A leader of Salem: Nathaniel Bowditch

Overview and Background

Overview and Background

Adapted from www.newtradewinds.org; learning center by Ellen Soares, Scott Strainge, and Merry Glosband

Grade level

High School


Students will spend two classroom days contemplating and discussing the qualities of a leader and the definition of a hero. They will read the story of Nathaniel Bowditch and use it as a catalyst for discussions on leadership and the definition of a hero. Students will then think about who they would consider to be the contemporary leaders of Salem, looking at civic, government, and economic leaders of today.

The Nathaniel Bowditch Story

There are many stories about Salem, Massachusetts and the fortunes that were made during the age of sail. Many ship owners and sea captains became very rich transporting cargoes of goods from one part of the world to another. However, not every Salem mariner was successful. Habakkuk Bowditch lost his savings and property during the American Revolution. He tried coopering (making barrels), but wasn't successful at that either. In 1773, the fourth of his seven children was born, a child named Nathaniel. Nathaniel was an excellent student, especially in math. He dreamed of staying in school and going on to college. Because his family was poor, his dreams were not realized. By the time he was ten, he had to leave school and go to work with his father making barrels. When he was twelve, he was apprenticed to a ship's chandlery, helping to supply the ships that were leaving for distant voyages. His apprenticeship lasted until he was 21 years old.

Although Nathaniel was in a difficult situation, he did not give up. His love of learning helped him to continue his studies. In his spare time, he taught himself other languages. By translating the Bible, a book that everyone at that time knew very well, he taught himself Latin, French, Greek, German, Portuguese, and Spanish. When he turned 21 he left the chandlery and went to sea, working on ships owned by Elias Haskett Derby, America's first millionaire. These voyages took him around the world.

When Bowditch went to sea, captains recognized that he was a very competent navigator. They trusted his navigational skills (in spite of his lack of formal schooling) and encouraged him to teach the use of navigational instruments to other sailors on board the ships. As Bowditch used the existing navigational tables, he noticed many math errors- about 8,000 of them. Bowditch knew that the errors could be very dangerous- shipwrecks cost lives and loss of property. Bowditch corrected the errors, and republished the tables in a book, The New American Practical Navigator, which continues to be an important resource to navigators today.

One favorite story about Bowditch's navigational prowess took place on the return portion of a voyage to Sumatra for pepper and Isle de France for coffee. Bowditch was the master and part owner of the Putnam when they arrived back in Salem on Christmas day in the middle of dense fog. Bowditch did what no other captain would have dared to do. He managed to sail into Salem harbor "as if it were a clear summer day." Bowditch's feat proved that by relying on his calculations, one could go almost anywhere practically blindfolded. Many did not believe that the ship could have arrived under such conditions, even when they saw that Bowditch in person. But, when they saw the ship anchored at the wharf, they had to believe their eyes.

In addition to his navigational jobs, Nathaniel Bowditch was an active member of the East India Marine Society, an organization of sea captains that later became the Peabody Essex Museum, serving as President from 1820 to 1823. He retired from the sea at age 30, and then became President of an insurance company, a new but much needed field of business in the U.S.

Nathaniel Bowditch's aptitude with math helped him to become very successful. He was a respected navigator, author and leader of the Salem community.

Teaching Strategies

Teaching Strategies

Enduring Understandings

  1. Leaders of the past can inspire us today.
  2. There are different kinds of leaders, each of whom has different talents and skills.

Learning Objectives
  1. Students will learn the story of Nathaniel Bowditch and his contributions to navigation.
  2. Students will relate the story of Bowditch to other famous people from Salem.
  3. Students will begin to understand their own definition of leadership.
  4. Students will begin to look at and understand other cultures and their definition of leadership.
  5. Students will begin to understand their own definition of what is a hero.
  6. Students will identify contemporary leaders and heroes in Salem.
  7. Students will begin to understand the necessity of leadership and the interconnectivity of the Salem community.

Preparations/Supplies Needed

Print copies of the Nathaniel Bowditch Story (previous section of this Learning Center). You may also gather biographical information about other historic figures from Salem.



I: Ask students what qualities they would look for in a leader. Use large newsprint paper or a flip chart to write their responses. Ask students why they chose the qualities on the paper.

II: Have students read the story of Nathaniel Bowditch. Ask them if Bowditch fits their definition of a leader.

III: Conduct a discussion on the qualities of leadership. Ask the students the following guide questions:

    a. What do you consider to be the most important quality of a leader?

    b. What contemporary leader fits your definition?

    c. Who are some contemporary leaders that you do not like? Why?

    d. What are some of the different kinds of leaders? Describe.


After going around the room and seeing whom students have chosen as their definitive leaders, engage them in a comparative discussion. Do any of the students disagree with another's choice? Why?

IV: Have students read the leadership stories from Alaska and Hawai‘i. Now add them to the discussion. Do they fit the student's definition of leadership? Turn the discussion now to how various cultures look at and define leadership. How do they differ from their definition? What are the factors that determine that definition?


I: Students will now begin to discuss the idea of heroes. Use the following guide questions as cues:

    a. Are leaders heroes?

    b. What makes a person a hero?

    c. Who do we as a nation hold up as heroes?

    d. Who are considered heroes in The Native American cultures of Alaska? Hawai‘i?

    e. Who are contemporary leaders in our own community?

    f. Are they heroes? Explain.


II: Begin a discussion about your contemporary community. Who do the students consider to be the leaders/heroes of their community?

III: Ask students to identify civic, cultural, economic, and governmental leaders or heroes.

IV: Students will now describe why they have chosen these people. Have each student write the name of the person or people they have chosen on an 8"x11" piece of paper.

V: Students will then write a brief paragraph describing why they chose that person.


I: Students will contact the person they have chosen as their contemporary leader/hero and ask that person to name who they would consider to be a contemporary leader/hero in their community. They will then ask them to describe why they have chosen that person and write down their remarks. Students will continue this until they have a total of five people.

II: Students will come together and bring the results of their search to the class.

III: Have students look at the names they had written on the 8"x11" paper earlier in the project and see how many of the names appear in the ladders.

IV: As an extra component to the project, ask students to take photo portraits of each of the people in their leadership ladder to display along with their remarks.