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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

by
Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.
1956

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 2

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p1 Chapter 1

Long Island Boyhood

Long Island in 1755 was a desolate and partly barren finger of land lying between the Sound and the Ocean and pointing eastward toward the open sea. It was here, within sight and small of salt water, that Thomas Truxtun was born on February 17, 1755. His birthplace was on the north side of the great Hempstead plain, a fertile band that slashed across the island some twenty miles east of the seaport town of New York. It was a lonely place; neighbors were often separated by miles of roads that were deep-frozen ruts in winter and axle-deep mud in spring. Only a few farms were fenced off from the plain. Mostly the great reaches of meadow were used for pasturage of the "general flock" of sheep owned and earmarked by residents of the town of Hempstead. The sheep were put out to graze in spring p2and were then rounded up and claimed by their owners late in the fall of each year.1

He lived his earliest years on "a very pleasant and compleat Farm," owned by his father and situated near one of the bays that indent the shore of the Sound. The focal point of the two hundred acres of salt meadow, orchards, and wood lots was a "handsome and commodious Dwelling House, four Rooms on a floor, and Fire Places in them all." There were a big barn, a coach house, a store house, and other outbuildings; horses for riding, for driving, and for working the farm; cows for milk; sheep for meat and wool.2

Long Island was part of New York, which in 1755 was a British colony — one of the thirteen that skirted the Atlantic seaboard. The colonies were involved in a war when Thomas was born, although the King of England had not yet officially declared it. The French and Indians were harassing British settlers on the western and northern frontiers of Pennsylvania and New York. Fighting at the outposts was sometimes only 150 miles away, but the effects of the war were never acutely felt out on the Hempstead plain. Some of the Truxtuns' neighbors rode off to fight alongside the King's regulars while others took the fight to the enemy by sea, embarking in privateers that were owned by New Yorkers and fitted out nearby. Thomas, as he grew to understand such things, listened to stories about the war from those who had fought in it, but as a youngster he heard none of the noise of the war. His were the later wars; first the Revolution, and then the naval war with France, in which he firmly established his name.

The towns on this part of Long Island — Hempstead, Jamaica, Oyster Bay, New Town, to name a few — were small and widely separated. They were managed by local men, selected each year at public town meetings. Nearly a day's journey from New York, at that time a metropolis of perhaps 18,000 inhabitants,3 they were not bound closely by the custom and usages of the city, but they were inevitably influenced by them.

At least two popular race tracks, one on the Hempstead plain and one near Jamaica, the town next west of Hempstead, attracted huge crowds, sometimes numbered in the thousands. Many spectators came from as far away as New York. Crossing on the Brooklyn ferry the evening before the races, hundreds of people journeyed out to the race track in chairs and chaises — two‑ and four-wheeled horse-p3drawn vehicles — and on horseback.4 To these gala performances the Truxtuns and their neighbors were no doubt attracted as much by the crowds as by the races. The dress and equipage of the fashionable gentlemen and their ladies who had ridden out from the city were of high interest.

Thomas was born to that class of society whose men were called "gentlemen." He came of a family that remained obscure until he wrote his name boldly across the pages of history. His father, Thomas Truxtun, was an English barrister, a vocation which placed him high on the social scale. When the elder Truxtun came to Long Island from the island of Jamaica in the West Indies, he was probably close to fifty, for he left behind him a wife from whom he had been separated for many years and at least two grown daughters by a former marriage.5

The mother of the infant Thomas was Sarah Axtell Truxtun; she appears to have been the third wife of the barrister. She may have been a native of Long Island, but it seems more likely that she was a member of the prominent Axtell family in the West Indies. In keeping with generally accepted custom, the elder Thomas and Sarah were bound by common‑law marriage when their son was born. It was only after they had received news of the death of Mary, his legal wife, that they were married in proper form by the Church of England. This was about a year after the arrival of the baby.6

The Truxtuns were a genteel family. Since they had a station in life to maintain, they looked for guidance in social vogues to the polite people of New York who, from the Royal Governor down, reflected as faithfully as they could the latest in manners, styles, and amusements of old London.

