the lea port."

The poor beast that suffered this miserable end was only an old flour barrel with a painted head made of canvas. The "horse" represented the wages that had been paid to the crew in advance. For many, the money they had received was long since gone, having slipped through their fingers all too easily. They were conducting the burial service now because the period covered by the advance had passed. Soon they would be paid again, this time with tangible coin they could squander ashore, especially in Hong Kong, where they would find alluring opportunities to empty their pockets.

On the day the "horse" was committed to the deep, members of the crew acted as pallbearers, presiding minister, bible bearer, and chief mourner. A choir of sorts, appearing in blackface, burst into song. The previous day the seamen had offered up "The Plains of Mexico" while hauling the main topsail; now a different tune was heard, "The Nice Young Man." Louise found their efforts "quite melodious." She had trouble distinguishing the words but said that most of their songs had something to do with "my pretty young gal."

With a landfall expected at any time, Surprise could not reach Java Head fast enough to please the impatient travelers. Imagining an unlikely future, the crew sang "Oh happy is the Girl that will keep me as I go rolling on." At two o'clock in the morning, on Friday, September 26, 1862, Ranlett dropped anchor, with the beacon at Anjer less than two miles distant. 6 At daylight he was amazed to discover that his father's ship, Golden State (an A. A. Low clipper), was nearby. Captain Ranlett, Sr., whom his son had not seen for two years, had arrived the previous afternoon "42 dys from Amoy [bound] for New York."

In the log of the Surprise, Charles Jr. recorded another item of interest: "War news was that [Gen. George B.] McClellan had been repulsed at Richmond and had been obliged to retreat to James River." Reflecting the family's loyalty to the Union cause, Louise had earlier expressed the hope that Richmond would be in Northern hands by the time their ship reached Java Head. Now she learned that McClellan's forces had withdrawn after the Seven Days' Battle while the Delanos experienced their first week at sea.

Catherine had found it "difficult to sleep amid the excitement of being again near land, with the promise of going ashore and receiving letters." As morning dawned, a Malay bumboat came alongside the ship. The noise the occupants made, she wrote, "was very like persons with the asthma. Ellen . . . came to ask me if any one was in distress. . . . Soon Captain Ranlett Senior came on board, and we were introduced to him. He took part of us in his boat on shore and part went in the boat of the 'Surprise' [the first time they had set foot on land since June 25]."

On Sunday, September 28, perhaps too soon for her passengers and crew, Surprise hove up anchor, intending to make a start, but a contrary wind and unfavorable tide forced a postponement of its departure until the following morning. The cat-and-mouse game of trying to escape into the Java Sea continued, as oppressive temperatures made everyone uncomfortable. "Sometimes we feel inclined," Catherine wrote, "'to take off our clothes and sit in our bones.'"

The pervasive heat did not mean calm, peaceful weather. For days on end, Surprise encountered heavy squalls and hard rain, thunder and lightning, turbulent seas, even waterspouts on one occasion. So much downpour was collected on board that Catherine and her family could rejoice in the luxury of fresh-water baths after having spent months at sea with nothing but salt water to wash in.

One day was so "horribly rainy" that the geese and ducks on board, destined for the dinner table, were able to paddle around on deck. Lulls occurred, but they did not last. Squalls drenched Surprise anew, with rivulets of water invading the family's living quarters wherever cracks permitted the rain to trickle in. As soon as one shower ended, another began. "There was a perfect Niagara-Falls off the poop deck," Catherine wrote.

Not until two-thirds of October had passed did any significant improvement occur. The crew was kept busy scraping, sanding, varnishing, polishing—doing all the chores needed to make Surprise presentable for its arrival at Hong Kong—but monsoon conditions soon reappeared with winds blowing "all round the compass, very dirty weather," thick rain, and turbulent seas.

On Tuesday, October 28, Catherine's thoughts turned to her father-in-law in Fair Haven, Capt. Warren Delano, who would be eighty-three years old that day. Glasses were raised to his health, on the other side of the globe. Ranlett remarked that Surprise had logged nineteen thousand miles, "far enough to have gone to Pekin," but he had been obliged "to beat [against the wind] all the way."

On the twenty-ninth, Surprise was ninety-seven miles short of its goal but still beating against the wind. That evening the family sat on the poop deck watching the sun go down and the moon rise. Catherine wrote: "We imagine we smell the land." The next day, a China pilot came on board, but an adverse tide carried the ship back to where it had been in the morning. Beating all night, Surprise finally crept toward the harbor. Putting earlier grumblings behind him, Captain Ranlett was openhanded in his appraisal of the voyage: "A long but generally pleasant passage of 128 days."

refer to caption

While in Hong Kong, Warren Delano, Jr., sent this photograph of himself to his family in January 1862. (Franklin Roosevelt Library)

Penning her last entry on Friday, October 31, 1862, Catherine wrote: "By eleven o'clk dear Warren was on board the 'Surprise', having come in the house-boat [the Russell & Co. boat]. He looks well, and the children said they should have known him anywhere. By & bye we saw the little steamer 'White Cloud' and on hoisting the flag and beckoning to her she came along and towed us in to our anchorage. It was between two and three o'clk that we anchored, and such a cavalcade of [sedan] chairs as waited on us up to Rose Hill [the home the Delanos would occupy in Hong Kong] was very strange. I feel very oddly to be again a 'Fanqui.'" It was an epithet Catherine remembered from the past, from a time when tensions had flared at Canton, causing angry Chinese to rail at the Westerners in their midst, calling them Fan-kuei—"Foreign Devils."

