Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Knowles Family

Harry Knowles, brother of Cpt. Thomas Knowles
Aside from researching and writing these posts, there are a few little projects I've always wanted to do but have never had the time to get to. One of them was to go through the censuses (1850 and later) and look for odd and unusual occupations. Maybe even try to calculate how many people were engaged in something other than farming or mill/factory work. There will be a fair number of expected "others", things like carpenters, doctors, teachers, cobblers, coopers and the like. I also assume that there will be a few that I either have to look up or that will take me completely by surprise. This is the story of one of the later. Would you be surprised to know that in 1880, in Mill Creek Hundred, there lived a lighthouse keeper?

There was, and his name was William H. C. Knowles. He came from a family of sea men and probably only lived in MCH for a few years, but his family has an interesting story. I was turned on to the Knowles family a few weeks back by an email from a descendant of the family, Cindy Cunningham. She knew a little about this part of the family, and I did some research and came up with a little more. Our hope is that someday someone with even more information about the Knowles family will help fill in some of the gaps.

The patriarch of this branch of the Knowles clan was Captain Thomas F. Knowles, born about 1814, most likely in Sussex County, Delaware. Although I don't know his exact lineage, the Knowles family had resided in Sussex County for several generations.  Cpt. Knowles supposedly owned a fleet of ships, which he operated worldwide. I haven't found anything to corroborate the extent of his sea-going empire, but he certainly was a ship captain. There are several references to his being a captain, and the ad below (taken from the New York Evening Post from September 1858) may very well be for one of his ships.

Thomas Knowles was far from the only seaman in his family. In fact, it seems that just about all the men in his immediate family spent their professional lives on or near the water. The photo at the top of the page is of Harry Knowles, Thomas' brother. The family story has it that he was a lighthouse keeper somewhere near Wilmington. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that, as far as I can tell from the picture, it is a US Lighthouse Service uniform that he's wearing. Although I don't know of any concrete evidence yet confirming exactly what Harry Knowles did or where he did it, the same can't be said of his niece and nephews. Thomas and his wife Sarah had at least three children, and we know at least a little bit about each one.

The one daughter, Sara Elizabeth (or Lizzie), eventually moved and married in Illinois. She is Cindy's great-great-grandmother. We know little about two of Lizzie's brothers, and most of what we do know comes from a couple of newspaper clippings that Cindy unearthed. One of the brothers was Frank (possibly Thomas Frank) Knowles, who followed in his father's soggy footsteps to sea. The clipping above tells all we know of him, but I'd just love to know the whole story. It's not every day that a man who "was long since supposed to be dead" turns up years later as a ship captain in Australia! And with a wife of eight years and a family, no less. The story, incidentally, comes from the Lewes, DE paper the Breakwater Light. This publication was founded and owned by Horace Greely Knowles, who must have been related. (And predestined by his name to the newspaper business.)

Another of Thomas' sons was George Knowles, and his fate was not as kind as his brother's. Like the others in his family, George made his living on the water. In his case, it was with the Revenue Service, or Revenue Marine, a forerunner of the US Coast Guard. According to the article and death notice seen above, he contracted consumption (tuberculosis) while serving on the Great Lakes. He returned to his father's home in Seaford in November 1871 to recover, but died the following March. He was 26 years old.

The final son of Cpt. Thomas Knowles was William H. C. Knowles (1845-1913), and it is with him that we have our connection to Mill Creek Hundred. Like his Uncle Harry, William was a lighthouse keeper. He married Lovey Spicer about 1870, and may have entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service around the same time. Unlike his Uncle Harry, I have found records of William's service that cover over 35 years and three different locations. His first job as a head keeper was at the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, located at the mouth of the Delaware Bay, about due east of Smyrna. He served there for seven years, from 1875 to 1882.

Ship John Shoal Lighthouse today
It's during this time that the Knowles family resided in MCH, as reflected in the 1880 Census. Judging by the adjacent names, they probably lived on Old Wilmington Road near Loveville. The two families listed directly after them are those of James Springer and Martha Hulett. As a lighthouse keeper, William would have spent much of his time at the light and away from his family. A later account from the Ship John Shoal Lighthouse states that the men had 22 days at the light and 8 days ashore. Father Thomas and mother Sarah are listed with the family in the 1880 Census, Thomas being listed as a farmer. My guess is that they had a small farm run by Thomas, with William helping when he was "off" of his main job.

The family most likely moved only two years after the census, as William's next assignment took him back to Sussex County. From 1882 to 1890, he was the Head Keeper at the Delaware Breakwater Rear Range Lighthouse, just above Lewes. There was a keeper's house at the site, where the family would have lived (and may have known my family, who were living in Lewes at the time).

After his eight year stint there, William was moved back to New Castle County in 1890, when he was assigned to the Cherry Island Front Range Lighthouse. This light was located along the Delaware River north of Wilmington, on property now part of Dupont's Edemoor Plant. In fact, the road going north from Edemoor Road to Fox Point State Park is still called Lighthouse Road. This light also had a keeper's house (since demolished, like at the Breakwater light) where William and his family would have lived. This assignment seems to have been the last one for the one-time MCH resident, as William Knowles died in 1913. He, like several other of his family members, was buried at Riverview Cemetery in Wilmington.

As you can see, the history of the seagoing Knowles family only intersected with MCH for a brief time. But for that time -- and it might have been as long as seven or eight years -- there was actually a lighthouse keeper living in our hundred. The family's story is certainly an interesting one, and one about which (hopefully) more will someday be known.

1 comment:

  1. I have the family bible of Wm H. C. Knowles and Lovey Spicer that I'd like to share. I'd also like to get in touch with Cindy Cunningham to see if she has more information on Thomas F Knowles ancestors. My e-mail is