Skip to main content
Go to accessibility notice


    [Maritime Trade]. Archive of Letters of Merchant Ship Captain John F. Kennedy. A fascinating archive of 53 autographed letters signed, 52 from Kennedy to his wife Marcia Gray Kennedy (b. 1781) of Baltimore and 1 from Kennedy to James Mosher, a banker in Baltimore. John F. Kennedy (not to be confused with another Baltimore merchant of the period named John Kennedy, who was the father of the American novelist John Pendleton Kennedy) was a merchant ship captain from Baltimore who married Marcia Gray in 1799 or 1800. Kennedy's letters to his wife, averaging 2-3 pages in length, most with integral address covers, date from April 17, 1797 to October 14, 1818, and are written from all over the world, including Havana, Paris, Gibraltar, Rio de Janeiro, Mauritius, and several east coast American cities. His letters contain frequent expressions of his love for his wife and three children (two daughters and a son) and interesting details relating to his various business endeavors, including failures.

    American merchants like Kennedy wishing to ship their goods overseas were constantly under the threat of having their vessels seized and cargo claimed as a prize of war by the British, French, and Barbary pirates during the Napoleonic wars, the War of 1812, and the Barbary Wars. This explains his June 19, 1798 letter to his future wife, written from Norfolk, Virginia, in which announced that his ship will "go out under the protection of our fine frigate the Constellation." Unfortunately for Kennedy, his ships did not escape capture. He reported to his wife on August 12, 1805, on the "loss of my little favorite Brig Jane shamefully captured by the French. . . . She is again recaptured by the British and sent to Jamaica, to which place I have this day sent our friend H. Child to pay the salvage and bring her home." Not surprisingly, the capture of his ship put Kennedy into a financial bind. In an August 27, 1805 letter, he bemoans his situation: "The loss of the Jane at a moment when I required an immense sum of money to meet my engagements threw me into such difficulty that to make my payments required all my energy and industry to get money without borrowing or going into the disreputable schemes of slavers." Two years later, Kennedy had another ship seized, though this time it appeared to be by a U.S. port collector. In a July 5, 1807 letter from New Orleans, he wrote his wife that "I should have been with you long ago had it not been for the seizure of the Augusta. It has faged [sic] me to death almost. It was unexpected from the collector as he was fully satisfied when we first arrived that he could not seize the ship. I should have had 25 or 30000 Dollars by the voyage."

    In the fall of 1814, Kennedy was in Norfolk, Virginia, recovering from an attack of fever. Writing to his wife from Norfolk on October 3, 1814, he expressed his great relief that she and the children survived the siege of Baltimore by the British and his regret that he was not present at the Battle of Fort McHenry to join in the fight. "Your two letters of the 21st came together last evening. Their receipt has eased my mind more than it is in my power to express. I thought you or some of the children sick or dead not hearing from you. Knowing that you are all well I feel an unusual comfort and happiness....My God what a time my love you must have had during the siege. Altho the fortune of man might have put an end to me or deprived me of a leg or an arm and put an end to all my hopes in this world I regret my not being in fort McHenry as the greatest misfortune of my life."

    Kennedy was in Gibraltar for much of the time from June 1815 through the end of 1816. In a June 22, 1815 letter he reported on the danger to American ships as a result of the Second Barbary War. "Since the departure of Capt. American vessel has dared go out of the port owing to the Algerine fleet being out. They have captured a number of our unfortunate countrymen." He mentioned the arrival of the American fleet under Commodores Stephen Decatur at Gibraltar in an October 27, 1815 letter, which was carried by Decatur to the United States. "Commodore Decatur came in last evening as Bainbridge went out. He sailed this evening and by him send the present letter." In the same letter, Kennedy wrote about sending his ship Gen. Scott back to Norfolk via Bordeaux but that he would not sail on her due to her unseaworthiness. "I have sent the Gen. Scott to Bordeaux there to load with wine etc. for Norfolk. I hope she will get home safe but for myself I would not cross the ocean in her for all the riches of the universe. Coming out here I often expected never again to put my foot on dry land therefore shall not again trust her with my person."