Nearly seventy years later, the "Sallie" of 1862, Sara Delano Roosevelt, vividly remembered how the voyage had drawn to a close. As she craned to catch the first glimpse of her father, a small boat appeared in the distance, its oars manned by a Chinese crew in white uniforms. In the stern, holding the tiller, was Sallie's "Papa." "Tall, slight, and keen," he was "dressed in white linen." As soon as he was alongside, he rushed onto the deck of the ship where the family had gathered to greet him. He now saw, for the first time, "darling little Katrina"— that precious bundle of perpetual motion, his youngest child, Cassie.

Writing in 1931, FDR's elderly mother carried the Delano story onward from ship to shore, noting that everyone was "soon settled most comfortably at 'Rose Hill,' a fine house above the town, with the peak rising behind it." A month after their arrival, the family celebrated Thanksgiving. It fell on one of the two days every week that the Crown Colony's band played on the parade ground, providing an opportunity for fashionable residents of Hong Kong to promenade. In a letter to her Uncle Frank, Louise Delano noted that her father's "old friend, Mr. Howqua," had arrived from Canton bearing gifts of preserves and fruit. "Papa took him out driving [in one of the carriages]," she reported. "He appeared to enjoy it, although he was not very demonstrative."

Later that day the Delanos shared their Thanksgiving dinner with Capt. Ranlett, who was still in port. Also present were "all the Miss Russells," Louise's tongue-in-cheek reference to the seven gentlemen-clerks of Russell & Co., who helped conduct the business of the house. "We had flags on the table," she told Uncle Frank, "& after dinner we sang all the national airs, & had quite a jollyfication dancing in the large drawing room."

The next morning, Captain Ranlett took tiffin with the family before saying goodbye. He would set sail that afternoon for Amoy, a "treaty port" to the north, remain there about a month, and then begin the long voyage home. "We are very sorry he has gone," Louise wrote later that day, "as we liked him, & felt very well acquainted with him after having lived with him four months [on board the Surprise]. Since we landed, he has been to see us very often & has taken us out walking frequently, which was very pleasant, as we cannot go alone, & it is not always convenient for Papa to go with us."

Louise, Dora, and Annie were already taller than their mother and Cousin Nancy (each of whom measured 5' 4"). "I think we can afford to stop growing now," Louise wrote. "Most all the gentlemen of the house are short, & we are as tall as some, & taller than the rest."

Louise and Dora found their daily routine "monotonous." They saw the same people all the time, and every conversation seemed to dissolve into gossip. One pleasant diversion was horseback riding, even though the "girl tribe" could venture forth only when an escort was available. Their father maintained a stable of three horses and two white ponies, one of which was Louise's favorite mount. She rode "quite well" and also quite fast, as did Dora and Annie. One foreign resident, who thought the Misses Delano were being reckless, anticipated having to bury them all before he left China.

Ten-year-old Warren, not being strong enough to control the ponies, contented himself with driving Sallie, Philippe, and Cassie around in a small barouche hitched to Blackberry, their donkey. Sallie had a friend her own age, the only child of the American consul. "They go out in the baruche," Louise wrote, "with two [American] flags, one on each side, which they take great pleasure in waving whenever they pass any Redcoats." The little girls were patriotically displaying the colors of the Union because they had been told that England favored the Confederacy.

At Rose Hill Cousin Nancy continued to provide instruction for all of the children, as she had done on board ship and at Algonac. FDR's mother remembered a large chamber that her father had arranged as a schoolroom "with specially designed straight-backed chairs"—presumably to encourage a posture conducive to learning whatever "Nannie" was trying to teach them.

There were rules of decorum the children were expected to observe, but life at Rose Hill was not puritanical. The entire family enjoyed the Hong Kong racing season at the Happy Valley course, a private jockey club for gentlemen, where Messrs. Russell & Co. had their own grandstand. Here the Delanos would gather not only to watch the action but also to place wagers on the outcome of one race or another. Each of the children was given a small bag of "cash"—a Chinese coin of copper-alloy that had very little value, being "worth about five to a cent" (as Sara remembered it) "just enough to permit the youngsters to join in the betting."

More exciting than even the races was an excursion to Canton, where Howqua had invited the Delanos to dine. The five-day visit, in February 1863, made a lasting impression on eight-year-old Sallie. "There were little dishes and many courses [she recalled in 1931], and chopsticks. But as it was a very rich and luxurious house, there were knives, forks, and spoons for the strangers. Papa told us children to pretend that we liked Chinese food, though it was very strange to us."

In a letter to Franklin Delano, penned at Rose Hill several days after returning from Canton, Sallie's mother Catherine described the scene: "Houqua gave us a dinner of thirty courses and we visited his wives. Number One made many demonstrations of affection & asked why we had not been before to see them. She said my husband was such an old friend of Houqua's that she had been longing to see us."

A second visit to Canton was made in April to accommodate those members of the family who had missed out earlier. Several days were devoted to exploring the city. Fifteen-year-old Dora described passing through temple after temple "filled with huge Idols, [with] candles and incense burning before them." Her father "was so busy tasting tea," she wrote, "that he could not come with us. . . . We all went in sedan chairs and the streets were just as narrow, dirty, and filthy as they could be." From "the Heights," however, the top of the five-storied pagoda afforded "a beautiful view overlooking the city, river, [and] rice fields."

On their last day in Canton, the family paid a courtesy call at Howqua's residence. "He has been quite ill," Dora noted, "and cannot eat anything. We were taken to see his wives. Mrs. Howqua . . . said she was very sad about her husband. Her face was covered up to her eyes with paint and powder and her [bound] feet were scarcely 3 inches long. We were then taken all through the house . . . room after room . . . nicely furnished with ebony and marble and carved panels with stained glass windows."

