John Bromfield's monument is more lasting than brass. It was he who left
to the city of Newburyport, in Massachusetts, ten thousand dollars for
planting and preserving trees in the streets, and keeping the sidewalks
in order. The income of this bequest would not go far in any other sort
of monument, but it has embowered his native city in beautiful trees.
Every spring other trees are planted, and, as long as that bequest is
faithfully administered, he cannot be forgotten.
Nothing brings a larger or surer return than money judiciously spent in
making towns and cities pleasant. It not only yields a great revenue of
pleasure and satisfaction to the inhabitants; it not only benefits every
individual of them every hour, but it invites residents from abroad; it
is a standing invitation to persons of taste and good sense. The wisest
thing the city of New York ever did, next to the introduction of the
Croton water, was the creation of the Central Park; the one feature
which redeems the city from the disgrace of its dirty streets and its
agonizing tenement region.
This John Bromfield, merchant, was just such a thoughtful and benevolent
man as we should naturally expect to find him from his bequest. He
belonged to a class of merchants which is rapidly becoming extinct. The
cable telegraph and the steam freight ship are superseding the merchants
of moderate capital, and are concentrating the great business of
interchanging commodities in the hands of a few houses who reckon their
capital by millions. Born at Newburyport, in 1779, he was brought up by
excellent parents near Boston, who practiced the old-fashioned system of
making him hardy and self-helpful. His mother used to say that when he
was old enough to wear leather shoes she bored holes in the soles in
order to accustom him to wet feet, so that he might be made less liable
to catch cold from that cause. This appears to have been a custom of
that generation, for it is recorded of the mother of Josiah Quincy that
she would never let him take off his wet shoes, regarding it as an
On approaching the time of entering college his father met with
misfortunes and could not bear the expense. Two aunts of his, who could
well afford it, offered to pay his expenses in college. He firmly
declined the offer. The foundation of his character and career was a
love of independence. He asked to be apprenticed, as the custom then
was, to a mercantile house, and remained in it as long as it held
together. After its failure he tried for months to obtain a clerkship,
but, not succeeding, he arranged with a carpenter to learn his trade.
Just before putting on the carpenter's apron an opening occurred in his
own business, and he became a merchant. About the year 1801 he went out
to China as supercargo, and continued to visit that part of the world in
similar capacities for many years, occasionally making small ventures of
his own, and slowly accumulating a little capital. He had a series of
the most discouraging misfortunes. In the year 1813 he wrote to his
sister from Cadiz:--
"It is a melancholy truth that in the whole course of my life I never
arrived at a good market."
On that occasion everything promised well. He had a ship full of
valuable goods, and the market to which he was carrying them was in an
excellent condition for his purpose, but within twenty-four hours of his
port he was captured, and detained ten weeks a prisoner. After the peace
of 1815, merchants could send their ships across the ocean without fear
of their being taken by English or French cruisers. From that time he
had better luck, and gradually gained a moderate fortune, upon which he
retired. He never kept a store, or had any sort of warehouse, but made
his fortune by sending or taking merchandise from a port which had too
much of it to one that was in want of it.
On one of his winter passages to Europe he found the sailors suffering
extremely from handling frozen ropes, as they were not provided with
mittens. Being a Yankee, and having been brought up to _do_ things as
well as read about them, he took one of his thick overcoats and made
with his own hands a pair of mittens for every sailor.
On another occasion, in the ship Atahualpa, in 1809, bound to China, the
vessel was attacked off Macao by pirates, in twenty-two junks, some of
them being twice the tonnage of the vessel. Captain Sturgis, who
commanded the vessel, defended her with signal ability and courage, and
kept the pirates off for forty minutes, until the vessel gained the
protection of the fort. John Bromfield, a passenger on board, took
command of a gun, and seconded the endeavors of the captain with such
coolness and promptitude as to contribute essentially to the protection
of the vessel.
In retirement he lived a quiet life in Boston, unmarried, fond of books,
and practicing unusual frugality for a person in liberal circumstances.