    A year later Kennedy's business enterprise had apparently collapsed and, judging by his letters from Gibraltar, he was in serious financial trouble. On November 14, 1816 he wrote to his wife that he was "disappointed in my business-everything gone astray-my name probably dishonored and reviled by a cursed commercial want and left without one...friend on earth....Had I succeeded...I should then have been extolled-but as my commercial friends have interfered and destroyed the execution of my business in its progress they now revile me for that loss which they themselves have achieved. My time wasted fruitlessly-myself exiled-my own business left at the mercy of merchants that are...highway robbers." In a 20 November letter Kennedy blamed his business troubles on the "dishonest conduct of Jno. Duconnan an ungrateful scoundrel who was everything to me. This has so completely subverted all my aspirations that the voyage that would have turned out for my concern a very profitable one will perhaps be little better than a ruinous one and to me the most unfortunate that I ever made." Apparently his wife was not pleased with the turn of events, as Kennedy referred to her recent letter, bemoaning its contents. "Oh! Marcy your letter is...a dagger to my already lacerated heart-indeed I have but one wish-to make you and my sweet children happy...the disappointments I feel the more as they put it out of my power to contribute to your comfort to your ease and happiness."

    Two years later, Kennedy was in Montevideo trying to close a sale to ameliorate his financial troubles. In a October 14, 1818 letter (the last in the archive) he wrote to his wife that "I have put off to the last minute writing to you in hopes of being able to announce to you the sale of the cursed French ship that my ill-fated [shame?] has too long saddled me with....I have hopes of concluding for her in the course of the coming week and should I be so fortunate I shall go home without further delay than will be necessary to make my remittance to Gibraltar, where it will be necessary for me to go, but for the present I shall go home should I be fortunate enough to get rid of the French ship to the government." Kennedy closed his letter with a plea to his wife to "forgive your unfortunate husband-do not upbraid him. He is sufficiently punished for all he has made you suffer."

    In addition to Kennedy's letters there are in the archive related family papers, including a two-page, 7.25" x 12.25", document of John F. Kennedy's cash accounts from 1833 and 1835; 3 family photographs: 1) Photograph of Lucy Hansel MacGrotty Phipps by an unidentified photograph, 5.5" x 7.5" oval albumen on a 7" x 9" mount, dated October 8, 1862. 2) Photograph of a building in Pittsfield, New Hampshire, by American photographer Frank B. Berry, 8.5" x 6.25" albumin print on a 9 7/8" x 8" mount, [circa 1890s). 3) Photograph of an unidentified woman (possibly Marcia Gray Kennedy), 2.75" x 3.5" oval albumen on a 9" x 9.75" mount, undated; a manuscript fragment of a poem, 7 7/8" x 7.5", dated April 17, 1797; 8 separated integral address covers; one-page family register, 6.5" x 8.75", dated July 27, 1857, written by Marcia Gray Kennedy; later notes by a descendant Marcia Gray Phipps.

    Condition: The archive is in a worn period folder repaired with cello tape. The letters are overall in good condition, with a few tears due to broken seals. Some have stitch holes along left margins. One letter, that of April 17, has paper loss along middle horizontal fold in both letter and integral address cover, which affects part of the text, and weakening and tears along horizontal folds of address cover. Paper loss and tears have been crudely repaired by tape. Most of the integral address covers have no postal cancellations due to the fact they were delivered by ship.

    Shipping, Taxes, Terms and Bidding
    Calculate Standard Domestic Shipping

    Sales Tax information  |  Terms and Conditions

    Bidding Guidelines and Bid Increments

    Glossary of Terms

    Auction Info

    Auction Dates
    May, 2017
    11th Thursday
    Bids + Registered Phone Bidders: 2
    Lot Tracking Activity: N/A
    Page Views: 555

    Buyer's Premium per Lot:
    25% on the first $250,000 (minimum $19), plus 20% of any amount between $250,000 and $2,500,000, plus 12% of any amount over $2,500,000 per lot.

    Sold for: Sign-in or Join (free & quick)

    Heritage membership

    Join Now - It's Free

    1. Past Auction Values (prices, photos, full descriptions, etc.)
    2. Bid online
    3. Free Collector newsletter
    4. Want List with instant e-mail notifications
    5. Reduced auction commissions when you resell your
    Consign now
    • Cash Advances
    • More Bidders
    • Trusted Experts
    • Over 200,000 Satisfied Consignors Since 1976
    Consign to the 2018 October 27 Musical Instruments - Dallas.

    Learn about consigning with us

    Thanks a million for getting approval to sell my Civil War Hospital Death Ledger! You made them AND ME , a nice profit. You are the best!
    Ed W.,
    Mount Vernon, OH
    View More Testimonials receives more traffic than any other auction house website. (Source:

    Video tutorial

    Getting the most out of search

    Recent auctions

    2018 May 11 Space Exploration Signature Auction - Dallas
    2018 May 11 Space Exploration Signature Auction - Dallas
    REALIZED SO FAR $1,136,520