Dora's mother, Catherine, who had visited Canton in February, stayed at home in April. Five months later, in September 1863, she gave birth to a baby boy, Frederic Adrian Delano. Within hours of his arrival, his father carried him into the Hermitage, the residence occupied by the young bachelors of Russell & Co., to introduce "his little son to them with pride."

refer to caption

Sara (Sallie) and Philippe Delano in 1864, following their return home from Hong Kong. (Franklin Roosevelt Library)

In 1864, ten-year-old Sallie, along with her brothers Warren and Philippe, twelve and seven, were sent home under the mothering eye of their sister Annie, who was fifteen-going-on-sixteen at the time. Their parents thought the health and education of the children would suffer if they remained in the Far East too long.

In her brief reminiscences, Sara Delano Roosevelt remembered leaving Hong Kong on a French ship that put in at Saigon, Singapore, Aden, and Suez. From there they traveled overland by train to Cairo (the Suez Canal would not open until five years later, in 1869). After sightseeing, they took a train to Alexandria, a steamer to Marseilles, and then continued to Paris by rail. They spent a fortnight there and a week or two in London. Finally they boarded a Cunard ship—an old tub in Sara's memory. Reaching New York after a very rough crossing, they were gathered up by anxious relatives.

Their absence was sorely felt at Rose Hill, which continued to shelter the remaining members of the family. Before 1864 had run its course, Louise, Dora, Cassie, and Frederic greeted the arrival of the eleventh and last child that Warren and Catherine brought into the world, Laura Franklin Delano. 7

The weather in Hong Kong in the summer of 1865 was particularly unpleasant. A glimmer of hope on the horizon for Louise and Dora, who felt they were "going to seed," was that their father would be able to take them on a holiday to Shanghai, and from there to Japan, until only recently a "closed" country. The wife of a Russell & Co. partner, who was spending the summer at Nagasaki "in a lovely little bungalow," had extended an invitation to them. In September 1865 the anticipated excursion became a reality. Beset by his business responsibilities, Warren Delano was unable to go to Japan, but Cousin Nancy Church accompanied Louise, Dora, and little Cassie. They spent all of September there and a good part of October. "The whole place is like a garden," Dora wrote. "Every spot not covered by trees is terraced."

The weeks flew by, taken up with "many beautiful walks" that revealed a "picturesquely situated" harbor surrounded by hills covered by trees and foliage in "a variety of shades of green," accentuated here and there by light, delicate groves of bamboo—"one of the loveliest places" Dora had ever seen.

Cassie's world did not extend far beyond the bungalow, but the adults enjoyed rather elaborate picnics that took them far afield. One day they went "to a place called Mogie" (Moji) on Shimabara Bay, a setting that reminded Dora of Naples, perhaps because a volcano brooded over the blue waters that lay before them.

One Saturday, an invitation to dinner afforded an opportunity to listen to some Japanese musicians who had been hired to perform. Dora liked the entertainment at first, "but it soon grew very monotonous, and wearying." There were three blind men, and six young women, playing various instruments. The women knew how to dance but seemed reluctant to do so. Their movements struck Dora as "far from graceful. . . The dress they wear [the kimono] is so closely bound around them, that it is no wonder they can hardly move. They were all very ugly, and had black teeth, though some were only 18 years old." 8

Ultimately, the long holiday drew to a close with the arrival of a steamer that would carry them back to Shanghai, though not without incident. "The first day was rough," Dora informed Uncle Frank, "and the steamer rolled much. We had quite a fright, and Louise a very narrow escape. . . . It was about eleven PM and we were just leaving the deck to go to the cabin . . . [Nancy], Louise, and I were standing near the skylight. The steamer rolled, Louise lost her balance, and fell through the open skylight. Nannie and I were both so frightened, we knew not what to do and hardly which way to turn. We went into the cabin, and you can judge our relief, in finding Louise unhurt, only jarred. She fell on a chair, and broke the back [of it] to pieces. That probably saved her. I feel frightened now when I think of it. It was such a narrow escape, for had she fallen [to] one side or the other she would have struck the table or iron seat."

Warren and Catherine Delano were in Shanghai to meet the returning travelers. "Little Fred is here," Dora wrote, "and is very well and amusing, as he is just beginning to talk." Baby Laura, "too young to travel," had remained at Rose Hill under the care of her nurse. The plan was to go back to Hong Kong soon. "We all dislike Shanghai very much," Dora added. "It is a most depressing place."

Word from Fair Haven that Capt. Warren Delano, the family patriarch, was not well caused Warren Jr. and Catherine to begin thinking seriously about returning home. Their youngest child, Laura, would be eighteen months old, however, before the entire family came together again in the United States in 1866, the year the captain died in Fair Haven.

Following Dora's marriage to William Howell Forbes in Paris in 1867, young Sallie, now thirteen, stayed on in Europe to complete her education. In 1870, she sailed for home prior to the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. At Algonac on her sixteenth birthday, her thoughts turned to her sister Louise who had died the year before, in her early twenties, after a long illness that her parents attributed to the recurring health problems she had experienced during the 1862 voyage and while living at Rose Hill.

