J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Thursday, May 10, 2012

Samuel Bowen Brings Soy to America

Blogger’s new behind-the-scenes design shows me the number of hits on each Boston 1775 posting, and the most viewed of last month by far was “Benjamin Franklin Discovers Tofu for America.” Its numbers are edging up to 1,000 views, far ahead of the next most popular.

Unfortunately, that posting contained an error. I repeated the Franklin tercentenary website’s claim that Benjamin Franklin’s 1770 letter to John Bartram was the first record of someone supplying soy beans to America. After all, Franklin invented everything else in colonial America, right?

Bill Shurtleff of the Soy Info Center alerted me in a comment that another man had brought soy beans to America five years before. So this posting is about that forgotten pioneer, Samuel Bowen of Georgia.

Theodore Hymowitz and J.R. Harlan described in this paper how in 1758 Bowen embarked from London on the large East India Company ship Pitt. He transfered to a smaller ship, the Success, which dared to visit two Chinese ports besides Canton. The interpreter and supercargo on the Success, an old East India hand named James Flint, ended up in Chinese jails for three years.

Bowen later stated that he was also imprisoned in China for years and transported around the interior of the country. He reappeared in London in late 1763. The next year, Bowen was in Georgia. In 1765 he married Jane Spencer, daughter of the Collector of Customs at Savannah. He bought land east of that port and slaves to work it. Bowen called his slave-labor plantation “Greenwich,” perhaps reflecting his background as an English sailor.

Even before setting up his own farm, Bowen asked the colony’s Surveyor-General, Henry Yonge, to plant some “pease or vetch” he had brought from China. In December 1766 letter to London, Yonge wrote that these new seeds
did yield three crops: and had the frost kept off one week longer, I should have had a fourth crop, which is a very extraordinary increase, and must, if attended to and be of great utility and advantage to this and his Majesty’s other southern American provinces.
Yonge therefore gets credit for “planting America’s first soy beans.”

The next year Bowen reported in more detail on the seeds and how Chinese people used them: to “prepare an excellent kind of vermicelli”; “for salad, and also boiled like greens, or stewed in soup”; as sprouts; as “an excellent antiscorbutic”; and as “most excellent fodder for your cattle.” He doesn’t appear to have described tofu.

Bowen made a trip back to London in 1766, receiving a gold medal from the Society of Arts, Manufacturers, and Commerce; an audience with the Earl of Dartmouth; and 200 guineas from George III. The next year the British government granted him a patent for his “new invented method of preparing and making sago, vermicelli and soy from plants growing in America, to be equal in goodness to those made in the East lndies.”

Bowen sent “six bottles of Soy and six pounds of powdered Sago” to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, which noted the goods in January 1769 and made Bowen a member in April. Franklin had, of course, co-founded that organization and kept in touch. It’s therefore possible that he heard about soy from America before he sent his own samples to Bartram. When Franklin investigated soy seeds in 1770, he definitely talked with James Flint, who remained friendly with Bowen; the Georgian named a son after Flint and welcomed him to the Greenwich plantation in 1775.

Bowen was back in London again on 30 Dec 1777 when he died. His widow Jane ended up hosting some officers from the fleet of Adm. Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, comte d’Estaing, in 1779. According to this article by Edward Pinkowski, she oversaw the burial of Gen. Casimir Pulaski “between her mansion and the river.” Jane Bowen died in 1782, leaving her four children 26 slaves, 17 cows and oxen, and many items involved in the production of sago powder.


Chris Shelnutt said...

Thanks for giving Samuel Bowen credit for bring soy to the Georgia colony.
My 8th grade Georgia History students found your blog while doing some research on Bowen.
I'm looking forward to using your blog as a future resource for information about colonial life.

J. L. Bell said...

I'm glad this posting was helpful. I don't have that much to say about Georgia's colonial history, but I hope there are other interesting items.