Monday, June 25, 2012

Ephraim Pratt: The Oldest Man Alive?

The longest unambiguously documented human lifespan is that of French woman Jean Calment.  She met Vincent Van Gogh in 1887 when she was a girl of twelve or thirteen, and died when she was 122, only four years short of seeing the Twenty-first Century.  The longest definitively documented lifespan of a man, a record held by Danish-American Christian Mortensen, was far shorter, at 115.  Today, in the year 2012, the oldest human being alive is American Besse Cooper, who was born on August 26, 1896, and is now one hundred and fifteen years old.  There are only seventy verified super-centenarians, people who are older than one hundred years old, alive today.

In the early years of the 19th Century the famed academic and former president of Yale University, Dr. Timothy Dwight travelled throughout New York and New England collecting stories of American lives”.  In 1785, Dwight published The Conquest of Canaan, which is widely regarded as the first American epic poem.  In November of 1803, the fifty-one year old Dr. Dwight set out for the rugged farmland of Shutesbury, Massachusetts.  The object of the journey was to see a man, Ephraim Pratt, whom Dwight believed to be the oldest man alive at the time.

Dwight believed that Ephraim Pratt had been born in Sudbury, Massachusetts in 1687, and, that in less than a month from his visit with this ancient man, Ephraim Pratt would celebrate his 117th birthday.  Dr. Dwight and his travelling companion reached Pratt’s home in the late afternoon.  The man that Dr. Dwight encountered was far from the withered relic that he had expected to find.  Pratt, according to Dwight, was of a medium height for the day, firmly built, and plump but not fat.  Pratt had the appearance of a man of about seventy years old; his handshake was firm and his voice was strong and steady.  That year his sight had diminished to a point that he could not distinguish one person from another, and his hearing was impaired so that it was difficult for him to follow someone speaking in conversational tones.  But, at 116 years old, he still had a sharp mind, a vigorous memory and a keen understanding of the world around him.

Ephraim Pratt held Dr. Dwight’s hand as he answered all of the doctor’s inquiries.   He surmised that, from listening to Dwight’s voice, he must be at least forty-five years of age.   “I must look very old to you,” said Pratt, “but I know that there are men who have not passed their seventieth year who look just as old.”  Dwight agreed with the old man’s sentiment, but was amused at the idea of someone of seventy years old being thought of as “young”.

Pratt had been a laborer all of his life, and he had mown grass every year for one hundred one years consecutively.   As late as the summer of 1802 he could easily walk two miles and mow a small quantity of grass.  In 1803, on one of his walks, he had tripped over a log a fell.  Immediately after his fall, his hearing and sight began to deteriorate, and walking half a mile took considerable effort.  His mowing days were behind him.

Dwight asked the old man about his habits.  Pratt said that he had stayed away from “ardent spirits”, but that he would occasionally drink cider, in moderation.  As a younger man, he had eaten meat, but far less than those around him, and milk, which had always been a great part of his diet, was now the entirety. 

Dwight found Pratt to be naturally cheerful and humorous, free of any sentimentality, and not inclined to serious thinking.   He had only been seriously ill at one time in his life, when he had suffered through a period of fever and chills. Pratt had professed his religious faith publicly over seventy years ago, but none of his acquaintances found him to be a particularly religious man.   Dwight, a theologian and Congregationalist minister, noted, “It is scarcely necessary to observe, that a man one hundred and sixteen years old, without religion was a melancholy site to me.”

Almost eighty years before, Ephraim Pratt had married Martha Wheelock, and they had six sons and two daughters.  His longevity had allowed him to see many of his great-, great- grandchildren, and a newspaper article from the late 1790s claimed that he likely had fifteen hundred living descendants at the time.

In 1803, at 116 years old, Ephraim Pratt was almost certainly the oldest human being alive.  When he died in 1804 the Worcester newspaper The Massachusetts Spy noted the death  of Mr. Pratt of Shutesbury, “on the 22d (June), aged 116 yrs, 5 mos. and 22 days.”  It is remarkable that Ephraim Pratt’s longevity did not create more of a sensation during the man’s life.  The death notice in The Spy did catch attention of the Rev. Dr.  Sumner of Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.  Rev. Dr. Sumner wrote to the newspaper that when Pratt was married on July 9, 1724, he told the town clerk that he was twenty-one years old.  According to Sumner, that would have made Pratt about 101 years old at the time of his death, a remarkable age, but far short of 117 years.   The town records of Sudbury, Massachusetts give the birthday of Ephraim Pratt, son of Ephraim and Elezabeth, as November 30, 1704, which would have made him 99 years, 5 months, and 22 days old on the day of his death.

Had Timothy Dwight been mislead about Ephraim Pratt’s seemingly incredible longevity?  Had he known that he could not possibly have been talking to a man who had been born more than a eleven and half decades before?  Once again, if Ephraim Pratt had been 116 years old, he would have surely been the oldest man on the face of the Earth.  But wouldn’t Dwight have been able to see through any hoax?  Timothy Dwight, the former president of Yale College, had been a child prodigy, learning the alphabet in a single lesson, and reading from the Bible before he was four years old. He had graduated from Yale at the age of seventeen.   He had served in the Massachusetts legislature, and was known throughout the country as an accomplished poet and lyricist, and he was an innovative educator who had opened schools for boys and girls, and had campaigned to rid schools of the corporal punishment that was common during the time.   How could Dwight have fallen for a ruse perpetrated by a backwoods laborer like Ephraim Pratt?  Perhaps Dwight’s impressive accomplishments had made the otherwise unlikely feats of those around him seem plausible.  Dwight’s reputation had been firmly established, and he had little to gain, and much to lose, by publishing a sensational story that might prove to be false.

