Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Story of Ruth...(Well, sort of) Part II

When I left off last week, I was telling the tale of Ruth Hinckley Nickerson Crowell, twice widowed. She was the second wife of Ed's 5th great grandfather, Abner Crowell,  who died aboard a British prison ship during the revolution.

To recap a little bit, Ruth had an overwhelming task before her when Abner died. She had the responsibility of raising 4 of her own children and 4 or 5 more stepchildren from Abner. And then a son was born from Ruth and Abner's union after Abner's death. That child was Simeon went to sea as a boy; became a ship's captain; returned home starting a saltworks and began a Baptist church where he served as it's first minister. Although that's a really nice ending to a sad tale, like I said, that's not THE story I wanted to tell.

Ruth's first husband, Thomas Nickerson IV, died at sea before their son Thomas the V was born. So Ruth had two different sons from two different husbands who would never know their fathers because they both died at sea. These two were but 6 years apart in age. But,as sad as that is, and as tough a life as Ruth and the children had after losing Abner, and despite the fact that Ruth is central to each of these separate stories, hers is not really THE story I wanted to tell you either, hence the disclaimer in the title of this two-parter.

These stories are each interesting on their own. However, when trying to find out a little more about Ruth, her story led me to the story of her first husband, Thomas Nickerson IV. That, my friends, is where I found the most interesting of all the stories surrounding poor Ruth.

Thomas Nickerson was a member of a very prolific Cape Cod family. There were Nickersons in virtually every town on the Cape in the earliest of settlements. Thomas IV was the son of Thomas III and Dorcas Sparrow, both from Chatham, MA just a couple of towns south of Yarmouth where Ruth lived with Abner Crowell after remarrying as a widow. Thomas the III was a farmer in Chatham, but his father had been a mariner. Thomas IV took after his grandfather and became the captain of the fishing schooner Abigail.

From all accounts, Ruth and Thomas IV were happy young newlyweds in Chatham in 1765. He was 22 and she was 21. Soon after they married they started a family, first Myrick was born, then David and Isaac. All these sons further added to the already large numbers of those with that surname on Cape Cod. Life was no doubt hard, given the times and the climate, but it was probably as good as it got back then on salty old Cape Cod. 

Thomas IV, as I mentioned, was a sea captain and the master of the schooner Abigail out of Chatham by the time he was 28. He made a living as a fisherman, bringing his catch to Boston and other ports along the coast and up and down the Cape. Thomas, his brother Sparrow Nickerson and their sister Phebe's husband Elisha Newcomb made up the fishing vessel's small crew. Another crewmember, new to the sea, was 13 year old William Kent, and although I haven't been able to verify it, I suspect he was also a relative as the name Kent appears often in the Nickerson genealogy I have seen.

The crew of Abigail would fish the Massachusetts waters at a time when the Sons of Liberty were just coming into their own all over the Colonies. Rumblings by the Colonials over British taxation on tea and the Stamp Act which taxed every piece of paper used in the Colonies from ship's records to newspapers to playing cards. The King,  imposing his will on these independent souls was wearing thin throughout the Massachusetts Bay Colony after enduring it for so many years. The Cape was no exception, indeed, the inhabitants of Cape Cod included some of he oldest immigrant families in the Colonies, and they had independence in their blood and in their bones.

One practice in particular that set the pre-revolutionary Cape Codders' blood to boiling was 'impressment'. This was the law of the land at the time and it allowed the King to send out "press gangs" to kidnap British and Americans of sea-going age and force them on to a ship and at the threat of death, coerce them into serving as part of the British Navy. Whenever there was war brewing or a need to build up their navy, these press gangs would become active and go after the townsmen from all over the Colonies. In addition to many thousands of Americans, the British also commandeered American vessels. They did this at sea or on shore, wherever they could find able-bodied men, preferably experienced seamen. The Cape, with its many sailors and vessels was of particular interest to the British and these press gangs.


Thomas IV and his crew, braved the rough waters and tricky tides off the coast of New England, but also were on the lookout for the pirates and press gangs that were just as much of a threat to their lives and livelihood as any storm that might blow across the bay.

One November day, Ruth's husband Thomas and his crew set sail from Boston Harbor on his schooner Abigail returning to Chatham. This particular day, a cousin, Ansel Nickerson, was on board needing transportation from Boston back to Chatham to get "his cloathes". In the wee hours of the next morning a Topsail Schooner was spotted not far from Abigail. A boat was launched from this unidentified ship containing a few men who rowed along side and boarded Abigail. The men questioned its crew and passenger. The boat left, but soon 3 more boats returned, this time full of armed men. 

Before the men could board her, fearing this was a press gang about to kidnap him, Ansel swung himself with rope over the 'traffarill' (the stern of the boat) and hung there, listening to the exchange between his cousins and the gang who had boarded the ship. Immediately following the boarding of the Abigail, a violent struggle broke out. Ansel could hear the sounds of Thomas and his crew being slaughtered as steel struck bone and their screams were audible over the rest of the crashing sounds. He heard them fling them over the side into the sea, one after the other, food for the fishes.

Ansel hung there, in the ropes, terrified, keeping his eyes on the railing above for fear he would be discovered. He heard loud laughter and angry retorts and the crashing of the chests that held cargo being transported from Boston to the Cape and other property belonging to the crew. After smashing the barrel of rum that had been aboard and the subsequent arguing over the drink as the pirates partook of it, Ansel heard young William shouting for help, as he was being carried away into one of the waiting boats, as one of the scoundrels proclaimed they were taking him "to make punch" for them.

