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  • The Search for Captain Crowell

    Philip S. Thayer

    Published Date : December 1986
     The barque (bark) Smyrniote was built in Duxbury, Massachusetts, in 1859 by William Paulding, one of the last of a large number of shipbuilders in that town.  She was owned by a succession of Boston merchants (Table 1), most of whom were engaged in the Mediterranean fruit trade (at Smyrna, Constantinople, Messina, Palermo, and other ports).  Their story is a fascinating one, but for the present purpose I wish to focus on a sidelight of this investigation, dealing with an attempt to identify one of her captains.

    The identified captains of the Smyrniote were all natives of Massachusetts (Table 2), with the possible exception of Isaac Preble, whose birthplace has not been found.  Three captains have not been identified, since only their surnames were given in sailing reports in the Boston Shipping List.  Captain Mayo could be one of the numerous Cape Cod Mayos, two of whom are known to have sailed to Smyrna [see the author’s article on the bark Macon in NEXUS, 3 (1986): 32].  Or he might be Franklin Mayo who came to Boston from Bar Harbor, Maine, a descendant of a migrant from Cape Cod.  Captain Mackay (or McKay in some shipping reports) might be related to Donald McKay, the clipper ship builder.  The attempt to identify the third, Captain Crowell, led to the development of the story of a large Cape Cod maritime family, but which of the Crowells identified as “captain” was master of the Smyrniote is still unknown.

    The obvious place to start in attempting to identify a Boston sea captain is in the membership list of the Boston Marine Society, published in the 1968 history of the society.  That group was formed for philanthropic purposes to aid retired members, and eventually took on advisory functions in regard to piloting and navigation in Boston Harbor.  Its headquarters and museum are at present housed at the Charlestown Navy Yard.  In the period of interest, 1850-1880, 16 captains named Crowell were admitted to the Society.  Each new member, who had to be nominated by two members, is listed with the ship of which he was master at the time of joining.  None of the Crowells was given as the captain of the Smyrniote.  Another source, the obituaries index of the Boston Transcript, yielded items on eight of these men, and added another nine, described as sea captains, but apparently not members of the Marine Society.  None of the obituaries mentioned the Smyrniote.  There are thus no less than 25 Captain Crowells.  Further research in the Kittredge papers at the Sturgis Library in Barnstable, Massachusetts, confirmed the names of many of the Crowells, and the fact that nearly all of them came from two Cape Cod towns, Dennis and Yarmouth.  (Dennis was set off from Yarmouth in 1793.)  Again, the Smyrniote was not mentioned in Kittredge’s notes.  Nor did it appear in the copious Crowell biographies in the History of Barnstable County (1890).

    There is one published genealogy of the Crowell family, dealing only with the descendants of John Crowe (the old spelling of Crowell).  The major source of genealogical information, however, has been the manuscript Brownson, Held, and Norton, Genealogical Notes of Cape Cod Families, at the Sturgis, and on microfilm at the NEHGS.  From this it has been possible to place 15 of the captains genealogically as descendants of either John Crowell (ca. 1590/95-1675/3) or Yelverton Crowell (ca. 1620-1683).  An article in the Register 125(1971): 231-36 by Stephen W. Gifford, Jr., strongly suggests that Yelverton was the son of John.  The three descent charts (Figures 1-3) show the relationships of the 15 captains.  The identified captains appear almost entirely in the seventh and eighth generations.  There is only one father/son pair, suggesting a weak family tradition (in contrast to the Arey family of Maine, to be discussed in another article).  Of course, it is possible that many of the fathers were mariners, but did not meet the present criterion of belonging to the Boston Marine Society.  If the lack of a family tradition is valid, perhaps the men became master mariners because of the particular circumstances of time and place, that is, for cultural rather than genetic reasons.

    The maritime culture of Yarmouth/Dennis can be illustrated by looking at the prevalence of Boston Marine Society members in other major families of the town(s).  The relative size of each family has been estimated by counting the number of family groups for each surname in the 1790 census of Yarmouth, which had a total of 450 families at that time.  Nine surnames account for 229 families, or 51% of the total.  The number of families for each surname is compared with the number of Marine Society members identified as coming from Dennis or Yarmouth.  The ratio between the latter and the 1790 family size may be taken as a measure of “maritime-ness” (Table 3).  The Crowells are one of the three largest families, but are only average in their degree of maritime activity.  Two smaller families, Nickerson and Kelley (also spelled Killey), have fnuch higher ratios.  One family, Sears, with no Boston captains, must have [287] resisted the maritime urge or at least the lure of Boston, although there were Searses from other towns in the Marine Society.  As for Duxbury (to be discussed in another article) or nearly any other New England town through the 19th century, it may be presumed that these Yarmouth/Dennis families were related to each other by a web of intermarriages.

    To sum up, the unsuccessful search for Captain Crowell of the Smyrniote has led to an attempt to bring out some of the economic and cultural factors bearing on one man’s becoming a sea captam.  Perhaps some questions raised in this article and two others to follow will point the way to further work on this area of interest-occupational genealogy, if you will.

    Major Sources:

    Boston Shipping List, 1859-1877. Microfilm at Boston Public Library.

    Genealogical Notes of Cape Cod Families. Compiled by Lydia B. Brownson, Grace W. Held and David V. Norton. Undated.  Microfilm at NEHGS.

    A History of the Boston Marine Society, 1742-1967, by William A. Baker. Boston, 1968.

    John Crowe and His Descendants.  No author on title page. New York, 1903.

    History of Barnstable County, Massachusetts. Simeon L. Deyo, ed. New York, 1980.

    Gifford, Stephen W., Jr., 1971. Yelverton Crowell of Yarmouth, Mass., Register 125 (1971):231-236.

    This article, and two to follow, are based on a talk, Sailing Ship Captains of Boston, 1840-1870, presented by the author at the Augusta meeting of the Maine Genealogical Society in October, 1986.

    By Philip S. Thayer

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