“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

How Baltimore Met China – The Story of John O’Donnell, the China Trade & Baltimore’s Canton

Posted: May 19th, 2013 | 8 Comments »

A little piece of China-American relations I didn’t know – the story of John O’Donnell. However, happened to be in Baltimore and thought (as an Edgar award winner – did I mention that before??) I’d pop along to Westminster Hall and its adjacent graveyard and see Poe’s grave and monument (see Twitter for those pics @chinarhyming). While there I came across the tomb of a certain John O’Donnell – a new China Hand to me.

So here’s O’Donnell’s story: John O’Donnell (1749-1805) was originally from Limerick but found his way to India. In 1785 he arrived in Baltimore on an East India Company ship laden with Chinese goods, the first such cargo to arrive in the Maryland city. O’Donnell, who had made a lot of money transporting China goods around in the China trade and also claimed (not sure how true it was) an aristocratic Irish lineage, decided to settle in Baltimore. He continued trading China made goods and married a local sea captain’s daughter who had lived in both India and China before. He invested most of his money in developing Baltimore and effectively became a founding father of the city – hence his interment in Westminster Hall’s graveyard.


Interestingly there is a O’Donnell Square and Street in the Baltimore neighbourhood of Canton. This area developed out of the plantation owned by O’Donnell in Baltimore bought from his fortune largely earned in the China trade and then built-out by his son in the late nineteenth century. In tribute to where most of his wealth and goods had originated O’Donnell named his plantation Canton.

There is a statue to O’Donnell in Canton (the Baltimore one, not Guangzhou sadly). The accompanying plaque reads: “Captain John O’Donnell, the founder of the Canton Community was man of great vision and accomplishment. He initiated trade between Canton, China and Baltimore in 1785 operating his own merchant sailing vessels. This public square, once the site of Canton Market, is dedicated in his honor.”



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8 Comments on “How Baltimore Met China – The Story of John O’Donnell, the China Trade & Baltimore’s Canton”

  1. 1 Patrick R. Davis said at 5:40 am on January 10th, 2014:

    Most interesting. It’s nice to actually see how an adventurer and entrepreneur of such caliber could personally gain, while still opening trade and cultural barriers for future generations. Well played O’Donnell.

  2. 2 John Columbus ODonnell III said at 6:19 am on May 4th, 2015:

    The whole story in three part harmony is far more complex, and I think equally interesting. If you search for what I’ve posted on ancestry.com, you will get a taste.


  3. 3 Victoria de JongName (required) said at 1:04 am on July 30th, 2015:

    I have been doing genealogy and have found out I am a descendant of John’s brother, Henry Anderson O’Donnell who stayed in Ireland after his service in the military in India. Would love to get in contact with any descendants of Johns! Please contact me at Vickiedejong@yahoo.com! Thanks!

  4. 4 John David O'Donald, Sr. said at 8:43 am on April 10th, 2016:

    In contact with Victoria, I recently found out that I am also a direct descendant John O’Donnell’s brother Henry Anderson O’Donnell… It’s great to hear about some distant cousins…. and would love to learn more… my e-mail is jodonald6@gmail.com

  5. 5 Nancy Green said at 11:17 pm on November 7th, 2016:

    Captain John Green 1736-1796 was the first American to sail to China in 1785 with the new American flag to start the American China trade. He left from Manhattan on George Washington’s 52nd birthday. His story can be found at the Philadelphia Independence Seaport Museum. He is my 4th Great Grandfather.

  6. 6 Lizzy said at 9:13 am on January 19th, 2017:

    I’m from Canton, China. I love my hometown and I love to see how my hometown impacted the relation between China and the US.

  7. 7 Donna Adamson Curlis said at 7:46 pm on February 13th, 2017:

    Cousin of Vick DeJong, also descendant of Henry O’Donnell, his father Henry Anderson O’Donnell and H.A. O’Donnell’s brother, Capt. John O’Donnell. Contact: lylldy@msn.com

  8. 8 Sharon said at 10:09 pm on May 9th, 2019:

    Great to hear from all the cousins. The story of John O’Donnell was far more complex and interesting than what was captured here. Thank you for telling some of his story. I am a descendent of brother Henry.

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