The elegant gentleman of 1755 wore a powdered wig under a cocked beaver hat, black velvet or scarlet breeches that met white silk stockings just above the knees, a tailored coat over a waistcoat trimmed with lace and adorned by buttons and flaps, and a shirt of fine linen complete with ruffles of lace at the throat and at the wrists. Shoes were decorated with shiny buckles and often with spurs.7

The gentleman's lady was even more elegant. She wore her hair in elaborate puffs, curls, and towers. Her hands, wrists, and neck were bedecked with jewelry. She was not properly attired unless she wore a hoop skirt. Splendid dresses were fashioned from silks and damasks, satins and mohairs, muslin and dimities, materials brought p4into New York from all over the world. The dresses were lavishly ornamented with spangled gold and silver lace or with exquisite embroidery. High heels on embroidered silk shoes, peeking out from beneath a spacious hoop skirt, were high style in 1755.8

The gentlemen and their ladies had little time or inclination for the day's work, occupied as they were in maintaining their elegance. Between the top and bottom of the social scale were white yeoman farmers and freeholders, who worked and owned small farms; tradesmen, who tended their own shops; and craftsmen and mechanics — leather-aprons — who made and mended the tools of living. These were the men, these middle classes, who largely peopled the towns where Thomas first saw a street, a shop, a tavern, and a church.

There was really one more class in the society of 1755. The minister of the gospel was a person somewhat apart, definitely not a gentleman and usually less encumbered by worldly goods than many of the tradesmen and mechanics in his flock. At an early age Thomas came under the influence of one of these good men, the Reverend Mr. Samuel Seabury.

Samuel Seabury was parish priest of the Church of England in a parish that covered twenty square miles of territory east of Jamaica township. His home church was St. George's, in Hempstead, where Thomas's parents were married. He preached regularly in Oyster Bay, ten miles away, and occasionally he journeyed down to the mission at Rockaway.9 The preacher was an intelligent and kindly man, yet his face bore signs of decision and unyielding firmness. He wore plain clothes, a three-cornered hat above and riding boots below. Day after day he traveled over his parish on horseback. Thomas could see him occasionally, a man of medium height, solidly built, seated on a strong sorrel horse, with his saddle bags strapped to the saddle. He rode well and he rode much.10

This preacher had a family to provide for, so he found time to practice medicine as well as preach the gospel. For bleeding, tooth drawing, giving an emetic or cathartic, or for a blister plaster he charged a shilling. A visit was usually two shillings except when he also wrote a patient's will, for which he charged an extra shilling.11 He also found time to run a boarding school.

Thomas Truxtun spent a year, or at the most two years, in the Reverend Mr. Seabury's school. This may have been the only formal p5education he ever had. Certainly he had little enough time for any schooling before he went off to sea at the age of twelve, and from that time on he embarked upon one voyage after another. Yet he appears later as a literate man, better skilled in rhetoric and better acquainted with the literature of his day than many men whose schooling was much more extensive. If he did not have time to learn many facts from Samuel Seabury, he learned at least how to go about learning; and the preacher must have accomplished that which few teachers are able to do: he gave his pupil the desire to learn things for himself.

Thomas was six, going on seven, when he was sent to Mr. Seabury's boarding school. The boy's mother was dead. His father was preparing to marry again and to leave the country when, late in the summer of 1761, the schoolmaster-preacher wrote in his account book, "Thomas Truxtun came to me to board and school at 28 £ p annum."12

The school was a classical one "for the instruction of youth in Latin, Greek, and the mathematics," or if so desired, "in reading, writing, and arithmetic." The schoolhouse was separate from the parsonage, but the pupils boarded in the home of the preacher and his faithful wife. The £28 per year included not only schooling and meals and a place to sleep, but also washing and a supply of wood for the schoolhouse. Mrs. Seabury must have been busy indeed looking after the needs of her husband's pupils — entertaining them, as he had advertised, "in a genteel manner."13

A few months after Thomas had been placed in school, his father drew up his will. According to its provisions, almost all of his property was to go to his son; his daughters in the West Indies were to receive only a small bequest, since they were already married. He named his good friend John Troup, gentleman, of the town of Jamaica, as executor of his estate and as "Guardian o'er the Body of my said Son Thomas."