Did Ephraim Pratt truly believe that he was 116 years old when he met with Timothy Dwight? Could someone with an otherwise clear mind be mistaken about his own age by eighteen years?  It is unlikely that Pratt thought that he was going to gain in any material way by making false claims about his longevity, but maybe the old man was looking for attention and a degree of notoriety.   Regardless, Ephraim Pratt was witness to nearly every year of the 18th Century.  He was born shortly after the Witch Trials in nearby Salem and lived to see the colonies separate from England and become the United States.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Letter to Uncle Skip about Adventures on Boston Harbor and Near Lake Ponchartrain: Capt. E.G. Martin, Jr. (1843-1902) / Capt. E.G. Martin, Sr. (1815-1873)

Hi Uncle Skip and Aunt Nancy-
As you may know I was in Marblehead a few years ago and I went to Old Burial Hill, where several of our ancestors are buried.  Its a beautiful graveyard overlooking Marblehead Harbor.  I was able to find the gravestones of a few relatives, but my family tree research was not nearly as extensive as it is today, and many of the gravestones are difficult to read.  Interestingly, the older gravemarkers, which were made of granite have held up well, but the stone-workers used very fine lettering so it's often hard to decipher.  The newer headstones are made of marble, and acid rain and other factors have taken a heavy toll.
I just found a picture of Elbridge Gerry, Sr.'s, your great great grandfather, gravestone online.  As you can see, it has been badly damaged by the elements.  I wanted to let you know where your namesake's gravestone was.  If you are ever near Marblehead Old Burial Hill is a beautiful place to explore.  Several of the gravestones have had restorative or protective work done on them, and maybe it could be arranged to have this marker preserved as well.

I hope you have a great Thanksgiving,  Adam

Hi Adam,
Thanks for the note and picture. Interesting research, but I am a bit confused. The man I am named after is my great grandfather, your great, great grandfather. You mention the man on the tomb stone to be Elbridge Gerry Martin Sr. Was my great grandfather Elbridge Gerry Martin Jr.? That would be right considering the dates (1815 -1873). I don't know my great grandfather's date of birth, but am pretty sure he died in 1902. Can you clarify? And if I am correct, was EG Sr. a pilot also?
A Happy Thanksgiving to you as well,

Uncle Skip-

Thanks for your email.  Your great grandfather, your namesake, Elbridge Gerry Martin, Jr., (he rarely went by Junior) is the son of harbor pilot Capt. Elbridge Gerry, Sr. (who never went by, Sr.) and Rebecca Homan (Dixey) Martin, who were married in Salem on October 10, 1838.  He was born in August of 1843 in East Boston and died of a stroke while on duty as a harbor pilot in Boston Harbor on April 5, 1902, at the age of 58.

Elbridge, Jr., had three sisters:  Henrietta (b. 1842), Jane L.  (b. 1846 – would become the only female lighthouse keeper of her time), Annie (b. 1849), and two brothers: Ambrose A. (b. 1852) and Gilman (b.  1855).  In his teenage years Elbridge was a sail-maker in Boston.

Elbridge, Jr., served at least two tours of duty during the Civil War.  In 1863 he was stationed with the 42nd Massachusetts Volunteers at Camp Parapet, near New Orleans.  The camp was threatened by secessionist saboteurs and thieves, who would steal ammunition and attempt, unsuccessfully, to break the levees that surrounded Lake Ponchartrain.  Companies C and H were brought in to guard the fortifications and to watch over the refugee camps that were full of recently freed slaves.  The men of the 42nd were very fortunate in that their camp was situated in a way so that they avoided many of the diseases suffered by the New York regiments that were stationed nearby.

Companies C and H contained a strange mix of men that often made them difficult to command.  No other companies in the regiment were like them in the make up of their personnel.  There were good men, with excellent reputations at home and from families of high standing.  There were many men whose reputations were known to be bad, taken from the rough element of cities and towns, whose faces and behavior were bad enough to mark them what they were.   There were also excellent fellows who did their duties manfully, though they did not come from the ordinary ranks of society.  The tough characters, even though they fought hard and often amongst themselves, if one of their comrades were threatened they would come to his aid and they would stand by each other until the last.

The duties performed by these companies were not arduous.  One of Private Elbridge Martin’s duties was, as part of a squad made up of himself and six other men, tour the plantations that were now behind Federal lines and escort the recently freed slaves back to the refugee camps.  The camps were divided into five different “colonies”.   Men were kept separate from the women and children.   Initially there were no restrictions on the refugees, and they were free to come and go as they pleased.  During the day the able-bodied men would work with the Army engineers who were shoring up Camp Parapet’s fortifications, and at night they would visit their wives and families in the other camps.   Sometimes they would go carousing or go to the religious meetings that occurred in the swamps.

The colonies enjoyed high morale until orders came down from General Sumner, of the Engineering Department, that any refugee leaving the camp without authorization be shot.  This order caused a great deal of dissatisfaction amongst both the refugees and the troops stationed at the camp.  The situation climaxed on the night of April 17, 1863, when one the refugees attempted to leave his colony.  A sentry from Company H called out “Who goes there?”  The refugee did not respond and was shot in the back.  He died the next day from his wound and Camp Parapet’s officers feared that they might be faced with a full-blown riot by the refugees and a revolt from their own enlisted men.  The tension escalated when the Company H sentry was arrested for his role in the shooting.  Eleven days later Private Elbridge Martin, who was the sentry on duty, sensed that trouble was brewing in the colonies and sounded the alarm.  Guard reliefs and other troops responded immediately, some armed and others not.  The freed slaves were building a large bonfire and singing.  The men of the 42nd either joined in building the fire and singing, or looked on approvingly.  From that point on, there was no more trouble in any of the colonies.

