Almost everyone who has seriously followed the highways and byways of their family's history has an eerie tale to tell, usually of surprise discoveries bordering on extrasensory perceptions. It would seem that human genes have memories that the mind doesn't know about, and at the end of my search I had to wonder about it.
Over the years, as I've researched one of my most interesting ancestors, a shipwrecked orphan girl, I often told the story of the Faithful Steward. Invariably, as I finished the telling of the legend, as far as I could take it, the listener would say, "You have to write that story - you owe it to them."
And so I write. It matters not if anyone beyond our family circle ever reads this account. It must be written. I also owe it to those who helped me along the way. It starts as follows:
When I was a small boy, living on a farm in Michigan with my grandparents, Otis E. VanAlstine and Grace Margaret McDowell, I first heard the story. Later, living with them again when I was in my early teens, about 14 or 15 years of age, I heard it again. This was about in 1943 or 1944.
The story was told as follows: on my maternal side, for at least 4 generations, we descend from a girl who was the sole survivor of the shipwreck of a vessel named the Faithful Stewart . She was 14 years old and, with her father, mother and baby brother, was traveling to join her older brother, who had preceded them to Pennsylvania. He had sent passage money back to them. They were Scottish and were to migrate as a family group to the New World.
As they approached the American coast, the ship entered a great storm. It began to sink. The father and mother of our ancestress tied a spar (beam of wood) across her chest and tied her baby brother to her back; and they went into the sea. She fell unconscious (it had always puzzled me as to how this happened). When she recovered consciousness, the beam was banging on the beach and it was nighttime.
She looked down the beach and saw a fire surrounded by a circle of people, apparently cooking. Her baby brother was gone. She untied herself from the beam, and walked down the beach to the fire, where the people fed her and took her to the nearest town. In recounting the story in later years, she thought they had been Negroes, perhaps slaves. She would say, "God bless the poor Neyggers, they were the first to break bread with me in the New World."
She was later reunited with her older brother. According to oral tradition, their family name was Israelo, and it was always associated with the maternal side. And for sixty years, I wondered what her first name was.
Now I recount my discovery of the inaccuracies and discrepancies in the legend, and the discovery of the real story.
I had speculated that the Faithful Stewart had wrecked about 1825 and that the likely landfall with blacks on the beach would have been on the outer banks of North Carolina. A few years ago, with the assistance of our good friend, Paul Newfield III, I commenced a serious search for evidence to corroborate the legend.
We went first to the Howard-Tilton library at Tulane University in New Orleans. There we found two books on shipwrecks in the Atlantic. By checking the indices we found in one of them, the wreck of a ship named the Faithful Steward, not Stewart. And it was referred to as a "Scottish" emigrant ship. And the wreck had occurred in 1785, forty years earlier than I had speculated.
We showed the articles to Terry Folan, New Orleans' own resident Irish history guru. He noted the accounts with interest and said, "They were Protestants." When asked why he said that, he replied, "No English newspaper of that era would have described Catholics as people of respectability'. "
The Faithful Steward pounded to pieces on Mohoba Bank about 12 miles south of Cape Henlopen at the mouth of Delaware Bay, on the Delaware side of the bay on the night of 2 September 1785 . Current navigational charts show that Mohoba Bank has been erased or shifted by hurricanes and storms, and no longer exists.
Captain Connolly McCausland was in command, with 249 passengers, as well as the First and Second Mates and 10 other crew members for a total of 262 on board. We knew that the New York Times didn't go back that far, so we checked an index of subjects for the London Times for 1785. Two articles about the Faithful Steward were listed: one on 22 November quoting a letter written by "a passenger" in early September from Philadelphia. The second quoted a short letter from New York dated 17 September 1785, which sounded like the one written a few days earlier from Philadelphia it was essentially the same account. (The phraseology is even in the same maritime parlance.)
