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  • Master Mariners of Duxbury - 1867

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : 1987
     In 1867, there were 34 master mariners in the small town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, out of a total of 649 males listed in the Plymouth County directory.  There were almost no ordinary mariners, who had perhaps been priced out of the housing market.  There were, however, large numbers of presumably low-earning farmers, fishermen, and shoemakers (Table 1).  Shoemaking was the town’s only major “industry,” and a cottage industry at that.  There had been some 20 shipyards in town, but only a handful remained active, most shipbuilding having moved to East Boston and other sites, when Duxbury’s tortuous creeks became too shallow for launching larger ships.

    The list of master mariners (Table 2) is instructive in that it shows many representatives of traditionally “South Shore” families, some with Mayflower names - Alden, Bradford, Brewster, Sampson, and Soule. Other notable Duxbury families represented include Prior, Richardson, Southworth, Thomas, Wadsworth, Weston, and Winsor.  George C. Prior and John Weston were the first and second masters of the bark Smyrniote, discussed in a previous article (NEXUS 3 [1986] 32-33).

    The genealogical relationships between these men have been studied.  It has been possible to determine the ancestry of 26 of them. largely from published sources, for at least four generations, and in most cases, for five or six. Rather than present 26 separate ancestor charts, this information has been summarized in a tabulation of the ten most common ancestral names (Table 3).  Each of these names stems from a single progenitor, with the exception of the Sampson descendants who are from either Henry of the Mayflower or Abraham (possibly a first cousin).  There are two pairs of brothers on the list  Alfred and William Drew, and Briggs and Nathaniel Thomas.  If detailed multi-generation charts were shown, one could see several degrees of cousinship.  For example, Martin Winsor, Stephen Soule, and Eden Wadsworth were first cousins, having grandparents in common, namely Joseph Soule and Mercy Fullerton.  Even more involved degrees of relationship are found in these data.  Such intricate kinship is typical of New England towns in general from the 17th century well into the 19th, each appearing to be as much an island as the well-known breeding pools of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

    When the matrix of captains and ancestral names is examined in another way - i.e., how many of these 10 names appear in each captain’s ancestry - the winner by far is Hiram Winsor with eight - Bradford, Delano, Hunt, Sampson, Soule, Standish, Wadsworth, and Weston.  (The other Winsors have three at most.)  Next come three men with various sets of five of the names - Captains John Alden, Jr., Wadsworth Hunt, and Eden Wadsworth.  These numbers, of course, are minimums (as are those in Table 3) since not all lines have been traced to the water’s edge.

    This common pool of ancestors for so many master mariners might suggest the possibility of an inherited predisposition to the skills and interests required for that trade.  To take the opposing view of the “nature vs. nurture” controversy, Duxbury had been a town with maritime interests for 200 years or more, and its culture pointed strongly toward the sea.  Nonetheless, very few families had a large proportion of sea captains, unlike the. Crowells of Cape Cod or the Areys of Vinalhaven and Bucksport, Maine.

    When the occupations of other residents of Duxbury with the same surnames as the 34 captains are tabulated, it becomes clear that only one family might be called a maritime family - the Winsors, whose six master mariners out of 27 men (22 percent) is the largest proportion by far.  Of the 17 families given in Table 4 (which omits four in which the captain was the only representative - Burditt, Holliday, Nickerson, and Richardson), all but the Winsors show a preponderance of some other occupation, including fisherman, farmer, or shoemaker.  This somewhat confounds any hereditary argument, but one can still wonder. what inherent combination of skills and ambitionwas called into play by the appeal of the sea for the few who answered it.


    Major Sources

    Harding, A.B., et al. Mayflower Families Through Five Generations (George Soule). (1980).

    Vital Records of Duxbury to the Year 1850. (1911).

    Wentworth, Dorothy. Settlement and Growth of Duxbury, 1628-1870. (1973).

    Winsor, Justm. A History of the Town of Duxbury. (1849, reprinted 1970).

    Various family histories.

    This article is based on part of a talk, “Sailing Ship Captains of Boston, 1840-1870,” presented by the author at a meeting of the Maine Genealogical Society, Augusta, October 1986.
    Master Mariners of Duxbury One

    Master Mariners of Duxbury Two

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