On July 14, 1864, Elbridge re-enlisted in Company C, of the Massachusetts 42nd Infantry Regiment, this time as a sergeant.  The 42nd  Regiment had been reorganized and mustered into service for 100 days.  It was used for guard and garrison duty during the late summer and fall, in order that the older and more experienced troops that had been performing this duty might be relieved and sent to the front.  The companies that were to constitute the 42nd Regiment began to assemble at Camp Meigs in Readville in early July, and on July 24 the command set out for Washington under Lieut. Col. Joseph Stedman.  About this time Col. Burrell was released from captivity, returned and rejoined his regiment at Alexandria, and resumed his command.  The regiment did guard and patrol duty, one detachment being sent to Great Falls, Maryland, while others were employed in guarding supply trains moving to and from the Shenandoah Valley.  Sgt. Martin mustered out, with the rest of his regiment, on November 11, 1864.

Your great grandmother was Maria (sometimes spelled Mariah) Theresa Marden.  (I remember that Grandpa and Grandma had a “Marden” family crest hanging just inside the front doorway.)  Their children were your grandfather Frank and his sister Bertha V., who were born in 1875 and 1878, respectively, and three other children who died in infancy.  Your great grandmother was from Mont Vernon, New Hampshire, and a history of that town described her husband as “. . .an efficient pilot . . .(and a) very worthy man”.

Grandpa and Grandma had the following newspaper clip.  I do not have the date, or even the name of the paper that the article is from:

Pilot Died at His Post:  Capt. Martin Stricken on His Craft Yesterday
Stricken at his post of duty, Captain Elbridge G. Martin passed away on the pilot boat Liberty No. 3, Saturday night.
As the result evidently of a sudden attack of apoplexy. He was found dead in the after-cabin of his craft by some of his comrades.
Along Massachusetts’ rock-bound coast no man was better known than Capt. Martin.   A thousand storms he has weathered and many thousand ships he has brought safely by treacherous rocks and shifting reefs. In snow and sleet, in raging surf or shimmering calm, Captain Martin was always at his post until his charge was safely moored within the inner harbor.
It was in 1863 that he received his license as a pilot, after serving an apprenticeship of five years.  It was just after the close of the War for the Union, in which Captain Martin served as a member of the First Massachusetts Regiment (Note (Adam):  My records show him as serving  in the 42nd Regiment.  It is more than possible that he served in the First on a different tour of duty.  Of course, 1863 was not the close of the Civil War.) He was a young man then – he was but 58 when he died – and the sea called him as it had done to his father before him.
(Note (Adam):  In the following paragraph the newspaper writer becomes confused about the identity of Elbridge, Jr.’s father.  The article actually says that Samuel Clemmons Martin, Elbridge, Sr.’s, brother is Elbridge, Jr.’s father.  All three men were well-respected pilots in Boston Harbor.  Elbridge, Sr., died in 1873, and Samuel Martin continued to act as a mentor and father figure to his nephew.)
For years father and son were comrades in the pilots’ shore home jutting over the harbor, and comrades in the danger of the black night cruises along the Cape Cod shore when the wild wind whistled down from the north and a hurricane buried the pilot boat beneath the falling billows.  It was at times like these that the other pilots came to know and appreciate the sterling courage of the younger Martin.
It mattered not how the severe the storm, he was ever ready to put off in his pilot’s cockle shell to aid, and oft times to save, the ship beating about on an unknown coast.
As the pilot boat Liberty put out from dock Saturday morning Martin seemed in the best of spirits, and with light-hearted chaff helped his fellows to while away the time until the lightship was reached.  The Liberty was to have remained at this, the middle station, for a week cruising about.
As night came on the sea grew rough, and the small craft tumbled about in the chasm between watery walls of foam. About 10 o’clock The Nordpol, a Norwegian coal steamer was sighted, and Pilot Nelson put off to her.
Captain Martin did not come on deck as Nelson went over the side, and no one missed him for awhile, so busy were they all in watching the bobbing boat of the pilot slowly making its way towards the black hull of the steamer.  When they went below Captain Martin, whom they had seen seemingly well a half hour before, was found lying upon the floor dead.
Towed by a government tug, the Liberty came to Boston.  Captain Martin’s body was taken to his late home at 212 Webster Street. He is survived by a widow, a daughter and one son, Frank Martin, clerk of the Leyland line.  Samuel Martin, the East Boston ship builder, is an uncle of the dead pilot. (Note (Adam):  I am reasonably certain that the Samuel Martin referred to in the previous sentence is Samuel Clemmons Martin, Jr., who is Elbridge’s cousin, and not his uncle.)
Captain Martin became especially well known to his fellows throughout the country from the fact that he was secretary and treasurer of both the National Pilots’ Association and of the Boston Pilots’ Relief Society.”
The Liberty #3, the boat on which Elbridge died was a schooner-rigged pilot boat that was built in 1896 in Gloucester.  In 1917 she was acquired by the U.S. Navy from the Boston Pilot’s Relief Society and commissioned as USS Liberty #3 (SP-1229).  For the duration of the war she patrolled the entrance to Boston Harbor.  She was decommissioned in 1919 and returned to the BPRS.  There was also a New York Times article, dated January 30, 1897, which said The Liberty #3 was feared lost in an unexpected blizzard that hit Boston Harbor.  The article does not mention Capt. Martin by name, but it is likely that he was acting as pilot aboard The Liberty #3 during this incident.

