James W. Head, Seaman

James W. Head. Middle child of Jane McKenzie (1731-1818) and John Head (1731-1779), James Waller Head was baptized at Trinity Church in Boston on 5 July 1766. An Episcopal parish, Trinity Church was founded in 1733 and at the time was located on Summer Street. His parents had been married in Boston on 10 June [or 17 Aug] 1755. James had two older brothers, Joseph and John, and two younger brothers Joshua and Benjamin. He also had an older sister Ann and younger sister Elizabeth. Brothers John and Joshua, both residing at Waldoboro in Maine, eight miles from James in Warren, would testify in 1837 supporting their middle brother’s pension application. According to seventy-four year old John’s affidavit, Purser of the frigate Queen of France Samuel Wall “frequently visited my father’s family and urged my parents to let brother James go the cruise with them and promised if they would consent he should have an office when they got to sea. Said Wall had previously obtained the consent of my brother James who was then about fourteen years old.” John Head continues, “I understood he served on board the frigate in the capacity of Midshipman.”

According to James W. Head’s own testimony, he enlisted as Midshipman on the frigate Queen of France at Boston, then under the command of Captain John Peck Rathbun, at the age of fourteen in October 1779. Head adds that the ship cruised to Bermuda and “went into Charleston, South Carolina in December and lay there in company with the ship Providence, Commodore Whipple; ship Boston, Capt. Tucker & ship Ranger,” adding that “all surrendered to the British in May 1780. The testimony of his brother John, fleshes out some of the details of what happened to James Head at Charleston. The “Queen of France (was) there sunk to prevent the British fleet coming up the channel. The officers and crew were placed in the fort under the command of General Lincoln. The fort was taken by the British after a severe bombardment.” James himself recollects’ “At Charleston we were landed to man the forts” and “I was present and engaged in the siege of Charleston & captured with the American Army.” After his capture, James W. Head returned to Providence, RI in a cartel and was discharged in June 1780. His older brother John recalled, “I well recollect his returning home…The next day after he arrived in the cartel at Providence, he started for home, Boston and traveled on foot all the way home in one day.” Younger brother Joshua, sixty-nine years old at the time of his testimony, remembered James “was very much fatigued” on his homecoming and also that “he had lost his hearing in a great measure and has never recovered it.” Speaking of his vivid memory of brother James’ wartime experiences after almost six decades, Joshua Head writes “They were of a nature to excite my curiosity and made a deep impression on my mind.” In the pension record, both brothers note that within four to six weeks of James’ departure on the Queen of France, their father John Head died in December 1779. According to genealogical records, James W. Head’s father John died at Boston on 21 December 1779 and was buried at Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge. Despite, Samuel Wall’s promises to James W. Head’s parents, no evidence has surfaced to indicate their fourteen year old son ever received an appointment as Midshipman. A statement of claims adjusted and allowed by the Treasury Department for James W. Head’s service on the Queen of France dated 23 January 1793 indicates payment of $45.66 is due him to 15 July 1780 and suggests his rate or capacity on the vessel’s payroll was listed as “Boy”. His pension was granted at the rate of “Seaman”.

After the peace, James was apprenticed to the Providence, RI merchants Clark & Nightingale. With the consent of his widowed mother, the eighteen year old placed himself as an apprentice to learn “their Art, Trade, or Mystery” in an unusual retroactive indenture executed on 3 March 1784 but commencing on 13 June 1783. The four year contract was to continue in force until “the 13th day of June which will be in the year 1787”. Until that date, Head was obligated “not commit Fornication, or contract Matrimony”. Furthermore the young man committed, “At Cards, Dice, or any other unlawful Game, he shall not play…shall not absent himself by Day or by Night, from his said masters Service, without their Leave, or haunt Ale-houses, Taverns, or Play-houses”. In return, Clark & Nightingale contracted to “stand the said James in Meat Drink washing & Lodging during the said term”. The document was witnessed for the mercantile house by John and Robert Murray of another closely associated mercantile house from New York, Robert Murray & Company. This indenture is part of a collection of apprenticeship manuscripts assembled by Rick Grunder from 1985 to 2010 and offered together for sale online in that year.

