Irish-born adventurer John O'Donnell (1749-1805) was a native of Limerick who made his way to India as a youth. He sailed into Baltimore on a late summer day in 1785 aboard a ship laden with Chinese goods, thus opening Baltimore's trade with the Far East. Armed with a small fortune and an aristocratic lineage, O'Donnell settled down, made a handsome profit on his cargo, and soon married, Sarah Chew Elliott, the daughter of a Fells Point seas captain.
Over the next 20 years, O'Donnell helped transform Baltimore from a promising town of some 12,000 into the young republic's third largest city. He created a plantation, "Canton," on some two thousands of acres east of Baltimore, built wharves, warehouses and rowhouses, and represented local interests in the state legislature. When he died in 1805 at age 56, O'Donnell was among the nation's wealthiest men, his real estate holdings alone later valued at more than $500,000.
Known burials: John O'Donnell; Mary Chew Elliott, his mother-in-law; O'Donnell's two sons, John and Henry; and, a niece, Sarah E. Elliott. All were later removed to Greenmount Cemetery.
Wish You Were Here Sarah O'Donnell, depicted as an English lady of grandeur by Maryland-born artist Charles Wilson Peale, holds a miniature portrait of her husband. Married less than two years, John had recently left on a long voyage to India and China. Upon his return Sarah gave Peale several items for his Philadelphia museum, including "an East Indian match gun, a damascus sword, Chinese chessmen, skull of the royal tiger, a live cockatoo, and other things." In exchange Peale returned to Baltimore in 1791 to paint a portrait of Mary, the couple's first child.
Mrs. John O'Donnell (Sarah Chew Elliott) by Charles Wilson Peale, oil on canvas, 1787
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA; Gift of Mrs. Frank Batten, 62.94.1
Arrival of the Pallas
"On Tuesday evening last, arrived here, direct from China, the East Indiaman Pallas Commanded by her owner John O'Donnell. She has on board an extensive and valuable cargo consisting of a variety of teas, China silks, satins, nankeens & c. We are extremely happy to find the commercial reputation of this town so far increased as to attract the attention of gentlemen who are engaged in carrying on this distant but beneficial trade. It is no unpleasing sight to see the crew of the Ship, Chinese Malays, Japanese and Moors, with a few Europeans, all habited according to their different countries to which they belong and employed together as brethren."
—Maryland Journal (Baltimore), August 12, 1785
The 35-member crew of the Pallas included the first Chinese crew to arrive on the east coast of the United States. In a cruel twist of fate those crew members—32 East Indian Lascars (Asians) and three Chinese seamen named Ashing, Achun and Aceun—became stranded in Baltimore. They reportedly petitioned the Continental Congress for relief.
[photograph]A Roscrucian Temple
The O'Donnell vault is a "cross between a large sarcophagus and a small temple" (Alexander, 1974). Blending elements of the newly fashionable Egyptian orders with Rosicrucian symbols, is is probably the earliest of several vaults designed by the French architect Macimilian Godefroy.
Repairing the O'Donnell Vault, October 7, 1931
Baltimore News American Photo Collection, Special Collections, University of Maryland Libraries