The Faithful Steward sailed from (not Scotland but) Londonderry, Northern Ireland on 9 July 1785. The voyage lasted 53 days, but the news accounts do not mention that the Faithful Steward stopped at Newcastle, on the Irish Sea, to take on 400 barrels of coins, mostly pennies and half-pennies, as well as some gold and silver ones. These United States were then governed by the Articles of Confederation , and there was no mint, so coinage had to be imported.
I will here recount the voyage as described perhaps by Capt. McCausland (paraphrased, my wording): [Cite article]
After an uneventful voyage the crew sensed, about sundown, the nearness of the land. At 10:00 pm it was decided to take soundings. The depth of water was 4 fathoms (24 feet - I estimate the vessel's draft to have been perhaps 20 feet at most). They were almost aground.
The captain (or mate on watch) then decided to turn immediately back out to sea (wearing or tacking) in order to ride out a storm that had come up suddenly, in deeper waters until daylight. But before the maneuver could be performed, they were hard aground on Mohoba Bank, about 100 to 150 yards from the beach.
As the winds drove the vessel deeper into the bank, the mainmast was cut away and cast overboard (to remove the driving force of the winds and to lighten the ship in hopes that she might free herself from the bank as the result of the action of the waves.) One account asserts that the Faithful Steward did briefly break loose from the bank, but shortly thereafter was driven aground again. Would-be rescuers reported that they could hear the cries of the doomed passengers, but there was no way they could help.
In the following days, "wreckers",
as they were called, came to the beach to relieve the corpses
of their valuables as they washed ashore. It was not until 1876
that a life-saving station [LINK! ?] was established a mile north
of Indian River inlet, about a mile south of Coin Beach.
It is difficult to imagine that a competent mariner (as McCausland was said to be) would approach a coastline with winds astern at nightfall without taking continuous soundings. This is the speculation in the story written in Treasure Hunt Magazine : Was the Captain drunk?
Since I've verified the legend of my shipwreck ancestor, I recalled an animated discussion by my elders on the farm back in Michigan. I was perhaps four or five years old at the time. I didn't recall what they were talking about, but my Grandmother exclaimed in an agitated voice, "The Captain was roaring drunk." As I ponder it now, it was an unusual thing for dairy farmers, 1000 miles from the sea, to talk about.
About a month after copying the news accounts at Tulane's library, I had to make an unexpected trip to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D. C. to stand by an old comrade while he had his 11-year-old triple bypass renewed and a calcified heart valve replaced.
My wife pointed out that I would be about a hundred miles from Delaware where Cape Henlopen is located, and that I should visit the site of the wreck of the Faithful Steward to see if I could learn more about her fate.
After a conference with my old friend and a hospital counselor, I went straight east 125 miles to the Delaware Seashore Park. Once there I found near the Indian River inlet, a state park office. I asked the lady at the counter there how far from Cape Henlopen we were at that point. She relayed the question to a nearby park ranger, who answered "Thirteen or fourteen miles."
I responded, "Then the spot I am looking for is a mile and a half to two miles back toward Cape Henlopen."
The lady said, "That would be about where the old Coin Beach Road used to be. It was washed away a few years ago."
My next question was, "Why did they call it Coin Beach Road?"
Her answer was, "Because after storms,
people could always find coins in the sand from an old shipwreck."
So I drove back up the sand spit of a peninsula about two miles and turned into a cut through the dunes. The sign said "No Unauthorized Vehicles On the Beach". I saw tire tracks in the road through the cut (about 3 feet deep through the dunes); so, like a good Louisiana-trained driver, I drove into the cut and got stuck.
Being stuck, I thought I'll worry about getting out after I have a look at the beach. I walked about 100 feet down to the water line.
It was a dark, dreary, overcast day and no one was on the beach, so I walked back to the pick-up and tried to back out - stuck worse. Then a 4-wheel-drive station wagon roared up and stopped about 2 feet nose to nose at the front bumpers.
Three men in their mid-twenties jumped out and asked in rapid fire: "Do you have a permit to be on the beach? Do you have fishing gear? Do you have 4-wheel drive? Do you have oversized tires? Do you have a tire gauge?"
