ancestryink fisherman

Friday, June 28, 2013

Even Sheep Go to Sea

This photograph entitled "Pentecost" by Peter Ralston, 1983, was posted by Maine Magazine to their Facebook page, yesterday.

There was a time when sheep were transported by boat from mainland to island, in Maine and Massachusetts, to clear land.  Again today, flocks of sheep are growing in popularity for keeping brush and grass under control. Whatever the reason for this particular voyage, it's a lovely image.

( Peter Ralston's website for more stunning photographs, click here. He lives in Rockport, Maine.)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Take No Prisoners Prose of Edgartown Vital Records 1820

As many vital records as I endlessly peruse in the name of research, Edgartown, Massachusetts vital records of the early 1800's are still my favorite.  The details of the death records are deliciously unsparing snippets of prose.

Edgartown citizens beware! Live a pious and humble life, or have your bad temper or small crimes made public for all eternity at the time of your death.

Here are some examples encountered while researching mariners of the Cape and Islands:  (click for larger image and

Edgartown Death records 1820

Excerpt:  "Oct. 15   Melatiah Davis  He was a Baptist   a mixed/ character  unhappy in his Temper  weak & / avaricious."

Handcuffs and chains?

Edgartown Death records 1818

Excerpt:  "Nov 27   Dennis Davis  son of Melatiah died distracted/  in chains & Hand Cufs   He was a Baptist/  they sent for James Crosby a very ignorant / man to attend Fun"

Clearly the Meletiah Davis family had some issues.  And though it looks like James Crosby arrived on the scene to have a good time at the expense of Dennis - in - chains, I believe "Fun" means "funeral."

Besides these very candid remarks, the actual details and causes of death are quite helpful in many cases, not to mention the additional family information. And the colorful prose is highly-addictive entertainment!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Whale of a Thank You Note

Sometimes the greatest inspiration comes from the most unexpected places. 

This year was the "whaling year" for the my daughter's students at the small Chilmark elementary school on Martha's Vineyard.  She asked me to help them research whaling captains of Martha's Vineyard.  Yes !! What could be more fun???  I spent a few months in between my own research projects, accumulating and emailing to them lots of wonderful facts and tales of whaling families on the Island.  As I had lived on the Island for so many years, it was easy to jump right into local records.

Map of the Whaling World
They had a great year:  they went to the New Bedford Whaling Museum  (with a side-stop for bowling in Falmouth); they went to Barnstable and boarded a boat and went off-shore for a whale watch. They visited the home of Captain Mitchell West, Chilmark, where just recently exciting artifacts have been uncovered.  All told, they had a whale-full year.

Last week, I got a call to come over to the Island one evening, to visit their end of the year Research Fair. They would be displaying all their knowledge in the form of various whaling projects.  I jumped on the ferry and made it over there in the midst of a crazy rainstorm.  They did a wonderful presentation.  And much to my surprise, I was offered in gratitude a very fascinating, colorful map of the "whaling world" as it was in 1800's. All eleven of the Fifth Graders, and their teachers, had signed it.  The map, which came from the New Bedford Whaling Museum, is called:  "New Bedford: The City That Lit the World." 
- another startling reminder that whale oil was of the utmost importance to this world, for well over 100 years.

There were flowers and other nice gifts, but the whaling map will remain a treasured possession.  I will frame it and hang it in my office. It will always remind me of how important, and exciting, maritime history is to all of us!  But most of all, the thanks from the enthusiastic Fifth Graders will remain my biggest inspiration for continuing to "bring light" to our historic maritime families and their occupations on the high seas. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

MA Vital Records Project Website Changes the Historical View of Mass. Towns and Families

From MA VR Project website

Today is the first time this website has come up in my searches for birth, marriage and death records for Massachusetts towns.  The Massachusetts Vital Records Project.

It seems to be entirely created and maintained by John Slaughter, of Ipswich, Mass., along with volunteers, and donations.

As much as I love pulling the "tan books" (so named Vital Records books for Mass. towns) off the shelf of my local library, and settling in for a couple of hours of research, it is immensely helpful to be able to go over these vital records at home.  Especially, due to one special feature made possible by the website's technology.

The ability to view birth, marriage and death records to 1850,  in the usual alphabetical form per family is incredibly helpful  - but to be able to switch that data to a chronological view, starts to really illuminate life before 1850.  If you are going beyond genealogical research, and exploring historical trends and particular subjects, such as illness, war, deaths at sea, birth rates - this is an incredible resource.

Here's an example:  click for larger images of these death listings:

Alphabetically: the Bearse family of Falmouth, Mass.:
And now Chronologically, for the same family:

What jumped out at me, here?  I was able to see right away that Benjamin Bearse and Charles Bearse, both sons of Crocker and Susan, died on exactly the same day, Dec. 28, 1844.

