The Beginnings of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company

Bruce White

Most accounts of cotton manufacturing in New England describe a progression from the small rural water-powered cotton-spinning operations, through the larger company town enterprises that extended the spinning of yarn to the manufacture of cloth, to the fully industrialized steam-powered factories of the latter part of the nineteenth century. Despite this trend, however, it was possible for at least one of the early rural cotton mills to survive right through the reign of King Cotton and well into the twentieth century. From its earliest conception in the year 1812 the Westport Factory, situated on the East Branch of the Westport River, continued more or less continuously in production until it finally closed in 1938. If the founders of the mill may sometimes have wondered about the wisdom of their undertaking their choice of location was well and truly vindicated by history. This essay is an account of the very earliest days of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company based on an examination of the land deeds relating to its activities and of the context in which they occurred. I have come to the study of the company from my own family history research (the author is a descendant of Job White) and I will use this perspective to look at the personal motivations and backgrounds of those involved. Using this approach it is possible to discern the pathways along which the new technology of cotton manufacture was carried and to gain some sense of the motivations and expectations of those involved. While most of my conclusions are drawn from an examination of the land deeds, I am aware that I may not be working from a full set of documents and that my interpretations and conclusions should be regarded as provisional. A full inventory of the land deeds and other relevant documents could reveal a more complete picture.

The beginnings of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company have been well described by Henry Worth (1915) and Martin Butler (1973). According to Worths account a tract of land with a sawmill on the river just north of Head of Westport was sold in 1812 by Ephraim Macomber to John Mason, Joseph Strange and Job White. Further land was purchased from William Gifford and in 1814 ownership of the enterprise was transferred to twenty-eight individuals. Although in 1815 the end of the War with Britain saw the return of Lancashire cotton to the American market, further land was purchased in anticipation of better market conditions resulting from the introduction of a protective tariff. By 1817, however, the original owners had lost control of the enterprise which passed into the hands of Bradford and Daniel Howland who in turn sold the cotton factory to Samuel Allen in 1821 or 1822. While Worth and Butler differ in some minor details this is in essence the story of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company.

The story of the introduction of cotton manufacturing into the United States is well known. From its beginnings in Pawtucket, Rhode Island in the last decade of the eighteenth century, the industry spread quickly through nearby towns. The advantages of the region were considerable swift flowing rivers, access to shipping and markets, a commercial class and, perhaps most importantly, a sizeable body of blacksmiths and ironworkers who were able to transform themselves into industrial mechanics. Over the first twenty or so years of the nineteenth century the original Rhode Island enterprises were responsible for training numerous skilled operatives who in turn transmitted the technology to other parts of southern New England (Meyer, 1998). Although the Embargo Act of 1807 has sometimes been credited with stimulating the cotton industry, cotton factory fever was underway by 1805, while the War of 1812 saw a major stimulus to domestic production and to the establishment of new mills (Day, 1925; Ware, 1926). In fact the notion of cotton milling as a fever is particularly apt. In the absence of local newspapers or anything approaching a trade press the enthusiasm was, as we shall see, an infection that passed by personal contact from man to man.

Looking at the founders of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company we can see the mix of skills, knowledge, opportunities and imperatives that lay behind this particular enterprise. Job White was the son of a North Dighton miller, Abijah White, who was half-owner (with his father-in-law) of a gristmill on that stretch of the Three Mile River which forms the boundary between Dighton and Taunton. Job was born around 1787 and appears to have spent some of his formative years in Westport where he married Amy Gifford in 1807. Most documents describe Job White as a carpenter so a good guess is that he served an apprenticeship there. In the later years of the eighteenth century Westport was something of a manufacturing centre. Amys grandfather Lemuel Milk was involved in shipbuilding which would have provided the young man with the opportunity to learn his trade. Shortly after their marriage Job and Amy returned to Dighton and in 1808 he purchased his fathers share of the gristmill. He was not to settle down to life as a miller, however, for in September 1809 he sold his share in the mill to Josiah Dean of Raynham. Dean was probably acting on behalf of a larger concern because in May of the following year Job sold a tract of land adjacent to the mill to the Dighton Manufacturing Company, consisting of Josiah Dean, Daniel Gilbert, Nathaniel Williams, James Maxwell, Oliver Chase, Nathaniel Wheeler, Nicholas Stephens, Hezekiah Anthony and Jeremiah Wheeler. Nathaniel Wheeler was agent for the company and the mill was known as Wheelers Factory (Lane, 1962 pp 185-187).