I answered, "I have a tire gauge." I was told that a "no" answer to any of the questions means a $25.00 fine, per "no". I quickly did a mental calculation: $100, plus towing fees, if I had to get a tow.
One of the young men said, "We've got to get this guy out of here." The other one backed their vehicle out and went about a mile down the beach, circled back up the highway road, came in, and hooked a tow line onto the rear bumper of my truck. While the driver circled I answered the other's question as to why I was on that beach. Then, I bent over to help hook up the tow line.
Three weeks earlier, I had undergone angioplasty, and had been feeling chest twinges at times. The stress of being in such a bind, and the exertion of working in the sand gave me a sharp chest pain. I took my last nitro pill. The pain continued to worsen. At that point, I thought about the drug store I had passed at Rehoboth Beach, about 5 miles to the north up the beach.
Then, I told myself, I needed to do the deep breathing exercises, because it would be a terrible irony for me to die of a heart attack at the same point on the beach where my ancestors and their son had perished 208 years before - also at the end of a long journey...their journey across the sea from Ireland, and mine across half a continent. But it would have made one hell of a genealogist's yarn!
Thanking the young men and paying them a bit for saving me, I started for the drug store at Rehoboth Beach. Before the young men pulled away, one said, "You ought to write the story of that ship - I'd read it."
When I got to the drug store, it was incumbent to go through my story to get the druggist to call my doctor in New Orleans in order to get a prescription for the nitro pills. While the druggist was calling, the lady behind the counter, who had overhead my story, brought me an item off the store's book rack and said, "I think you'll be interested in this." We shared a common background: her grandfather, a river-bay pilot, had also perished offshore Cape Henlopen many years before.
I opened to page one to find that the first tale of Shipwrecks, Sea Stories, and Legends of the Delaware Coast, (by Seibold and Adams) was about the Faithful Steward. It was then that I knew I had to press on one day to find the rest of the story and, most important, her name.
On a trip in April 2001, my wife and I spent some time in Spain. Since she had decided to spend some days in France at a genealogy conference in Marseille, I decided to take that time to chase the legend of the Faithful Steward and the Israelos and to find the Christian name of this shipwrecked girl.
The Irish National Archives in Dublin have an excellent genealogy section and that was where I planned to begin. I flew to Dublin from Malaga via Brussels, Belgium. En route from Brussels to Dublin, I had a nice chat with a very pleasant seat mate. After I cleared immigration, he gave me his card and offered his assistance in my search. His card showed him to be a member of the Garda, the Irish National Police.
As I left the airport to take a bus into the center of Dublin, I recalled an amusing incident a couple of weeks earlier in Marbella. While dining at El Gallo Restaurant on the calle Lobatas with our friends Julia, Jorge Zapata, and Jorge's vacationing brother Sergio, I outlined my travel plans. Jorge's brother, a criminal court judge in Chile, turned to me, smiled and said "Eerah sospechoso." I quickly translated it mentally as "IRA suspect." I replied, "Not likely." He smiled again and explained, "Your identity, travel plans, and destination invite surveillance." I wondered. (Since I am sending this account to Michael Byrne at Garda Siochana College, I trust he will also be amused.)
In Dublin, the day after my arrival, I went to the Archives and with the assistance of two very helpful ladies, I learned that the name Israelo does not exist in either Ireland or Scotland: another discrepancy. I was without a name and I could only guess that Israelo was the name my ancestress acquired by marriage in the New World.
So I went next to Londonderry, or Derry, as those who feel that it belongs to the Republic of Ireland call it. I will antagonize both sides of that ancient quarrel by staying neutral. By descent, I am of "Planter" stock but by religion I am Roman Catholic. I learned that "Planter" is the term used by the Catholics of Northern Ireland to designate descendants of Protestant Scottish and English settlers who first arrived in Derry about 1609. They promptly renamed the town Londonderry. For the rest of that story, I refer you to the history books. The word Derry means Oak Grove in Gaelic.