Capt. Elbridge Martin, Sr., who was also a famous harbor pilot, was the son of sea captain and then lighthouse keeper on Baker’s Island, Capt. Ambrose Bowen Martin and his wife Elizabeth (Clemmons) Martin.  (Note (Adam):  “Clemmons” is spelled in a wide variety of ways.)  As a boy, the elder Elbridge made the local papers at least twice.  In one incident, in 1833, the 18-year -old Elbridge and one of his brothers, probably Ambrose, Jr., investigated one of the numerous “giant sea serpent” sightings that had been claimed that season.  The young men reported that the “serpent” was actually an optical illusion caused by a pod of surfacing pilot whales.  The New Bedford Mercury hoped that this explanation would put its readers’ minds at rest.  Five years earlier Elbridge had also made local news when, as a 13 year old, he shot and successfully downed an eagle with a seven foot wing span on Baker’s Island.  The eagle was presented to the East India Museum in Salem.

The elder Elbridge was not only a harbor pilot, but a professional racing skipper as well.  Some of his greatest victories came aboard The Coquette, one of the most admired of the early American yachts.  She was low and graceful in the water, with a clipper bow much like the later famous racing yacht America.  In the 1840s yacht racing was in its infancy in the United States.  In 1844 the New York Yacht Club was formed by nine yacht-owners, and in 1846 the first official yacht race in America was sailed, twenty-five miles windward and back from the Sandy Hook lightship.  In this race The Coquette, skippered by Capt. Martin and owned by James H. Perkins, was matched against the centerboard sloop Maria.  The Maria was over twice as large and heavy as her competition, and heavily favored to win.   The Maria led The Coquette to the leeward mark, but coming up the beat the smaller ship found her stride.  The Coquette ended up beating her competition so badly that The Maria’s centerboard broke, and she was forced to limp home.  The Coquette’s victorious crew hoisted a broom to their ship’s masthead.  The Coquette would later beat both The Brenda and The Belle, and become an icon of early American yachting.

Perkins eventually sold The Coquette to Capt. Martin and fellow pilot Capt. Samuel Colby.  The pilots raised her bulwarks and made some adjustments to her deck plan, and she went onto serve as a pilot boat.  She gave over eighteen years of service in this capacity before being sold as a ‘Blackbirder’ on the African coast.

Shortly before the famous race between The Maria and The Coquette, Capt. Martin was the plaintiff/appellant in a case heard before the Supreme Court of Massachusetts.  The uncontested facts of the case were that as the brig Zephyr approached Boston Harbor, pilot E.G. Martin hailed the ship and requested permission to board.    The captain of the Zephyr replied that he would grant permission if the pilot would take the ship to Weymouth.  Martin countered that he would take the ship through Boston Harbor and then turn her over to a riverboat pilot.  The Zephyr’s captain offered to make a bargain, to which Capt. Martin replied “No.  I shall charge the Boston Harbor pilotage, whether you take me on board or not.”  The Zephyr’s captain said “We shall see about that.”

Capt. Martin sued for the fees that he had been denied.  The trial court found in favor of the defendant, reasoning that Boston Harbor pilots were only entitled to fees for ships bound for Boston.  On appeal, the Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected the trial court’s overly narrow interpretation of “Boston Harbor”.  The justices relied on over forty years of Boston Harbor custom.  They ruled that the statutes governing the harbor were written to increase safety.  It was impossible for a ship to get to Weymouth without passing through the harbor, and it was unsafe for a ship to pass through the harbor without a qualified pilot.  Capt. Martin was granted a new trial.

Elbridge G. Martin, Sr., died in September, 1873, at the age of 58 years old, the same age that his son, Elbridge G. Martin would die in 1902.  He is buried on The Old Burial Hill Cemetery in Marblehead, Massachusetts, which overlooks Marblehead Habor.

Thank you again for your email.  I hope that my response makes things a little clearer.  I think these stories are fascinating.  Have a great Thanksgiving and say “Hi” to everyone for me.

All the best, Adam

Friday, November 19, 2010

One Man's Perspective: Captain Edward Bowen, Sr. (1720-1796)

I had the wind taken out of my sails this week.  I got a text from my brother Luke late Tuesday afternoon: “Text me quickly if you can.  Who is the most interesting person from the Revolutionary War era? (seeking book report topic)”.  Since Luke is long past the age of writing book reports I assumed, and rightly so, that he was making the request on behalf of his ten-year-old daughter.  The most interesting person from the revolutionary war era?  That is certainly a question for a far more esteemed historian than myself, or for a countdown show on The History Channel.  I knew I could come up with an interesting person from that era.  After all, I write a weekly blog on interesting people, some of who are from the era in question.  I had just finished reading the story of Moll Pitcher, the much-maligned fortune-teller of Lynn, Massachusetts.  I do not think that I am related to ol’ Moll, but I would much rather hear that story than the well worn tales of how the Father of Our Country had wooden teeth, or trying to remember whether if it was “One if by land, Two if by sea”, or the other way around.  I immediately texted back that I would be happy to put together a list of compelling figures that my niece, Lily, could choose from.

Before I could put this list down on paper I got another text from Luke.  Lily had chosen  (drum-roll, please) .  .  . Betsy Ross.  Betsy Ross!  I apologize to all of you Betsy Ross fans out there, but I cannot think of a less interesting Revolutionary War era figure.  But then again, the Betsy Ross story is a very easy one to tell.  George Washington asked her to sew a flag.  She sewed a flag.  The end.   It’s a feel good story without a hint of controversy or complication.  And about as intriguing as watching paint dry.  I hope that those of you who are taking the time to read this post find the following account at least slightly more entertaining.