In 1877 Sara Delano, twenty-two-going-on-twenty-three, spent a month in Hong Kong, visiting her sisters Dora and Annie, both of whom had married men who achieved partner-status in Russell & Co. Sallie's jaunt occurred three years before her own marriage to James Roosevelt and five years before the birth of their son, Franklin. Although Annie and her husband, Frederic Delano Hitch, returned to the United States in mid-1884 when Franklin was two and a half years old, Dora Delano Forbes maintained the family connection with the Far East until the turn of the century, first in Hong Kong and later in Shanghai. She never learned Chinese, but she could speak "pidgin-English," the lingua franca of the China coast, "very rapidly and amusingly." Her letters home, together with periodic visits, kept everyone up to date, perhaps prompting Franklin to ask questions that his mother could answer from her own recollections. By the time FDR reached adulthood, Delano memories of the 1862 voyage to Hong Kong and their experiences there during the American Civil War were as real to him as if he had personally sailed on board the Surprise to that distant port of call to take up the life of a "Foreign Devil" of China-merchant pedigree.

An enduring love of the sea, of sailing ships in particular, and an abiding interest in his family history defined the man who became the thirty-second President of the United States. Through the busy decades of Roosevelt's adult life, the "China" Warren and Catherine Delano had experienced in the nineteenth century—those small dots on the coastal map known to the Fan-kuei as Canton, Macao, and Hong Kong—remained in his mind. After he entered the White House in 1933, various public references to his background led some citizens to conclude that their own family ties to East Asia might be of interest to him. In November 1934 a woman in Massachusetts sent him a photograph that her late father-in-law, Dr. Peter Parker, a well-known American medical missionary in China, had taken in the mid-1840s. FDR immediately wrote to his Uncle Fred, enclosing this "extremely interesting picture of the old house in Macao," which struck him as "a most attractive place." In December he sent reproductions of the photo to his mother, her surviving sisters Dora and Kassie, and to several other relatives, along with holiday greetings. He explained that "a lady in Ohio" (actually, Massachusetts) had sent him "A small, old photograph marked on the back 'Arrowdale, former residence of Warren Delano . . . partially burned in April 1845.'" It reminded him, he said, of a pencil-drawing he had seen at the Homestead, depicting the Delano home in Macao.

A few months later, in the spring of 1935, a Long Island woman asked whether the President would like to examine some old letters written by a relative appointed by Abraham Lincoln to serve as the first American consul to Hong Kong. This gentleman had written that "the Misses Delano" (Louise and Dora) were "the two most beautiful young ladies" present at a reception given in 1865 by the British governor of the colony. FDR shared this information with Uncle Fred.

That same year saw the publication of Rita Halle Kleeman's Gracious Lady, a biography of the President's mother. The author had been aided by family members who dug up old records and tunneled into fading memories for anecdotal material. One of her chapters, "The Family Go to China," drew on Catherine Delano's journal and on Sara's recollections.

In December 1935, the President was reminded again of the "China connection" in his family history. Shortly before Christmas, he informed Uncle Fred that a woman in California had written to him to say that the papers of Russell & Co. were in the Smithsonian Institution. "Did you know this?" FDR asked. "What a queer place for historic documents! I wonder if there are some interesting letters about Grandpapa's early days in China among them." After looking into the matter, FAD sent word that the papers were in the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, not in the Smithsonian.

Further probing by FAD produced a letter from the chief of the division, together with a memorandum that clearly revealed the importance of the opium trade to Russell & Co. in the 1830s. FDR indicated he was "tremendously interested" in what his uncle had learned but said nothing, in writing, about opium. That "industry" must be taken into account, however, whenever assessments are made regarding the wealth his grandfather and other partners in the firm accumulated as a result of the years they spent in the China trade.

In the summer of 1941, Warren Delano's last surviving son, the President's Uncle Fred, wrote a brief autobiographical sketch of the type he wished his father had composed in his own day. Referring to the 1862 voyage to China described in Catherine's journal, FAD noted that "the delightfully simple narrative" his mother had produced was now in the family library at Algonac. It "has been read," he added, "by most of her grandchildren."

Almost four months later, as Japanese-American relations were escalating rapidly toward the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, one of those grandchildren, Franklin D. Roosevelt, fortuitously received a manuscript that appealed to the sea buff, family historian, and book collector aspects of his personality. Taking up his pen, he wrote his name on the flyleaf, then added "Hyde Park, October 29, 1941." He also identified the manuscript concisely: "The log of the 'Surprise' on voyage to China, bearing my Mother, Grandmother, Uncles & Aunts."

refer to caption

The young Misses Delano, ca. 1874: Dora, Sara, Cassie, Annie, and Laura. (NARA, Franklin Roosevelt Library)

This marvelous gift had a story of its own to tell. In March 1934, after reading in The Literary Digest that the President's mother had gone to China as a child on the clipper ship Surprise, a Mrs. Alfred Weismann, in Brookline, Massachusetts, remembered that she had a logbook that had been given to her mother "to press Autumn leaves." It had come from a cousin who had married a sea captain. Incredibly, Mrs. Weismann possessed the nautical record, kept by Charles A. Ranlett, Jr., of the passage to China mentioned in the article she had read. And so she wrote to the President's mother, saying she would like to give the logbook to a museum but would "gladly send it" first to Mrs. Roosevelt, if she would be interested in seeing it. In a reply signed by a secretary, FDR's mother demurred: "Mrs. Roosevelt feels that it would be a great responsibility for her to have you send . . . the Log of the 'Surprise.' She appreciates your telling her about it and thinks it most interesting."

There the matter rested until barely a month after the death of Sara Delano Roosevelt on September 7, 1941. Then, Mrs. Weismann wrote again, this time to the President himself, enclosing the earlier correspondence. He seized this chance to acquire the logbook for the nation's first presidential library, already built on the grounds of Springwood, the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York.

