John Gilley- One of the Forgotten Millions

by Charles W. Elliot

Originally published in 1899 in the Century Magazine and in book form in 1904 by the American Unitarian Association under the title of


Maine Farmer and Fisherman

also published as

John Gilley of Baker's Island

Part Two
Part Three
Part Four

Map of Baker Island

Part One

TO be absolutely forgotten in a few years is the common fate of mankind. Isaac Watts did not exaggerate when he wrote:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away:

They fly forgotten,

as a dream Dies at the opening day.

With the rarest exceptions, the death of each human individual is followed in a short time by complete oblivion, so far as living human memories are concerned. Even family recollection or tradition quickly becomes dim, and soon fades utterly away. Few of us have any clear transmitted impression of our great-grandparents; some of us could not describe our grandparents. Even men accounted famous at their deaths slip from living memories and become mere shadows or word-pictures—shadows or pictures which too often distort or misrepresent the originals. Not one human being in ten million is really long remembered. For the mass of mankind absolute oblivion, like death, is sure. But what if it is? Should this indubitable fact affect injuriously the mortal life in this world of the ordinary human being? Not at all. For most men and women the enjoyments, interests, and duties of this world are just as real and absorbing, at the moment, as they would be if the enjoying, interested, and dutiful individuals could imagine that they were long to be remembered on this earthly stage. A few unusually imaginative and ambitious persons are doubtless stimulated and supported by the hope of undying fame-a hope which in the immense majority of such cases proves to be a pure delusion. The fact is that forelooking is not a common occupation of the human mind. We all live, as a rule, in the present and the past, and take very little thought for the future. Now, in estimating the aggregate well-being and happiness of a community or a nation, it is obviously the condition of the obscure millions, who are sure to be absolutely forgotten, that it is most important to see and weigh aright; yet history and biography alike neglect these humble, speechless multitudes, and modern fiction finds it profitable to portray the most squalid and vicious sides of the life of these millions rather than the best and the commonest.

Thus the facts about the life of the common multitude go unobserved, or at least unrecorded, while fiction paints that life in false colors. This little book describes with accuracy the actual life of one of the to-be-forgotten millions. Is this life a true American type~ If it is, there is good hope for our country.

John Gilley was born February 22, 1822, at the Fish Point on Great Cranberry Island, Maine, whither his mother, who lived on Baker's Island, had gone to be confined at the house of Mrs. Stanley, a midwife. Baker's Island lies nearly four miles from the island of Mount Desert. It is a roundish island, a little more than half a mile long from north to south, and a little less than half a mile wide from east to west. At low tide it is connected with another much larger island, called Little Cranberry, by a reef and bar about a mile long; but by half-tide this bar is entirely covered. Almost all the coasting vessels which come from the westward, bound to the Bay of Fundy or to the coast of Maine east of French-man's Bay, pass just outside of Bakers Island; and, as this island has some dangerous ledges near it, the United States built a lighthouse on its highest part in the year 1828. The island has no good harbor; but in the summer small vessels find a safe anchorage on the north side of it, except in easterly storms. The whole shore of the island is bare rock, and the vegetation does not approach the ordinary level of high water, the storm-waves keeping the rocks bare far above and behind the smooth-water level of high tide. There are many days in every year when it is impossible to land on the island or to launch a boat from it. In the milder half of the year the island is of course a convenient stopping-place for offshore fishermen, for it is several miles nearer the fishing-grounds than the harbors of Mount Desert proper. in the first years of this century the island was uninhabited, and was covered by a growth of good-sized trees, both evergreen and deciduous.

About the year 1812, William Gilley of Norwood's Cove, at the foot of Somes Sound on its west side, and Hannah Lurvey, his wife, decided to move on to Baker's Island with their three little children and all their goods. Up to that time he had got his living chiefly on fishing or coasting vessels; but, like most young men of the region, he was also something of a woodcutter and farmer. He and his wife had already accumulated a little store of household goods and implements, and tools for fishing and farming. They needed no money wherewith to buy Baker's Island. There it lay in the sea, unoccupied and unclaimed; and they simply took possession of it.

