Captain John Bertram

Born: February 11, Salem, MA
Died: March 22, 1882, Salem, MA

John Bertram was born Feb. 11, 1796 to Jean Bertram and Marie Bertram née Perchard in the parish of St. Savior, on the Island of Jersey. The island is one of the Channel Islands of the coast of Normandy, France. The Bertram family were middle class farmers who felt the prospects for their 6 children would be better in America. The family embarked from Jersey in July 1807 for Baltimore but their leaking ship had to put in at Boston instead. Following the recommendation of a fellow countryman, the family settled in Salem.

The family arrived at a time of economic depression and Jean Bertram tried his hand unsuccessfully at running a grocery store. Later, with the proceeds from the sale of his wife’s Jersey property, Jean Bertram built a house and carpentry shop on Central Street. He pulled young John out of school to assist him. This did not sufficiently support the family and young John wanted to go to sea. He became a sailor and for many years contributed his pay to help his family.

His first voyage was as a cabin boy at in December 1812. His first years at sea were filled with adventure. By 1824 he had ably filled every grade aboard ship earning the lifetime title of Captain. Captain Bertram soon became an established trader, transporting hides and horns bought from the Indians from the coast of Patagonia back to Salem. In 1830, Bertram sailed to Zanzibar aboard the ship Black Warrior and was the first to establish trade with Zanzibar in gum-copal. Gum-copal, a tree resin, used to manufacture vanish for carriages was much prized and had previously been imported at great expense from India.

His shrewd and lucrative investments in cargo made it possible for him to retire from the sea in 1832 at age 36. Home from the sea, Captain Bertram commenced his successful new career as a merchant and ship-owner. He eventually established his own shipping firm in Salem. Most of his trade in later life was with Zanzibar.

Having known poverty in his youth, Captain Bertram was very concerned for the poor and needy. He used his wealth to serve them by founding and supporting numerous charities which still exist in Salem today. In 1860, he was a founder and life-long supporter of the Old Ladies’ Home (now the Brookhouse) at 180 Derby Street. In 1873, he proved the first gift of $25, 000 and a brick mansion on 31 Charter Street to create Salem Hospital, which moved to its present building in 1917. In 1877, he founded the Bertram Home for Aged Men at 29 Washington Square North. Captain Bertram was also a benefactor of the Plummer Farm (Home) for Boys.

He joined the Essex Lodge of Freemasons in 1827, the Salem Marine Society in 1829 and the Salem East India Marine Society in 1830. Although not interested in public life, he did his civic duty serving as a member of Salem’s Common Council 1837-8, and as a representative to the Massachusetts General Court in 1857 and 1863. Of the many accomplishments and contributions to the betterment of Salem attributed to Captain Bertram, one in which he took pride was assisting the city in securing adequate water for its expanding population and growing manufacturing sector. In response to a continuously inadequate water supply, Captain Bertram lead a group of 93 concerned residents to petition the city council to establish Salem Water Works.

At the end of his life, Captain Bertram was considered the richest man in Salem. The high price of his prosperity however, was a life of denial, self-discipline and hard work. Unfortunately his many professional successes were marred by personal tragedy. His father died an alcoholic at 51 and young John was the sole supporter of his mother until her death 17 years later. Untimely deaths claimed his 3 brothers, a sister, a daughter and an adopted daughter. His first two wives died in childbirth, his two sons died in infancy and his adopted son died at 41 leaving the Captain with no male heir to continue the Bertram name.

In 1887, after Bertram’s death, his widow and daughters donated their mansion at 370 Essex St. the city of Salem for use as a Public Library.

John Bertram of Salem, Massachusetts
Bertram, John

Captain John Bertram : seafarer, merchant, philanthropist
Little, Selina F.
Available at the reference desk.

The Legacies of Captain John Bertram
Smith, Erik K.
DVD/L – 11/07

Account of the Proceedings upon the Transfer of the Salem Water Works to the City Authorities, November 16, 1869.
Salem, (Mass.)

The Ships and Sailors of Old Salem
Paine, Ralph Delayahe

John Bertram
Salem Links & Lore

theislandwiki is a gateway to two websites featuring the Channel Islands, a group of small islands in the English Channel. The wiki maintains a page about Captain Bertram.