Captain Edward Bowen, a native of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was fifty-six years old at the start of the Revolution, and for the seventeen years from 1779 until his death in 1796, he kept a journal of his life in that coastal town.  One of his earliest journal entries is from January 23, 1779, which marked the birth of his ninth child.  My wife delivered a son whose name is to be Edward, who, if he should live, may remember that his father had no hand in the destraction (sic.) of his country, which was once the best for a poor man in the known world, but now the worst.”  I don’t know if  by destraction he meant “destruction” or “distraction”, but, either way, his frustration with the Revolution is clear.  The next week he writes of the source of much of this frustration.  After giving a list of prices of provisions.  Fine Liberty!  O, fine Liberty!  May they be punished.  The fishermen and sailors of Marblehead had suffered more than anyone under the tax regime of George III, but the war was economically devastating,  The formerly fertile fishing areas off the harbor had become the scene of pitched naval battles and the import-export trade had ground to halt.   By the spring of 1781 the local economy was in free-fall, and it took 100 of the newly issued American dollars to equal one Spanish mill dollar.  There was no meat available in the town, grain was scarce, and the heating fuel had barely lasted the winter.

Marblehead paid not only a heavy financial price, but a heavy price in terms in terms of young men seriously wounded or killed in battle.  On July 24, 1781, Capt. Bowen’s son William joined the army, much to elder Bowen’s consternation.  Many of Capt. Bowen’s diary entries deal with those who died during the war, including his son Benjamin who died in Barbados in 1779.  Capt. Bowen did not receive word of his son’s death until nearly two years after the event.  Closer to home the Marblehead privateers were able to significantly harass the British navy, but this did little to relieve the hardships suffered by the community.

Capt. Bowen wrote that the winter of 1779 and 1780 was the coldest of the century to that point.   That winter Salem and Marblehead harbors froze over with ice more than eight inches deep.  Two-thirds of the families in Marblehead were without meat or firewood.  Almost the entire Massachusetts fleet had been destroyed in a failed attack on the British in Penobscot Bay the previous summer and the rebellious Massachusetts colony was on the brink of financial ruin.  Capt. Bowen wrote often of his doubts about the revolutionary cause and his frustrations were many.  In the summer of 1881, Capt. Bowen’s brother Ashley was aboard a privateering ship that was captured by the British.

On April 13, 1783, news that peace had been declared reached Marblehead.  Within a few years the fishing and the international trade began to pick up, and Capt. Bowen wrote in his journal about ships and sailors setting out to and returning from ports including Bilboa Spain, Russia, the West Indies, the Carolinas, and Isle of Sables.  Capt. Bowen reported that the Christmas of 1787 was the most pleasant that anyone could remember.  The fishing that season had gone extremely well, but the market was extremely slow, perhaps on account of fears that the newly independent nation would be dragged into a war between Great Britain and France.  As 1787 became 1788 Capt. Bowen wrote:  Political conversation now seems to be most about the form of government.  Our State Convention meets at Boston the 8th of this month for the acceptance or refusal of the Constitution.  God grant they may be directed from above: may they have the good of the publick at heart.  As we have now begun a new year may we begin it to the Lord.  I have reason to fear there will be something uncommon come upon us this year.  May it not be our destruction.  On October 29, 1789, George Washington visited Salem and Marblehead and Capt. Bowen reported that there was “much ado.”

I know that Edward Bowen did not design or even sew the first flag of our nation, but I find the personal accounts of those who lived through the turbulent days that led to the new republic’s independence far more intriguing than the white-washed, plain vanilla propaganda that often passes as History.  I also know that I should not let the wind be taken out of my sails by a fifth grader's choice for a book report topic.

Captain Edward Bowen was my 5th great grand uncle

Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Lowe Martin - Allen Littlefield Martin - Frank L. Martin - Elbridge Gerry Martin, Jr. - Elbridge Gerry Martin, Sr. - Ambrose Bowen Martin - Elizabeth Bowen (daughter of) - Nathan Bowen, Sr. (father of) - Edward Bowen, Sr.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

"The Champion of the Seas" : Samuel Clemmons Martin, Sr. (1817-after 1900)

 "The Champion of the Seas"

Samuel had been shipwrecked many times before, and had always been able to find aid, and often friendship, with the Islanders.  This group of natives, however, was clearly offended by the presence of Americans on their islands.  Samuel and his friends sprinted back to the small boats that had brought them to shore.  The natives were at their heels.  The Americans rigged the spirit sails as quickly as they could and set off.  There was a strong breeze blowing inland and the islanders, in their felucca-rigged crafts, were rapidly gaining on them.  Samuel turned to one of his companions and told him that he was going to try something that he had read in the Bible, and if that did not save them, nothing would.  Samuel lashed a six-gallon can of oil that the crew had on-board to the fore-rigging and then stuck a marlin spike in the bottom of the can. The oil began to slowly leak onto the sea.  The dories stiffened up and began to glide across the surface of the water, as though they were powered by steam, and the Americans made their escape.

For nearly five decades of the 19th Century, Samuel Clemmons Martin was either at sea or guiding ships into or out of Boston Harbor.  He was born in 1817 in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and was destined to carry on his family’s nearly 200-year-old New England maritime legacy.

Samuel’s father, Captain Ambrose Martin, was a famous sea captain who would later man the lighthouse at Baker’s Island for over twenty-five years.  Samuel was literally brought up on the sea, and could manage a boat before he was in his teens.  At 17-years-old he signed onto a ship bound for Fiji.  This first voyage was a memorable one.  The ship that he was on was wrecked and he and several of his companions were cast ashore.  They lived amongst the Polynesian islanders for several months before they were taken aboard an English ship that touched there.  It took him nearly four years to return to Massachusetts, by which time all of his family and friends had given him up for dead.

