Captain Thomas Wilkins
In the city of Erie particularly, and at all ports of the Great Lakes in general, Capt. Thomas Wilkins a half century ago was one of the best known masters of the lakes. He has left a record which is both interesting and memorable. He was born in or near the town of Langharne, county of Carmarthen, South Wales, in March 1794. At the age of about eleven years he went aboard a small sloop of about twelve tons, owned and commanded by one Harry Thomas, engaged in carrying coal from Kidlevelley to Langharne, Carmarthen and other small towns in Carmarthen bay. Two years after this maritime career began, the mother of our subject, to whom he, the youngest child of the family, was very closely attached, died.
Thomas then shipped aboard a larger sloop, which traded up as far as Bristol, a distance of 100 miles. Here the boy first saw some larger ships that traded to the West Indies. He sailed between Langharne and Bristol for a year and then attended school one winter. A war prize, built galiot, was about this time driven ashore at Langharne and was purchased by Mr. Waters, and made a full-rigged brig of about 250 tons burden. On board this vessel Thomas Wilkins, at the age of fourteen years, was bound as apprentice for three years. She loaded with coal and oak bark for Cork Island and here for the first time the boy witnessed the desecration of the Sabbath by dancing and drunkenness. In a boisterous passage to London with provisions the brig lost both anchors but finally made the port of Dover. Procuring new anchors and making needed repairs, Captain Randall proceeded to London. The Captain was a man of great deliberation and after the next trip to Dublin he was ordered home and discharged. Loading a little later for Oporto under Captain George with staves the brig sailed with a small fleet of merchantmen under the convoy of a frigate, for French privateers made sailing dangerous. The brig hove to the first night out, waiting for the fleet, which she had outrun, to approach and a galiot-rigged vessel ran into her broadside and took off the bowsprit. She put back, made repairs and ran alone to Oporto, arriving safely. The hostile French and English armies were then encamped within a few miles of that city. A little later the brig sailed to Quebec for timber. After loading at that port, she waited for a few days to sail with a fleet under the convoy of man-of-war and the vessels kept together until they reached the banks of Newfoundland, when during a fog they separated. After a boisterous voyage they reached Cardigan bay, their destination.
When Captain Wilkins was about seventeen years of age the brig was boarded by a French privateer, and the entire crew, except three boys, were taken off. As the oldest of the three apprentices, young Wilkins took command of the brig and was bringing her into port, when five men came off shore in a boat and induced him, after some delay, to give them control of the vessel. They demanded salvage, but the consignee employed Robert Peel, afterward a famous lawyer, to defend the suit, which was afterward compromised by paying the five men a small sum each.
Our subject soon after deserted, on account of the brutality of the new captain, but he was arrested and put into jail. He enlisted in the 104th Regiment of infantry, known as the New Brunswickers, raised in the Province. He received twelve guineas bounty for enlisting. The regimental headquarters were then at Frederickton. Mr. Wilkins was in this regiment when the war of 1812 opened. He was made the captain of a small schooner, running between St. John and Frederickton, and, when the regiment was a little later ordered to Quebec, Captain Wilkins had to leave his schooner and take up arms as a soldier. He remained with the regiment six years and ten months, but in all this time did actual soldier duty little over one year, being employed usually on some vessel. During the last three years of his service he had the rank of corporal. After his discharge Captain Wilkins settled a short time upon a tract of 100 acres of land in Upper Canada, which had been granted to him on condition of this settlement; but tiring of the land, he left, crossed the St. Lawrence to the American side in 1818, and shipped aboard the schooner Niagara at $18 per month. He was at Niagara when there was only one building, a shanty, on the Canadian side and none on the American side. After serving in various ways on several small schooners, Captain Wilkins became mate of the Superior. She was frozen in the ice, and he and William Tooley remained aboard all winter keeping ship. Captain Wilkins later sailed aboard the schooners Diligence and Decatur and then shipped as mate of the General Wayne, but as she was not fitted out he shipped on board the revenue cutter Porcupine, which had been one of Commodore Perry's fleet in the battle of Lake Erie. For six years he then sailed as master of a schooner in the Green Bay trade. She was built by Rufus S. Reed, but as Captain Wilkins had not yet received his naturalization papers his name did not appear on her papers. In 1826 he sailed the schooner Pontiac for Mr. Reed; in 1827, the steamer William Penn; in 1828, the schooner Prudence, of Buffalo; in 1829, the schooner Columbus, of Ashtabula. In 1830 he was mate of a small schooner called the William Peacock, and in 1831 became master of the S.B Peacock, which he sailed until the fall of 1834, closing the season in the steamboat Pennsylvania.
In 1835 Captain Wilkins became master of the steamboat Thomas Jefferson, and sailed her until 1840, when Mr. Reed transferred him to the Missouri. He remained master of the Missouri until the middle of the season of 1847. He remained on shore until October, that season, when he took charge of the steamer Troy, having purchased a one-eighth interest in the vessel. Captain Wilkins held command of the Troy until 1852, when he sold his interest at a loss of $300 and left the boat. This terminated the active career of our subject on the Great Lakes. He had sailed for over thirty- four years, beginning in October 1818, when he went aboard the Superior. The Walk-in-the-Water was then the only steamcraft on the lakes, and the largest sail vessel, the schooner Michigan, was a fraction under 100 tons. Captain Wilkins was aboard three steamers when their boilers exploded, the William Peacock, near Buffalo, the S.B. Gray, near Black Rock, and the Bay City, near Cleveland. He has had occasion many times to praise God for His care and protection. Including his ocean service, Captain Wilkins sailed about forty-seven years continuously.
He was appointed collector of the port of Erie July 23, 1861. His commission was signed by A. Lincoln and S. Chase. This position Captain Wilkins held through the administrations of President Lincoln and Johnson, resigning in May, 1869, in favor of R.F. Gaggin, but continued as special deputy collector until his death, which occurred October 2, 1870. When he left the lakes he purchased a farm on the south side of Erie, which has since been taken within the limits of the city.
Captain Wilkins was married May 4, 1821, to Anne Henton by Myron Backus, J.P. She died October 30, 1833, aged thirty years. For his second wife he married Mary Backus, December 5, 1834. By his first wife he had two children, Capt. Ben Wilkins and Mrs. Jane Burton. By his second wife he also left two children, George and Mrs. Anna Sterrett. His second wife and all his children have since passed also to the great beyond, but grandchildren remain at Erie to hold in reverence his memory.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.