John Gilley- One of the Forgotten Millions

by Charles W. Elliot

Part One
Part Three
Part Four

Part Two

For clothing the family depended mostly on wool from their own sheep. They used very little cotton. There were spinning-wheels and looms in the house, and the mother both spun and wove. Flax they raised on the island, and from it made a coarse kind of linen, chiefly for towels. They did, however, buy a cotton warp, and filled it with wool, thus making a comfortable sort of sheet for winter use or light blanket for summer. The wool of at least fifty sheep was used every year in the household, when the family had grown large. The children all went barefoot the greater part of the year; but in the winter they wore shoes or boots, the eldest brother having learned enough of the shoemaker's art to keep 'the family supplied with footwear in winter. At that time there were no such things as rubber boots, and the family did not expect to have dry feet.

Their uses for money were few; but some essentials to comfort they must procure at the store, seven miles away, at Southwest Harbor, in return for money or its equivalent. Their available resources for procuring money were very much like those of similar families today in the same neighborhood. They could sell or exchange butter and eggs at the store, and they could sell in Boston dried fish and feathers. One of John's elder brothers shot birds enough in a single year to yield over a hundredweight of feathers, worth fifty cents a pound in Boston. The family shipped their feathers to Boston every year by a coasting vessel; and this product represented men's labor, whereas the butter and eggs represented chiefly the women's labor. The butter was far the best of the cash resources; and so it remains to this day in these islands. It sold in the vicinity at twelve and a half cents a pound. There was one other source of money, namely, smoked herring. The herring which abound in these waters had at that time no value for bait; but smoked herring could be sold in New York, which was the best market for them, at from seventy-five cents to one dollar and ten cents a box, each box holding half a bushel. The herring were caught, for the most part, in gill-nets; for there were then no weirs and no seines. The family had their own smoke-house, and made the boxes themselves from lumber which was sawed for them at the Somesville or the Duck Brook sawmill. Each of these sawmills was at least nine miles distant from Baker's Island; so that it was a serious undertaking, requiring favorable weather, to boat the lumber from the mill and land it safely at the rough home beach. The family nailed the boxes together, out of the sawed lumber in the early fall, and packed them with the fragrant fish; and then some coasting vessel, usually a schooner owned in a neighboring island, carried the finished product to distant New York, and brought back, after a month or two, clear cash to pay for the winter's stores.

In this large and united family the boys stayed at home and worked for their parents until they were twenty-one years of age, and the girls stayed at home until they were married and had homes of their own or had come of age. All the boys and three of the girls were ultimately married. The three girls who did not marry went away from home to earn money by household labor, factory work, nursing, or sewing. It was not all work for the children on the island, or, indeed, for the father and mother. In the long winter evenings they played checkers and fox and geese; and the mother read to the family until the children grew old enough to take their share in reading aloud. Out of doors they played ball, and in winter coasted on the snow. The boys, as soon as they were ten or twelve years of age, were in and out of boats much of the time, and so attained that quick, instinctive use of oar, sail, and tiller in which lies safety. When they grew older they had the sport of gunning, with the added interest of profit from the feathers. Their domestic animals were a great interest as well as a great care. Then, they always had before them some of the most splendid aspects of nature. From their sea-girt dwelling they could see the entire hemisphere of the sky; and to the north lay the grand hills of Mount Desert, with outline clear and sharp when the northwest wind blew, but dim and soft when southerly winds prevailed. In every storm a magnificent surf dashed up on the rockbound isle. In winter the low sun made the sea toward the south a sheet of shimmering silver; and all the year an endless variety of colors, shades, and textures played over the surfaces of hills and sea. The delight in such visions is often but half conscious in persons who have not the habit of reflection; but it is nevertheless a real source of happiness, which is soon missed when one brought up amid such pure and noble scenes is set down among the straitened, squalid, ugly sights of a city. On the whole, the survivors of that isolated family look back on their childhood as a happy one; and they feel a strong sense of obligation to the father and mother — particularly to the mother, because she was a person of excellent faculties and an intellectual outlook. Like most of her people for two generations, she was a member of the Congregational Church; and in the summertime she took the eldest children nearly every Sunday in mild weather to the church at Southwest Harbor, going seven miles each way in an open boat. To be sure, the minister taught that hell was paved with infants' skulls, and descriptions of hell-fire and the undying worm formed an important part of every discourse. Some of the children supposed themselves to accept what they heard at church; but the mother did not. She bought books and read for herself; and by the time she had borne half a dozen children she could no longer accept the old beliefs, and became a Universalist, to which more cheerful faith she adhered till her death.