Here is another random example (which ended up being not so random!):  First the Clark families, alphabetically:

And now Clarks, chronologically:

Notice that when viewed in chronological form, we can easily see that two children of Alexander and Mary  Clark died on the same day, Nov. 1844.

This is when historical research really gets exciting.  Are you seeing the trend here?

Note* I chose these families randomly simply because they were at the beginning of the Falmouth Vital Records list, alphabetically, and were small families. When you are dealing with a very large family, with many names - in Falmouth, "Crockers," for instance - this reoranizing feature is even more valuable.

 Right away, a little "alarm" goes off. In late 1844, there appears to be a number of deaths occurring within families at the same time.  At this point, I would have to suspect that something might be sweeping the town: consumption perhaps. Possibly even a horrible weather event.  Pretty fascinating stuff. 

The next step is to click on the image next to each name.  However, it is rare that the original image lists an actual cause of death.  You would need to delve deeper, at another source.  Yet, this initial viewing from the MA Vital Records Project is invaluable for honing your research time, and even discovering new facts about your family and their town.

I have added their website to my list of online research links, for quick access.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Live Cannonball Brought to Falmouth HMS Nimrod Lecture

Maritime Monday is being aired on Tuesday this week, as you can see.

The following news article relates an 'explosive' event that happened last month during a talk given at the Falmouth Public Library, regarding cannonballs retrieved in Falmouth during the War of 1812.  I desperately wish I had been present during all the excitement.

First, here's a little back story of the maritime and land clashes that took place in Falmouth during this time period. A link to the news article follows:

During the War of 1812, Falmouth suffered from the embargoes in no uncertain terms, but generally stayed out of the fracas.  Some accounts report that she lost some ships: the brand new schooners Nancy, Elizabeth and Fancy were all burned by the British.  These ships were possibly anchored in Wareham, which suffered the burning of a cotton factory, and some of its own ships. Falmouth itself was threatened with conflagrations, yet endured none. The citizens, nonetheless, moved to safe quarters, away from the shore.  And when the commander of the British brig Nimrod demanded Gen. Joseph Dimmick surrender his cannons, he basically said:  "Come and get them."

Painting of HMS Nimrod, held by Falmouth Historical Society

Nimrod responded by lobbing a few cannonballs towards the town.  There were no casualties, a couple of buildings were grazed, and one cannonball lodged in what is now the (seemingly abandoned and vine-covered) Nimrod Restaurant. Apparently, the cannonball hole is still viewable in the men's room wall, and men and women alike have delighted in taking a look.

The talk given at the Falmouth Public Library the first week of last May, was all about these 1812 cannonballs.  It was an evening that would conclude in a rather unexpected way.

Here is the article.  Enjoy!

PS.  The brave mariners of Falmouth would have the last word.*  In 1814, 32 men led by Capt. Weston Jenkins, would slip from Woods Hole harbor aboard the small sloop Two Friends and approach the British privateer Retaliation.  Retaliation fired a warning signal at the Two Friends which responded by dropping anchor.  However, 20 of the canny and brave Falmouth men set out quietly in long boats, came alongside Retaliation, pointed their muskets at the crew, and took possession of the ship and and her plunder, which included two American prisoners.  Retaliation indeed for the town of Falmouth!

*Source:  Freeman, Frederick, "The History of Cape Cod, Vol. 2"; The Annals of Falmouth; pages 467-8.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Here Comes Tropical Storm Andrea - Just Another Day in the Life of an 1850's Mariner

As tropical storm Andrea rushes up the East Coast today, pushing powerful storm surges towards the shore and generally wreaking havoc, I am reminded again of how many men, and sometimes women, in the 1850's routinely experienced powerful storms, on ships, at sea - not watching them on TV from a dry, safe abode in their pretty, coastal home towns.

Waquoit is a part of Falmouth, Mass. that in 1850, 'gave berth' to so many mariners that I thought I would share just one census page for this community.  While researching Andrew F. Bourne, I came upon this page illustrating how many families might be affected by a storm such as Andrea - either waiting anxiously at home for news of a husband or father, or out at sea, battening down the hatches, on board a heaving ship.

Click on the image to read:

1850 Census Record for Waquoit

On this page, there are exactly eight dwellings listed.  Within those eight homes, there is a total of thirteen separate families, enumerated.  Each dwelling contains under its roof at least one mariner, master mariner, or sailor. These men include the head of household, relatives, and also at times, their sons of eligible seagoing age.

Only one man, Henry Crocker, has an occupation other than mariner.  He is a farmer. However, within his home lives the Weston Swift family - another master mariner.

Charles H. Bourne, at age 16, is the youngest "sailor" listed on the census here (though we know that boys went to sea as young as 13 and 14.)  Charles H. Bourne lives with his widowed mother, Susan, in one Bourne household, and his brother Andrew F. Bourne, age 13, lives in another Bourne household. Their father was Capt. Isaac B. Bourne. He married their mother Susan in 1830, and died at sea in 1839, at the young age of 33.