Samuel stayed in Boston for a few months before returning to the sea.  Over his career he visited all of the major ports, and many of the smaller ports, of the world.  He was shipwrecked several times, and would lead a Robinson Crusoe-like existence while he waited to be rescued.  In the Ascension Islands he served as counselor to a native chieftain, and became a favorite of the chief and his courtiers.  Through his influence, Samuel was able to save the lives of several of his American companions.  The chief gave Samuel and his companions clothes made of leaves and straw, and appropriated their clothes to be used as official robes of state, and wore them on all occasions.  The chief gave the Americans a special honor guard and supplied them with servants from his own household.  When an English ship lighted on this island’s shores, and agreed to give the Americans transport, Captain Martin and his compatriots had to steal away.  Captain Martin would often say that he regretted that he had ever left the island.  When he returned, several years later, the chief held a great celebration in Captain Martin’s honor, offering him many gifts, including a nicely browned cut of human thigh.

In the late 1840’s Samuel Martin settled in Salem, Massachusetts and became a pilot in Salem Harbor, the same harbor in which he had learned to sail decades before.  This was not the end of his adventures, however.  Shipbuilding and seafaring traffic in Massachusetts’s harbors were at their height during this era, and the pilot ships were still powered by sail.  There were no tow-boats and the dredging and the survey of the harbor were by no means complete.  Tides were irregular and sand bars would form without warning.  Despite these challenges, Captain Martin’s record as a pilot remained one the cleanest in the history of the harbor.

A story is told of one trip up the harbor that Captain Martin made in the ship “Champion of the Seas.”  She was regarded by many as the finest vessel afloat and was launched in East Boston. She plied on the East Indies trade and toward the end of her career carried lumber. One night she arrived in the outer harbor, water logged, and Captain Martin was put aboard to bring her in.  She was in a dangerous condition, and he had an all-night fight to bring her to her dock.  His comrade who put him on the vessel said of the occurrence:  “When Martin climbed over the rail I did not think he would ever get her in: she was leaking badly and her hold was filled with water. But with his dogged persistence he beat her up, and worked all night with her, but finally tied her up and saved the ship.”

Samuel Clemmons Martin, Sr. was my 3rd Great Grand Uncle
Adam Lowe Martin (son of) – Allen Lowe Martin – Allen Littlefield Martin – Frank L. Martin – Elbridge Gerry Martin, Jr. – Elbridge Gerry Martin, Sr. – Capt. Ambrose Martin (father of) – Samuel Clemmons Martin, Sr.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Maker of The World's Most Expensive Whiskey: Henry Stratford Persse (1769-1833)

I saw Johnny Drama this past weekend.  He said that he enjoyed the blog post on The Leviathan of Parsonstown, but wondered why I haven’t written about what my forefathers, and foremothers, drank.  “I mean, was it beer? Was it wine?  What was it?”

Well, Johnny, I’m sure that their tastes varied, just as yours do.  But a few months back I did read an article about the most expensive bottle of whiskey ever put up for sale.  Arkwrights Whisky and Wines, a distributor based in Wiltshire, England, was offering a bottle of Persse’s 25 year Old Pure Pot Still Whiskey, (which is now actually over 100 years old) for a cool £100,000, or a little over $160,000, depending on the exchange rate.  Because of the toll that the current recession has taken on my personal finances I reluctantly had to forego buying the bottle and settle for $1 Natural Lights at Vinnie’s Raw Bar.  With the money that I have saved I can order an appetizer and desert.

This very expensive, and unsold, bottle of whiskey was one of the last produced by Persse’s Galway Whiskey, a distillery that was started by Henry Stratford Persse in 1815.  (This Henry Stratford Persse was the great-grandfather of the American Henry Stratford Persse whom I wrote about in September. ) The distillery operated throughout almost the entire 19th century and was the largest producer of Irish whiskey outside of Dublin.  For many decades it was Galway’s largest employer and it’s output was exported to England and throughout the British Empire.

Henry Stratford Persse’s first distillery was located in Newcastle, Galway, and was later moved to Nun’s Island, near the banks of the Corrib, between O’Brien’s bridge and the Salmon Weir bridge.  In the years before The Great Famine of the 1840s, the market towns of Galway, Loughrea and Tuam were well supplied with grain.  The local economy hummed along as the Nun’s Island distillery grew, and farmers and traders earned top commodity prices.

The distillery continued to expand and be the largest employer in Galway throughout The Famine, despite the ever-increasing competition from moon-shine producers and the hugely successful temperance campaign of Father Theobald Matthew.  In 1838 there 213,000 taverns in Ireland.  By 1860 there were only 22 taverns in the entire country. The 1860s, however, would be a period of huge expansion for Persse’s Whiskey.  The distillery, now run by Henry Straford Persse’s grandson Henry Sadlier Persse had long supplemented its income with beer production.  Henry Sadlier streamlined the physical plant’s operations and, in a marketing coup, hired Patrick McDermott, M.P. for Kilkenny, to act as a sales representative in England.  The Galway Whiskey was introduced into the House of Commons bar and Persse’s adopted the slogan “Favourite in the House Commons”, which it emblazoned on posters, jugs, mirrors and a West of Ireland travel guide.