It is obvious that this family on its island domain was much more self-contained and independent than any ordinary family is toady, even under similar circumstances. They got their fuel, food, and clothing as products of their own skill and labor, their supplies and resources being almost all derived from the sea and from their own fields and woods. In these days of one crop on a farm, one trade for a man, and factory labor for whole families, it is not probable that there exists a single American family which is so little dependent on exchange of products, or on supplies resulting from the labor of others, as was the family of William and Hannah Gilley from 1812 to 1842. It should also be observed that seashore people have a considerable advantage in bringing up boys, because boys who become good boatmen must have had an admirable training in alertness, prompt decision, resource in emergencies, and courageous steadiness in difficulties and dangers. The shore fisherman or lobsterman on the coast of Maine, often going miles to sea alone in a half-decked boat, is liable to all sorts of vexatious or formidable weather changes — in summer to fog, calms, and squalls, in winter to low-lying icy vapor, blinding snow, and the sudden north-wester at zero, against which he must beat homeward with the flying spray freezing fast to hull, sails, and rigging. The youth who learns to wring safety and success out of such adverse conditions has been taught by these struggles with nature to be vigilant, patient, self-reliant, and brave. In these temperate regions the adverse forces of nature are not, as they sometimes are in the tropics, irresistible and overwhelming. They can be resisted and overcome by man; and so they develop in successive generations some of the best human qualities.

It resulted from the principles in which the children had been brought up that no one of the boys began to save much of anything for himself until he was twenty-one years of age. It was therefore 1843 before John Gilley began to earn money on his own account. Good health, a strong body, skill as a sailor: and some knowledge of farming, stock-raising, and fishing, he had acquired. In what way should he now begin to use these acquisitions for his own advantage? A fortunate change in his father's occupation fifteen years before probably facilitated John's entrance on a career of his own. William Gilley had been appointed light-keeper in 1828, With a compensation of three hundred and fifty dollars a year in money, the free occupation of a house, and all the sperm-oil he could use in his household. He held this place until the year 1849, when, on the coming into power of the Whig party, he was turned out and a Whig was appointed in his place. Perhaps in recognition of his long service, it was considerately suggested to him that he might retain his position if he should see fit to join the dominant party; but to this overture he replied, with some expletives, that he would not change his political connection for all the lighthouses in the United States. Now, three hundred and fifty dollars a year in cash, besides house and light, was a fortune to any coast-of-Maine family seventy years ago,—indeed, it still is,—and William Gilley undoubtedly was able to lay up some portion of it, besides improving his buildings, live stock, boats, tools, and household furniture. From these savings the father was able to furnish a little money to start his sons each in his own career. This father was himself an irrepressible pioneer, always ready for a new enterprise. In 1837, long before he was turned out of the lighthouse, he bought for three hundred dollars Great Duck Island, an uninhabited Island about five miles southwest of Baker's Island, and even more difficult of access, his project being to raise live stock there. Shortly after he ceased to be light-keeper, when he was about sixty-three years old, and his youngest children were grown up, he went to live on Great Duck, and there remained almost alone until he was nearly eighty years of age. His wife Hannah had become somewhat infirm, and was unable to do more than make him occasional visits on Duck Island. She died at sixty-nine, but he lived to be ninety-two. Each lived in their declining years with one of their married sons, Hannah on Little Cranberry and William on Baker's. Such is the natural mode of taking care of old parents in a community where savings are necessarily small and only the able-bodied can really earn their livelihood.

