Elias Cady

The theme for this month’s COG is to tell the story of a document that helped you break through a brick wall in the pursuit of truth in genealogy. I thought about it for a while and realized that, while I have many documents, each has represented only a small step forward.  Does anyone ever really break through a brick wall?  All I seem to do is run headlong into another one.

What I do have is one document that that changed my approach to family history, Elias Cady’s revolutionary War pension file.

Innocent First Page of the Pension File

Elias Cady was one of my first “finds” many years ago when I first foolishly stepped into the quicksand that is family history.  Twenty years later I’m still flailing around unable to extricate myself.

It all started when Pat and I attended a workshop in beginning genealogy at the New England Historical Genealogical Society.  It was there that I learned about Ancestry.com.

I went home, signed up, and there was an enormous chunk of my genealogy, many generations, free for the taking.  I had found the public trees of the Blood family and the Cady family, and the Martin family.  It was all on the Internet, it must be true, right?  I knew nothing about documentation; I knew nothing about anything.  I was proud and delighted to have collected all those names and gave little thought to the people those names represented. Time passed.  I can’t honestly remember how I chose Elias Cady to hunt down, probably I ran into those famous brick walls with the other objects of my affection.

Elias Cady is a direct ancestor of my husband’s on his father’s side.  Norman recalls being told he was eligible for membership in the Sons of the American Revolution at some point. A Revolutionary War ancestor would be interesting, why not take a stab at it?

So it began innocently enough. I started with the census.  I needed to get on the train and go to the National Archives branch in New York.  The trip was rewarding. The staff was incredibly helpful and I came away with lots of good stuff, including census files, documenting Elias Cady’s life in Michigan from 1840 until his death in1853 at the age of, the age of, well who knows. Later I found a book on Cady genealogy, the DAR service records and some newspaper articles.  Then I found the pension file, or at least I thought I did.  We’ll come back to that in a minute

There is some confusion about Elias Cady’s date of birth.  It is put by various sources between 1757 and 1763 in Rhode Island. 1757 seems possible for Revolutionary War service, 1763, a little more iffy. Then I found a wonderful newspaper article from The Centennial edition of the Holly Herald published in Holly, Michigan.  This article published in 1938 celebrates a local hero.  It tells us that Elias joined up as soon as the war began in 1776 at the age of 19. He fought at Bunker Hill and showed such bravery that he was chosen to serve in the Guard of the Commander-in Chief.  He fought at Washington’s side and waited for him while he interviewed Betsy Ross.  He spent the winter at Valley Forge.  The article goes on to recount the rest of Elias’ life, telling us that at the age of 90 he rode on a horseback from Michigan to Kentucky to visit an old friend from his war days. It all sounded too fabulous to be true.  Hmmm.

I have family in Rhode Island, so on my way to visit them I stopped at the Rhode Island Historical Society where a copy of the pension file was rumored to live.  I was handed the file, a single page the last sentence of which read:  “claim was never allowed, claimant failed to furnish necessary proof of service.”

After the grandiose claims in the Holly Herald, my husband and I decided that the old man had made all of the stories up to gain some admiration from his family and his neighbors.  We found the whole thing rather amusing.

More years passed and for some reason I started looking for more about Elias Cady.  It was then that I realized there was more to the pension file, forty pages more. These forty pages paint a rather different picture. It must also be said that twenty years later I see things differently than I did when I first saw the last page of the pension file.  The file contains Elias’ sworn statement detailing his service, beginning in 1779 and lasting for 6 months.  Yes, many of his claims seem to be highly fictionalized, but what of his actual service? His statement says he served for six months.  Six months is an important number.  Those who served less than six months were not eligible for a pension.  So what of those six months? The file contains supportive letters from those who knew him.  There is one letter of a fellow soldier who says Cady served for six months in Rhode Island. There is Elias Cady’s explanation of why he had no discharge papers, “the paymaster, whose name was Shippy ran away and so this deponent got neither his pay nor his discharge.” So Elias Cady was left with his own sworn statement, one letter from a fellow soldier, many letters in support of his character, and no paper trail to prove his service. The letters in his file do state that Elias was old, partially blind, and otherwise debilitated.  Ultimately he hired a lawyer who wrote,” He has been endeavoring for many years to obtain a pension to which he believes he is justly entitled, but as yet he has never received a cent and does not know in fact whether his pension has been acted upon or not. Mr. Cady has heretofore sent on to Washington various documents, affidavits, etc. to document his claim.  He is one of that band of patriots who fought and suffered in the try times of “76” in the struggle for our National Independence.  He is now about 89 years of age and in circumstances of actual poverty- tottering down to his grave without the acknowledgement of a nation’s gratitude which other soldiers of the Revolution have recieved.”  It goes on to speak of Elias’ discouragement in regard to the pension.

