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Captain Josiah Richardson

1808 - 1853

Like many who lived near the ocean, Josiah was drawn to the sea at an early age. At 11, he shipped as a cabin boy on a short costal voyage during the summer school vacation. He repeated that every summer while attending high school, and by age 21, had become master of a small schooner. At 22, he made his first foreign voyage as captain in the small brig Orbit, which he sailed from Boston to Europe carrying general cargo.

By 1839 he was through with smaller vessels. He took command of the ship Chatham and for two years was hard at work carrying cotton from southern ports to Liverpool and Le Havre. In 1843 he married Harriet Goodnow and bought a house in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts. He planted fruit trees and became a Deacon of the Shrewsbury Congregational Church. In 1844 he took command of the ship Walpole carrying wheat from New York to Liverpool.

With the discovery of gold in California in 1849 there was a huge draw to move freight and passengers from the East Coast to the western seaboard.  But without a transcontinental railroad and the Panama Canal, ships to the Pacific had to circumnavigate Cape Horn. [1]

Stag Hound

The building of fast vessels for foreign trade had for several years been adopted in New York before Boston awoke to distinguish herself in clipper ship building. Donald McKay, designer and builder of sailing ships, had grown restless under the idea that a sister city was monopolizing the construction of fast vessels, and for many years he urged Boston merchants to enter the dispute for speed. Finally, at the hands of Donald McKay, Messrs. Geo. B. Upton, and Sampson, and Tappan, ordered the construction of the Stag Hound, a ship to exceed the tonnage, and excel the speed, of any ship of her class afloat.

Stag Hound by Arthur Clark.PNG

Stag Hound by Arthur Clark

She was designed longer and sharper than any other vessel in the merchant service in the world. Her model was not undertaken without a through exploration of all discovered mysteries in speed, and the most celebrated models were sought out, and examined with care. The result was the production of a vessel designed with special reference to her builder's ideal of perfection. The Stag Hound was launched for the California trade on December 7, 1850. Command of the ship was given to Captain Josiah Richardson. [2]

Staffordshire by Henry Scott.PNG

Staffordshire by Henry Scott

During his time aboard the Stag Hound, another ship was being built – a magnificent clipper ship named the Staffordshire. She was the largest ship belonging to Boston and was nearly the same model as the beautiful clipper Flying Cloud. For excellence of materials, strength and completeness of workmanship, she was all that a ship ought to be. Built for the Atlantic trade, more than usual care was bestowed in her construction. She was one of the strongest clippers afloat. In view of Captain Josiah Richardson’s success with the Stag Hound, he was asked to command this new ship. [3]

On May 3, 1852 the Staffordshire left Boston with 120 passengers and a freight list 13 feet long. The ship arrived in San Francisco harbor 101 days later which smashed all sailing records for those days for that particular passage. Later that year the ship was re-rigged and refitted for trans-atlantic runs lasting approximately 14 days. 


On December 8, 1853 she sailed from Liverpool with approximately 180 passengers. All went well until the Staffordshire approached the coast off Nova Scotia. On December 23rd, a tremendous gale began to blow. The barometer fell to the 28 degree mark, a hurricane reading.  As the Staffordshire plunged heavily into waves, the end of the bowsprit and the top of the fore-topmast broke.  Captain Richardson went aloft to better survey the situation and to see what orders were needed for repairs. He lost his grip and fell 30 feet to the deck of the ship. His left arm and left ankle were broken and he seemed to be injured internally as well. Command of the ship was given to his First Officer, Mr. Alden.


For 30 hours more the Staffordshire proceeded slowly, pounded heavily by the rough seas. Near midnight, a light was spotted forward. Mr. Alden pronounced it a ship’s light and let the Staffordshire continue on its course.  Unfortunately, the source of light proved to be the Seal Island lighthouse, and before long, the ship struck a rock and settled quickly.  As the Staffordshire slipped into deeper water, Mr. Alden went below to carry the captain to safety.  On learning the ship was minutes from sinking, Captain Richardson said, “Then if I am to be lost, God’s will be done.” Finding it impossible to move the captain, Mr. Alden returned to the deck to secure a boat to safety. [4]


On January 4, the Boston Semi-Weekly Atlas reported that the packet ship Staffordshire, commanded by Captain Josiah Richardson, which sailed from Liverpool for Boston, had struck Blond Rock, South of Seal Island.  Of those aboard, only 40 survived. The remaining 180, including Captain Richardson went down with the ship, as telegraphed by First Officer, Mr. Alden. 

(1)(4) Chandler Bullock, Career of Captain Josiah Richardson (Presentation to the Worcester Historical Society, 1949)

(2) The Clipper Ship Stag Hound (The U.S. Nautical Magazine, Vol. II, 1855)

(3) The Clipper Ship Staffordshire (The Boston Daily Atlas, 1852)

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