The turn of the century, however, marked the end of production of Persse’s Galway Whiskey.  The three largest Dublin distillers had combined their efforts and improved rail networks meant the end of Persse’s virtual monopoly in the west of Ireland.  By this time Scotland had surpassed Ireland as the spirit of choice for overseas drinkers.  Whiskey consumption in Ireland continued to decline and knock-off brands continued to spring up.  In 1908 the Nun’s Island distillery closed its doors for the last time.  By 1921, and the creation of The Irish Free State, all of the Persses had left Galway.   The old Nun’s Island building still stands and The King’s Head Bar displays Persse Galway Whiskey mirror.  And if you are willing to pay over $5,000 for a shot, an English spirits merchant can arrange for you to taste some of the best 100 year old whiskey around.

Henry Stratford Persse was my 4x Great Grandfather

Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Lowe Martin - Margaret Persse (daughter of) - Edwin Theophilus Persse (son of) -  Dudley Persse - Theophilus Blakeney Persse - Henry Stratford Persse

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Builder of "The Leviathan of Parsonstown": Lord William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse (1800-1867)

The “Leviathan of Parsonstown” was a sixty-foot giant, with an eye more than six feet across.  For most of the 19th century it had provided the most magnified view of the sky possible in that era, and attracted astronomers from all over the world to an otherwise sleepy Irish village.

William Parsons, the creator of the “Leviathan” was an individual who was quite different from many of the stereotypical images associated with the men and women who have made great scientific breakthroughs.  Although he was a talented mechanic and a diligent student, he was not a prodigy or a genius.  He began his university career at Trinity College, Dublin and then went on to earn first-class honors in mathematics at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1822.  If anything set him apart from his fellow students, it was not his abilities, but his innate curiosity and love of the learning process.   In addition to his scientific pursuits he had a great deal of interest in social questions and was a profound student of political economy.

Parsons’s decision to devote the focus of his attention to astronomy was a deliberate one.  No great progress in astronomy had been made since the discoveries of Frederick William Herschel, the great astronomer and telescope builder of the previous century.  William Parsons believed that new breakthroughs in astronomy would depend on a man who not only had vision, but also the time and the financial wherewithal to pursue that vision.  William Parsons, also known as Lord Oxmantown, was the eldest son of Sir Lawrence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse, a distinguished member of the Irish Parliament and holder of one of the wealthiest estates in Great Britain or Ireland.   The wealth and leisure that he was born into would allow William Parsons to put his mechanical skills to the great scientific endeavor of building the world’s largest telescope.

Great scientific endeavors often isolate men of vision from the individuals and the community around them.  This was not the case with Parsons.  Lord Oxmantown’s curiosity led him to create bonds and friendships, not only with likeminded scientists, but also with people from nearly all walks of life.  A story that was often told about Lord Oxmantown during his life was that when he was being given a tour of a large mechanical works in the north of England, the owner of the works stated that he was in great need of a foreman, and hoped that his visitor would accept the position.  Lord Oxmantown gave the man his card and gently explained that he was not exactly the man for the job, but that he appreciated the compliment.  This interaction led to a pleasant dinner and was the start of a lasting friendship.

Like his intellectual predecessor Herschel, William Parsons had a female companion in his scientific pursuits who was of equal, if not greater ability than her male counterpart.   Herschel’s sister Caroline had both acted as his assistant and had independently discovered eight comets, three nebulae and improved formulae regarding the position of stars.  William Parsons, Lord Oxmantown, married Mary Field, the daughter of a wealthy estate-owner, in 1836 and without her assistance the “Leviathan” would never have become a reality.  Lady Oxmantown was an accomplished blacksmith, an extremely rare skill for an upper-class woman of the time.  She constructed most of the iron work used to support the giant telescope, and this project kept more than 500 men employed during the depths of the Great Famine that devastated Ireland from 1845 to 1847.  This mother of eleven children was also an innovator in photography.  She was one of the first photographers to use wax paper negatives.  Many of her photographs serve today as an important chronicle of the building of the “Leviathan”.

Construction of the “Leviathan” had begun in 1842, and by 1847 it was in service.  Despite the advancements that Lady Oxmantown and others were making in the field of photography during this period, any observations made with the giant telescope had to be sketched by the observer.  News of William Parson’s discovery of the nebula M51 (today known as the Whirlpool Galaxy) and observations of the Crab Nebula spread throughout the British Commonwealth.  Many of Parsons’s hand-drawn sketches are amazingly consistent with modern spectroscopic images.

The “Leviathan” was truly a mechanical marvel.  Another Irish Member of Parliament, Thomas Langlois Lefroy, is quoted as saying “The planet Jupiter, which through an ordinary glass is no larger than a good star, is seen twice as large as the moon appears to the naked eye . . . But the genius displayed in all the contrivances for wielding this mighty monster even surpasses the design and execution of it.  The telescope weighs sixteen tons, and yet (Parsons) raised it single-handed  (sic.) off its resting place, and two men with ease raised it to any height.”

At the death of his father, William Parsons was elevated to the title of Third Earl of Rosse.  For many years Lord Rosse filled with marked distinction the position of President of the Royal Society, the premiere institution of scientific discovery in Britain and Ireland.  Lord Rosse’s home, Birr Castle, hosted monumental exhibitions of optical skill and attracted throngs of visitors from all over the world.  Lord Rosse himself was always available to those who sought his assistance and advice, and endeared himself to all with whom he came in contact.  On one occasion, when an assistant dropped and broke a mirror on which the great man had spent several hours of personal labor, Lord Rosse shrugged his shoulders and said, “Accidents will happen.”

