Steven Slosberg: Sailor, thought to be dead, returns to Mystic with scars of war

Steven Slosberg: Sailor, thought to be dead, returns to Mystic with scars of war

Among the more notable events in the early months of 1902, as reported high on the front page of The Stonington Mirror, was the fact that one of Wolcott Main’s ducks laid an egg weighing 11¼ oz., and measuring 11½ inches around the ends.

It was noteworthy, too, when Leonard Bill returned to his native North Stonington to start a poultry farm after retiring from the insurance business in New York. Otherwise life here chugged along unremarkably enough until May 1902, when the Mirror was flush with news of something decidedly more dramatic — John Fish, late of Mystic, was back from the dead.

From The Stonington Mirror of Tuesday, May 6, 1902:

Return after long absence

Capt. John Fish, who for the past ten years has been mourned as dead by his relatives in Mystic, arrived home on Saturday night.

A little more than ten years ago he was learning the blacksmith trade in the shop of B.K. Lamphere when he left to take a sailor’s berth in a ship commanded by Capt. R. P. Wilbur of Mystic on a voyage to San Francisco. Upon arriving there he left the vessel and went to South Africa.

Sometime afterward, word was received here of his death. He enlisted in the British army and now holds a captain’s commission. He was wounded at the siege of Ladysmith and bears many scars. He will spend several weeks in town before returning to England. He is 29 years of age.

That is all the newspaper wrote about John Fish. Pursuing his story proved to be a puzzle, but one rich in Mystic maritime history and patriarchal families, as well as a hasty primer on the Boer wars.

Robert Palmer Wilbur, with whom young Fish sailed around Cape Horn, was born in Noank in 1839, and after schooling in Mystic and East Winsted, served three months in the Civil War. In 1864, he married Phebe Miner Fish, daughter of the eminent Nathan G. Fish, former state senator and, at the time of the marriage, president of the Mystic River National Bank.

Chances are that the Fish connection included, somewhere in that branch of the extensive family tree, John Fish. Wilbur was no ordinary sea captain. He commanded steamers, barks and schooners, and two imposing clipper ships, Dauntless and M.P. Grace, and a square-rigger, the St. Frances, deployed in the California and Europe trade. Two of his voyages were around the world.

Dauntless, which was launched at West Mystic by Maxson Fish & Co. in 1869, was owned by, among others, Charles P. Williams of Stonington, J.D. Fish of New York, and Wilbur himself, her first commander.

In 1875, according to the late Mystic historian Carol Kimball, Wilbur left Dauntless for a new and larger ship, M.P. Grace, built by Chapman & Flint in Bath, Maine. Wilbur became her first commander. Dauntless, turned over to Capt. Daniel Webster Chester, of Noank, wrecked off the coast of South Africa during a gale in 1883. Wilbur would assume command of yet another cargo ship, the St. Frances, also built in Bath, Maine, by John McDonald. In all, the St. Frances made eight voyages around Cape Horn to San Francisco, the last in 1899.

John Fish likely was aboard the St. Frances during one of those voyages under Wilbur. How he made his way to South Africa is left to speculation, but likely it was on one of these full-rigged cargo vessels.

Fish arrived in South Africa during times of entrenched turmoil between the British and descendants of Dutch settlers (Boers, or farmers). The Siege of Ladysmith was a 118-day engagement (Nov. 2, 1899, through Feb. 28, 1900) during the Second Boer War (October 1899 – May 1902). Ladysmith was in British-held Natal, and although the Boer forces initially inflicted heavy casualties among the British, once the British retreated to the town of Ladysmith, and after losing some 3,000 dead during the siege, many from disease, the British finally broke through the Boer forces.

Among those present during the post-siege relief, besides John Fish, now of the British army, were Winston Churchill, a young war correspondent, and Mohandas Gandhi and the stretcher-bearing corps he established earlier in the war.

It was in May 1902, as the Second Boer War ended, that John Fish returned to Mystic, showing, as reported, the scars from his wounds during the siege. The young blacksmith apprentice from Mystic, lately a captain in the British army, must have had quite the tales to tell about his decade in the world.

But in trying to find out more about the life and relations of the resurrected John Fish, I regret to say, like Wolcott Main’s duck, I’ve laid an egg.

Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist for The Day in New London. He may be reached at


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