Milton has had dozens of sea captains that established themselves there in the 19th century. They pursued their profession as the town’s shipbuilding industry rose to its zenith and long after it began its inexorable decline, well into the 20th century. In previous posts I have written about Capt. Charles Franklin Lacey (Captain Lacey’s Narrow Escape) and Capt. John Fletcher Fisher (Maggie Fisher’s Disappearing Act), but these are only short chapters among volumes of what could be written about their lives and those of their fellow mariners. In one case, however, there is a wealth of primary source material about one of Milton’s most promising (not to mention dashing) young captains – William B. Russell.
I began looking into Capt. William B. Russell’s life as I went through the inventory of homes on Union Street in the historic district, and discovered two adjacent houses that were built for him or for members of his family.
These are No. 322 and No. 320, both in the inventory of buildings on the National Historic Register that comprise the Milton Historic District. They were noted on the original 1982 nomination form as Captain William Russell House No. 1 and Captain William Russell House No. 2. Russell’s story is known to the very small number of people who have been fortunate enough to read Capt. Tilney Clarke Conwell’s Captain William Russell – Distinguished Shipmaster of Broad Kill Hundred. This short, highly detailed and well-researched monograph was self-published in a printing of less that 100 copies in 1968. Capt. Conwell did not choose the subject randomly; his grandfather David Miers Conwell was the brother of Elizabeth and Mollie Conwell, both of whom were married to Capt. Russell (as we shall soon see). Capt. Conwell presented one copy of the book to Ralph D. Megee, whose grandmother Hannah was the sister of Eliza and Mollie, making Megee and T. C. Conwell second cousins. The monograph is a slice of family history set against a broad background of nautical detail.
W. Emerson Wilson (1908 – 1882), Delaware historian, founder and first president of the Fort Delaware Society, first used Conwell’s book as the main source of information for his article about Captain Russell in the June 8, 1968 edition of the Wilmington Morning News. That was over 50 years ago, and since then, at least to my knowledge, nothing substantive has been written about Russell.
Capt. Conwell’s book is the major source of information for this posting as well. The book contains something very special: images and transcriptions of two letters Capt. Russell wrote to his second wife, Mollie. Parts of these letters are excerpted in this post, and they tell a fascinating story of what befell the master of a sailing ship in in the period just after our Civil War.
William B. Russell (1827 – 1872) was the seventh son of shipwright (later farmer) Robert Russell of Broadkill Hundred. For a middle son in a large family, William received a lot of attention. He was described as well-educated, which probably means he finished the equivalent of today’s high school education at the Milton Academy. He was exposed to the ship building craft through his father, and served during summers on coastal vessels serving Delaware Bay, Philadelphia, and nearby New Jersey.
His life accelerated sharply in 1856. Robert Russell gave William and his brother George effective ownership of a 275-ton schooner he had built in the Milton shipyards named the Joseph M. Houston. The two-masted vessel was intended for the north-south coastal trade route (lumber, cotton, naval stores from south of Cape Hatteras to northern ports, manufactured goods from northern ports to the South). George and his brother received equal shares, with William taking the role of master. The ownership became official in 1859 upon Robert’s death, as per the terms of his will.
The same year he officially became half owner and master of the Houston, Capt. William B. Russell married seventeen-year old Elizabeth Robbins Conwell (1841 – 1866). From 1860 to 1866, Elizabeth Russell gave birth to three children, two of whom survived to adulthood. As per the census of 1860, William and Elizabeth were living with her parents, but by 1862 he acquired the lot on which his homes were later built. One of these, probably 322 Union Street, was built before the 1868 Beers map of Milton was published.
Elizabeth died in 1866, barely 25 years old. With his long absences at sea and two young children, Capt. Russell wasted no time in courting and marrying Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary Jane, or “Mollie” as she was generally known, tying the knot on April 20, 1867. On July 18, 1867, in Philadelphia, he became sole owner of the three-masted square-rigger barque E. Schultz, an ocean-going vessel made for transatlantic and other long-distance voyages. Mollie’s name was added to the list of crew members; in the latter part of July 1867, Capt. Russell began a transatlantic voyage on the E. Schultz from Philadelphia to London, with his new wife on board. He was combining business and honeymoon trips.