Upon my arrival at the train station in Derry/Londonderry I saw that it was the end of the line. My only traveling companion was a briefcase-toting businessman. We were bundled into a cab by Seamus Coll. He was a stocky, energetic and very purposeful man. I immediately liked him. Seamus dropped the businessman off on the east side of the River Foyle (Waterside) and then asked me where I wanted to go.
I told him that I was doing historical and ancestral research, and that I needed a place not expensive and within walking distance from the records sources. He took me to a bed and breakfast called Aberfoyle Terrace. He said the proprietor, Mrs. Caroline O'Hagan did guided tours, and knew a lot of history.
The next morning I described my quest to her. She picked up a print out sheet from her kitchen counter and said, "You need to see Brian Mitchell." I saw from the topics outlined on the print-out that she was correct. It described a lecture he had given a week or so before.
Caroline said that Mitchell could be at any one of four archives or museums, so I chose the closest, the Harbour Museum which was about a quarter of a mile away, and off I went. When I arrived at the museum, I described my quest to the lady in the office. She said, "Mickey McGuiness will be in within an hour and he may be able to help you." When Mickey arrived, I told him what I was searching for, he said, "You need to talk to Brian Mitchell." He phoned and tracked him down at the Heritage House museum. He hung up, turned to me and said, "He's waiting for you."
Heritage House is at 14 Bishop Street within the castle walls near the diamond , about five blocks uphill. (The square at the center of town within the walls is known as the Diamond.) When I arrived, Brian Mitchell came downstairs to greet me. I introduced myself and told him I was on a genealogical search and that I wondered if he had heard of the wreck of the vessel called the Faithful Steward. He answered, "Yes, I researched it 10 years ago."
I said, "Fine, I'm looking for a passenger manifest." He answered, "I was never able to find one, but I do have a list of survivors." Bingo! I'd been in town 18 hours and I found what I'd come for.
I had some published accounts by descendants of survivors which I had come across in my research in New Orleans and on the Internet, and I traded it with Brian for his survivor list. As I left, Brian asked, "By the way, where are you staying?" I told him at Aberfoyle Terrace across the street from the new Town Council Building.
He said, "When you get back, stand on the front steps, look across the street and past the end of the Town Council Building. You will see the quay where the emigrant ships loaded." I felt like a homing pigeon. Six generations later, I had unwittingly returned to the exact starting point of that tragic voyage, by sheer accident, or was it??
When I saw him again the following Monday, Brian told me that the McCausland family home still existed near Derry/Londonderry and that he'd seen a painting of Connoly McCausland there.
Taking the documents containing the survivor list back to Aberfoyle Terrace, I lay down on the bed to go over the list of 68 known survivors. The ship's officers and crew all survived - strange. Further, from other accounts, I knew that only 7 women and girls had survived, out of the over 100 women and children on board. I started to read the female names and number 5 leapt out at me Margaret Kincade. I got up, went to the family pedigree chart that I had brought with me.
Twenty years ago, I'd asked my mother where the family names Kincaid and Wallace tied into our ancestral lines. She'd answered, "I don't know, your grandmother could have told you." It is ever thus: We ask too late. But I had penciled in both names where I thought they might belong. (I've seen the name spelled at least 5 different ways, but it is still the same Scottish clan name.)
At that moment, I recalled one of the last things I had said to my wife before I left for Dublin, "If and when I ever find her, I have a feeling her name will be Margaret." Then I reasoned out why I'd said it. My sister's name is Margaret, my mother's name was Margaret, my grandmother Grace's middle name was Margaret, and my great-grandmother (who passed down the story) was named Margaret. There had to be a strong emotional reason for that name to be repeated through so many generations.
Recalling Brian's remark, I went to the front door, stepped out, looked across the street to the quay, where the emigrant ships loaded, then across the river Foyle to a green hill on the other side... and there was a rainbow, arcking back toward the river and me. I choked up. It was as if Margaret Kincaid were telling me, "You've found your answer at the end of an Irish rainbow."
If you enjoyed the photos in this story, click here to see more photos from Bob's trip to Northern Ireland