Capt. Isaac B. Bourne of Waquoit, died 1839

Barnabas Bourne,  "Mariner," at age 59, is the eldest seagoing man on this page.

This one census page, and Capt. Isaac B. Bourne's gravestone, are a stunning reminder that at times, in an area such as this in Waquoit, the only inhabitants of a small seaside community in 1850 during both fair weather and storms, might consist almost entirely of only women and young children.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Capt. Tristram Pinkham Swain: A Nantucket Whaling Captain Caught By Gold Rush Fever

Captain Tristram P. Swain was not just a phenomenally successful whaling captain, he was also the embodiment of a wild fever that gripped many a New England mariner,  changing their lives forever, and the whaling industry as a whole,  in the years between 1848-1851.
Tristram Pinkham Swain was born in 1799 on the island of Nantucket to Uriah and Judith (Pinkham) Swain.  He married Mary Nye (Edwards) on Nantucket, May 1826. Mary’s mother was the daughter of Ichabod and Remember Nye of North Falmouth. During Tristram’s lifetime, he and Mary and their family made their home on Nantucket. Tristram is descended from Richard Swain, one of the original settlers of Nantucket.

Census records show Tristram and wife Mary, with children, living on Nantucket in 1850.  He would die later that same year, Aug 12th, and be “buried at sea.”

From 1860 to her death in 1887, Mary Swain lives in North Falmouth with her children and a sister, thus explaining why the headstone for Mary and Tristram resides in the North Falmouth Cemetery. In my research of Falmouth mariners, I include him in the list of Falmouth mariners lost at sea, not just because of the location of his gravestone and his wife's ties to Falmouth, but also because he sailed with many Falmouth men during his life at sea. His career as a successful whaling captain is remarkable. When he heeds the siren song of California Gold and imagined riches, as so many mariners did in 1849, his life takes a sudden turn.

The following information details the activities of Tristram P. Swain as shipmaster, ship owner and gold seeker.

Swain’s whaling trips were enormously fruitful, sending home at times thousands of barrels of sperm oil and baleen oil. And on his trip aboard the New Bedford, he additionally brought home 14,721 lbs. of whalebone!

In 1849, the lure of the rich gold mines of California turned the heads of many a whaling mariner and town tradesmen. Ships set sail from New England to California in huge number to seek the mother lode.  The Gold Rush severely affected the whaling industry.  Some whaling crewmen even jumped ship, mid- voyage, to find their fortune in California.

One of the first ships to set sail from Nantucket to California was the Henry Astor, departing for California in March of 1849. The Gold Rush had officially begun, for Cape Cod and the Islands. The Henry Astor was a Nantucket whaling ship purchased by the Astor Mining Co., a Nantucket company formed specifically to be outfitted and voyage to California in search of gold. She would arrive in San Francisco, September 1849.[1]

Swain and Russell purchase the Emily Farnham

In 1849, Tristram P. Swain, Thomas Russell of Nantucket, and several other men from New Bedford, together purchased the brig Emily Farnham of Boston with the intention of a voyage to California. A July 20, 1849 news clipping from the New Bedford Mercury announces that the “fine brig” Emily Farnham will sail for San Francisco with Nantucketers Tristram P. Swain, Russell (his wife and child), Alexander Chase, and others, on board

And from the July 18, 1849 edition of the New York Herald, this passenger list:[2]

Passenger List of the Emily Farnham, to San Francisco

The fact that co-owner Thomas Russell of Nantucket had brought along his wife and child, indicates that the Nantucketers might be planning to stay in California for some time.

It seems clear that Tristram Swain made that voyage. A year later, leaving his friends and the Emily Farnham in San Francisco, he boarded another ship bound for Panama, either on business, or possibly to make his way home to Nantucket - the very ship to first leave Nantucket for California - the Henry Astor. The sad news of his death arrives via the New Bedford Mercury newspaper, August, 1850:  (see bottom of item)

On board the ship “Henry Astor,” traveling from San Francisco to Panama, Tristram P. Swain of Nantucket, age 48, died August 12, 1850.”[3]

His body was committed to the sea, and his simple gravestone with his wife Mary Nye Swain, stands quietly behind the North Falmouth Congregational Church, in the North Falmouth Cemetery.  

[1] Nantucket Historical Society; Downey, Judith; Consequences of California Mania: Nantucket and the Whaling Industry; “Historic Nantucket,” Vol 48, no. 3 (Summer 1999), p. 25-26; accessed NHS website:
[2] California Bound, 1848-1873; John Ireland, “”; website:
[3] Coincidentally, Capt. O.F. Fosdick, former whaling master of the, Henry Astor, died about a year later, Dec. 3,1851- on board the “Emily” three days out of San Francisco. Though no cause of death is reported for him, another crew member on same voyage died of dysentery, an all too common cause of death, aboard ship at sea. Source:

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