1836: John Nathaniel Sherburne to Capt. Theodore Jackson Harris

This letter was written by John Nathaniel Sherbourne (1793-1859), a merchant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He was married to Eveline Blunt (1801-1889) in 1822. His sons — the “three boys” mentioned in the letter — were Charles Blunt Sherburne (1827-1850), Nathaniel Sherburne (1832-18xx), and John Pitts Sherburne (1832-1880).

Sherburne wrote the letter to Capt. Theodore Jackson Harris (1795-1838), captain and co-owner of the ship, Harriett Rockwell, which was launched in 1835, weighing 447 gross tons. Maritime records show the ships’ arrival in Havre, France on 21 June 1836 which is probably when Harris received this letter. Capt. Harris was married in 1820 to Mary Macpheadris Warner Conner (1797-1886), the daughter of Capt. Benjamin Conner and Abigail Warner.  Capt. Harris was the son of Abel Harris (1763-1829) and Rooksby Coffin (1762-1833). Capt. Harris apparently became a master mariner at a very young age. A newspaper advertisement in January 1816 states that he was master of the brig Success sailing from Norfolk to Cork.

The 31 March 1838 issue of the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics posted the following obituary notice for Capt. Harris:

At sea, on board ship Harriett Rockwell, January 29th, Capt. Theodore J. Harris, of this town, aged 41.

Stampless Letter


Addressed to Capt. Theodore I. Harris, Ship Harriet Rockwell, American Consul, Havre, France

Portsmouth [New Hampshire]
March 13, 1836

Dear Theodore,

Mary received yours postmarked 25th February last evening & Elizabeth is to answer it to go with this. I suppose she will tell you all about affairs at home so that I shall only say that since mine of the 4th announcing the birth of a son to you, Mary has been quite unwell with a nervous headache & feverish, but is entirely well now & will be about as soon as usual in such cases. She had every attention & Dr. [James Hervey] Pierrepont ¹ was unusually sociable.

I stay from church to have this go by the 16th Packet, but should have written you some days ago had it not been for my engagement as an appraiser on the estate of our late friend, Capt. Sam Pray. ² I suppose you know that he died suddenly in New York by taking Thomson’s Medicine ³ when his system was not prepared for it. We have been two or three days on the business & are not half thro’ & from what I can see think he will leave a handsome estate.

Cushing it is said will get well thro’ his failure & have a good property left. I feel miserably about the conduct of Lake. It seems as if my cup of sorrow would never be filled — a growing family, burthens on me which I have no right to bear, embarrassed with other debts & other’s villainy — cheated & swindled out of the little remnant of my dependance by such agents as he, & not a brother, connection, or friend, to lean on is — I know — rather a sorry picture, but nevertheless true to the life.

Our winter has been very severe & the ice very thick (one cake measured 9 feet thick) & it is thought that Piscatigua Bridge & ours will both go off when it breaks up. The wharf of the latter has been already carried away.

Our three boys as I before stated have been very sick of the measles & I think Charles with that & his absess has not been out three weeks since November. Our girl who is a very gross, robust woman, is now lying ill of the black sort in the back chamber. Dr. Pierrepont says she will die, but I think she may not.

Up to this time we have had good sleighing ever since November 23 — more snow than I ever saw in one winter. An excellent market but very dear. Wood as high as $10 cord for a short time. Poultry 12 to 14 cents, butter 25 cents, lard 11 to 20 cents, Beef 8, Pork 10 &c. I have little more to write you on any subject for suppose Elizabeth will give you a detail so I will close with wishing you well, & a desire to hear from you as often as may be convenient.

Yours as ever, — John N. Sherburne


¹ Dr. James Hervey Pierrepont (1768-1839) graduated from Dartmouth College with a medical doctorate  in 1817.

² Capt. Samuel Pray (1789-1836), the son of John and Mary (Orr) Pray, was born in Kittery, Maine. “From his native town, he removed to Portsmouth. New Hampshire, and was a sea captain and ship builder. During the second war with Great Britain (1812-15) he was engaged in privateering. December 14, 1814, he was made prize master of a British ship with orders to take her to Portsmouth, but was shortly afterwards overhauled by a British seventy-four gun frigate, which recaptured his prize, and with the American prize crew he was sent to Dartmoor prison in England, and was in that prison when the prisoners were fired upon. He was subsequently released and returned to America. He married (first), April 23, 1809, Lucy Fernald, who was a daughter of Daniel and Hannah (Manson) Fernald, and who died October 27, 1826. He married second, Ellen Brown, September 6, 1827.” The 2 January 1836 issue of the Commercial Advertiser posted notice of Capt. Pray’s death as follows: “At Brooklyn, very suddenly, yesterday morning, Capt. Samuel Pray, of Portsmouth, N.H.”

Samuel Thomson’s Book, published in 1822

³ We learn from this letter that Capt. Samuel Pray died from a self-administerd dose of Thomson’s Medicine. Samuel Thomson, a poor New Hampshire farmer, introduced a simple system of botanic cures in 1822 as an alternative to orthodox medicine (see New Guide to Health or Botanic Family Physician, 1822). According to Thomson, illness had only one cause– the loss of the body’s heat. He postulated that all disease was caused by the clogging of the digestive system; and all disease could be removed by restoring the digestive powers, so that the food may keep up that heat on which life depends. Thomson’s self-treatment, therefore, “consisted of a regular course of six botanic medicines, given in numerical order, beginning with the cleansing of the system and ending with its restoration with tonics. The average person could obtain his own botanic medicines, administer the remedy, and be his own physician. Thus, Thomsonianism had great appeal to the “common man” of Jacksonian America who wanted to end elitism in the medical world. The patient no longer had to be ‘doctored to death’ or spend large sums of money for physicians’ services; botanics were widely advertised and dispensed both wholesale and retail.”


3 responses to “1836: John Nathaniel Sherburne to Capt. Theodore Jackson Harris

  • Kim Wilson

    Thank you so much for the preservation work you have undertaken. John Nathaniel Sherburne was my (maternal) 3rd great-grandfather. I have just begun family genealogical research so as you can imagine, I was quite surprised and happy to come across this letter and your webpage. I am very interested in any additional information on the Sherburne family. Many thanks, K.

    • Griff

      Kim: you are welcome. All that I have researched & found regarding Sherburne is already contained here but I’ll wager you can find much more if you dig deep enough. Thanks for the appreciation you have expressed. It encourages me to keep plugging away at these transcriptions. — Griff

  • Diane Vierra

    Fascinating! It makes you wonder if Samuel Pray had any idea what was to come of him. Not much has changed from the 1800’s to today’s claims of “cleanse remedies” vs. the cost of seeing a doctor and medicine. Thank you Kim for sharing this with us.

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