Prologue Magazine

A Notable Passage to China: Myth and Memory in FDR's Family History, Part 3


Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3

By R.J.C. Butow

© 1999 by R.J.C. Butow


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."

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.

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

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.

See also these related articles:


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.

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