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Joseph Meigs

Of the many personalities that stand out in the 331 years of Mattapoisett’s history, perhaps that of Joseph Meigs is one of the more interesting. Vincent Meigs, a widower, and his three sons came from England during the great Puritan Migration to the Bay Colony in 1634. Five generations later, Joseph Meigs was born on September 11, 1776 to John and Alice Dexter Meigs in Rochester. Joseph grew up as a boy on his father’s farm and during the summer months, John Meigs would send his son down to the harbor in Mattapoisett Village with a tip cart filled with fruits and vegetables to sell to the men in the shipyards. Young Joseph soon found that he preferred the smells of the sea and freshly cut lumber to the dust and strong odors of the barnyard, so in his mid-teens he signed on as an apprentice caulker in one of the shipyards ringing the harbor front. He learned the skill quickly and soon moved on to the actual construction of the ship’s hull as an assistant shipwright. He possessed a love of learning which was fueled by an insatiable curiosity. His mother would say of him, “If you are looking for Joseph you will find him curled up with a book in a quiet spot in the barnyard.” The same held true for the shipyard and the noon hour would find him studying manuals concerning shipbuilding. Within a few years, ship carpenters were seeking his advice.

About 1800, Joseph Meigs, now a master carpenter in his own right, bought a piece of land on the north side of Water Street in Mattapoisett. There was a small building on the east side of the parcel which, during the next two years, he enlarged and set up a tavern and general store on the first floor, with his living quarters on the second floor. Within a few years, he purchased another piece of property on the waterfront just west of today’s public beach and proceeded to set up his own shipyard. It is hard to believe, but also during this same span of time he became enamored with politics and the study of law. He made numerous trips to Boston, frequently stopping in Pembroke where he made the acquaintance of a young woman, Amelia Loring. The chemistry must have been right for after a brief courtship they were married and in ten years time, had five children. Amelia had the same knack for business as Joseph, and she took over the running of the store and tavern on Mattapoisett’s busy waterfront. In the store one could buy everything “from a needle to an anchor, coarse home spun to the finest silk, or a penny whistle to a German flute.” And through the Tavern’s doorway trooped thirsty captains, sailors, farmers and ship’s carpenters with many tales to tell.


With Amelia to oversee the store and tavern, Joseph was free to spend several months each winter in Savannah, Georgia where he became engaged in the commission business dealing with naval stores, lumber, sugar, molasses, and cotton. His clients were the whaling merchants (Rotches, Howlands and Rodmans) of New Bedford and within a few years he accumulated considerable wealth. In 1816, with his law degree behind him, he became a recognized Trial Justice and was elected to represent the Rochester Township, which included Marion and Mattapoisett, at the Great and General Court in Plymouth. In 1829, Joseph Meigs, now known as Squire Meigs, was elected to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and in 1838 he became a State Senator.


During this same span of time, the Meigs shipyard on the Mattapoisett waterfront became one of the most famous yards on the coast. Ships built in the Meigs’ yard were known far and wide for the quality of their construction and the completeness of their design. Squire Meigs was the first to actively contract for his vessels with the whaling merchants and agents in New Bedford and Nantucket. This was a practice soon followed by the Holmes, Cannons and Barstows of Mattapoisett. The Squire, too busy with his other pursuits to give the yard full attention, hired only the best craftsmen in the trade. Ebenezer Cannon, Jr. was the master carpenter at the Meigs yard for many years. A number of the whalers launched from the yard sailed for the firm of Joseph Meigs and Sons with Mattapoisett being their home port. Two such ships were the Joseph Meigs and the Sarah (named for his daughter). Squire Meigs owned a bake shop on Water Street where all the bread and hardtack to provision his whalers was baked. It was said, “If you sailed for the Squire, you had the best food afloat.”



Whaling Ship being built in Meigs's shipyard along the waterfront of Mattapoisett
The Whaler Mattapoisett built in Meigs' shipyard 1836

Because Mattapoisett was such a busy port with its eight shipyards and some thirty vessels actively engaged in whaling, Squire Meigs successfully caused an Act to be passed in 1834 by Congress for the erection of light houses and beacons in Buzzard’s Bay. Unfortunately, there was no immediate funding but after two years of persistent effort and with the assistance of John Quincy Adams, money was appropriated for the construction of a lighthouse on Ned’s Point at the entrance of the harbor. Leonard Hammond, another shipyard and tavern owner in Mattapoisett, received the government contract for the building of the structure and the light (whale oil lamp) was lighted for the first time March 21, 1838.



Ned's Point lighthouse and keepers house
Ned's Point

Tragedy struck the Meigs family in 1841 when Joseph Meigs, Jr. died at the early age of thirty- two. Young Joseph had been “the apple of his father’s eye” and had possessed the same love of learning and active nature as his father. He was listed as first partner in the firm of Meigs and Sons, and with his father, oversaw the running of the shipyard, tavern, store, and all business matters. Joseph, Jr. was a deeply compassionate person with an interest in medicine and often sat up with the sick as was the custom. On this occasion, the individual had pneumonia and after sitting for several hours in the hot stuffy room, Joseph went out into the cold, contracted pneumonia himself and died. His death broke his father’s heart and was a blow from which the old man never recovered. Squire Meigs passed away September 23, 1846 at the age of 70.


The younger son, Loring Meigs, took over the family firm and ran the shipyard until it closed in the depression of 1857 shortly before the Civil War. He had never been looked on favorably by his father, but he was successful in his business ventures, especially in the building of the Fairhaven Branch Railroad through Mattapoisett in 1855. The Meigs name survives today as the original tavern which is now the Inn on Shipyard Park right on the waterfront facing the harbor as it always has.


Squire Meigs loved his town and even though he did not live long enough to see Mattapoisett’s separation from the Town of Rochester in 1857, he must have been involved in the original legal overtures which began twenty years earlier in 1837. For nearly a hundred years, stately elm trees graced the streets of Mattapoisett and gave shade from the hot summer sun. Squire Meigs bought and had the trees planted before his death in 1846. It is interesting to note that elms were planted along the streets of Nantucket at about the same time. Did Squire Meigs carry the concept of shaded streets to that island when he negotiated contracts for his ships with the Coffins, Freemans and Macys, or did he bring the idea back with him to Mattapoisett? We will never know and the beautiful trees were blown down in the hurricanes of 1938 and 1954.

Elm tree lined street looking towards water front
Hand painted glass plate of North St. looking towards Water St.

This article originally appeared in the Fall 2010 issue of the Crow's Nest.

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