Most of these men were not natives of Dighton and several of them had strong links with cotton mills in other areas. Nathaniel Wheelers connections are the most interesting and it is not difficult to see how he came to be playing a leading role in the Dighton enterprise  they lead directly back to the original factory at Pawtucket. David Wilkinson was a blacksmith and a pioneer in the manufacture of cotton mill machinery of whom it has been written that his establishment became the training-school for many young mechanics who later set up machine-shops of their own, and became inventors, engineers, and manufacturers – pioneers of the age of power (Lincoln, 1933). It was from Wilkinson that Nathaniel Wheeler, his brother Russell and his nephew Dexter acquired their knowledge of the industry (Lane, 1962 p 186) and by 1806 they were engaged in the construction of a cotton mill in Swansea before moving their attention to the Three Mile River. Although the Dighton Manufacturing Company was not an immediate success, suffering from the same market difficulties that afflicted the Westport enterprise, Nathaniel Wheeler remained in the district for a number of years and was active in local politics. Nathaniel and Dexter Wheeler and Oliver Chace went on to become pioneers of the cotton industry in Fall River which was ultimately the most successful in Bristol County (Borden, 1899 pp 560-564). The pedigree of the Dighton Company was impeccable.

Nothing is known of Job Whites activities during the period immediately following the sale of the mill and adjoining land but he was still in the area in August 1810 when the census recorded him as a neighbour of Nathaniel Wheeler and Nicholas Stephens. Given his training as a carpenter and experience with water-powered mills it is likely that he was employed by the Dighton Manufacturing Company and he would certainly have observed their operations with interest.

Less is known about the early activities of the other two partners of the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company but there is strong reason to believe that they had been in contact with the industry as well. Joseph Strange is described in the deeds as a blacksmith but this term was broadly used to cover anyone working with metals including what we would describe as a mechanic. He was originally from Freetown and after the Westport venture he went on to become a master mechanic at the Whittenton Mills in Taunton. John Mason Esquire of Swansea is listed in the deeds as a gentleman and it is likely that his role was primarily a financial one, but he may also have had first-hand experience of the Wheelers cotton milling activities  the area in Swansea where they built their original factory was known as the Mason neighbourhood (Hurd, 1883 p 403).

These, then, were three young men with a mix of skills, resources and direct experience of cotton milling, at an age to be seeking their place in the world and at a time when the industry was about to take off. Unlike their counterparts in Lancashire, New England men were not generally eager to accept the status of waged employees (Vickers, 1994 p 263) and indeed most of the paid work in the mills was done by children at very low rates of pay, so the most attractive course by far was to establish a mill and become a factory owner.

On 25 December 1812 Ephraim Macomber of Westport sold to John Mason, Joseph Strange and Job White for $1200 a tract of land with a sawmill with the privilege of flowing all the land of the said Macomber above said mill dam necessary for said pond and works thereon erected. The following fifteen months may have been a time of intense activity but nothing further is known about the enterprise until 25 March 1814. On this date sixteen land transfer documents were signed (see Appendix for details) and from these we can discern the structure and magnitude of the operation. Each deed is for one or more one fortieth shares (worth $500 each) in the land and sawmill bought from Macomber, giving the partnership a nominal value of $20,000. Tellingly there is no mention of a cotton mill or of any improvements to the land so we must assume that the partners were investing in a future enterprise rather than an existing one – the period between the two sets of transactions may well have been spent in canvassing friends, relations and neighbors. Job White had relocated himself to Westport by September 1813 and some of the 25 March 1814 deeds refer to John Mason of Swanzey, Joseph Strange and Job White, both of Westport which would confirm the view that the latter two had more of a hands-on role in the undertaking.

On 10 June 1814 White bought out the shares of his two partners for $2,250. The deed in question refers to their right to the undivided fifth part of the tracts of land and gives us an insight into the way in which the shares were structured, with the three founders retaining for themselves one tenth of the company each. A second deed of the same date records that White sold to Mason for $1,000 two undivided fortieth parts of the land that this was probably a mortgage is confirmed by subsequent events. (It is worth noting this set of transactions may be open to other interpretations and certainly Strange and Mason did continue to have a financial stake in the company beyond this date).

The companys plans may have extended beyond a simple cotton mill. On 20 August 1814 they purchased 250 acres of land with buildings along the river from Henry Freelove for $3,897. The document lists twenty-eight individual purchasers who include two of Job Whites brothers, Paul and Alfred, and Zaccheus Gifford, his brother-in-law. Ten of the purchasers were from Swansea, indicating the influence of John Mason, while thirteen of them, including the three White brothers from Taunton, are described as being resident in Westport. Work on the factory was undoubtedly underway. A further purchase occurred in January 1815 when the same twenty-eight purchased from William Gifford (uncle of Job Whites wife Amy who had died late in 1814) a further seventy acres adjoining the land bought from Freelove.