According to Cyrus Eaton in the “Annals of the Town of Warren, in Knox County, Maine” (1877), at the conclusion of his apprenticeship which must have been completed a few months early, the enterprising twenty-one year old James W. Head came initially to Bristol where his brothers John and Joshua were already trading. Although his two brothers moved on to Waldoboro, James chose to locate his business interests eight miles down the road from them at Warren. After securing the house and nearly empty store of Rufus Crane who had been issued at retailer license three years earlier, James Head was also granted a retailer license by the Court of Sessions, brought in new inventory and commenced trading at Warren in the spring of 1787. The village rewarded Head’s investment and military service by electing him on 31 December 1787 as delegate to the State Convention held in Boston to consider and vote on adoption of the Federal Constitution. Apparently active in politics, one of his obituaries in the Portland Daily Advertiser of 21 August 1861 reveals, “He belonged to the old Federal party and was formerly a prominent member of that party.”

His apprenticeship completed, business started and free to wed; James W. Head was married to twenty-two year old Sarah Olney, also known as “Salley”, in Boston on 16 May 1788. Providence native Sarah was the second daughter of Anne Paget and Captain Joseph Olney (1737-1814), former commander of the Queen of France before Head’s service on board the frigate. Prior to his tenure as assessor for the Town of Warren in 1792 and 1793 and as selectman in 1795, James W. Head fathered two children; Angelica Gilbert born 1 December 1789 who married Warren merchant William Hovey and his namesake oldest son James born on 24 September 1791. Like his father, the junior James was a merchant who married Jerusha Gelston Dwight on 5 October 1828 and died on 30 March 1835. Sarah Olney and James Waller Head shared four more children during their sixteen year marriage: Sarah Olney born 24 June 1794 who married Henry Flagg of Bangor on 20 September 1813 and died 12 August 1880; Maria Halsey born 22 April 1796 who married Thomas Gelston Sandford of Topsham in a double wedding with her older sister on 20 September 1813 and who died 9 February 1831, Jane McKenzie born 27 March 1799 who died on 23 July 1804 and Joseph Olney born 20 January 1802 who died at seventeen years old on a homeward bound voyage from Bermuda to Maine on 12 September 1819. A lengthy obituary in the Weekly Eastern Argus dated 14 December 1804 announces the 7 December death of Sarah Olney Head of a “lingering consumption”, which followed the 23 July 1804 death of her five year old daughter Jane “but a few months before her own”. The obituary concludes “Col. Head is left with five children that survive, to lament the loss of the best of wives, and the best of mothers” adding, “The Church of Christ in the town (or which the deceased was a respectable member) and indeed the inhabitants generally are sincere mourners on the occasion.” Eighteen months later, the 26 May 1806 edition of the Gazette of Portland announces, “Married in this town, Col. James W. Head, of Warren, to Miss Francis Sanford, daughter of Capt. Thomas S.” The marriage of Francis Sandford, daughter of Jerusha Gelston and Long Island native Thomas Sandford (1744-1811) who sailed out of Portland, took place earlier on 18 May. The couple shared two children, Thomas Sandford born on 31 March 1808 who died in infancy and Martha Derby who was baptized on 15 July 1810, married John Brooks of Portland on 3 October 1839 and died less than one year later on 23 September 1840.

About seven months after his marriage to Frances Sanford, in January 1807 James W. Head was selected with Josiah Stebbins, Mark Will and Jon Ellis to decide on the location of a new jailhouse for the county. Several years later in 1811, the original Lincoln County Jail was built on Federal Street in Wiscasset overlooking the Sheepscot River. Head was also active in the local militia serving as Captain prior to his promotion as Major in 1796 and Colonel about two years later. A letter from James W. Head and others on behalf of his officers in the 4th Regiment, 1st Brigade, 8th Division of Massachusetts Militia to John Adams rests in the Adams Family Papers manuscript collection at the Massachusetts Historical Society. During the War of 1812, James Waller Head served as Paymaster for Lt. Colonel Samuel Thatcher’s Regiment at Camden, ME between 3 and 18 September 1814. Minister of the First Congregational Church of Christ at Warren Jonathan Huse, who twenty-three years later testified in the pension application that “I know said Head to be a person of truth & veracity & entitled to full credit”, also served with Head in Thatcher’s Regiment as Chaplain.