Essayist Anna Quindlen has noted that "the past we tell ourselves may be part invention. The tales that get repeated over and over again [within a family] take on a life of their own, so that after a while they can easily be mistaken for real recollections. And those tales . . . are massaged into shape by a kind of family mythology. . . . Thus are memories made, or what pass for them." 9

FDR and his Uncle Fred illustrate this point. Both dabbled in Delano family history, but they did not always get it right. Each, in his own way, made small errors or relied on assumptions that were incorrect. There is no mention of an encounter with the Alabama in Catherine's "Family Journal" or in the captain's log, but eighty years later, in a memo to Felix Frankfurter in the spring of 1942, Roosevelt wrote: "I have a copy of the log of the clipper ship my Mother and her Mother went to China on in 1863 [a mistake for 1862]. They passed the Confederate commerce destroyer 'Alabama' in the night but were not seen."

Either FDR was repeating what he had been told as a boy or he was making an educated guess to add a dramatic touch. It was a good yarn, but the close call experienced by the Delanos in the President's imagination has emerged in his grandmother's journal as nothing more than a harmless encounter with a British steamer carrying mail to Bermuda.

Historical records reveal that Alabama, which was built in England for the Confederacy, was still in a shipyard near Liverpool when Captain Ranlett set sail from New York in late June 1862. Carried on the builder's books as "No. 290," the South's new commerce-destroyer did not put to sea until the end of July. Only when it reached the Azores in the North Atlantic, some nine hundred miles west of Portugal, was its armament installed and a crew signed on. By then (coming up on the end of August) Surprise had crossed the meridian of the Cape of Good Hope and would soon be making its way through the Indian Ocean, setting course for Java Head. Meanwhile, the newly commissioned Alabama remained near the Azores, preying on Yankee whalers before heading toward the east coast of the United States to attack other inviting targets, especially grain ships. Thus, at no time during their 1862 passage to China were the Delanos at any risk from "that pirate Semmes," as the captain was called by his irate victims.

Apparently no one around the President ever questioned the accuracy of his Alabama story. His friends knew he could not be budged easily when his mind was made up. His reaction to a memorandum Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., sent to him in 1934, about the banking situation in China as reported by a Treasury agent on the scene, demonstrates FDR's approach to matters he felt he already understood perfectly. "Please remember," he wrote to Morgenthau, "that I have a background of a little over a century in Chinese affairs."

Only a Roosevelt—who was also a Delano—would have said something like that! It was a bizarre but challenging thought, especially coming from a man who had never been to the land the Chinese once called the "Middle Kingdom," the center of the world.

During his presidency, FDR received a great deal of information about the Far East from a variety of sources, but underlying his knowledge of East Asia was his perception of a "China" he thought he knew best. His lack of on-the-ground exposure to that vast, complex, age-old, timeless land did not inhibit him at all. His Grandfather Warren had lived for years on the China coast; his Grandmother Catherine and her children, including his own mother, had all been there, too—some of them for significant periods of time. Sitting in the White House decades later, Franklin Delano Roosevelt remembered the stories he had heard of their experiences long ago and far away. The voyage of the Surprise from New York to Hong Kong in 1862 enlivened his sense of the family connection with China, a connection he could trace to the 1830s, half a century before he was born. For FDR, Catherine Delano's journey with her seven children, halfway round the world while the North and the South were at war, was a notable passage indeed.


1. Rice gruel (sometimes only the water in which rice has been boiled).

2. Charles Haddon Spurgeon was an English Baptist preacher; Thomas Chalmers, a Scottish divine and author; William Reed Huntington, an American Protestant Episcopal clergyman and author. The Delanos were Unitarians.

3. "Uncle Frank" (for whom FDR would be named twenty years later) was Franklin Hughes Delano, a younger brother of Louise's father.

4. Charles John Andersson, Lake Ngami; or, Explorations and Discoveries, During Four Years' Wanderings in the Wilds of South Western Africa (1856). Subsequently, the captain also read aloud from Andersson's The Okavango River: A Narrative of Travel, Exploration, and Adventure (1861).

5. Henry Thomas Buckle was the author of History of Civilization in England, the first volume of which was published in London in 1857, with the second volume appearing in 1861. Decades later, FDR wrote the following inscription on a photograph of himself to be given to an erudite aide who not only shared his interest in "archaic and often obscure historical works" but who also frequently ghosted letters for the President's signature: "For Bill Hassett—rare combination of Bartlett, Roget and Buckle from his old friend—Franklin D. Roosevelt."

6. The "Anjer light house" on the island of Java (spelled "Angier" by CRD and "Anjier" elsewhere) was a navigational reference point for the Strait of Sunda (between Java and Sumatra).

7. Catherine had lost her firstborn, Susan Maria (1844–1846), to illness at Arrowdale in Macao; she had subsequently given birth to three more daughters, Louise in Macao in 1846, and then Debora (Dora) and Annie at home in the United States in 1847 and 1849; a fifth child, Warren, born in September 1850, died just over a year later; the name Warren was perpetuated, however, by the sixth child, Warren 3rd (born in July 1852). He was followed in 1854, 1857, and 1860 by Sara (Sallie), Philippe, and Katherine ("Cassie" in her childhood, but "Kassie" in later years). Frederic and Laura, born in Hong Kong in 1863 and 1864, brought the total to eleven children in twenty years.

