Ruth Bradford’s China Adventures

Do you blog about your China adventures for your friends and family back home? Do you send long emails describing your life here on the South China Seas? If so, you are part of a long line of travel writers in China – starting from as far back as Marco Polo! Here, I have excerpted a few letters written in the late 19th century by an American woman, Ruth Bradford, who lived in Shanghai and Hong Kong with her sea-faring husband for twenty years.

Ruth Bradford first went to China in 1861 with her father, Arthur Bullus Bradford (1810-1899). Arthur Bradford studied at Princeton University before becoming a preacher and an influential abolitionist. His home in Buttonwood, Pennsylvania was a stop on the underground railway. He was threatened by pro-slavery factions, even in his own church, so, in 1847, Bradford and some other abolitionist ministers formed the Free Presbyterian Church in New Castle, Pennsylvania (Bausman 819). Not only did Bradford preach abolition, he also published on the subject.  In 1861, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Bradford as US consul to Amoy (present-day Xiamen), which, after the Opium Wars of 1839–42, was one of the first ports to be opened to foreign trade (particularly the tea trade) and to residence by foreigners. The tea trade reached its apex in the 1870s and then went into decline (Britannica).

Bradford’s twenty-year old daughter, Ruth, joined him on this trip, which took an astonishing 224 days, mainly due to weather conditions. Despite the long trip, it was a short appointment. The Chinese climate threatened Bradford’s health so he returned to the US less than a year later. It was on the return journey to America on the St. Paul that Ruth met sailing master Ira F. Crowell. They married and Crowell took a position as ship’s captain for the China trading company Augustine Heard & Co. in Hong Kong.

Throwing her lot in with a seafaring man, Ruth lived for more than twenty years in China; variously in Amoy, Shanghai and Hong Kong. She published the travel journal she kept while voyaging with her father, and also some selected letters, as Maskee! The Journal and Letters of Ruth Bradford, 1861-1872 (Hartford, CT: Prospect Press, 1938.) As far as I have been able to ascertain, the letters printed here are part of the collection that has never before been published. I should say, also, that Ruth Bradford’s comments about China do not reflect the attitudes of the Shenzhen Asian Culture Society!

The Bradford-Crowell manuscript collection is owned by the Massachusetts Historical Society. In transcribing these excerpts, I have not corrected Ruth Bradford’s spelling or interfered with her punctuation (or lack thereof) in any way.

Foot notes

2 Probably the wife of George Frederick Seward (1840-1910), who served as U.S. Consul in Shanghai 1861-76 and as U.S. Minister to China, 1876-80. The New York Times has two archived articles from 1878 covering Senate investigations of fraud during Mr. Seward’s China posting.

4 Ol, or Oliver Bradford, was one of Ruth’s brothers who lived for some time with Ruth and her husband in China; probably because her husband was so often gone to sea.

5 Ruth’s husband, Iri Crowell, had been hired as captain of a steamer “chartered by a rich class of Mahommudons who want to go to Mecca, and they have their own rules and regulations, which must be carried out. Their religion [unclear] upon them, to perform ablutions, excepting when they are on a pilgrimage, and during that time, they may neither wash or change their clothes. There are 600 of them going and they will be on board for about a month coming and and a month going out and just think of their state. Fortunately, they do not wear many clothes and the weather will be so hot that they will be on deck most of the time. The only fear is that some disease may break out among them, owing to their ‘unwashed’ state, but I guess they will get washed now and then by a shower, enough to keep them alive. The voyage will take four months so I am here for the winter.” Ruth Bradford to her sister Josephine, October 9, 1871.

6 “Bob” was Ruth’s dapple-gray pony.

7 Port city in Yemen.

8 Mr. Milisch must have been involved in the trading company Milisch and Co., The Jardine Matheson Archive, Memoranda and Accounts of Dodd & Co., for 1870-1871 contains information “regarding Milisch & Co., dated Tamsui, including a memorandum of goods received from Milisch & Co.; memoranda of charges on camphor and other goods received from Milisch & Co.; a memorandum of charges on coal on account of Milisch & Co.; and accounts of the estate of Milisch & Co. with Dodd & Co. [Jardine Matheson (often called Jardine’s)” started trading in Guangdong (then Canton) in 1832. By 1834 they were sending private shipments of tea and silk to England and, in return, illegally selling opium to China.

3 There is a Robert Nelson listed as a missionary for the American Protestant Episcopal Mission, which was headquarterd in Shanghai. The society began its missionary work in 1835 and founded St John’s University , the first modern university in Shanghai, in 1879.


“Amoy.” Encyclopædia Britannica, from Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. Copyright © 1994-2003 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. May 30, 2003.

Bausman, Joseph H. History of Beaver County Pennsylvania and Its Centennial Celebration. New York: The Knickerbacker Press, 1904.

Bradford, Ruth B. Journal Written on board the ship Julia S. Tayler during a voyage from New York to Hong Kong. Unpublished paper, 1861-63.

Crowell family papers, 1870-1883. Massachusetts Historical Society. Ms. N-49.6

Jardine Matheson Archive. Memoranda and accounts of Dodd & Co. for 1870-1871. MS.JM/A8/115/17


NY Times Archive: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=980DE5D7153EE73BBC4A51DFB4678383669FDE; and see also


Townsend, Peggy Jean and Charles Walker Townsend III (Eds.) Milo Adams Townsend and Social Movements of the Nineteenth Century. Beaver County Community History Index. URL


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