My New York Maritime Connection (A Sea Cap’n in My Past)
It’s taken me a little while to post on this subject because I wanted to nail it down a bit and get my ducks in a row. But I had a revelation the other day that made things click into place for me, and so now we explore it.
Of my eight great grandparents, the lineage of one is particularly anomalous. When I first hit certain details about this family line, I didn’t trust them, for they are rather unlike most of my mom’s side of the family, especially to occur so recently. But it all seems to prove out, and it’s rather interesting.
Before I bury the lede any further, let me put it here: my great-great-great grandfather Morris Jackson (1827-1915) was a sea captain. This gives me unbounded joy. The period when he was active, roughly 1850-1900 was an exciting era in seafaring, and I’ve spent so much time with my nose buried in books by Herman Melville, Joseph Conrad, Jack London, the early “Sea Plays” of Eugene O’Neill and so forth, that it truly captures my imagination. I’d found numerous seafarers in my family’s distant past, nine or ten generations back, but to have one this recent is cool.
The trajectory that leads up to Capt. Jackson is not the usual one for my New England family. Most of my New England ancestors touched ground in Plymouth, Salem or Boston and either worked their way directly west, or south into Rhode Island and then west, all of them converging eventually in Wyndham County, Connecticut. My (10th) great grandfather Henry Jackson (1606-1686) took a different path. Like the others, he arrived in Massachusetts in the 1630s. But by 1639 he headed very far west for that time, becoming one of the founders of Fairfield, Connecticut. This is in the opposite corner of the state, the portion closest to New York City. (When I crowed loudly several months ago about being related to P.T. Barnum, this is how. Barnum’s ancestry was in the same area). Henry appears to have been a substantial man — he had a lot of land, he owned many books (a rare luxury for the time), and arms and armor (also expensive). His descendants remained in Fairfield County (principally the areas that are now the towns of Fairfield, Redding, Bridgeport, and Stratford) for generations, presumably as farmers. I have little information on their lives thus far beyond names, dates, and locations. One of them, my (5th) great grandfather Daniel Jackson (1763-1841) served in the American Revolution under a Lt. Nathan Beers in the 3rd Connecticut Regiment.
is son But it’s with Daniel’s son Samuel (1786-1867) that things start to get intriguing in a concrete way. In the 1860 census, the earliest one I can find so far with a mention of him, Samuel’s occupation is given, quite clearly, as “musician”. This is such a weird outlier that I’ve gone back and looked at the scan of the original census-taker’s tabulation repeatedly, but it couldn’t be clearer. It says “musician”. What muddies things however, is that Samuel was 74 years old at the time. “Musician” sounds very much like an activity a working man might take up as a second career when he’s too old to perform manual labor. Was he a semi-amateur, picking up a few coppers playing in waterfront taverns for sailors? Or was he a professional man of the theatre, was he even a minstrel performer, the prevailing style of the day? I haven’t been able to ascertain anything about his life prior to 1860. And that’s particularly vexing because it may provide some clue about the transition to his son Morris, the sea captain. But I’ll keep at it.
I arrived at my discovery of Morris coming from the other direction of course, via my grandmother Ruth Cady, to her mother Margaret Jackson (my great-grandmother after whom, I’m assuming, my mother was named), to Margaret’s father Edward Andrew Jackson (1852-1901). What threw me for a loop is that Edward is listed in many records as having been born in NEW YORK. That struck me as so strange and unlikely that I regarded it with skepticism for a long time. To add to my confusion, Edward has a younger sibling who was born in the family stronghold of Bridgeport, and a still younger one who was born in Providence. And the family seems to live in Providence in later years. Edward was a “laborer”, he got married young, and settled in Wyndham County, rejoining the rest of my lineages in a rather roundabout way, geographically.
And, again, some added pieces: when Edward’s father Morris was young his occupation was given as “sailor”, when he’s older it’s “sea captain” and he seems to finish out his old age at the Aged Seaman’s Home at Sailors Snug Harbor, Staten Island! I’ve actually been there several times!
But I got the biggest thunderbolt of all the other day when I was walking on the east side waterfront on the way to visit the Liberty Ship John W. Brown. I encountered this historical plaque that talks about a ferry line called the “Daily Line” that operated between Bridgeport and New York and opened in the 1820s. Ferry service connected all the major points up and down the East coast (including Providence), in the days before large bridges and railways. Bridgeport’s harbor was expanded during these years, creating more work in that field than had existed in the town before. I am envisioning a scenario wherein Morris (and possibly his father Samuel) got involved in this thriving new line as it expanded, hauling freight and passengers between the eastern ports. It will take more research to confirm the details, though again those broader facts are there. It looks like Morris began sailing out of Bridgeport, started his family at the New York end of his route, moved the family to Bridgeport, and finally moved them to Providence. And he himself was probably constantly on the water, away from home. Further research than I’ve done will await some future incentive, like a project that will require it, or access to a maritime database, or something like it. At any rate, as I make my occasional maritime ramblings, as I often do, now I will invariably think of Captain Jackson.