8. The blackened teeth signified that the women were married.

9. Anna Quindlen, "How Dark? How Stormy? I Can't Recall," New York Times Book Review, May 11, 1997, p. 35.

A Note on the Sources

If FDR felt he had a good story to tell, he would use it more than once—sometimes repeating it to a friend or visitor who had heard it from him before. In private conversation throughout his life, he would mention, from time to time, the Delano connection with the Old China Trade of the nineteenth century. Roberta Barrows, who worked in FDR's White House, recalled that the President told "China stories" that had been "handed down from his parents" (letter to the author dated Nov. 2, 1981).

Roosevelt had defeated Herbert Hoover in November 1932, but the inauguration and transfer of power would not take place until the following March. During a long, one-on-one conversation in January 1933, Hoover's secretary of state, Henry L. Stimson, learned from FDR that he had "a personal hereditary interest in the Far East. He told me [Stimson wrote] that one of his ancestors, I think a grandfather, had held a position there and that his grandmother had gone out to the Far East on a sailing vessel and had very nearly been captured by the [Confederate raider] ALABAMA. He took a very lively interest in the history [of our Far Eastern policy] as I told it." Stimson's memorandum of his conversation with Roosevelt, Jan. 9, 1933, Stimson Papers, box 170, folder 20, Yale University Library.

Two members of FDR's "brains trust," Rexford Tugwell and Raymond Moley, were unhappy about the conversation. They felt Stimson had persuaded the President-elect "to underwrite the Hoover-Stimson policy in the Far East." Conferring with Roosevelt later in the month, they tried to convince him that he was making "a tragic mistake." Describing the encounter six years later, Moley expressed his disillusionment: "We might as well have saved our breath. Roosevelt put an end to the discussion by looking up and recalling that his ancestors used to trade with China. "I have always had the deepest sympathy for the Chinese," he said. 'How could you expect me not to go along with Stimson on Japan?'" After Seven Years (1939), pp. 93–95. Sumner Welles, who knew FDR well, later wrote: "No one close to the President could have failed to recognize the deep feeling of friendship for China that he had inherited from his mother's side of his family. . . . and he himself loved to tell over and over again stories of the dealings members of his family had had with various Chinese dignitaries and merchants. . . ." Seven Decisions That Shaped History (1951), p. 68.

On May 24, 1862, Cassie's second birthday, her father in Hong Kong wrote a letter beginning, "My darling little Katrina." His wording suggests that he is homesick for his family but that he has not yet decided to have Catherine and the children join him in Hong Kong. A month later, however, they embarked on their journey. Franklin D. Roosevelt Library, Hyde Park, NY, Delano Family Papers, Other Family Papers, "Scrap Book": Miscellaneous letters.

The clipper ship Surprise, 183 feet overall, with a beam of nearly 39 feet, registered at 1,261 tons (old measurement). It had been modeled by Samuel H. Pook and was built by Samuel Hall of East Boston (not by Donald McKay, as FAD erroneously believed). References to the ship can be found in a number of sources (not always in agreement): Arthur H. Clark, The Clipper Ship Era: An Epitome of Famous American and British Clipper Ships, Their Owners, Builders, Commanders, and Crews, 1843–1869 (1910) (FDR kept a copy of this book in his small study in the "Big House" at Hyde Park); Basil Lubbock, The China Clippers (3d ed., 1916); William G. Low, A. A. Low & Brothers' Fleet of Clipper Ships (2nd ed., 1922); Octavius T. Howe and Frederick C. Matthews, American Clipper Ships, 1833–1858, 2 vols. (1927) (FDR's copy of volume 2 is shelved in his study in the house; volume 1 [with a frontispiece illustration of Surprise] is in the Roosevelt Library book collection); Samuel Eliot Morison, The Maritime History of Massachusetts, 1783–1860 (1921 and 1941); Robert Bennet Forbes, Notes on Ships of the Past (1888); Carl C. Cutler, Greyhounds of the Sea: The Story of the American Clipper Ship (1930 and 1961); Helen Augur, Tall Ships to Cathay (1951); and George Francis Dow, The Sailing Ships of New England, series 3 (1928) (this book is also in the study). A model of the ship, purchased by FDR in 1922, is in the Roosevelt Library museum (MO 70-104). He thought it had been made on board during the voyage to Hong Kong. Mounted on the wall behind FDR's desk in the study are two paintings of the ship—one by Xanthus Smith, the other by Frank Vining Smith (not related to Xanthus).

During the night of February 3, 1876, Surprise, F. Johnson, master, received a pilot off the entrance to Yedo (Tokyo) Bay during a heavy head gale, which intensified the next day. The pilot put the ship about to seek shelter from the storm, but misjudgment on his part drove the ship onto some offshore rocks, causing it to go over nearly on its beam ends. Apparently everyone on board managed to reach shore safely. Several days later, the castaways learned that Surprise had been washed clear of the rocks and was floating practically bottom up several miles away. A Japanese man-of-war helped salvage some gear and cargo, but the ship was a total loss. An investigation revealed that the man who had brought Surprise to its sad end was an intoxicated beachcomber masquerading as a qualified pilot. By the time the truth was learned, he had disappeared and could not be found. Howe and Matthews, 2: 642–643; Clark, pp. 341–342; and Dow, p. 35 (these sources do not agree on all points).

The reader already will have seen that much of the narrative of "A Notable Passage to China" is based on the "Family Journal" kept by Catherine Robbins Delano, supplemented by the "Log" of the Surprise, Charles A. Ranlett, Jr., master. These two primary sources (and much else besides) are in the Roosevelt Library. Catherine Delano's journal, which her son Frederic found on September 23, 1928, at the Homestead in Fairhaven, is in the Frederic A. Delano Papers. Captain Ranlett's logbook is in FDR's Collection of Naval and Marine Manuscripts. I also used a 1934 article, "The President's Mother: A Gracious Lady—Aged 80," by Rita S. Halle (who later became Rita Halle Kleeman). Small Collections: Margaret L. Suckley Collection, Frederic A. Delano to Miss Suckley, Sept. 27, 1943.

