A leader of Salem: Nathaniel Bowditch

Overview and Background

Adapted from; 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.