After writing his will, the elder Truxtun sold his farm, was married to his new bride, and then disappeared from the records. He probably returned to Jamaica, because in his will he mentioned "being bound out on a Voyage to parts remote beyond the Seas." He died four years later, when Thomas was ten years old.14

For a time John Troup looked after the well-being of his friend's son. Being a wealthy merchant with shipping interests in New York, p6he knew about ships and the men who sailed them to "parts remote beyond the seas," to England, the West Indies, the African coast, and beyond. He was part owner of the Sturdy Beggar, a New York privateer ship that mounted twenty guns.15 He could have entertained young Thomas by the hour telling him about the exploits and adventures of his friends and relatives who sailed in her during the late war.

Surrounded as the youngster was by salt water, nurtured on a potion of adventure and mystery of far places, it is natural to find him developing a longing and a love for the sea and for the spreading white sails that could carry him over the horizon to the exotic lands that lay beyond. No doubt it was John Troup who arranged to have Thomas, an orphan boy with a genteel background, apprenticed to the sea when he was twelve years old. He was placed in the ship Pitt, Captain Joseph Holmes, bound out for Bristol in old England.16


The Author's Notes:

1 The first biographical notice of Commodore Truxtun appeared in Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 30‑36. It is quite accurate despite its elegance. For life on Hempstead plain, see Benj. D. Hicks, ed., Records of the Towns of North & South Hempstead (Jamaica, 1900) IV, 215, 376, 424‑25; V, 97.

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2 New York Mercury, October 13, 1760.

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3 E. B. O'Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1853‑61), VI, 133, 392, 550; VIII, 450, 457.

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4 History of Queens County, N. Y., with Illustrations, Portraits, and Sketches of Prominent Families and Individuals (New York, 1882), p58.

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5 Island Record Office, Spanish Town, Jamaica, B. W. I.: Wills, liber 30, fol. 94. This is the will of estranged wife Mary Truxtun (1702‑1755). She was his second or perhaps his third wife. See also J. H. Lawrence-Archer, Monumental Inscriptions of the British West Indies from the Earliest Date (London, 1875), p142.

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6 New York Historical Society, Genealogical and Biographical Record, XII, 145.

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7 Esther Singleton, Social New York under the Georges, 1714‑1776 (New York, 1902), Part 4.

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8 Ibid., Part 5.

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9 History of Queens County, p176.

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10 Clifford K. Shipton, Biographical Sketches of Those Who Attended Harvard College in the Classes 1722‑1725 (Boston, 1945), pp432‑40.

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11 Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Annals of Hempstead, 1643‑1832 (Hempstead, 1878), p76.

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12 Quotation from account book of Rev. Mr. Samuel Seabury, entry of August 29, 1761. In collection of the Honorable Samuel Seabury (1947). For remarriage of the elder Truxtun, see his will, note 14 below.

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13 Shipton, op. cit., pp432‑40; New York Mercury, March 27, 1762; Henry Onderdonk, Jr., Antiquities of the Parish Church, Hempstead (Hempstead, 1880), pp22‑23.

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14 Thomas Truxtun, Sr., Will, New York, State and County, Surrogate's Court, Liber 25 of Wills (November 18, 1761), p172; E. B. O'Callaghan, N. Y. Colony — Names of Persons for Whom Marriage Licenses Were Issued by the Secretary of the Province prior to 1784 (Albany, 1860), p399.

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15 E. B. O'Callaghan, Calendar of Historical Manuscripts in the Office of the Secretary (Albany, 1865‑66), II, 675; New York Mercury, July 11, 1757.

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16 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 31.


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