The “Leviathan” remained the largest telescope in the world until 1914, when a larger one was built in California.  By this time the monster telescope was virtually obsolete, and was allowed to fall into disrepair.  In the 1970’s a television program, book and lecture by the documentarian Patrick Moore revived interest in this 19th Century marvel.  Reconstruction work began in 1996, and as the original plans for the telescope had been lost, the reconstruction team relied heavily on contemporary photographs taken by Lady Rosse.  In 1999 a new mirror was installed in the reconstructed telescope, and the “Leviathan” again attracts curious observers from all over the world to this sleepy Irish town.

Lord William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse was my 3rd cousin, 5 times removed
Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Lowe Martin - Margaret Persse (daughter of) - Edwin Theophilus Persse (son of) - Dudley Persse - Theophilus Blakeney Persse - Henry Stratford Persse - William Persse - Elizabeth Parsons (daughter of)- William Parsons (father of)- Sir Laurence Parsons, 3rd Baronet Parsons - Sir William Parsons, 4th Baronet Parsons - Lord Laurence Parsons, 2nd Earl of Rosse - Lord William Parsons, 3rd Earl of Rosse

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Murder of a Patriot: Douw Fonda (1700/1-1780)

The widower was in his eightieth year and he lived in large stone mansion with a small number of servants.  In his long life in the Mohawk River Valley he had witnessed a great many battles, some carefully orchestrated campaigns and some minor skirmishes or raids. He had never before seen, however, a winter as harsh as the one that had just passed.  It was May now, and spring was returning to the valley.  The widower and his neighbors knew that the blue skies and warmer temperatures were a mixed blessing, as they would probably be accompanied by an invasion from the Redcoats who were encamped a few days march to the north in Quebec.

The British Governor-General Haldimand had received intelligence reports that the Rebels were forcing men of fighting age to take up arms against the British crown.  The Governor was upset by this persecution of Loyalists and began to work with Sir John Johnson to muster a unit to safely escort these men to British-controlled Quebec.  Johnson was in full agreement with Haldimand’s sentiment, and also saw the mission as a chance to strike a blow against the rebelling colonists.

The Mohawk River Valley was a Whig stronghold, and the community fully supported the cause of Independence.  They had received word that the British were planning a raid, but they didn’t know when and they didn’t know how.  The widower, Douw Fonda, volunteered his home as a makeshift fortress, and stakes and pickets were planted around its circumference.  Not only was the mansion a formidable structure, but its owner was a patriarch of a family that was respected throughout the region, by Whig, Tory, and Indian alike, and perhaps this respect would temper the actions of the raiding forces.

In the middle of May 1780, Johnson put together a raiding party of 528 whites and Indians.  The party made its way south, down Lake Champlain and then marching southwest from Crown Point.  As the invaders began to pillage the northern settlements, the alarm was sounded.  The young men of the village who would have otherwise protected their farms, homes and families were off fighting the British as part of the Continental Army or militia.  Because the settlement had been left defenseless, its residents ran for the protection of the wooded hills, knowing that their homes would be destroyed, but that, perhaps, their lives would be spared.  The British and the Mohawks did not pursue the terrified villagers, but those that refused to abandon their property were locked inside their burning homes.

The elderly Douw Fonda, however, refused to flee.  When the alarm first sounded he grabbed his gun and turned to the young Scottish girl who was his personal attendant and said, “Penelope, do stay here with me, for I will fight for you with the last drop of my blood!”  Penelope Grant did her best to talk him out of this foolish plan, and encouraged him to escape with her to the hills.  When she realized that her protestations were to no avail, she knew that if she wished to survive she would have to leave the old man to his fate.

At first the Mohawks intended to spare the Douw mansion and the old man who owned it.  Many of them knew Fonda personally, had enjoyed his hospitality in the past, and were aware that he was a close friend of Sir William Johnson, the head of Indian affairs in the northern colonies.  The Tories, however, were intent on inflicting as much suffering as possible to this Whig stronghold, and commanded their Mohawk allies to do the same.  As the invaders burst through the blockaded front door, the musical clock that stood in the front hall began to play its chimes.  On a marble table was a statue of Indian, whose head was on a pivot, which from the slightest motion was “Niding, nodding, and nid, nid, nodding.”  The Mohawks believed that the strange music and the nodding statue were signs that the spirits approved of their rampage.

Douw Fonda was relieved of his weapon before he had fired a single shot.  He was led from his home, carrying a book and a cane, by an Indian known as “One-Armed Peter,” and then taken to the river and tomahawked and scalped.  When Peter was later chastised for this murder, he protested that he believed that Fonda’s fate had already been sealed and that “he might as well get the bounty for the scalp as anyone else.”

Several other villagers were killed that day, and ten dozen barns and homes were burned.  Sir John Johnson gathered 143 Loyalists, including women and children, and twenty slaves and made the trek back to Quebec.  The Rebels mustered Continentals and militias to pursue Johnson’s party, but the pursuit had to be abandoned due to rumors that the Mohawk chief Joseph Brandt was planning an attack from the south.

Two days after the raid the dogs of several families whose homes had been ravaged and burned, and whose masters had been killed or taken prisoner, gathered on a hill just north of the Slingerland home and began to howl.  A howling by a greater number of dogs has never been heard before or since.  The unearthly baying began at sunset and continued for several hours as the dogs mourned their lost masters.  Eventually, the surviving villagers returned and rebuilt the town that would become known as Fonda, New York.

Douw Fonda was my Great (x6) Grandfather
Adam Lowe Martin (son of) - Allen Martin - Margaret Persse (daughter of) - Edwin Theophilus Persse (son of) - Margaret Alida Schuyler (daughter of) - Maria Wemple - Douw Wemple (son of) - Margrietje Fonda (daughter of) - Douw Fonda