The Amistad on the Hudson

The Amistad

The other day when sailing on the Hudson, I came upon a replica of an old ship called the Amistad. A square-rigger — the type of sail rigging that phased out in the 1800s.

A couple of interesting readings on the internet brought me up to speed on this deal. They made a movie about it, which I missed.

As mentioned in this Wikipedia article, New York City merchant Lewis Tappan headed the abolitionist "Amistad Committee”. Tappan has an interesting history. He hailed from Northampton, MA, an old town that lies along US 91 and the Connecticut River. He had an impact opposing slavery, and also started a credit-reporting business (because he had reservations about extending credit) which later became Dun & Bradstreet.

Noted in the article, “A strict Calvinist, he insisted on cash transactions, since the Bible warned against lending money and charging interest. . . In 1827, he started over, joining his successful brother, Arthur, in New York's silk trade.”


In 1830, the Tappans met a young abolitionist agitator named William Lloyd Garrison, whom Arthur offered financial support. Soon, the brothers were part of a nationwide network opposing slavery. Their new crusade made them the hated targets of many merchants and white laborers, who believed ending slavery would destroy the cotton export business and allow freed slaves to take scarce jobs. By 1834, mobs were storming Lewis' home and Arthur's store. Faced with a boycott and lost business, the Tappans were forced to extend credit for the first time. Then, in the panic of 1837, the business was wiped out. By 1839, Arthur had repaid all his creditors and the business was shakily back on its feet.

Credit Reporting

Lewis hated credit, but he realized offering it to customers was becoming the only way to make a sale. How could a merchant gauge his customer's trustworthiness, and assess whether he'd ever get paid? Tappan began keeping files on customers, reviewing their characters and their credit-worthiness. Pretty soon, other merchants were turning to Tappan for advice. Exploiting his abolitionist connections across the country, Tappan created a network of correspondents to offer up-to-date and comprehensive credit information about people in their communities.

Booming Business

Some saw the files kept by Tappan's Mercantile Agency, founded in 1841, as an invasion of privacy. But by 1844 the business had 280 clients. It opened branch offices in Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore.

Dun & Bradstreet

Tappan transferred the running of the agency to his chief clerk, Benjamin Douglass, in 1849. By 1851, 2000 full-time correspondents were reporting from across the nation. Douglass would transfer the company to his brother-in-law, Robert Graham Dun, in 1858, and in 1933 R.G. Dun & Company would merge with its main rival, Bradstreet, forming Dun & Bradstreet, the largest credit reporting entity in the world. As for Tappan, he retired wealthy to spend all his time opposing slavery. He died in 1873, a decade after the Emancipation Proclamation, in Brooklyn, New York.


Tappan was born in Northampton, Massachusetts. Smith College for women was founded in Northampton in 1871. Today Smith is the largest of the Seven Sisters colleges. Well-known Smith alumnae include Sylvia Plath, Gloria Steinem, Olive Higgins Prouty, and Julia Child. The first game of women's basketball was played at Smith College in 1892.

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