Lieut. John May of Haddam, Connecticut

John May was the 2d officer about the USS Connecticut, having joined the crew in April of 1799 and served under Captain Moses Tryon and later under Captain Richard Derby until his discharge on 1 May 1801 when the US Navy was downsizing, post-Quasi-war. I DEEPLY wish that I had a surviving image of John May – a portrait miniature or other painting showing the man.  If anything existed then and survived with a branch of the family through the years, I am unaware of it.  I beg you to contact me should you learn of it!

Born 23 Aug. 1758, Haddam, CT. to Rev. Eleazar May and Sybil Huntington May. He was baptized by his father on 27 Aug, 1758. He attended Yale College, graduating in the Class of 1777.  On 8 Nov 1789, he married local girl Dorothy “Dolly” Arnold in a ceremony performed by Rev. May.  From this union came two daughters (Janet: 1790-1853. Dorothy: 1797-1874) and three sons (John Jr: 1792-1859.  Edwin: 1794-1839.  Alexander: 1800-1857).   It is possible that in the last three or so years of his life, John Sr. decided to set his hand at shipbuilding, but I have not as yet uncovered any evidence aside from some genealogical mentions of this several generations later. It seems that John Jr’s life has been all too often confused with his father’s which is why John Sr. is sometimes credited with shipbuilding for as much as 20 years after his death; there is no evidence at this time that I have seen or heard of that John Sr. had ever been involved in shipbuilding while there is ample evidence that John Jr. had been. Such businesses did not always follow down a family line, casual inclusions of such suppositions in early 20th century genealogies notwithstanding.  In following John Sr’s sailing schedule, there was little time for side ventures unless he simply threw money at it for someone else to do.  What’s more is that in the listings of real and personal estate probated following his death, I do not see a single hint of being involved in shipbuilding or having an interest (investment) in the venture.  It has also been asserted that John Sr had ventured into the whaling industry, for which I have no evidence.  That said, it is possible that he learned his trade on a whaler after  1777/early 80’s.  But that is merely a theory; if his daughter who was all of 5 when John died tells this to her son later in life who in turn writes this in a family genealogy when he is advanced in years, it could be family lore that may have truth or may be misunderstanding.  In my own family there are oral traditions that misrepresent the facts and documentation.  In all, when looking over the times and period he was at sea, we see that but for his stint in the US Navy, John Sr. was always a merchant captain and never had enough time to ply his hand at ship building.  I therefore suggest that this is supposition by well-meaning genealogists years after the persons in the know could give their side of the story.  That said, I am ever ready for new information to come to light which may or not change my conclusions.

In some texts that make mention of John Sr and Dolly, the suggestion is that they lived in the northern part of Haddam – a village known as Higganum, although other evidence suggests that they lived in Haddam proper.  Something to settle on another day.  It is apparent that he owned some acreage that included his house, barn, a couple of cows, pigs, chickens, and a small orchard.  And we do know that son John Jr. did own property in Higganum and there also had his own shipbuilding venture.  There have been recent attempts by genealogists to link this John Sr. and Dolly to other contemporaneous couples with the same or similar names in other parts of North America and in England.  Please be careful with your research and do not confuse “my” people with yours unless you have clear and well researched proof. I am certain of my work – be sure of yours.

John Sr. sailed on merchant vessels down the Connecticut River, into Long Island Sound, and off to the Caribbean ports with goods sent by the owners for trade.  I have no data on his early years as a sailor before he earned the position of a captain; the calling of a ship master “captain” was a common courtesy when actually they were the “master of the vessel”.  “Captain” was actually a military rank; at sea, it was the equivalent of an army colonel, and he held command of the vessel he was assigned.  For civilian purposes, a ship’s master was an individual who would be hired under a contract to sail the owner’s vessel on a particular voyage in trade with another port or a whaling voyage, or a passenger vessel.  In 1789, John May was the master of the sloop RANGER of Lyme, CT, sailing goods to Turk’s Island, Guadaloupe, and St-Martins.  In the first half of 1790 he was the master of the brig BETSEY of Middletown, CT, sailing to Martinique and Saint-Domingue, then later the sloop LEVINA for the same ports.  These are all common trading ports, bring down New England goods for items made in the Islands or to trade with other foreign nationals in the common markets.  He was then hired in 1791 to master the brig (converted from her original schooner rig) PEARL of Hartford (belonging to John Chenevard and Jonathon Huntington) to St-Martins and Martinique, bringing back mostly molasses and sugar. The end of 1791 through much of 1792, he was the master and part owner/investor of the brig HIRAM, out of Middletown, CT, sailing for Martinique.

John May was recommended for a commission as a lieutenant in the new US Navy by Moses Tryon of Wethersfield.  He was appointed on 23 April 1799 to serve as “number 2” on board of the yet-to-launched USS CONNECTICUT.  His commission was dated from 24 April 1799, and once arrived, Captain Tryon administered the oath to John on 13 May 1799.  Lt. John May was put in charge of recruitment duty; he took out ads in Middletown and later New London, CT, setting rendez-vous points for those who wished to sign up.  The ship was launched on 6 June 1799 and as work continued before sending the vessel down river towards the Sound and thence to New London, officers and new crew members arrived for duty.  Lt-John May left his duties on shore and reported on board the CONNECTICUT on 22 July 1799; four days later, the ship began her trip down the Connecticut River.