FAD appended to his mother's journal a short explanatory note that contains a few errors, some of which reappear in Gracious Lady (1935), a biography of Sara Delano Roosevelt by Rita Halle Kleeman, who had access through Sara to Catherine's account of the voyage.

The brief reminiscences recorded by Sara Delano Roosevelt (eleven typewritten pages dated July 24, 1931) are in FDR—Family, Business, and Personal Affairs, folder 5: Delano Genealogy, I, "Family Genealogy by S.D.R." I also dipped into the Rita Halle Kleeman Papers and into a "Memo by Frederic A. Delano, July 1, 1933" to which is appended a typewritten transcript of Catherine's "Family Journal." I did not find this item until after I had finished writing the present article, using the handwritten original as my source. FAD's memo is in the Frederic A. Delano Papers, Family Papers, folder: Log of Trip to China (a misleading description since FAD is actually referring to his mother's journal). An autobiographical sketch written by FAD in the summer of 1941, as he was approaching his seventy-eighth birthday, provided additional information (ibid., folder: Frederic A. Delano's Autobiographical Sketch, Algonac, July 5, 1941).

Nancy F. Church, a cousin of Warren Delano, Jr., arrived at Algonac for "a long visit" in 1860, before the birth of Catherine's daughter Cassie. The breakfast room was converted into a schoolroom, where "Nannie" presided. She also helped take care of the children when they were sick.

The vertigo Louise suffered was reported to her Uncle Frank in a letter she began on Sunday, September 7, 1862, adding to it later that month. Various comments by Louise, quoted in this narrative, all come from her very long letter, which was mailed when the ship reached the East Indies. Delano Family Papers, Papers of Franklin Hughes Delano, folder: Louise Church Delano. Louise's sister Dora also wrote to Uncle Frank, starting on Sunday, September 14, with more added later. Ibid., folder: Dora Delano Forbes.

The "Springles" story is written in ink on both sides of eighteen lightly lined sheets of paper. Delano Family Papers, Other Family Papers, folder: "Story Written by Cousin Elizabeth Babcock for the travellers in the ship Surprise to China." Catherine Delano's assessment of Captain Ranlett is in a letter she wrote on board ship on Sunday, September 21, 1862 (the day on which he and Sallie celebrated their birthdays). Delano Family Papers, Papers of Franklin Hughes Delano, Family Correspondence, folder: Catherine Robbins Lyman Delano (Mrs. Warren Delano 2nd).

Some idea of Delano family life in Hong Kong from 1862 to 1866 emerges not only from Sara Delano Roosevelt's brief reminiscences but also from letters sent to relatives at home (the very first ones from Rose Hill were lost when the ship carrying them went down at sea). A letter begun on a certain date was often expanded later, with each addition dated separately. I drew especially on the following: Delano Family Papers, Papers of Franklin Hughes Delano, Family Correspondence, folder: Catherine Robbins Lyman Delano (Mrs. Warren Delano 2nd), letters dated Dec. 14, 1862, and Feb. 14, 1863; folder: Louise Church Delano, letters dated Nov. 28, 1862, Feb. 22, 1863, Apr. 28, 1863, May 12, 1863, June 7, 1863, July 11, 1865; folder: Dora Delano [Dora Delano Forbes], letters dated Feb. 11, 1863, Apr. 5, 1863, May 20, 1863, June 26, 1863, Apr. 10, 1864, May 11, 1864; folder: Annie Delano [Annie Delano Hitch], letters dated Mar. 8, 1863, Apr. 14, 1863, May 29, 1863, Apr. 24, 1864 (en route home with Warren 3rd, Sallie, and Philippe, on board the Imperatrice). There are two letters from Sallie in the Frederic Adrian Delano Papers, Family Papers, folder: Correspondence—Sara Delano to her family, 1863-1877. One is dated simply "Jan 31st"; the other is dated "Rose Hill October 11th 1863."

Successive heads of the Wu family, who were important Chinese merchants in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were called "Howqua" ("Houqua") by the foreigners who did business with them. The first usage appears to have arisen from a corruption of the given name of Wu Hao-kuan. See John King Fairbank, Trade and Diplomacy on the China Coast: The Opening of the Treaty Ports, 1842–1854 (2 vols., 1953).

The prospect of a visit to Japan is mentioned by Louise in a July 11, 1865, letter to her Uncle Frank. A full account is given by Dora in a letter to Franklin Hughes Delano begun at Nagasaki, October 1, 1865, and completed three weeks later.

During Sara Delano's return visit to Rose Hill in 1877, she sent a long letter to her "darling Papa," dated March 2. "As for Hong Kong," she wrote, "it is much more beautiful as to scenery than I remembered it to be; as we came into the harbour it was too lovely." Frederic A. Delano Papers, Family Papers, folder: Correspondence—Sara Delano to her family, 1863–1877.

The President's Personal File (PPF) 1672, FAD to Miss LeHand, Oct. 30, 1940, attests to Dora's fluency in pidgin-English.

The Arrowdale photograph, taken in the mid-1840s, was sent to the President by Fanny Stuart Parker of Framingham, MA. PPF 1672 and 2063. Had they been alive, FDR probably would have sent copies of it to all of his mother's brothers and sisters, but death had claimed five of her siblings: Louise in 1869, Philippe in 1881, Laura in 1884, Warren 3rd in 1920, and Annie in 1926.

