When the New London privateer ship Minerva overtook the HMS Hannah in the summer of 1781, the Minerva’s prizemaster, John Baker, took control of the British ship, which was stocked with goods from the Indies and England.
What resulted was a raid on New London, led by the American traitor Benedict Arnold that was so intense, locals still refer to it as the Fort Griswold Massacre.
But the primary reason we know about privateer John Baker and his role in taking the Hannah is that his descendant, Tim Jacobs, won’t let us forget it.
A resident of West Hartford, Jacobs is the Connecticut registrar for the Sons of the American Revolution, a patriotic organization whose membership comprises the direct descendants of those who took a part in supporting the Revolutionary War.
When Jacobs first became interested in finding out about his family background, he found about his relationship to the New London privateer, but his research didn’t stop there. He continued to dig. Today, he has found 65 ancestors who supported the War of Independence — a record in the organization.
“(The Sons of the American Revolution) honors people without whom we would all be British subjects,” says Jacobs while explaining why it’s so important to him to remember and honor the contributions of his forebears. “What they contributed is the greatest national creation at least at that time, if not always. It was unprecedented. People should be proud of it.”
Genealogy has seen a surge in popularity in recent years, mainly because of websites such as Ancestry.com that make getting started a little easier.
And finding out about your past can lead you to more than just war records. Jacobs also found out he was a descendant of John Billington, one of the Mayflower passengers and signers of the Mayflower Compact. He also became the first man convicted and executed for murder in the Colonies in 1630.
Jacobs also helped to revive an organization called Son of a Witch. As its name implies, it’s an organization for those who are descended of those accused of witchcraft — a hysteria that was by no means limited to Salem, Mass.
Jacobs’ discovery of his relationship to a privateer led him to start a new genealogical society, the Order of Descendants of Pirates and Privateers. As he explains, those two things are closely related. During the 18th century, the Continental Congress gave licenses for privateering, which was, in essence, state-sanctioned piracy. With no navy, America needed some way to disrupt the British supply lines, so they allowed private ships to attack and raid British ships. The privateers would then split the prize with the officers and crew, with the bulk going to the investors who supplied the ships. It worked out so well, that the British decided to raid New London — a hotbed of privateering — on Sept. 6, 1781. In charge of the raid was Brig. Gen. Benedict Arnold, who just one year previously had betrayed the Americans by attempting to surrender West Point to British forces. The results was the Battle of Groton Heights, which was a virtual slaughter due to the greater numbers of British.
That desire to know where one comes from is also what led fellow SAR member George Razee of Essex to trace his roots.
“ I have always been interested in history and family history especially,” says Razee. “I knew practically nothing about my family name, as my grandfather had a falling out with his five living brothers when his father died in 1892. So I never knew any of my father’s cousins until 1991 when, after retirement, I began in earnest to try and find out where my great-great-grandfather came from.”
Razee’s research led him to Wiltshire, England, where he was advised to join the Wiltshire Family Historical Society. He began corresponding with two other members who were researching the same name.
“We discovered we are fourth cousins. I am now readying my data for publication and have found that there are fifteen different ways that my surname was spelled from the earliest around 1652 to when my great-great-grandfather came to the USA in 1832.”
The lack of a uniform spelling of names is just one of the roadblocks you can come up against when tracing your history. Jacobs recalls instances where a record would include only the name of his ancestor and the letter “w” for “wife.”
“When that happens,” says Jacobs, “you really have to start looking at naming patterns. It’s like putting together a large puzzle.”
And like those obsessed with the jigsaw variety, genealogists can find putting the puzzle of their lineage together very addictive.
For those who want to begin, Jacobs advises trying out the websites, such as ancestry.com or worldvitalrecords.com. The New England Historical Genealogical Society in Boston is one of the best depository of ancestral records around. And if you’re looking for something free, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints also runs a website, since genealogy is an important aspect of the religion. Locally, the Genealogical History section of the Connecticut State Library in Hartford is an excellent resource and has a very helpful staff.
And for those who discover they have an ancestor that would allow them membership in any of the societies, such as the SAR, Order of Descendants of Pirates and Privateers, or Son of a Witch, Jacobs encourages you to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.