William Gilley was a large, strong man, six feet tall, and weighing over two hundred pounds. His father is said to have come from Great Britain at fourteen years of age. Hannah Gilley was a robust woman, who had lived in Newburyport and Byfield, Massachusetts, until she was thirteen years old, and had there had much better schooling than was to be had on the island of Mount Desert. She was able to teach all her children to read, write, and cipher; and all her life she valued good reading, and encouraged it in her family. Her father, Jacob Lurvey, was born in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and married Hannah Boynton of Byfield. The name Lurvey is a good transliteration of the German Loewe, which is a common name among German Jews; and there is a tradition in the Lurvey family that the first Lurvey, who emigrated to Massachusetts in the seventeenth century, was of Jewish descent and came from Archangel in Russia. It is noticeable that many of the Lurveys have Old Testament names, such as Reuben, Levi, Samuel, Isaac, and Jacob, and that their noses tend to be aquiline. This was the case with most of the children of William and Hannah Gilley. The father of Hannah served in the Revolutionary army as a boy. He lived to the age of ninety-two, and had ten children and seventy-seven grandchildren. The Lurveys are therefore still numerous at Southwest Harbor and the vicinity.

For William Gilley the enterprise of taking possession of Baker's Island involved much heavy labor, but few unaccustomed risks. For Hannah, his wife, it was different. She already had three little children, and she was going to face for herself and her family a formidable isolation which was absolute for considerable periods in the year. Moreover, she was going to take her share in the severe labors of a pioneering family. Even to get a footing on this wooded island— to land lumber, live stock, provisions, and the implements of labor, and to build the first shelter — was no easy task. A small, rough beach of large stones was the only landing-place, and just above the bare rocks of the shore was the. forest. However, health, strength, and fortitude were theirs; and in a few years they had established themselves on the island in considerable comfort. Nine more children were born to them there; so that they ultimately had a family of twelve children, of whom six were sons and six daughters. All these children grew to maturity. Fortunately, the eldest child was a girl, for it was the mother that most needed help. Three of the children are still (1899) living, two of them over eighty years of age and one over ninety. Nine of the twelve children married, and to them were born fifty-eight, children, of whom forty-five are still living.

John Gilley was the tenth child and also the youngest son, and when he was born the family had already been, ten years on the island, and had transformed it into a tolerable farm. When he began to look about him, his father was keeping about six cows, a yoke of oxen, two or three young cattle, about fifty Sheep, and three or four hogs. Several of the children were already contributing by their labor to the support of the family. The girls, by the time they were twelve years old, were real helpers for the mother. They tended the poultry, made butter, and spun wool. The boys naturally helped in the work of the father. He, unaided except by his boys, had cleared a considerable portion of the island, burning up in so doing a fine growth of trees — spruce, fir, birch, and beech. With his oxen he had broken up the cleared land, hauled off part of the stones and piled them on the protruding ledges, and gradually made fields for grass and other crops. In the earlier years, before flour began to be cheap at the Mount Desert "stores," he had even raised a little wheat on the island; but the main crops besides hay were potatoes and other vegetables for the use of the family and cattle. The son is still living who carried a boatload of wheat to Somesville, had it ground and sifted into three grades, and carried all three back to the island for winter use. The potato-bug and potato-rot were then unknown, and the island yielded any wished-for amount of potatoes The family often dug from two to three hundred bushels of potatoes in a season, and fed what they did not want to their cattle and hogs.

Food at the island was habitually abundant. It was no trouble to get lobsters. No traps were needed; they could be picked up in the shallow water along the rocky shore. Fresh fish were always to be easily procured, except in stormy weather and in cold and windy February and March. A lamb could be killed at any time in the summer. In the fall, in sorting the flock of sheep, the family killed from ten to fifteen sheep; and what they could not use as fresh mutton they salted. Later in the season, when the weather turned cold, they killed a "beef-critter," and sometimes two when the family grew large. Part of this beef was salted, but part was kept frozen throughout the winter to be used fresh. Seabirds added to their store of food. Shooting them made sport for the boys. Ducks and other seafowl were so abundant in the fall that the gunners had to throw away the bodies of the birds, after picking off all the feathers. The family never bought any salt pork, but every winter made a year's supply. Although codfish were easily accessible, the family made no use of salt cod. They preferred mackerel, which were to be taken in the near waters in some month of every year. They had a few nets, but they also caught mackerel on the hook. During the summer and early autumn the family had plenty of fresh vegetables.


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