Prologue Magazine

A Notable Passage to China: Notes

Fall 1999, Vol. 31, No. 3

By R.J.C. Butow

© 1999 by R.J.C. Butow


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&150;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 these related articles:

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