Thursday, July 21, 2011

Preserved Fish (1766-1846)

Portrait from "the Fish Family in England and America", published 1948.

   Undoubtedly one of the most humorously named individuals in American history,  Preserved Fish was a prominent banker and merchant who in 1832 was named as a Presidential Elector for New York. This small service is the only political office Fish occupied, and this author must state that his life and public career was quite interesting to research. When I first discovered this wonderfully named man a number of years ago via the Who Was Who In America: Historical Volume, I had to reread his name twice to make sure it wasn't a misprint! As improbable as the man's name sounds, he is in fact a real person, and his first name is correctly pronounced as "Pres-er-ved". The Banker's Magazine and Financial Register, Volume I, published in 1847, gives the following notice on his unusual first name: "It is not known why the singular name of Preserved was given to him; but its peculiarity probably added notoriety to a character already distinguished for consistency, a discriminating judgement and stern integrity." 
   Fish was born on July 3, 1766, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, scion of the influential Fish family. This clan later became notable in New York political circles for producing such eminent statesmen as Governor and Secretary of State Hamilton Fish (1818-1893) and Congressman Hamilton Fish III (1888-1991.) Fish's father (also named Preserved Fish) was a prominent local blacksmith and raised his son to follow along the same route, which he did until age fourteen.
   While still residing in Rhode Island, young Preserved was apprenticed as a farmer, but soon tired of this employment and ran away from home. He took passage on board a whaling ship, becoming a cabin boy. After learning the seafaring trade, Fish rose through the hierarchy and by 1787 was the captain of his own whaling ship (at the young age of 21!) The 1890 work Portrait Gallery of the Chamber of Commerce gives note that Fish made a reputation on the seas as having "shrewdness and tireless energy" and because of these traits "accumulated a fortune". Although lacking in years, Fish was viewed as a reliable captain, being mentioned in the Portrait Gallery as having "no fear, and once when his vessel sprung a leak, and the crew, on the verge of mutiny, demanded his return to the nearest port, he refused to yield, and eventually brought his ship and cargo of oil safe to their destination." 
   By 1810, Fish had accumulated enough savings from the sale of whale oil to give up the sea life and settled in NYC. It was here that he met up with his cousin Joseph Grinnell (1788-1885) in 1815 and soon after the two founded the shipping firm of Fish and Grinnell. Within a few short years, this firm became one of the most profitable and influential firms in New York merchant circles.
   In 1817, Preserved Fish was one of the founders of the New York Exchange Board (which later became the New York Stock Exchange) and in 1829 became President of the Tradesman's Bank of New York. Fish was also a prominent member of the New York Chamber of Commerce for nearly thirty years, holding a membership from 1818 until his death in 1846.

                                This picture of Fish is in a collection at the New York Public Library.

   In 1832, Preserved Fish was named as a Presidential Elector for New York, and is listed as such in the 1833 edition of the National Calendar and Annals of the United States. The listing of the electors (including Fish) is shown below. It is mentioned in the various resources available on Fish that he was aligned with Tammany Hall (the infamous NY Democratic political machine) and one can pretty much surmise that he voted along strict party lines when it came time to cast his vote.

                                          Fish's name is highlighted in yellow on this roster.

   The History of Fish Family in England and America makes light of Preserved's political leanings, mentioning him as a "Democrat with the courage of his convictions." This same work also relates a humorous story centering on Fish's comments in regards to the Whig Party in New York City's seventh ward, in which he stated:
"If the Whigs succeed in electing their candidate", he said during one campaign, "I will run around the Seventh Ward in my shirt".
   The Fish family genealogy further relates that after making the above statement:
 "The Whigs did succeed and as Mr. Fish found it inexpedient to carry out his announced intention, they revenged themselves by circulating a very cheap print representing him clothed in a night cap and shirt, running at the top of his speed".
   Fish remained President of the Tradesman's Bank until his death at age 80 on July 23, 1846. The Banker's Magazine and Financial Register makes mention that he married three times during his life, but had no children. Despite having no biological children of his own, Fish would later adopt a son, William Middleton (1812-1840) who would later take the name William Middleton Fish. Following his death, Preserved Fish was interred in the historic New York City Marble Cemetery, which also happens to be the resting place of another strangely named politician, New York City mayor Marinus Willett (1740-1830.)


  1. Brilliant! I would not be surprised if this was the inspiration for Patrick O'Brian's fantastic naming of Jack Aubrey's steward, Preserved Killick. Although Fish's name is obviously even better!

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Why on earth would you remove a comment I made about my own GGF ??

  3. Two Fish brothers came to America around 1634.. Robert and Thomas. THIS Preserved Fish is descended from ROBERT. I am descended from Robert AND from Thomas. My 7th GGF , descended from THOMAS is the first incidence of the PRESERVED name in this family.