From this point the document set examined by this author is unable to reveal in detail the collapse of the original company, but it is clear that the company was in trouble by early 1815. According to Martin Butler some of the original investors began to sell up and ownership of the main assets passed to Bradford and Daniel H. Howland in 1816. (They in turn sold the factory in 1822 for $6,500). Adverse market conditions, especially after the end of the War of 1812 and the resumption of imports from Lancashire, meant that the income received from the factory was insufficient to keep the company solvent. We need to bear in mind that banking was not well-developed at this time and access to the long-term credit arrangements needed by a commodity industry was not readily available. Perhaps the sheer size of the operation was the cause of its downfall. If this was so it would not have been at all unusual – Clive Day (1925) makes the point that the rate of mortality of early ventures in cotton manufacture was very high but that those established after 1812 had a much better long-term survival rate (albeit under different ownership) than those begun before that date. The reason for this was that they were on quite different scale than the earlier operations better equipped, better provided with capital, started with a more vigorous impetus . We have a paradox then the very scale of these operations that made them so vulnerable to the market fluctuations of the years after 1815 was the same factor that ensured their long-term viability. This interpretation would seem to fit the facts of the Westport Factory, which remained in operation until 1938, like a glove.

Whatever took place in the years after 1815 did not amount to a complete winding up of the obligations of the original founders and investors of the Westport Company. A land deed of November 1825 reveals that one William White had received a judgement at the Supreme Judicial Court, Plymouth, against twenty-five named individuals described as surviving partners of the late firm Westport Mechanic Factory Company for the sum of $1027.23 damages and $207.73 costs. William White, no relation of Job White, was one of the founders of White’s Factory mill (Worth, 1915 p 8). An interesting feature of this case is the degree of continuity between these twenty-five individuals and the twenty-eight named in the Freelove deed of 1814 five of these are not present in the 1825 list which does contain two not mentioned in 1814. The outcome of the action was that land of Paul White in Taunton appraised at the value of $206.77 was seized and delivered to William White.

An even more interesting set of transactions took place in November 1826. The Court of Common Pleas in Taunton found in favour of John Mason against Job White for the sum of $200 plus $8.33 costs. The actual debt that White owed to Mason was $500 which happened to be the value of one one-fortieth share the Westport Cotton Manufacturing Company! Job White had been selling land since 1815 and in February 1826 he had sold what may have been his last major holding for the sum of $700 and it is possible that from the proceeds of this sale he had paid off half of the debt of $1,000 he had incurred in 1814. By November 1826 he must have exhausted his own resources because the land seized from him was his one twenty-eighth share of the lands bought by the Westport Company from Henry Truelove and William Gifford. This share is valued at $96.42 and ordered to be transferred to John Mason.

What are we to make of all this? For one thing it is obvious that whatever happened to the original Westport Company not all of its assets were acquired by the Howlands which would explain why the sale of the factory for $6,500 in 1822 was so far short of the $20,000 that was the nominal or projected worth of the enterprise in 1814. We are left then with a more intriguing question, that of the intention behind the purchases from Freelove and Gifford which clearly went beyond the land and other resources necessary for the basic cotton milling operation. While it is may have been that a second and larger mill was projected we should not rule out the possibility that some further processing of the spun cotton using water power was projected. Perhaps this is ultimately unknowable but a detailed comparison of the financial structure of this enterprise with that of others might cast some light on the broader intentions of its founders.

For most of those involved the collapse of the original Westport Company was probably an unfortunate incident. Joseph Strange continued in the cotton manufacturing industry and in 1892 we find his son Joseph W. Strange reading a paper to the Old Colony Historical Society on The Inventors and Inventions in the Manufacture of Cotton Fabrics (“Societies and their proceedings,” 1892). Nothing further is known of John Mason and he does not appear to have played a prominent part in the cotton industry after the Westport venture. Job White, coming to the undertaking with less financial backing than Mason and fewer specific skills than Strange, may have been the main victim of the companys failure. He continued to work as a carpenter or shipwright and by the early 1820s he was able to describe himself as a yeoman, but he continued to sell more land than he bought and probably did not recover from Masons legal action in 1826  when he died in New Bedford in June 1837 he had a net worth of only $135.

