1853-1854: Haiti and St. Thomas

Haiti, Winter 1853-1854

Sailing from New York, John Bigelow completed the voyage to Haiti in 28 days, arriving in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on December 21st, 1853. In his memoir “Retrospections of an Active Life” he explained the purpose of his trip to Haiti as thus; “The question of the freedom of the African and his capacity for self-government continued to grow from month to month and from year to year more and more the great concern of the nation. In the winter of 1853-54 I determined to visit the Africans’ most accessible and apparently their most successful form of self-government” (Bigelow 146). Echoing his Jamaica trip three years prior, Bigelow reported his impressions to the New York Evening Post in a series of editorials “Notes of a Tour in Hayti.”

During his tour, Bigelow stayed with Benjamin P. Hunt, a New England merchant settled in Haiti. Bigelow and Hunt would continue to correspond decades after the trip. Included in this exhibit are two of Hunt’s letters to Bigelow: one commenting on Bigelow’s compilation of Haitian proverbs, and another on Hunt’s impressions of the Haitian emperor Faustin-Élie Soulouque.

St. Thomas, Winter 1854

John Bigelow sailed from Haiti to St. Thomas on the Emperor’s mail-steamer. He encountered a dismal scene: “The island of St. Thomas was ravaged by cholera, of which disease one-tenth of the population found homes in the cemetery during the month in which I was there.” [1] Bigelow served as a pallbearer at the funeral of an American merchant who had arrived two months earlier and died without friends or family on the island.

In a letter to his wife Jane on January 4, 1854, John wrote of his plans to return to New York and commented that “...a more wretched, lonesome, and homesick time I never spent…” [2] After the steamer he planned to take to New York was withdrawn, Bigelow secured passage on a Baltimore schooner bound for New Orleans. After 13 days, they reached the North East Pass of the Mississippi. In another four or five days, Bigelow was reunited with his family in New York. 


[1] Bigelow, John. Retrospections of an Active Life. Vol 1. 152.

[2] Bigelow, John. Letter to Jane Tunis Poultney Bigelow. January 4, 1854.

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