The Furness House is part of South Berwick Historic District. Before the cotton factory was built at Quamphegan Landing, a small beach was located along the shore of the Salmon Falls River. In the mid-1700s, what is now known as Liberty Street along the river was called Furness Road, after the seagoing Furness family, who owned a wharf on the riverbank. Blacksmith Robert Furness (also spelled Furnace) lived in a house across the street from the Landing. He made iron tools and hardware, nails and horseshoes in his blacksmith shop. In the 1750 he co-owned with James Garvin a ship that traded sugar products produced with slave labor in the West Indies. Robert and his wife Abigail had ten children, and three of their six sons went away to sea.
1805 map excerpt, Old Berwick Historical Society archives.
According to research in 2020 by descendant Sean Furness in the National Archives of the United Kingdom, Robert Furness partnered in the 1750s with James Garvin, a resident of Rollinsford, NH. The ship they owned, variously registered as Bonnel, Bonnella or Bonnetta, was built at Berwick, likely at at what was known as Pipe Stave Landing near the Hamilton House in today's South Berwick. It had a burden of 40 tons and crew of five, with Thomas Miller as master, later Patrick Markham. Records of the port of Portsmouth, NH, show the vessel sailing between 1752 and 1754 between there West Indies with southbound cargoes of boards, planks, joists, spars and shingles, and returning with barrels of rum and sugar. In 1755 the vessel sailed to Venezuela and returned with salt.
Robert Furness's three seagoing sons, John, Robert, and William, were teenagers when the Revolutionary War began, and when they reached manhood, all three served as soldiers or sailors in the war for independence. Each left by boat from the wharf here at the Landing and went away to sea. In 1777 the son named Robert Furness, after his father, joined the crew of the frigate Raleigh, one of America’s first navy ships. The same year, his brother William joined a famous captain, John Paul Jones, aboard an even more famous navy ship, the Ranger. William Furness became a seaman after the war, and by October 1791 he was captain of the Olive Branch, a brig newly launched from Pipe Stave Landing, sailing to ports in Virginia, the West Indies in the Caribbean Ocean, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal in Europe. Two years later in October 1793, the Olive Branch was on a voyage to Portugal, only 15 miles from the port of Lisbon, when Algerian pirates attacked the ship. William and his crew were captured and taken to prison in Algiers on the north coast of Africa. He and his crew worked at hard labor in a mine and suffered from starvation and disease.
Finally, after three cruel years, he was ransomed by the United States government and came home to South Berwick. William continued to sail, but only a year after he returned as captain he was captured again, this time by French privateers in the Caribbean. The high drama of his career as a master of ships in the 1790s reflects the enormous risks—and huge profits—in the business of maritime trade when this country was a new Republic.
The pirates of the Barbary Coast had a long history of attacking ships in the Mediterranean Sea and along the coast of Europe as far north as Ireland. For 300 years before the early 1800s, pirates from Islamic cities on the north coast of Africa that were part of the Ottoman Empire—Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Morocco—had seized vessels for political and commercial ends. They spread terror by enslaving passengers and crews, and they successfully demanded tribute payments from European nations and from America. Roughly 700 Americans were held captive as North African slaves between 1785 and 1815. William Furness reported that 112 Americans were confined in prison with him in Algiers in March of 1794, five months into his captivity. “We live in hopes that our countreymen will not let us suffer long in this place,” he wrote to his ship’s owner, Jonathan Hamilton, back in South Berwick. But the ransoms paid were exorbitant sums—William estimated that his crew could be redeemed for $2,000 each—and he remained enslaved. Plunder was the sole object of the Barbary pirates, and they became the model for the roguish bandits of fiction. But the loss and suffering they imposed on the crew of the Olive Branch was quite real.
When he was 40 and returned from a four-month voyage to Martinique in 1798, William married a young woman from South Berwick named Martha Leigh, granddaughter of the Furnesses' neighbor, Judge Benjamin Chadbourne. Capt. William Furness made other voyages to the islands of the Caribbean, but in a smaller vessel—a schooner, rather than a ship.
They had two children, Abigail and Benjamin, and lived in a house that still stands, just up from the Landing, on what is now Liberty Street.
But William’s journeys were not over. In 1807 a law was passed that prohibited all American ships from trading in foreign ports. The Embargo Act was an attempt to stop the warring nations of Britain and France from seizing American ships and sailors to further their cause. For towns like South Berwick that were dependent on shipbuilding and maritime commerce, the loss of trade was devastating. Younger captains, like Theodore Jewett, made bold voyages to forbidden ports with a sea letter, signed by President Thomas Jefferson, allowing them to trade. Theodore made his first voyage as captain in 1808, at age 20, sailing to Tortola in the Caribbean with a load of barrel staves and hoops. But William was 48 and worn by a life at sea and the injuries sustained in sea battles aboard the Ranger 30 years before. He could no longer pay his debts at Norton’s dry goods store in town or to the merchant John Goodwin, and his land was taken by the courts in 1807 and 1809 to pay those debts.
The Embargo was revoked early in 1809, but William seems never to have recovered from the loss of his seafaring livelihood. He was 58 in 1818 when a new law was passed by Congress that gave a pension to Revolutionary War veterans in need. William moved to Alexandria, Virginia, near the capitol in Washington to seek a pension for his naval service during the war. According to his testimony, he was without property or means of support and unable to pursue his occupation as a sailor. The pension of $8 a month that he received was a meager income at a time when laborers earned $1 a day. William died in Alexandria, never making the final voyage home to South Berwick.
(Written by Nina Maurer for the Hike through History. Updated by Wendy Pirsig with research of Sean Furness in December 2020.)