Gurdon Bill, Captain of Marines

Gurdon Bill. Gurdon Bill was born in Norwich, CT on 26 August 1757, the oldest surviving son of Captain Ephraim Bill (1719-1802) and Lydia Huntington (1727-1798), the only daughter of Major Joshua Huntington. He was named for his older brother who died four years before with two other siblings during the Summer of 1753. Bill grew up in the small one and a half story home of his parents on Shetucket Street, near the old bridge leading to Preston. According to the Records and Papers of the New London County Historical Society, Volume 1 (1890), Gurdon Bill was remembered early in life as exhibiting “an adventurous disposition, and the sea with its stir and change led him to become a sailor. He was in the privateer service, the family tradition being that he commanded one of these enterprising craft.” Gurdon Bill’s father Captain Ephraim Bill was appointed to superintend the construction of the Connecticut Navy ships Defence and Oliver Cromwell. Gurdon Bill’s mother’s father, Major Joshua Huntington was responsible for construction of the Continental Ship Confederacy. His cousin David Bill, who was killed in action during the Trumbull’s engagement with the Watts on 2 June 1780 and Gurdon’s two year younger brother Ephriam Bill, who reportedly died at sea in November 1780, both served as Lieutenants of Marines. Gurdon Bill was associated with the Confederacy as early as August 1777 when he authorized pay slips of the shipyard workers on behalf of his grandfather. The Frigate Confederacy Papers include a letter from Bill to Major Huntington dated 22 February 1779 indicating that he is “ready to go onboard ship.” Two days later on 24 February, Lieutenant Bill also submitted an invoice for “board and rum” on behalf of Samuel Belden. Belden apparently boarded many of the officers of the Confederacy as Gurdon Bill was listed on an undated invoice with others, as well as, a 26 April 1779 itemized invoice listing other officers and charging for boarding the lieutenant for twelve weeks and fourteen days. According to, “in December 1778, Gurdon Bill applied to Huntington for the position of Lieutenant of Marines aboard the Confederacy. If otherwise filled, he requested an appointment as steward. Although some of his early letters are signed as Lieutenant of Marines, he apparently acted as steward or purser from 18 January to 4 February 1779 while the vessel was fitting out at New London. Bill signed a letter in the newspaper of 5 January refuting rumors that the officers of the Confederacy were unhappy with their captain.” Bill sailed on the Confederacy from before her sailing from New London on 1 May 1779 until her capture by British frigates Orpheus and Roebuck on 14 April 1781. Gurdon Bill and others were sent to England where he either escaped or was exchanged. On 6 July 1782 the American Commissioners to France gave him $120 to pay for his passage to America. At some point during his service on the Confederacy, Gurdon Bill was promoted to Captain of Marines, as indicated in the The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, Volume 36. Confederacy payroll records suggest this occurred sometime prior to 27 September 1780. According to page 28 of the Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine (1922), Gurdon Bill was on duty in Philadelphia 28 April 1783. According to newspaper shipping news, Gurdon Bill sailed from New London to Ireland in January 1784 as master of the brig Little Joe. After his return, later in the year, Bill arrived in New London on 10 September 1784 from Bristol via New York. Two months later on 18 November 1784, the Norwich Packet reports that Gurdon Bill will sail in November for London in commander of Howland & Coit’s brigantine Little Joe. In 1785, he made two additional voyages to Europe on the Centurion. Newspaper reports indicate the Bill arrived at Rhode Island on 28 January 1786 on a sloop from St. Eustatia and was aboard the brig Nancy in Aux Cayes on 28 April 1786. Other shipping news report that Captain Gurdon Bill arrived at Aux-Cayes on 7 January 1787, still in command of the brig Nancy. A news article dated 7 March 1787, notes that Bill and the brig Nancy arrived in New London the previous Wednesday after a 22 day passage from Aux-Cayes. Four months later on 23 June 1787, Captain Bill sailed for the West Indies in command of the sloop Friendship. Newspapers report that Gurdon Bill sailed again for Aux-Cayes, this time in command of the brig Enterprize on 23 March 1789 and that he sailed the following year from New London to Cape Francois and back between late April and early July 1790 on the brig Polly. Bill’s activities between 1790 and 1797 have not yet been determined. An