Bruce White
13 May 2005

Reference List

Borden, A. (1899). Our county and its people; a descriptive and biographical record of Bristol County, Massachusetts. [Boston]: the Boston History Company.
Butler, M. (1973). The Mills of Westport: Notes used by Professor Martin Butler for a talk to the Historical Society on March 15,1973. Unpublished manuscript.
Day, C. (1925). The Early Development of the American Cotton Manufacture. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 39(3), 450-468.
Hurd, D. H. (1883). History of Bristol County, Massachusetts, With Biographical Sketches Of Many Of Its Pioneers And Prominent Men. Philadelphia,: J. W. Lewis & co.
Lane, H. H. (1962). History of the Town of Dighton Massachusetts. Dighton: Town of Dighton.
Lincoln, J. T. (1933). The Beginnings of the Machine Age in New England: David Wilkinson of Pawtucket. New England Quarterly, 6(4), 716-732.
Meyer, D. R. (1998). Formation of Advanced Technology Districts: New England Textile Machinery and Firearms, 1790-1820. Economic Geography, 74(Special Issue for the 1998 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Boston, Massachusetts, 25-29 March 1998), 31-45.
Societies and their proceedings. (1892). New England Historical & Genealogical Register, 46, 405.
Vickers, D. (1994). Farmers & fishermen : two centuries of work in Essex County, Massachusetts, 1630-1850. Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, by the University of North Carolina Press.
Ware, C. F. (1926). The Effect of the American Embargo, 1807-1809, on the New England Cotton Industry. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 40(4), 672-688.
Worth, H. B. (1915). The mills of New Bedford and vicinity before the introduction of steam. New Bedford: Old Dartmouth Historical Society.


25 December 1812 Bristol Co Deeds ?
Ephraim Macomber of Westport to John Mason, Joseph Strange and Job White for $1200 a tract of land with a sawmill with �the privilege of flowing all the land of the said Macomber above said mill dam necessary for said pond and works thereon erected.�

17 September 1813 Bristol Co Deeds 19:262
Job White and Zacheus Gifford of Westport, labourers, to Levi Chase of Westport a tract of land and dwelling house, six acres more or less with a dwelling house situated in Dartmouth.

25 March 1814 Bristol Co Deeds 103: 19
�Know all men by these presents that we John Mason Esq of Swanzey in the County of Bristol & State of Massachusetts, Joseph Strange, Blacksmith, & Job White, Carpenter, both of the County and State aforesaid in consideration of Five Hundred dollars to us or our Agent paid by Simeon Burt of Westport in the County of Bristol & State of Massachusetts, Carpenter, the receipt whereof we do hereby acknowledge, do hereby give, grant, sell & convey unto the sd Simeon Burt a certain undivided one fortieth part of a tract of Land with a Sawmill thereon standing in the town of Westport and all privileges thereof bounded as follows: Beginning at the corner of the wall on the west side of the highway, thence West about eight degrees South fourteen rods, thence South twenty-one degrees East to the middle of the main River, thence up the sd River to the highway, thence northerly in the Westerly side of the highway to the bound first mentioned bound. Also on the Southerly side of sd Stream from the East side of sd Sawmill Southerly on the Westerly side of the highway to the northerly line of land formerly owned by Timothy Macomber , then Westerly in sd Macomber�s line to the river, thence up the Stream to the East side of sd sawmill. Also one Lot on the East side of the highway; Beginning at a heap of stones, thence running North thirty-two degrees West to the River; thence from the stone heap first mentioned, thence West thirty-two degrees South to the highway; thence Northerly on the line of the highway to the river; thence up the river to the place where the first mentioned line came to the river, with all the privileges of flowing all the land of Ephraim Macomber above sd mill dam necessary for a pond or works thereon erected. To have and to hold ��

John Mason
Elizabeth Mason
Joseph Strange
Amittai Strange
Job White
Amey White

See below for the list of investors*

10 June 1814 Bristol Co Deeds 98:48-9
John Mason and Joseph Strange to Job White for $2250 their right to the undivided fifth part of the tracts of land on the Accoxet River etc.

10 June 1814 Bristol Co Deeds 97: 161-2
Job White to John Mason for $1000 two undivided fortieth parts of the land.

20 August 1814 Bristol Co Deeds 98:567-9
Henry Freelove of Dartmouth to 28 named persons for $3,897.50 a tract of land with all buildings of 250 acres.