James W. Head served as Justice of the Peace for Warren in 1805, 1812, 1819 and June 1826. In 1819, he was issued a second retailer’s license by the Court of Sessions and yet another license by the Warren Selectmen between 1821 and 1823. It appears Head may have had a business relationship with Benjamin Brackett who was also granted licenses during those same years. The 1865 “Publications of the Prince Society” describe the activities of James W. Head, “He conducted a large business in dry and West India goods, in lumber and to some extent in shipbuilding and commerce. He was a magistrate, colonel of a regiment when there was but two in the Province, a delegate to the Convention held in Boston for the ratification of the Constitution of the United States by Massachusetts, when Maine was a part of that State, and was a foremost citizen in the affairs of the town and county.” Evidence of Head’s position in the Maine lumbering industry is provided by several letters written by Henry Knox (1750-1806) at Boston on 22 April 1796, one instructing Mr. [Life] Wilson to build a saw mill in the St. Georges region of Maine using lumber from Mr. James Waller Head and another to “Mr. Head” asking him to provide lumber to Wilson.

Between the healthy mercantile activity indicated by his retailer licensing during his middle fifties and his application for a Revolutionary War veteran’s pension at the age of seventy in January 1837, his neighbors of twenty years John Miller and Benjamin F. Baxton reveal, James W. Head, Esq. “…has been an active Merchant, has been unfortunate in business and become poor.” Head received a pension certificate on 8 September of that same year. The 1840 Census records seventy-four year old pensioner James W. Head living in Warren, ME with his wife and one unknown younger female born between 1811 and 1820, presumably a live in housekeeper. Ten years later, James Head’s household includes seventy-two year old Frances and fifty-one year old Ann L. Weaver, also assumed to be their housekeeper. The Portland Advertiser of 16 September 1851 brings news of the death of James W. Head’s second wife on 10 September, “after a few days illness. Mrs Francis Head, age 73.”

The 1860 Census reveals ninety-four year old Warren resident James W. Head living with sixty-three year old David Crane and his fifty-five year old wife Jane, their twenty-one year old youngest son James P. Crane and fifteen year old Susan E. Neal. Cyrus Eaton in “Annals of the Town of Warren” (1877) writes of the 1861 death of Head and that his second wife Francis a decade before, “On the 17th of August Col. James W. Head, whose title was acquired from the old militia service and not actual warfare, passed from the scenes of his earthly activities and subsequent patient inactivity, at the great age of 95 years. His wife, Madam or “Ma Head” as she was usually termed, a most dignified, stately, and even majestic lady, had, ten years previously, preceded him to a land where she hoped once more to meet her idolized but deceased daughter (Martha Derby Head Brooks); his children, all except one who lived with her family in a distant city, had departed this earth; and he had long lingered, dependent on the care of a hired though kind housekeeper, in a state of almost total deafness and increasing feebleness. But he seemed always cheerful; would make those who called upon him use a slate and pencil in conversing with him, often catching their meaning before the words were half written; and ever kept up an interest in the town whose business prosperity he had formerly had so large a part in, and especially the village which his buildings and (most of all) his large and tasteful mansion, with its beautiful grounds, and the lovely rows of wayside trees, had done so much to embellish. All who enjoy the shade of those elms on Main St., west of the village, or look up at the graceful tracery of their branches, should bless his name and memory.” One obituary reporting his death appears in the 7 September 1861 of the Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, “In Warren, Me Aug. 17, Col. James W. Head, in the 96th year of his age. He was the oldest pensioner in Maine, drawing his pension for services in the Revolution in connection with the coast defense.” The only known likeness of Col. James W. Head is an oil painting by celebrated American portrait painter Chester Harding (1792-1866).

This entry was posted in Continental Navy Enlisted Men, Seamen. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to James W. Head, Seaman

  1. Rick Grunder says:

    What a pleasure and surprise to find this excellent biographical article! I have made a print-out using archival ink to accompany young James’ original apprenticeship document as a permanent record.

  2. John Reidy Treworgy says:

    I am a descendant of his sister Ann (Head) Jarvis.

    Time magazine provides a daguerreotype of James W. Head at this address:


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *