Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Who was Captain James Gormley?

California University of Pennsylvania Field School Students
excavating a portion of foundation at the Gormley House 2011
     As an industrial archaeologist often times I get caught up in the when and the how of an artifact, while leaving the who to the subtle recesses of theory and imagination. After all, when studying industrial places, the nameless working-class are just that, nameless. Records get destroyed, people moved about the landscape from job to job leaving little of their personal identities behind. As an anthropologist, the who takes center stage. The missing records are a challenge, the endemic community becomes an untapped resource while searching for those individual workers who struggled like you and I for our jobs, our families, and our existence. They held and loved their children as we do, and had many of the same concerns as we have today. They worried about the next paycheck, the next meal, and their job security. It is these people whose story brings the archaeology to life and gives it meaning. It is here where I will begin my story of steamboat captain, and how my crew is giving him a life after death.
     James Gormley resided in a wood frame house build on the mid-slope of a hill overlooking the town of Brownsville, Pennsylvania. From his front yard he could look out over the Monongahela River and see the wharf where his steamboat would make many landings over the course of several decades. His house was built and owned by his possible brother, uncle, or cousin, John A. Gormly in the 1830s. At this point in the research we are not sure of his familial ties with John. John A. Gormly was born in 1804, Captain James Gormley was born in 1817, so they could possibly be brothers.
     James' early aspirations and influences for a life on the river are unknown. He is listed as a steamboat captain in the 1850 census at the age of 33. Brownsville during this time was an active hub for shipping and emigration as people sought their fortunes westward. The town had a diverse industrial and mercantile business based on the frontier economy that existed at the time. Roads were poorly built, poorly mapped, and often dangerous as they headed toward the Mississippi Valley. The Monongahela provided a convenient, fast, and relatively safe way for transporting goods and people. James probably spent his boyhood down at the wharf or swimming in the river as the colossal white steamboats plied their way into a boy's imagination.
     Captain Gormley can be compared to a modern-day truck driver. He probably owned a share of his steamboat along with other investors, or owned it outright and worked to pay it off. His home life was sporadic, with long intervals of life on the river, his steamboat probably felt more like home than his physical house. In the 1850 census, James, age 33, was living with his wife Sarah, age 31. Their children were listed as follows: Frances (18yrs, female), John (10yrs, male), Henry (7yrs, male), Neal (5yrs, male), and Charles (2yrs, male). There were, however, other people also living in the Gormley household. These people deepen the mystery of the captain's life outside of his work.
     There were 10 non relatives living in the Gormley home. Jane Rhredes (22yrs, female) and Olive Fullen (23yrs, female) who were not listed as having an occupation. The other eight people were recorded as African-Americans. Their names were as follows: Margarett Fairfan (53yrs, female), Emily Fairfan (23yrs, female), Owen Fairfan (17yrs, male), Caroline Fairfan (16yrs, female), James Fairfan (14yrs, male) of New York. Mary Plummer (9yrs, female), John Plummer (7yrs, male), and Fenten Plummer (38yrs, male) of Fayette County, Pennsylvania. Owen Fairfan and Fenten Plummer were registered as “Laborers” on the 1850 census. The question is, who were these African-Americans living in the Gormley household?
Whole map of the underground railroad.Image via Wikipedia
Underground Railroad
     Brownsville had a long history of anti-slavery in the 19th century. Due to its location on the National Road and the Monongahela River, Brownsville became an important center for the Underground Railroad. The prominent Bowman family of the town often provided a safe haven for the blacks who escaped the shackles of slavery in the South. The Bowmans were merchants, steamboat builders, and political figures in western Pennsylvania. James Gormley as a steamboat captain, would have had contact with them.
     James Gormley, in his travels to Southern ports, could have easily ferried escaped slaves to start a new life in the North. Although listed on the census as from “New York” or “Fayette County”, these African-Americans could have covered up their real origins. Could these people have been just boarders, perhaps working for the Gormley family while James was working on the river? These are just some of the questions that I am trying to answer archaeologically.
     The bigger picture is tying James Gormley to John A. Gormly the prominent banker from Bucyrus, Ohio. I don't feel that it's a coincidence that James is living on John's property. The very transient nature of the steamboat industry may explain why James never bought the home.
By the time the 1860 census comes around we find a few changes in the composition of the Gormley household. Captain James (43yrs, male) and Sarah (41yrs, female), Francis (21yrs, male), John (19yrs, male), Henry (17yrs, male), Neil (15yrs, male), Charles (12yrs, male), and the new additions to the family; Sallie (10yrs, female), William (7yrs, male), James (3yrs, male), and Nellie (3yrs, female). A single African-American girl is living with the family at this time, May Galatin (15yrs, female).
     In the decade since the 1850 census, the Gormley children are pursuing their father in the business of steamboating. Francis, James' oldest son was documented in 1860 as a Boat Laborer, while John was a Pilot Apprentice, and Henry was working as an Engineer's Apprentice. The river life was influencing factor in the Gormley family, and their history along with their future in the mid-19th century are inescapably linked.
     As a captain, James Gormley's piloting record in Brownsville is scarce. We know that he piloted two boats, the Statesman in 1851, and the Jesse R. Bell in 1859. By 1862, James Gormley has left Brownsville, and we find him performing his duty as a steamboat captain for the Union at the start of the Civil War. Captain Gormley finds himself the master of the steamboat Empress. This places Captain Gormley at the Battle for Pittsburgh Landing in what would be known as the Battle of Shiloh. Taken from the Daily Missouri Republican on March 25, 1862:

On Tuesday, the 4th instant, the steamer Empress left St. Louis, having on board some 700 tons Commissary stores for Cairo and Paducah, 150 head of cattle for Fort Henry and Col. Bissell's Engineer Regiment, destined for Gen. Pope's Division at Commerce, Mo.,; Wednesday landed the troops at Commerce and Commissary stores at Cairo, coaled and arrived at Paducah on Thursday morning, received on board the Forty-eighth Ohio Infantry, Col. Sullivan commanding, coaled and arrived at Fort Henry Friday morning, being the first arrival for the new expedition; the water had almost completely inundated the Fort; no landing there; proceeded up the river about seven miles; landed in the brush, alongside the Gladiator, Gen. McClennand's headquarters, received a present from Lieut. Col. Parker, of the Forty-eighth, of a splendid American eagle, whose perch is now on the pilot house of the Empress. Here, on Saturday, the 8th, commenced a new phase in steamboating--the Empress is converted into a slaughter house to supply the much needed beef to the army, but "some things can be done as well as others," and there is room on the Empress to do almost anything, and Captain Jas. Gormley and his crew are the men to put things through (http://www.48ovvi.org/oh48pitts.html).

Carl Maurer Society for Pennsylvania Archaeology
Mon/Yough Chapter #3 Vice President
examining an excavation unit.
     This is the last piece of information written that has been discovered so far in our research. Through the archaeology we can supplement the documentary research and perhaps gain insight into the captain's daily life that the historians left out. We might even be able to find insight on the other non family members who were boarding with the Gormley family.
     Artifact analysis is just commencing on our finds, but some of the materials may tell us about the gender of those living in the house, the class status of those people, and even the race. The artifacts may reveal the struggle of everyday life in the mid 1800's for a person living in Brownsville, and it may shed light on the daily hardships of those working on the river. Click on the video below as I give a brief tour of Captain Gormley's home!   

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