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

Port of Hong Kong, 1860s 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.)

Cassie Delano 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."

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