10 September 1814 Bristol Co Deeds
Simeon Burt to Westport Mechanic Factory Company for $400 one fortieth part of the land Ephraim Macomber conveyed to Job White, Joseph Strange and John Mason. This could have been a mortgage.

11 January 1815 Bristol Co Deeds 98:565-7
William Gifford to 28 named persons ** for $175 a tract of land situated in Dartmouth of about 70 acres, bounded by land bought from Henry Freelove.

13 March 1815 Bristol Co Deeds ?
Ephraim Macomber to Job White and Zacheus Gifford for $100 a tract of land in Westport �near the Westport Factory�.

10 July 1817 Bristol Co Deeds 103:243
Job White of Westport, yeoman, to Elijah Stephens of Wellington for $113 two tracts of land in North Dighton.

21 November 1825 Bristol Co Deeds 119:22-3
Order to the Sheriff. William White of Westport, yeoman, has received judgement at the Supreme Judicial Court, Plymouth, against 25 named individuals*** (including John Mason, Joseph Strange and Job White and also Paul White) described as �surviving partners of the late firm Westport Mechanic Factory Company� for the sum of $1027.23 damages and $207.73 costs.

2 December 1825 Bristol Co Deeds 119:23
Land of Paul White in Taunton appraised at the value of $206.77 and ordered to be seized and delivered to William White.

2 December 1825 Bristol Co Deeds 119:24
Order to the Sheriff. Judgement of the Court of Common Pleas in Taunton against the same individuals in favour of William White for the sum of $411.25. Land of Paul White to the value of $165 seized.

22 September 1826 Bristol Co Deeds 120:270-1
Order to the Sheriff. Judgement of the Court of Common Pleas in Taunton in favour of John Mason against Job White for $200 plus $8.33 costs

28 September 1826 Bristol Co Deeds 120: 270-1
Appraisal of the lands as described in the deeds of Henry Truelove and William Gifford. Job White has a one twenty-eighth share of the two tracts which is valued at $96.42 and ordered to be transferred to John Mason.

*Identical deeds exist for the following

Zacheus Gifford $750 3/80
Daniel Dwelly $500 1/40
Edward Borden $500 1/40
Nathan Lincoln $500 1/40
Levi Chace $500 1/40
Joseph Gray $2000 1/10
John Earl $500 1/40
William Hale $500 1/40
Daniel Hale $500 1/40
Simeon Burt $500 1/40
William Marvel $500 1/40
Isaac Macomber $500 1/40
John Andrews $500 1/40
Asa Nicholls $250 1/80
Jesse Nicholls $250 1/80
Stephen Chace $500 1/40

** Individuals named in Henry Freelove Deed of 20 August 1814

Name Residence
Joseph Gray Somerset
Samuel Gray Somerset
Hanan Wilbur Somerset
Daniel Hale Swanzey
William Hale Swanzey
John Mason Swanzey
Amos Martin Swanzey
William Marvel Swanzey
John Andrews Swanzey
John Earl Swanzey
Levi Chace Westport
Job White Westport
Zaccheus Gifford Westport
Isaac Macomber Westport
Job Gifford Westport
Ephraim Macomber Westport
Alfred White Westport
Joseph Strange Westport
Paul White Westport
Simeon Burt Westport
Nathan Lincoln Westport
Edward Borden Westport
Stephen Chace Westport
William B Mason Dartmouth
James F Slocum Dartmouth
Asa Nichols Dartmouth
Jesse Nichols Dartmouth
Daniel Dwelly Tiverton

*** Individuals named in William White deed of 21 November 1825

Name Occupation Residence
Daniel Hale Esq Swanzey
William Hale Yeoman Swanzey
John Mason Esq Swanzey
Levi Chace Yeoman Swanzey
John Anthony Yeoman Swanzey
Amos Martin Husbandman Swanzey
Benajah Mason Yeoman Swanzey
John Earl Yeoman Swanzey
Simeon Burt Yeoman Swanzey
Isaac Macomber Blacksmith Westport
Job Gifford Blacksmith Westport
Ephraim Macomber Yeoman Westport
Edward Borden Yeoman Westport
Zacheus Gifford Yeoman Westport
William B Mason Physician Dartmouth
Asa Nicholls Yeoman Dartmouth
Jesse Nicholls Gentleman Dartmouth
Job White Carpenter Dartmouth
Hanan Wilbur Yeoman Somerset
Joseph Gray Yeoman Somerset
Samuel Gray Yeoman Somerset
Stephen Chace Labourer Troy
Paul White Carpenter Taunton
Joseph Strange Blacksmith Taunton
William Marvel Manufacturer Wellington