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  • Family Profile: James Potter, Mariner

    Rosemary Canfield

    Published Date : August 1985
    Shortly after beginning a search for my New England ancestors, I realized that the project would be much more fun if I could reconstruct some of the details of their daily lives. Others who have added this dimension to their genealogical research may agree that eventually one finds a favorite or two among the list of names and dates.

    I found my favorite the day I read among the papers of Aaron Lopez, merchant of Newport, Rhode Island, the following words, dated 3 Nov. 1769: "Sir, the Ship Jacob now under your Command being ready fitted for the Seas, you are to embrace the first fair Wind and proceed directly to St. Anns in the Island of Jamaica…"

    All that I know of Captain James Potter I have found in 18th century records.  Not one word of his existence, let alone his life story had come down to the present generation.  A few of the known events of his life are recorded here in the hope that his story may be preserved.

    James Potter, eldest son of Thomas and Hannah (Gardner) Potter, was baptized 5 Jan. 1734 “3 years old” by Dr. James McSparran, pastor of the Church of England in Kingston, Rhode Island.  Mrs. McSparran and Dr. McSparran stood as “sureties” for James, who was probably named for his godfather.

    Thomas Potter, sheriff of Newport County, died in 1744, when James was thirteen years old.  It seems likely that James was taken in hand by one of his male relatives, or perhaps by a close family friend.  He probably went to sea at an early age.  By the time he was 26, in 1757, at the time of the French wars, James was master of a ship, the privateer Prince Frederick, a brigantine of 50 tons.  Three years later he was master of the Wolf, a sloop of 95 tons.

    At some point, Captain James became associated with Aaron Lopez. Lopez was owner or part-owner of a fleet of ships, and had extensive dealings in the so-called triangle trade.  Although Lopez was involved with the slave trade, it appears that Captain James was not among the ship masters who sailed to Africa for Lopez.  He seems to have sailed between Newport and Jamaica with cargoes of rum. whale oil products and the like.

    Among the papers of Aaron Lopez can be found receipts and letters which help to reconstruct some of Captain James Potter’s voyages.

    On 2 April 1767 Captain James wrote a letter to Aaron Lopez from St. Anns, Jamaica, telling him that the trip from Newport to Port Antony took 19 days.  It was the brig Diana which Captain James sailed on that trip, carrying a cargo of livestock, flour, salt fish, salt pork, candles and lumber.  He had ten horses on board, nine of which he sold for £37 apiece on the date of his letter.  The market for produce was very poor and Capt. James said “Neither cann I advise sending a Nother vessel as the Island is gluted Mutch with our produce.”

    Capt. James sent “Mr. Heffernan” in the long boat to accompany a small sloop to Kingston in the hope of finding a better market there.  John Heffernan is mentioned in the Lopez papers of a later date as captain of one of the Lopez ships.  Perhaps on this voyage he was second in command.  Receipts for wages paid by Lopez indicate that crew members on this trip included Walter Chaloner, Jr., John Eldred, Jr., Jeremiah Green(?), Caleb Bentley, Joseph West and Henry Muller.  James Stoops signed one receipt for wages and another for “net proceeds of my adventure sold in Jamaica by Capt. James Potter.”

    On 30 June 1767 Capt. James again wrote to Aaron Lopez from St. Anns. Noting that it had been the worst weather for two months past “ever known hear at this season of the year,” he reported that he probably could not sail for home before the end of August.  The buyers of his goods apparently could not pay him until their crops - delayed by bad weather - came in and were sold.  Capt. James had, however, been able to obtain 100 hogsheads of sugar, rum and molasses.  He quoted the price of cotton and coffee, suggesting that he intended to purchase these items for the return voyage to Rhode Island.

    In December 1768 Lopez paid wages to five men who served on the brig Diana, James Potter, master.  It is probable that another round trip to Jamaica had just been completed.  In December 1769 another batch of receipts was signed for wages paid on the brig Diana, James Potter, master, on a voyage to Jamaica.

    In late 1769 or early 1770, Capt. James took the ship Jacob to Jamaica.  On 3 Nov. 1769 Aaron Lopez gave him the written sailing orders quoted earlier. Lopez added, “As I shall order Insurance on the Ship, expect the underwriters will make it a Condition that she quits Jamaica, before the 26th of July next, which desire you’ll attend to in a particular manner.”

    On 17 March 1770 Capt. Nathaniel Briggs wrote to the Lopez brothers.  After giving his business report, he said, “I also heard by a small Sconer from St. Anns in Jameca that Captain potter was vere sick when he left that plase.”  Benjamin Wright’s letter of 30 March 1770 from Savannah says “….Capt. Potter forwarded me your letter - first post and wrote me that he had been extremely ill but had recovered, his people all [95] recovering fast.  He complained of Marketts being low on the north side he tells me the Mills will not go about till sometime in April.”

    The Jacob was back in Newport by November 1770 when the sailors were paid off.  Receipts were signed by Samuel Ginnado, Samuel Eldred, Jonathan Reminton, James Spencer, Walch(?) Clark(?), John Tennant, Henry Parry (?) and Sam Alexander.

    Although James was probably born in South Kingston, he lived most of his life in Newport and Middletown. It is not known where he was educated, but he must have had some academic training.  His handwriting was strong and clear, his signature large and forceful.

    James owned land in Newport and was a freeman there in 1755.  The land records, with date missing, show that he sold property in the Easton Point area to Aaron Lopez.  He was a member of Trinity Church, Newport.  He was one of a group which gave security to the church so that an addition could be built; he was to have a pew.  At about the same time his mother-in-law, Ann Pye, subscribed for a seat “in the gallery”.

    In 1771 James had purchased land in Middletown.  It is probable that he retired from the sea at that time and settled down to farming with the help of his sons.  Colonial and town records show that he was active in his community, elected to the General Assembly and to the Middletown Town Council.  Captain James died in 1802; his gravestone can be seen on land which was once part of his Middletown farm.

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