Little that happened in Salem, Mass., escaped the attention of the Rev. William Bentley while he served as minister of the East Church from 1783 to his death in 1819. He was interested in everything from sacred music to natural history, world events to his neighbors, languages, books, commerce, scandal and the law.
Bentley was born June 22, 1759 in Boston, the son of Joshua and Elizabeth Bentley. He graduated with from Harvard in 1777, and in 1783 he was ordained a minister. Bentley preached a gospel of good works, which was well liked by his parishioners, and he gave half his salary to the poor.
William Bentley lived modestly as a boarder at what is now the Crowninshield-Bentley House. He was an indefatigable reader who amassed 4,000 books, one of the largest libraries in the United States. Every week, he wrote a much-copied column summarizing world events for the Salem Gazette. He spoke seven languages and was familiar with many more. When the ambassador of Tunisia arrived in Washington, his credentials were sent to Bentley for translation. Thomas Jefferson offered him both the chaplaincy of the U.S. Congress and the presidency of the University of Virginia. Bentley declined, preferring to stay in Salem.
Bentley filled his diaries with events in Salem and around the world, as well as his thoughts on an enormous range of topics. He noted in December 1809 that there were no Salem fishing vessels. On Dec. 16, 1809, he wrote,
Our Vessels from the Vineyard reached Salem, some of them having been detained there 18 days by the long rains & foul weather which threatened a storm. Some of them from Sumatra. A great supply of fresh fish from the neighboring ports. It is remarkable that Salem does not supply one regular boat at the fish market. I have not bought a fish this season from an Inhabitant. Cape Ann & Marblehead by sea & Lynn by land. A few fish are made in North fields, but the change is very great in 25 years past.
Three days later, two African-American men brought him a fish he hadn’t seen before:
A Black man calling himself Henry Jennings, in company with Joseph Wilson, another black man, brought me a fish calling it a Snapper, declaring that they caught it off Cape Cod. The fish was still fresh. It had a large head with small teeth & was perfectly red in every part. I had no doubt of its classification, tho’ not in every circumstance reported. As the fish has not been seen in our seas but is common on the southern coast, may not the cold weather of Oct. & Nov. past which has been greater in the southern than the northern shores, have induced the fish to visit the North betrayed by its instinct of following the temperature of the water, & so he caught upon our coast. Capt. James Fairfield gave me one of the fruit of Banana, the first I had ever examined if not the first I had ever seen.