Mrs. Isaac R. De Nyse wrote to the President from Freeport, Long Island, on March 16, 1935, about "the Misses Delano. " He said in reply: "I should be delighted to see these letters." They soon arrived through "Missy," his private secretary Miss Marguerite A. LeHand, and were sent to FAD with a cover note in which FDR said he did not know "whether the lady sent them to me for keeps or not so will you let me have them back?" Uncle Fred misplaced them and then forgot that he ever had them. By some means not disclosed in the files, Missy regained possession of the letters, finally returning them to Mrs. De Nyse at the end of July. PPF 72 and 2355.

The woman in California who wrote to the President about the Russell & Co. papers was Lucy Russell Dabney (Mrs. Charles W. Dabney) of Santa Barbara. PPF 2063 and Frederic A. Delano Papers, folder: Samuel Russell Company.

Jacques M. Downs, The Golden Ghetto: The American Commercial Community at Canton and the Shaping of American China Policy, 1784 - 1844 (1997), is an excellent source of information on the Old China Trade at Canton and on the role opium played in the transformation of that system of doing business with the Chinese. See pp. 126–128 for the early involvement of Russell & Co. in the opium trade.

A wild, nasty, inaccurate attack on Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt was made by Westbrook Pegler in his "Fair Enough" column in the Oct. 25, 1944, issue of the Washington, D.C., Times-Herald. Pegler denounced the President's maternal grandfather, "this old buccaneer," for having participated in the 1830s and 1840s in "the infamous opium smuggling trade, one of the sources of the Roosevelt family fortune." PPF 1403.

In a letter to his brothers, written at Canton on April 11, 1839, Warren Delano, Jr., rejected the idea that foreigners who participated in the opium business were involved in smuggling a substance into China that had been banned by imperial decree. He claimed instead that the opium trade never could have increased so greatly "without the fostering care of those in authority" in China. "I do not pretend," he added, "to justify the prosecution of the opium trade in a moral and philanthropic point of view, but as a merchant I insist that it has been a fair, honorable and legitimate trade; and to say the worst of it, liable to no further or weightier objections than is the importation of wines, Brandies & spirits into the UStates, England &c." Having said this, FDR's grandfather Delano freely admitted that the trade in the drug had been "doubtless a most injurious one to the Chinese." The solution rested in the hands of the emperor and his mandarins. If they "determine honestly to stop the trade, the Foreigners cannot by any possibility sell or smuggle the drug into the country." Frederic D. Grant, Jr., "Edward Delano and Warren Delano II: Case Studies in American China Trader Attitudes toward the Chinese, 1834–1844" (honors thesis, Bates College, 1976), pp. 183–185, 260–261.

The account of his life, written by FAD in the summer of 1941, is in the Frederic A. Delano Papers, Family Papers, folder: Frederic A. Delano's Autobiographical Sketch, Algonac, July 5, 1941. The story behind Mrs. Alfred Weismann's decision to give Capt. Charles A. Ranlett, Jr.'s logbook for 1862 to FDR lies in a file consisting of six letters beginning with her desire, in 1934, to bring the log of the voyage of the Surprise to the attention of the President's mother. When I first examined the logbook some years ago, the letters were "laid in" between the front cover and the flyleaf, together with an undated photograph of Captain Ranlett and another of his wife. FDR—Naval and Marine Manuscripts. The article that had prompted Mrs. Weismann to write to Sara Delano Roosevelt was "The First Mother of the Land," by Emma Bugbee, in The Literary Digest, Feb. 24, 1934. FDR's April 18, 1942, memo to Felix Frankfurter. PPF 140, folder June 1941–April 1943.

The whereabouts of the Confederate raider Alabama (while Captain Ranlett was sailing across the Atlantic toward the Cape of Good Hope) can be traced in Memoirs of Service Afloat during the War Between the States (1869) by Adm. Raphael Semmes. FDR's "Please remember" memo to Morgenthau, Dec. 6, 1934, is in Franklin D. Roosevelt and Foreign Affairs, 3 vols. (1969), ed. Edgar B. Nixon, 2: 305–307.

The letters quoted in "Delano Reactions to News of the War at Home," are at the Roosevelt Library, primarily in the Delano Family Papers, Papers of Franklin Hughes Delano, Family Correspondence, in folders bearing the name of the family member to whom reference is made in the sidebar. The only exceptions are Warren Delano, Jr.'s birthday letter to his father, Oct. 28, 1864, and Sallie Delano's April 10, 1865, letter from Northampton to her "darling Aunt" (presumably Sarah Alvey Delano, Warren Jr.'s sister). These two letters are in the Frederic A. Delano Papers, Family Papers, folders: Correspondence—WD Jr. to WD Sr., and Sara Delano to her family. For the years 1865–1867 I also checked the "Letter Book of Charles A. Lovett, 1865–1870," who "obtained a position with R&Co. [in 1862] through Mr. Delano, our senior partner in China," an old friend of Lovett's father. The Letter Book is in the Papers of the Delano Family that are a part of the Roosevelt Family Papers in the Roosevelt Library. It was sent to the President in March 1942 by two nieces of Mr. Lovett, Eleanor Lovett Whiton and Lucy Soule Whiton, of Hingham, MA. FDR's interest in these letters is revealed in his February 3, 1943, memo for Margaret L. Suckley, a Roosevelt cousin who was helping to catalog materials for the new presidential library in Hyde Park.

See also:


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.