John Gilley's first venture was the purchase of a part of a small coasting schooner called the Preference, which could carry about one hundred tons, and cost between eight and nine hundred dollars. He became responsible for one-third of her value, paying down one or two hundred dollars, which his father probably lent him. For the rest of the third he obtained credit for a short time from the seller of the vessel. The other two owners were men who belonged on Great Cranberry Island. The owners proceeded to use their purchase during all the mild weather—perhaps six months of each year—in carrying paving-stones to Boston. These stones, unlike the present rectangular granite blocks, were smooth cobblestones picked up on the outside beaches of the neighboring islands. They of course were not found on any inland or smooth-water beaches, but only where heavy waves rolled the beach-stones up and down. The crew of the Preference must therefore anchor her off an exposed beach, and then, with a large dory, boat off to her the stones which they picked up by hand. This work was possible only during moderate weather. The stones must be of tolerably uniform 32 size, neither too large nor too small; and each one had to be selected by the eye and picked up by the hand. When the dory was loaded, it had to be lifted off the beach by the men standing in the water, and rowed out to the vessel; and there every single stone had to be picked up by hand and thrown on to the vessel. A hundred tons having been thus got aboard by sheer hard work of human muscle, the old craft, which was not too seaworthy, was sailed to Boston, to be discharged at what was then called the "Stone Wharf" in Charlestown. There the crew threw the stones out of her hold on to the wharf by hand. They therefore lifted and threw these hundred tons of stone three times at least before they were deposited on the city's wharf. The cobblestones were the main freight of the vessel; but she also carried dried fish to Boston, and fetched back goods to the island stores of the vicinity. Some of the island people bought their flour, sugar, dry-goods; and other family stores in Boston through the captain of the schooner. John Gilley soon began to go as captain, being sometimes accompanied by the other owners and sometimes by men on wages. He was noted among his neighbors for the care and good judgment with which he executed their various commissions; and he knew himself to be trusted by them. This business he followed for several years, paid off his debt to the seller of the schooner, and began to lay up money. It was an immense satisfaction to him to feel himself thus established in an honest business which he understood, and in which he was making his way. There are few solider satisfactions to be won in this world by anybody, in any condition of life. The scale of the business — large or small— makes little difference in the measure of content.

At that time — about 1843 to 1843—there were very few guides to navigation between Mount Desert and Boston compared with the numerous marks that the government now maintains. Charts were lacking, and the government had issued no coast-pilot. Blount' s "Coast-Pilot" was the only book in use among the coastwise navigators, and its description of the coast of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts was very incomplete, though tolerably accurate in the few most important regions. It was often anxious business for the young owners of an old, uninsured vessel to encounter the various weather of the New England coast between the first of April and the first of December. Their all and sometimes their lives were at stake on their own prudence, knowledge, and skill. None of them had knowledge of navigation in the technical sense; they were coasting sailors only, who found their way from point to point along the shore by practice, keen observation, and good memory for objects once seen and courses arise safely they were who found steered. The young man who can do this work successfully has some good grounds for self-respect. At this business John Gilley laid up several hundred dollars. In a few years he was able to sell the Preference and buy half of a much better vessel called the Express. She was larger, younger, and a better sailer, and cost her purchasers between fifteen and sixteen hundred dollars. He followed the same business in the Express for several years more, laying her up in the late autumn and fitting her out again every spring. The winters he generally spent with his father and mother, or with one of his married brothers; but even in such periods of comparative repose he kept busy, and was always trying to make a little money. He was fond of gunning, and liked it all the better because it yielded feathers for sale. In December, 1853 he was staying with his brother Samuel Gilley on Little Cranberry Island, and gunning as usual; but his brother observed that he did not sell the feathers which he assiduously collected. That winter there was a schoolteacher from Sullivan on Little Cranberry, who seemed to be an intelligent and pleasing girl. He made no remarks on the subject to his brother; but that brother decided that John was looking for a wife as this brother expressed it at the age of eighty-two,"John was thinking of looking out for the woman; he saved his feathers — and actions speak louder than words." Moreover, he sold his vessel at Rockland, and found himself in possession of nine or ten hundred dollars in money, the product of patient industry, and not the result of drawing a prize or two in the fishing lottery. In the following spring he went with six or seven other men, in a low priced fishing-vessel of about thirty-five tons which his brother Samuel and he had bought, up the Bay of Fundy and to the banks between Mount Desert and Cape Sable, fishing for cod and haddock. Every fortnight or three weeks the brothers came home to land their fish and get supplies; but the schoolmistress had gone home to Sullivan. During that spring John Gilley crossed more than once to Sutton’s Island, an island about a mile long, which lies between the Cranberry Islands and the island of Mount Desert, with its long axis lying nearly east and west. On this island he bought, that season, a rough, neglected farm of about fifty acres, on which stood a house and barn. It was a great undertaking to put the buildings into habitable condition and clear up and improve the few arable fields. But John Gilley looked forward to the task with keen interest and a good hope, and he had the definite purpose of providing here a permanent home for himself and a wife.

Back to Part One | Forward to Part Three

Gilleymedia Home Page