I look at this story now and see a needy old man denied help.  I am hopefully not yet “tottering down to my grave”, but I am much more sympathetic to the needs of impoverished, elderly people than I was when I started searching for Elias Cady’s story.

Is this the story of a veteran denied help by his government in time of need or is it the story of a man who bragged of service he never performed?  I will probably never know.  Perhaps there is a bit of both, real service, however brief, followed by years of telling a grander story.  For me this story has evolved from a cause for gentle laughter to a sad tale of an old and helpless man trying to get help that was desperately needed.  And for this genealogist it has been a lesson in looking behind the names to find the real people who shaped our families and our world.

"Our" Schooner

My daughter is the captain of a tall ship. She has been sailing on tall ships for seven years and has worked her way up from trainee to deck hand to captain. She has circumnavigated the globe and visited places I only dream of and now she has her first captain’s job. We are very proud of her, but she is not the first female captain of a sailing vessel.

That honor goes to Elizabeth “Betsey” Miller. She is the first woman listed in the British Registry of Tonnage as a captain. Perhaps the most amazing thing about Betsey’s story is its date. She became the captain of a commercial sailing vessel in 1839.

1839? Victoria was Queen of England, William Peel was Prime Minister and Martin Van Buren was President of the United States. The next year Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton would attend the International Anti-Slavery Conference in London. The possession of two X chromosomes would prevent them from serving as delegates. Eight years later, in 1848, they would call the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. By then, Betsy Miller had been the Captain of the Clytus and owner  and manager of a small business for nearly 10 years. How could this happen?

Betsey Miller

Betsey Miller was born in 1793 in Saltcoats on the Ayrshire coast of Scotland. She was one of eight children of William and Mary Miller. William Miller was a ship’s captain and a merchant in Ayrshire. He salvaged a French sailing ship and fitted her out for use as a “coaler”, bringing coal to Ireland and limestone back to Scotland. He always planned to have his son Hugh take over his ship and his business, but fate intervened when Hugh was drowned in an accident in Androssan harbor in 1837.

Captain William continued to try to sail as Captain with Betsey beside him as a “seaman”, but his health was poor and the company’s debt mounted. By the time William became completely disabled the family’s debt had risen to a hefty 700 pounds, more than half a million dollars in today’s U.S. currency.

Many thought that a male captain should be hired, but somehow Betsey convinced her family to let her take the helm. In 1839 Betsey took over as Captain of the Clytus with an almost all male crew. Her sister Hannah served as her mate. It would prove to be the best decision the family could possibly have made.

Betsey became a much-respected mariner and was renowned in many parts of the world. Far from being disdained as a woman she was known for her fearlessness. I quote here from Ayrhire historian Joan Biggar,

“In those days, it was a custom to place lighted candles on the window sills of houses overlooking the sea. This was not for the romantic notion of guiding wandering sailors home – its purpose was practical, a way of identifying the direction of the ‘carrying wind’ and its strength.

If the wind from the sea was strong enough to blow out the candle flame, the ‘carry’ was in the wrong direction for any sailing ship heading for the coast of Ireland.

In such cases, most local captains retired to their favourite taverns and drank until the weather suited them better. Not Betsy!

The Clytus

She boasted: “I don’t wait for the carry!” While the more cautious masters lingered in Saltcoats, waiting for the wind to change, they were losing trade to the sturdy Clytus, a ship that had been made from scrap wood, with a woman at the helm.”

One would think that the male dominated world of shipping, the strain of trying to pull her family out of debt, and the rigors of life on a sailing ship in the North Sea would cause Betsey to become a crude, unrefined version of her earlier feminine self. Think again. Betsey prided herself on being well dressed for all occasions and is said to have worn a clean, white, frilly cap every day she sailed on the coal ship. My favorite Betsey story has several often-repeated versions. This one is again from Joan Biggar.

“On one occasion, when the ship ran into severe weather off the coast, Betsy told the crew: “Lads, I’ll gang below and put on a clean sark, for I wid like to be flung up on the sands kin’ of decent. Irvine folks are nasty biddies.”

Betsey wasn’t thrown up on the shore. She lived to clear the family’s debt and provide a good income. She retired to her house on Quay Street at the age of seventy turning the Clytus over to Hannah. Betsey died in 1864. Hannah continued to sail the Clytus for some years and died in 1890. The ship was sold and continued its runs between Ireland and Scotland until 1900.

Hannah was the last survivor of the Miller family. I am pleased to know their story and to share it. These women who successfully defied all stereotypes should not be forgotten, they should be a source of inspiration for a young generation of women sailors.


Images of Betsey Miller, the Clytus, and Quay Street are reproduced here courtesy of Visit Sailcoats.

Here is  a timeline for the life of Anna Donahue Costello, our Carnival of Genealogy entry for March 2010.  Annie’s life is on the left and major historical events that affected her life are on the right.  Please take the time to read Annie’s story .

Annie Donahue Costello   A Life