After a while, the commotion subsided as all but one of the boats left Abigail and returned to their own ship. A few of the men, the leaders of the expedition, remained aboard, discussing whether or not to set fire to the Abigail and sink her. But, instead of burning her, to Ansel's relief, they decided to leave her sails up, scuttle her and let her sail out to sea on her own.

About 10 o'clock the next morning, Sunday November 15, 1722, Captain Doane from Chatham spotted Abigail sailing between Chatham and Nantucket, flying a distress flag. When Captain Doane boarded Abigail, he found a terrified Ansel, who described the events of the earlier hours as I have just related them.

Captain Doane and his crew brought the Abigail and Ansel to Chatham and then told the story he'd heard to Justice of the Peace Bacon, from Barnstable, who then sent a report to Governor Hutchinson in Boston. A ship was sent to find the "pirates" but nothing was found. There were many inconsistencies in Ansel's story, and the Governor found it all incredible. A warrant for his arrest was issued, and Ansel, who was found to have been wandering in parts unknown, was hunted down and sent to jail on the charge of murder on the high seas and piracy.

Ansel was questioned by the Governor and a panel of justices after which a trial was ordered for June. Some of the inconsistencies in Ansel's story were that there was a substantial sum of money on board as the crew had collected it's pay for the preceding year while in Boston and it was contained in the chests, while Ansel claimed there had been a small amount of money. Although the rum was smashed and broken into, there were stores of beef and other food these pirates did not take. The panel thought it would be impossible for Ansel to hang there on the ropes over the stern as long as he did and why hadn't the men searched for him, having first boarded the ship and undoubtedly counted the passenger and crew? Other suspicious elements of the story were that nobody else had seen this mystery ship, nor had any other ships been boarded. And in none of Captain Doane's testimony, had he described any blood smeared decks.

Even his defense attorney made some notes of the inconsistencies of his story.  Ansel was the only one spared. He as alone on board, covered with blood. On the other hand, the flying of the distress signal was inconsistent with criminal behavior. Ansel said his reason to be on board was because he needed to get his clothes in Chatham and that it would be too costly to travel by land seemed hard to believe. Ansel said the money box was missing from the hold, yet he also said he hadn't been in the hold.

More notes from his own lawyer's records: Incredibility that there should have been a Pirate Vessell. The boats could not board. The rum hadn't been carried off, and still in the stores were fresh Meat, Butter, Cyder, Roots. The Pirates must have trod in the blood, and left the Marks in Cabin, hold, but none were found. Where was the Prisoner for fear of Impress. Hanging on the Stern. Is it possible he should have hung there a Minute? Why did not they discover him, when on the deck and when they came under the Stern. The Paint clean, not bruised nor broke.
If the Prisoner guilty would not every appearance have been as they were.
Liquor, Cyder and Rum in the Pail, and the [Cantien?] he gave, shews they were made drunk and then butch[ere]d.
Conduct after he came ashore—wandering God knows where. No Account can be given of him. An opportunity to bring <it> ashore, the Money.
Confident he should be discharged.
Went a little Way, felt poorly, when he came back. The Witnesses say he could not go on board the Vessell then, but he might go where the Money was hid.
All Night absent going to his Grandfathers. He pretended he was lost.
Went to the Hay Yard to the End of the Stack, to get hay for his Horse.
Yet, after all of these notes his lawyer writes:
Altogether presumptive.

A trial was held after several delays, in August of 1773, and despite the court's accusations and defense counsel's questions, Ansel was acquitted.

His lawyer admitted that he did "not know the basis of the acquittal" but thought it was due to the lack of direct evidence. According to his defense counsel, "Nickerson lived many years, and behaved well." He didn't seem very grateful to his lawyer. "His comments before and after the trial were less than gracious."  Defense counsel later reported that “He had nothing to give me, but his promissory Note, for a very moderate Fee. But I have heard nothing from him, nor received any Thing for his note, which has been lost with many other Notes and Accounts to a large Amount, in the distraction of the times and my Absence from my Business.”

Some say Ansel went on to live in the area and fought against the British in the Revolutionary war. He died in the West Indies. Some say he was convicted of murder and hanged in the Antilles. Others say that while he lay dying on the Island of Martinique he confessed to the murders aboard Abigail.

The IOU that Ansel wrote to his lawyer was found. It was dated 30 July 1773, for £6 13s. 4d. It was found too late to enforce payment, and still remains, unreceipted, in the files of Ansel's attorney,
John Adams. 


From John Adams' Diary:




So, that's the incredible story I found while looking for Ruth Hinckley Nickerson Crowell Phinney's roots. Her first husband, Thomas Nickerson IV, killed at sea either by a band of French pirates or by his own cousin for the contents of a ship's chest. Ruth nor Thomas are in Ed's direct line. But, this is where I was led. For me, it's not always the story from my own tree that tugs at me and grabs my curiosity, although it is fun when that happens. The wonderful thing is that there are fabulous, intriguing stories in the trees surrounding our own. And it's a very large forest!

3 comments:

Susan (Nolichucky Roots) said...

Bravo! Fabulous story on half a dozen levels and a joy to read.

Kathy said...

very interesting story!

Ajaire said...

Love the story! Great find!