Fair weather prevails in the north Atlantic during the summer months, and the journey to London must have been pleasant. The captain’s quarters, aft of the vessel, had ample comforts. First mate John Edwards brought his wife and three children aboard as well; their cabins were at the fore end, and Mollie had a companion for those times that duty called her husband for long stretches.
Once his business in London was concluded, the Captain steered his vessel north, to Gothenburg, Sweden. There he took on a load of lumber for delivery to Boston. It was early October, and things promptly headed south as the E. Schultz headed west across the Atlantic.
The distance from Gothenburg to Boston, 3, 578 nautical miles (4,117.4 statutory miles) would challenge the crew every inch of the way in October. Cold, contrary winds, and heavy seas were constant companions. Indeed, in early November, two crewmen – Charles Rindequist and Hendrick Smith – fell off from near the top of the mainmast to the deck. Rindequist was killed, and Hendrick was seriously injured. Two weeks later, as they neared Cape Cod, three sailors had their hands and feet frozen as they were furling sail. Mollie and Mrs. Edwards most likely had to tend to the injured men, as the crew was now effectively reduced by half and every man still functioning was needed on deck. A voyage that was once nearly idyllic was now a struggle for survival.
Half of Mollie’s honeymoon was spent tending to injured seamen, fighting seasickness, shuddering in the cold, and witnessing a burial at sea. In addition to all of this, Mollie was about five months pregnant when the Schultz was making the westward crossing. The Schultz arrived in Boston on November 22, after a voyage of 49 days. She stayed in Boston until November 30, writing two letters to her mother. The first, in which we may reasonably surmise that she wrote about her voyage, is lost. The second did survive, although it was brief and innocuous. On November 30 she booked passage on a steamer to Philadelphia, and from thence reached home.
She would never again accompany her husband on any voyage.
Captain Russell and the Schultz continued on to St. Mary’s, Florida. Mollie write to him while he was there, but that letter did not survive. Once he arrived there, around January 15 of 1868, he wrote to Mollie; that letter survives, and a transcript is available AT THIS LINK.
A letter such as this can reveal much about a person, but I will qualify this assertion by saying that my commentary cannot be firmly corroborated by any other source. Even T. C. Conwell uses the adverbs “probably” and “possibly” in quite a few descriptions of Russell’s personal experiences, as he too had very little to go on except a handful of letters written by the captain.
More than half of the letter is devoted to Russell’s observation of farming opportunities in the St. Mary’s River area. He is obviously pleased to have received a letter from Mollie, and his affection for her is evident, but he speaks little about their recent marriage or the “honeymoon” voyage. None of Mollie’s letters to Capt. Russell survive, so we do not know what she may have said (or not said) to him.
Perhaps the least ambiguous section of the letter concerns his instructions to Mollie about raising Georgie and Annie. He devotes just two sentences to specifically to Annie:
“You must try and instill in Annie a desire to learn to read and when she gets so as to be able to read get her interesting children’s books and she will learn more rapidly.”
“And do not allow Annie to annoy Georgie.”
Georgie gets quite a few more words, and what springs to mind is that Capt. Russell was much more focused on his son. As with Annie, he is very concerned that Georgie learn to read and attend school the following year. He writes “Georgie is of a very nervous temperament and requires a good deal encouragement, it will do him more good than harsh treatment..” which reveals a soft spot in his heart, perhaps echoing his own upbringing. On the other hand, in the same sentence he writes “..though a little switching will do him good when he is rude and disorderly.” Finally, he writes “I think with gentle treatment and encouragement Georgie will make a very good boy.” Favoring the son over the daughter is not unusual in the mid-19th century, but his kindhearted (mostly) style of parenting would have been unusual in that day and age.