He had a singular abhorrence of luxury, waste, and ostentation. He often
said that the cause of more than half the bankruptcies was spending too
much money. Nothing could induce him to accept personal service. He was
one of those men who wait upon themselves, light their own fire, reduce
their wants to the necessaries of civilized life, and all with a view to
a more perfect independence. He would take trouble to oblige others,
but could not bear to put any one else to trouble. This love of
independence was carried to excess by him, and was a cause of sorrow to
his relations and friends.
He was a man of maxims, and one of them was:--
"The good must merit God's peculiar care,
And none but God can tell us who they are."
Another of his favorite couplets was Pope's:--
"Reason's whole pleasure, all the joys of sense,
Lie in three words: health, peace, and competence."
He used to quote Burns's stanza about the desirableness of wealth:--
"Not to hide it in a hedge,
Nor for a train attendant;
But for the glorious privilege
Of being independent."
He was utterly opposed to the way in which business was then
conducted--hazardous enterprises undertaken upon borrowed capital. The
excessive credit formerly given was the frequent theme of his
How changed the country, even in the short space of sixty years! In 1825
he made a journey from Boston to New Orleans, and his letters show
curious glimpses of life and travel as they then were. Leaving Boston at
four o'clock on a Friday morning, he reached New York at ten o'clock on
Saturday morning, and he speaks of this performance with astonishment.
Boston to New York in thirty hours! He was in New York November 4, 1825,
when the opening of the Erie Canal was celebrated. He did not care much
for the procession.
"There was, however," he adds, "an interesting exhibition of steamboats,
probably greater than could be found at any other place in the world;
say, _from twenty-five to thirty_, and most of them of a large class."
He was in the valley of the Ohio that year, and he spoke of it "as the
land of cheapness:" flour, two dollars and a quarter a barrel; oats,
twelve and a half cents a bushel; corn and rye, twenty cents; coal,
three cents. He found all the region from Louisville to Louisiana "one
vast wilderness," with scarcely any settlements, and now and then a log
hut on the banks, occupied by the people who cut wood for the
steamboats. On the prairies of Missouri he rode miles and miles without
seeing a house. Indiana was an almost unbroken wilderness: corn ten
cents a bushel, a wild turkey twelve and half cents, and other things in
Nevertheless, travelers at that day had some pleasures which could be
advantageously compared with the ease and comfort of the Pullman car.
The Alleghanies were then crossed by open wagons drawn by splendid
Pennsylvania horses, six in a team, gayly decorated with ribbons, bells,
and trappings. He used to repeat, in a peculiarly buoyant and
delightful manner, a popular song of the day, called "The Wagoner,"
suggested by the apparently happy lot of the boys who rode and drove
these horses. Some readers may remember the old song, beginning:--
"I've often thought if I were asked
Whose lot I envied most,
What one I thought most lightly tasked
Of man's unnumbered host,
I'd say I'd be a mountain boy
And drive a noble team--wo hoy!
Wo hoy! I'd cry,
And lightly fly
Into my saddle seat;
My rein I'd slack,
My whip I'd crack--
What music is so sweet?
Six blacks I'd drive, of ample chest,
All carrying high their head.
All harnessed tight, and gaily dressed
In winkers tipped with red.
Oh, yes! I'd be a mountain boy,
And such a team I'd drive--wo hoy!
Wo hoy! I'd cry;
The lint should fly.
Wo hoy! Dobbin, Ball.
Their feet should ring,
And I would sing,
I'd sing my fal-de-roll."
We have almost forgotten that such a gay mode of crossing the
Alleghanies was ever practiced; and yet a person need not be very old to
have enjoyed the experience. I myself, for example, can just remember
riding from Buffalo to New York by a line of stages that came round by
the Alleghany Mountains, and crossed the State of New Jersey, passing
through Morristown. We were just six days in performing the journey.
This excellent man, after a tranquil and happy life, died in 1849, aged
seventy, and left considerable sums to benevolent societies. His estate
proved to be of about two hundred thousand dollars value, which was then
considered very large, and he bestowed something more than half of it
upon institutions for mitigating human woe. Ten thousand of it he gave
for the promotion of pleasure, and the evidences of his forethought and
benevolence are waving and rustling above my head as these lines are
written. His memory is green in Newburyport. All the birds and all the
lovers, all who walk and all who ride, the gay equestrian and the dusty
wayfarer, the old and the invalid who can only look out of the window,
all owe his name a blessing.