advertisement dated 18 October 1797 indicates that Bill “just landed” with a cargo of Turks Island salt, rum, sugar molasses and pine lumber for sale on the 115 ton schooner Jenny and Hannah, which is also available for purchase. Two months later, Gurdon Bill married Betsey Backus Tracy (1781-1847), daughter of Andrew Tracy, in Norwich on 23 December 1797. According to the records of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the owners of the brig Betsey under master Zebulon Burnham, Captain Gurdon Bill was part owner of some of the contraband cargo confiscated with the ship by the French privateer Pauline on 25 November 1797 and carried into Gonaives. Soon after his marriage, Bill apparently served a short stint with the Navy under Commodore Truxton as Lieutenant of Marines in 1798. Bill named his oldest son born in 1799 after the Commodore. In December of 1798 on a West Indies voyage, his ship, the schooner Hannah was seized by the French and he was confined at Guadaloupe where he met fellow Norwich resident Jesse Breed. Breed was former crewmate of Bill’s on the Confederacy, a Midshipman who came on board in November 1780 from the Trumbull and served with him until the capture of the Confederacy on 14 April 1781. This time, both escaped to Paris where they they were sent home by the American Minister. According to the Norwich Courier of 8 May 1799, Captain Gurdon Bill came into New London as a passenger on the sloop Farmer under the command of “S. Freeman of this port” after a 24 day sail from St. Thomas. Within three months of his return, Bill was reported to have arrived in New York four days after his 15 August 1799 departure from Norwich for Spain on the “elegant new ship Truxton” of 18 guns. The following year in his will, Bill’s father Captain Ephraim Bill left to Gurdon and his younger brother Sylvester, his lot “on the little plain” between the houses of the Rev. Walter King and Captain Solomon Ingraham. The sons were also appointed executors to distribute the estate in equal parts to theselves and their three surviving sisters. It is said that Gurdon Bill gave up the sea in 1801 at the “earnest solicitation” of his wife, however, an 1802 advertisement offers the Coit and Phillips owned 280 ton ship Mercury under the command of Bill “for freight or charter” on a voyage to Liverpool. Gurdon and Betsey Bill had eight children including William Truxton born 10 March 1799, George Washington born 9 December 1801, Henry born 10 June 1804 who married Letitia Smith, Lydia Huntington born 18 March 1806 who married the Rev. Samuel Seabury, Mary Elizabeth born 18 January 1808 who married William Jones, Joseph Howland born 18 March 1810 who married Caroline Day, Abby Woolsey born 27 March 1812 and Leonard Tracy born 4 September 1814. The oldest two sons died together at sea in November 1825 and Joseph Howland Bill became a doctor in the U.S. Army. His activities after retirement from a mariner’s life are best described in a Windham Herald advertisement from the Fall of 1805 where Gurdon Bill continues to manufacture at his soap and candle factory on the Point at Norwich Landing, “white, shaving and brown soap, mould and dipt candles of various sizes…fresh Providence stone lime…a few barrels of excellent sugar.” Bill also offers cash for ashes and tallow in advertisements of the same time. The property at the Point had passed to Gurdon from his father, having been passed down to his mother from her father Joshua Huntington. Gurdon Bill is reported in the newspapers as one of the Norwich health officers in 1805 and 1806 whose responsibilities included maintaining pubic sanitation in order to protect the town from disease. In 1806, Bill was one of the original proprietors who purchased land and built the Chelsea Grammer School. He was admitted to the Connecticut Society of the Cincinnati on 7 July 1790 and was also a freemason. His death was foreshadowed by an advertisement in the Norwich Courier the month previous, offering for sale “the tools and all the implements for carrying on the business of making soap and candles” including the building and wharf on which it stands. Even his single share in the Chelsea Grammer School was listed for sale. From other advertisements, it appears that Bill was attempting to divest himself of the soap making business as early as 1812. Although a death notice in the 21 March 1815 edition of the Connecticut Herald mistakenly reported his age as 63, Gurdon Bill was fifty-eight at the time of his death in Norwich on 6 March 1815. According to the History of the Bill Family, after Gurdon’s death, his widow Mary Tracy Bill was married to Jonathan Little.

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