Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cleopatra’s Barge, from Salem to Hawaii

Cleopatra's Barge painting by George Ropes, 1818 ,
exhibit M-8255
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

My 2nd cousin six generations removed, Retire Becket, built America’s first pleasure yacht, Cleopatra's Barge.  He was a ship builder in Salem, Massachusetts, and he was one of the more prominent men in his trade. In 1816 George Crowninshield commissioned a pleasure boat unlike any other ever built. It had a 100 foot deck and cost $50,000 (in 1816 dollars!) to build out of mahogany and gold trim, and another $50,000 to furnish with artwork, fine silver and porcelain.

The log book of Cleopatra’s Barge is available at the Peabody Essex Museum’s Phillip’s library. A reconstruction of the grand salon is on display, and gives visitors an idea of the splendor of the ship. Some of the furnishings are on display, too.

According to the PEM website “One telling exhibit in the Peabody Essex Museum that illustrates the fabulous wealth that had accrued to Salem is a reconstruction of the lounge of Cleopatra's Barge, a pleasure yacht built in 1816 by entrepreneur George Crowninshield. Some call it the country's first cruise ship. He had it constructed with the finest craftsmanship available and outfitted it with fine furnishings in the Federal and Neo-Classical styles and all the accoutrements of royalty. His intention was to sail Cleopatra's Barge to Europe with the express hope of hosting Napoleon himself on board and becoming the toast of the continent. He received quite a bit of attention as his yacht, gilded and herringboned on one side and striped on the other sailed into European ports, but Napoleon snubbed him, and Mr. Crowninshield returned home only to die unexpectedly the following year.”

After Crowninshield died, in 1817, Cleopatra’s Barge was sold to two Boston merchants in 1820. They sailed it to the Sandwich Islands, then known as the Kingdom of Hawaii, to sell it. King Kamehameha II took one look, and bought it for 8000 piculs of sandalwood (more than one million pounds of wood) worth $80,000 in 1820 dollars. The King renamed his ship the Royal Yacht Ha’aheo o Hawai’i. The ship began to slowly rot in the Pacific climate, so Captain Thomas Meek was hired to fix it with lumber from the Pacific Northwest. In 1824 it ran aground near Hanalei Bay off the coast of Kaua’i.

Some interesting facts about this ship and my family history:

1. Retire Becket’s house, which used to stand on Becket Street in Salem, was moved to the grounds of the House of Seven Gables museum in 1924. It now is used as a gift shop. My Becket ancestors lived on Becket Street, possibly in the same house. It was built in 1655 by John Beckett, my 9x Great Grandfather. My Great Great Grandparents lived one block over on Bentley Street. Retire Becket also built the schooner Fame which was commanded by another ancestor, Abner Poland.  Click here for my blog post about the ship Fame.

2. Captain Thomas Meek (mentioned above) was born 27 November 1791 in Marblehead, Massachusetts and died 29 January 1875 in Marblehead, where he returned after living in Hawaii. He married a native woman and left numerous descendants in Hawaii.  During my research trip to Hawaii’s Bishop Museum I met a man who was a descendant of Thomas Meek. When I got back to the hotel to check my database on my computer I found that Captain Thomas Meek’s son John married Elizabeth Kaluapapohana Kamsi, a member of the Hawaiian nobility. The Meeks are my cousins through my Gardner lineage in Salem.

3. The connection between my family in Massachusetts and Hawaii keeps growing stronger. King Kamehameha was a distant relative to Queen Lili’uokalani, whose husband was the nephew of my 4x great grandmother, Catherine Plummer (Jones) Younger.

4. Many members of my immediate and extended family tree have donated things to the Peabody Essex Museum, or their possessions and papers now are part of their collections. I suppose this isn’t unusual since I have so many Salem ancestors. I have blogged about the Pope Cabinet here, which was sold to the museum in 2000. Also in the collections is a book written by Great Great Grandfather Abijah Franklin Hitchings. His book is Ship registers of the district of Salem and Beverly, Massachusetts, 1789-1900, with annotations by Stephen Willard Phillips, published at Salem by the Essex Institute in 1906. The only other library I know to have a copy of this book is the library at the New England Historic Genealogical Society. I blogged about Abijah Hitchings here at this post from 26 July 2010 .

The Becket Family Tree:

                                                 John Becket
                                                 b. abt. 1626
                                              William Becket
                                                    b. 1665

John Becket                                                         Retire Becket
b. 1684                                                                   b. 1704
         I                                                                          I
John Becket                                                        William Becket
b. 1715
         I                                                                          I
Hannah Becket                                                    Retire Becket
b. 1751                                                            (Built Cleopatra’s Barge)
         I                                                                     b. 1754
Mary Cloutman
b. abt 1775
Abijah Hitchings
b. 1809
Abijah Franklin Hitchings
b. 1841
(my 2x Great Grandfather)

Retire Becket's home in Salem, Massachusetts
now the gift shop at the
House of Seven Gables Museum

For more information:

The House of Seven Gables Historic Site Website

The Peabody Essex Museum Website

An interesting proposal to reconstruct the Royal Yacht Ha’aheo o Hawai’I , with an estimated cost of over $7 million dollars to rebuild today.

The Schooner Fame a replica was rebuilt in 2003 by Harold Burnham (another cousin!) of Essex, Massachusetts. Now you can sail aboard the Fame to see Salem Harbor and the Massachusetts coastline on their day tours.

A genealogy of the Becket family can be found at The Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, Volume 8, page 139 - 144, by the Essex Institute of Salem, Massachusetts, 1868, available for full viewing at Google Books.


Copyright 2011, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. As always, a nice post. I recognize the house also. But, what I really like is how you did the family tree.

  2. Thanks, Barbara. There was probably a more professional way to show the two lineages, but this worked out OK.