Birth of a bank

1856 Perth Amboy bank note with whaling scene.

THERE are two ways to sail from Newark to Perth Amboy. A boat leaving Newark Bay may head east through the Kill Van Kull, south through The Narrows and then southwest, skirting the seaward coast of Staten Island. A shorter but more sinuous course threads its way southward along the meandering Arthur Kill. The Whitehead family took one of these routes, both considerably more idyllic in 1823 than they appear today, but either would have had barely a hint of nautical adventure to fire the imagination of the young William Whitehead. Or so we might assume.

The settlement of Whitehead’s family in Perth Amboy came about through the appointment of his father, also named William, to a position in a new bank. Through the influence of the powerful Matthias Bruen (a relative by marriage) and the endorsement of at least half the remaining eight directors, the elder Whitehead at age 50 became the first cashier of the Commercial Bank of New Jersey.1

Though nominally statewide in scope the Commercial Bank was designed to advance the interests of Perth Amboy, especially the town’s maritime fortunes. The state legislature incorporated the bank with the peculiar requirement that between one-fifth and one-third of its stock be devoted to “the fishing for whales, seals, and sea-fish, in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and for no other purpose whatsoever.”2 Banks at the time often engaged in speculative ventures, usually internal improvements like turnpikes, canals, ferries and railroads that were capital intensive. But in the charter’s title the functions of a bank read as an afterthought: “An Act to incorporate a Company for carrying on the Whale and Seal Fisheries from the port of Perth-Amboy, and for Banking purposes.”3

Whale fishing off New Jersey’s coast had provided a sporadic livelihood to some since colonial times, but the backers of this newest enterprise were determined to chase the leviathan in more distant waters. They bought and outfitted a ship, the Susquehanna, and hired as its master Captain David Joy, one of a renowned family of Nantucket whalemen. The vessel left Perth Amboy’s docks in March 1824 and returned from the South Seas a year and a half later, laden with more than 12,000 skins and hides and 30 casks of whale oil.4

The bank seems to have sponsored no more voyages of this sort. In 1825 its charter was amended to remove the fisheries requirement and, following a meeting of the directors “respecting the Susquehanna & whale business,” the ship was sold at auction.5 Still, a connection to the trade was felt decades later when a dramatic whaling scene figured on a popular issue of $5 notes.6 Shortly thereafter the bank became insolvent, lost its charter and closed its doors for good.

The Commercial Bank of New Jersey operated for more than thirty years, in a period that saw many other banks fail. William Whitehead began to learn the business as a clerk under his father, and soon, as bank messenger, was charged with carrying bills between Perth Amboy and neighboring towns, and making regular trips to New York City.7 Barely fourteen when the Susquehanna left for southern latitudes, could he not also claim a small part in a much grander adventure?

Copyright © 2017-2023 Gregory J. Guderian

[1] Whitehead ascribed his father’s selection to the support of Bruen, the husband of his mother’s sister, in “Childhood and Youth of W. A. Whitehead 1810-1830,” part of a memoir of which a transcription is held by the Florida History Department, Monroe County Public Library, Key West, Florida, and by the P. K. Yonge Library of Florida History, George A. Smathers Library, University of Florida; page 14 of the transcription contains the reference. The Commercial Bank’s act of incorporation was passed 15 November 1822; it named nine commissioners, including Bruen, and required that its nine directors, to be chosen by shareholders, elect a president and a cashier by majority vote. Private and temporary acts. Acts of the General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey, at a session begun at Trenton, on the twenty-second day of October, One thousand eight hundred and twenty-two (Trenton 1823) 70-76, esp. 70-71, 73.

[2] Private and temporary acts. Acts of the General Assembly … 71.

[3] A similar combination of whaling and banking enterprises was launched on Staten Island in 1838. Although technically separate, the Staten Island Whaling and Manufacturing Company and the Staten Island Bank were criticized for being managed by many of the same individuals. Ira K. Morris, “Staten Island’s first bank–1838.” Proceedings of the Natural Science Association of Staten Island 4:13 (12 January 1895) 56-59.

[4] Harry B. Weiss et al., Whaling in New Jersey (Trenton 1974) esp. 73-78; Barbara Lipton, Whaling days in New Jersey (Newark Museum Quarterly, Spring/Summer 1975) esp. 27-31. A customhouse record lists the goods brought in by the Susquehanna on 29 August 1825. Impost Book, 2 August 1789–1826. Records of customhouses and collection districts: Perth Amboy, N.J. Record Group 36.3.1, Records of the U.S. Customs Service, National Archives.

[5] The amended act, passed 8 November 1825, gave the bank’s directors one year to dispose of “any ship or vessel, now owned by them.” Acts of the Fiftieth General Assembly of the State of New-Jersey, at a session begun at Trenton, the twenty-fifth day of October, One thousand eight hundred and twenty five (Trenton 1825) 6. They met accordingly on 28 November and the ship was sold on 5 December, according to wharf records kept by Benjamin Maurice, one of the directors; however the bank continued to pay wharf and storage fees well into the next year. Daily Work Book and Wharf Book, Manuscript Group 455, Perth Amboy Wharf, New Jersey Historical Society.

[6] This image was apparently adapted from a painting by Frenchman Ambrose Louis Garneray (1783-1857), who included a black oarsman in the foreground, a detail retained in a Currier and Ives lithograph, “The whale fishery: Attacking a right whale,” and on the Perth Amboy banknote illustrated above. With the failure of the Commercial Bank its notes were liable to be counterfeited or altered to represent banks still solvent, even as far away as antebellum North Carolina. George Wait, New Jersey’s money (Newark 1976) 298; Commercial Bank of Wilmington five-dollar note, 1856; period alteration, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

[7] “Childhood and Youth” 16-17.

Image: A&O Currency.

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