Six months after loading the Schultz with cargo at St. Mary’s, Capt. Russell was back in Philadelphia. Mollie had given birth to their daughter Sarah in March 1868, and his arrival in Philadelphia in July presented him with his first opportunity in months to visit his family and see his new baby. That visit was not a long one, for sometime around July 28 he set sail for Aspinwall on the Atlantic Coast of Panama.
Eight days out of port, four of the eight sailors on the Schultz mutinied, for reasons lost to us. Capt. Russell was stabbed by mutineer Stephen Smith, and the first mate was wounded near the base of his spine, but somehow the officers prevailed and suppressed the mutiny. The mutineers were delivered to the American consul in Bermuda; their ultimate fate is not recorded, but assaulting a ship’s captain during a mutiny was a serious crime, likely a capital offense. After a seven day delay hiring replacements, Capt. Russell continued his voyage to Aspinwall.
Russell wrote two letters to Mollie during his layover in Bermuda; only the second of these survives, but its opening line has an astonishing impact even 150 years later:
“My Dearest Mollie: I am in good health and am nearly well of the stab I got from the sailor.“
He also tells Mollie that he misses her and their children, and is “heartily tired of the sea” and shall soon give it up. He is still conflicted about this decision, however; he cites examples of New Bedford whalers who are separated from their families for far longer. In fact, he would continue as master of the E. Schultz until the end of 1869, when he placed a Captain French in command and went home for Christmas. He would stay home for a year.
In January of 1871, Capt. Russell resumed command of the E. Schultz and resumed voyages to points as far as Montevideo, Uruguay. He would not return to see his family until he put into port at Boston on October 1 of that year, where the ship would wait four weeks to be loaded. He sailed to New York City, and then a made the trip to Aspinwall. When he returned to the U. S., it was to Pensacola, FL, on January 8, 1872. There was a delay of 5 weeks until he set sail for Philadelphia on February 17, 1872.
After he left Pensacola, neither the ship nor the crew were ever heard from again. No wreckage or bodies were ever recovered.
T. C. Conwell offers a reasonable theory as to what might have happened. The E. Schultz had reached a point where, statistically speaking, her structural integrity was weakened by age. She was carrying a full load of lumber or other heavy goods. Winter storms along the Atlantic were common in late February. The combination of these three factors would be sufficient to cause a vessel to break apart under rough or stormy conditions. It is hard to imagine, however, that a weakening of the vessel’s structural integrity would have escaped the notice of William Russell, who was a highly experienced master at that point in his life.
His widow refused to accept that he was unlikely to return, and waited months in the hope that he would show up in Milton. She and the Captain’s three children were very fortunate in that George Russell, her brother-in-law, had managed an investment portfolio of real estate holdings, held jointly with William, quite expertly. Income from those investments kept her comfortable until 1880, when William was declared legally dead and the estate could be settled, according to Delaware law. The estate was settled with one-half conveyed to George Russell and the other half to Annie, George, and Sarah Russell with right of dower to Mollie. In plain English, the needs of widow Mollie were to be provided for the rest of her life, with her residence at 322 Union Street being part of that arrangement. In the survey of 1887, a large house is shown in the present location of 320 Union Street. That house had to have been built after 1868, as it does not show on the Beers Atlas map of Milton drawn in that year. The house was willed to Annie, George, and Sarah Russell.
Since there are no available illustrations of either the Houston or the Schultz, the following pictures can approximate what these ships may have looked like, as well as highlighting the difference between square and fore-to-aft rigging.
The fact that Capt. Russell was able to acquire the Schultz as the sole owner suggests that he was an astute businessman as well as competent master of a ship. Indeed, he and his younger brother George made many investments together, primarily land in and around Milton. In the 1870 census, William Russell’s assets are valuated at $12,000 in real estate and $30,000 in personal assets; presumable, his ship is included in the latter value.