In 1849, Samuel Merritt was making a name for himself as a physician in Plymouth, Mass. Merritt, originally from Harpswell, Maine, completed a difficult operation on a friend of the aging statesman Daniel Webster. Webster lived in nearby Marshfield at the time.
Impressed, Webster befriended the young doctor. As they spoke, Merritt admitted his fascination with the fold rush drawing people to California. Webster advised him, “Go out there, young man; go out there and behave yourself, and, free as you are from family cares, you will never regret it.”
It was the nudge that Merritt needed.
He was born March 30, 1823, to a shipbuilding family. Merritt decided to make a business venture out of his travels from the start. He purchased a small sailing vessel and filled it with provisions. With the gold boom going on, California was flush with the precious metal. But it lacked supplies to build camps, feed and clothe miners and improve the infrastructure.
As Merritt planned to leave, he had one regret. His efforts to procure nails for sale failed, and he had to leave without them. Though the nails would have brought him a fine profit, it hardly mattered. He left in September of 1849, equipped with letters of reference and introduction from Webster. He sailed around the tip of South America, stopping for two weeks along the way.
When he arrived in San Francisco harbor, the city had just suffered the calamitous fire of December 1849. Its gambling houses and hotels were in ashes. The owners of these lucrative properties were desperate to rebuild. When Merritt’s ship showed up with supplies, they set upon him with offers for everything he had brought at prices far exceeding his expectations.
The enormous windfall encouraged Merritt to continue expanding his trading efforts. He leased another, larger ship. This time, his plan was modelled on Massachusetts’ Frederic Tudor’s ice business. Tudor took ice harvested from New England ponds and shipped it around the world.
San Francisco, with its healthy thirst, would welcome ice in the warmer months, he believed. And so he dispatched his new boat and its captain to the Puget Sound region with a crew to harvest ice and return with it.
When they returned, the captain had disappointing news. It was not cold enough to freeze the ponds in the Puget Sound area, and he had returned without ice. But he had not come back empty handed. The clever captain had bargained with the Native Americans he encountered to let him harvest timber, and he had filled the boat with lumber.
The trade was extremely profitable. Merritt would load his ship with goods for the Native Americans and return with lumber to fuel the exponential growth in San Francisco. Merritt kept the details of his transactions to himself while his ship made several more highly profitable trips. He next decided to get into the coal business.
He dispatched a ship to Newcastle, England, with instructions to load up with coal and return. Again, his clever captain made a wise decision. Upon arriving in Newcastle, the captain found the docks so crowded that he would have to wait a long time before loading. In addition, he realized the load of coal would be too small to make a profit.
Instead of waiting, he departed to Tahiti, where he procured a full load of oranges. They were the first oranges to arrive in San Francisco. They were snapped up at enormous profit.
Merritt himself continued practicing medicine, and he was regularly spotted rowing around San Francisco harbor providing medical care to sailors, since there was no hospital in the city.
He would return to Bath, Maine, to visit family in 1853 and again in 1862, to settle the affairs of his brother, Capt. Isaac Merritt. Upon his trips home, he would commission new ships, including two vessels designed specifically for the coastal lumber trade.
With his fortune growing, Merritt invested heavily in California real estate, including the land surrounding Lake Merritt, in the center of Oakland, Calif. He dabbled in politics, serving on the 1856 committee of vigilance, a controversial vigilante organization in San Francisco. It policed crime, politics and civil disputes and handed out harsh old-West style justice, including hangings.
Merritt declined an offer to serve as mayor of San Francisco, but did serve one term as mayor of Oakland. At 6’3” tall and weighing 340 pounds, Merritt was prominent both physically and politically.
Merritt influenced dozens of California institutions, some of which remain active today. He founded Samuel Merritt Hospital and Samuel Merritt University. He was a founder of the California Insurance Company and the Oakland Bank of Savings, and he was an early supporter of the creation of the University of California.
Merritt’s chief pastime, as he got older, was sailing on his yacht Casco, both on short journeys and long. And he provided the vessel to Robert Louis Stevenson for his voyage to the South Seas in 1888.
By 1890, diabetes was taking its toll on Merritt. He had never married, and had been joined in California by his sister. A fall from a carriage that year triggered a sharp decline in his health. He died on Aug. 17, 1890 at the age of 67, with, as Daniel Webster had promised, few if any regrets.
This story was updated in 2021. Images: Lake Merritt By Aran Johnson, Attribution, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7714281. Camron-Stafford House By Californiathegreat – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50547896.