On the 16th of October, the USS CONNECTICUT sailed from New London, CT, on her cruise in the Caribbean for French privateers, she being in the squadron headed by the USS PHILADELPHIA under Commodore Morris.  Lt-May was usually the officer sent over to waylaid and captured vessels for assert if papers were in order or to take command of captured ships, bringing them into Basseterre, St-Kitts – the base of operations.  On 1 May 1800, Lt-John May is promoted on the quarterdeck to 1st Lieutenant/1st officer which is his station for the remainder of the cruise.  On the 19th of October 1800, the CONNECTICUT arrived home in New London after her year of enlistments was completed.  She began to undergo repairs while a new crew was either reenlisted or replaced.  Capt. Tryon took a furlough for his health and Captain Richard Derby of Salem, Massachusetts (he being a revenue cutter captain) was put in his place.  Lt-May remained with the ship until the news of the Quasi-War was ended and most ships were either being sold off or moth-balled.  The CONNECTICUT would be sold in New York and officers encouraged to retire as the Navy was being dramatically downsized.  Lt-John May resigned under this Peace Establishment Act on 1 May 1801, and returned home and to the merchant service.

In January 1803, John was given command of the merchant brig SALLY TRACEY in New York, the ship berthed on the east side of Fly Market (the foot of Maiden Lane, Manhattan, later to become the Fulton Fish Market – so, within South Street Seaport Museum territory).  The ship sailed for Cadiz, Gibraltar, and Malaga.

Dolly died on 28 Jan. 1804 and is buried in the “Ancient Burial Ground of Thirty Mile Plantation”, Haddam, CT.   I have not found anything to indicate what she had died from.  John continued to sail if to work out his mourning.  In March he was the commander of the schooner INDIANA of NY when on his voyage to his usual Caribbean ports he came across the schooner DOLPHIN, Capt. Farley, who seemed to be in some trouble for the lack of usable provisions.  Capt. May supplied the DOLPHIN with enough to get him home.  In October of that year, the schooner SEA-HORSE of New Bedford, a crew of 42, bound for home with a load of salt, when the schooner sprung a leak.  All hands were kept to pumping but it was a losing battle.  Twelve days into pumping and little headway, Capt. May happened upon them in his INDIANA; he took all the crew on board his vessel and as they sailed away the SEA-HORSE was on her beams-end (sideways and sinking).  May delivered the crew of the SEA-HORSE to New Bedford on the 31st of October.

John Sr. returned home, and he remarried, 14 Nov. 1804, to Margaret (DeWitt) Dwight (widow of Maurice William Dwight, M.D.) of Milford, CT. Only one child, daughter Catharine Pond May (b. 13 July 1806), issued from this marriage.  Catharine married Richard Edwards of Pittsburgh, PA. on 3 Oct. 1828, and there moved.  Widowed again, Margaret remarried a 3d time, on 23 Feb 1812, in Haddam, CT to Reuben Cone of New York. But Reuben died in Haddam the following year and Margaret left Haddam for New York, becoming a member of the Brick Presbyterian Church on Manhattan in 1814.  So, it is safe to conclude that she had removed to NY, but later moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to live with her eldest daughter, Mrs. William Bell. It is believed that Margaret died there on 11 July 1824, age 59.

In December of 1804, May was the master of the New York schooner INDUSTRY bound for Gaudaloupe, returning in March of 1805.  There is a curious article published in the Republican Watch-Tower of New York on 9 Oct 1805 in which Capt. John May gives deposition – dated 23 Sept. – regarding an incident back in May wherein he was in Washington City attending a court issue and when he went into town on a horse, he got down from said horse to be taken by the hand of the inn keeper who wished him, John May, joy for being nominated a justice of the peace; something he had not been aware that he was allowed to be in the running for, as he is a resident of Connecticut.  He was introduced to a few other politicos and it became apparent that he was being put up to be a puppet for their control in local governing affairs, to which he wanted no part.  They persisted and asked that he keep this all a secret, but clearly John was concerned and wanted to keep a paper trail in case something should come of all this.  I have learned no more of the matter.

Another interesting insight to John May came from an old shipmate from the days of the USS CONNECTICUT.  Horace Lane was a boy of 10 when he signed aboard the ship while in Middletown, CT, and served as a ship’s boy… Running powder to the guns, doing sundry jobs for the crew, &c.  In 1839 he published his memoires called The Wandering Boy, Careless Sailor, and Results of Inconsideration.  A very interesting read; he devotes some time to his service in the Navy, but on pages 70, 71, he bumps into John May while in Manhattan in 1805.


<< As I was rambling along the wharves one day, I fell in with Captain John May.  This gentleman had been the first lieutenant of the Connecticut, the first ship I sailed in from New-London.  He commanded a vessel, then nearly ready to sail, and solicited me to go with him, offering me good wages.  I agreed, purchased a chest, and a good stock of clothes.  We set sail, and proceeded to Guadeloupe.  Captain May indulged me with all I could wish.  So great was his kindness to me, that those captains of other vessels who occasionally visited ours, took me to be his son.  All the vessel’s stores and provisions were committed to my care.  Even the mate had to ask me for anything he wanted, although it was much against his inclination; for he was jealous, and would have treated me ill, if the captain had not been my friend…

… The yellow fever was taking from American vessels about twenty every twenty-four hours.  This was in 1805, a year to be noted for acts of vain glory; for instance, the battle of Trafalgar.  The French fleet ran through the West Indies, taking, ransoming, and burning different places.  The fleet was commanded by Jerome Bonaparte.  There were eighteen vessels fitting out at that time at Guadeloupe, privateers, for the purpose of scouring the ocean in quest of lawful plunder.  We got a cargo of sugar, and set sail for New-York. 

After encountering several tedious blasts, we made the land near Sandy Hook.  It was in the latter part of February (1806); the wind blew a stiff breeze from the north.  As our captain did not know how to take advantage of the tide, and the pilots did not make their appearance, we, with a dozen other vessels, had to box about, in sight of land, for ten days, till our vessel was completely covered with ice ten inches thick; some of our hands were so frost-bitten, that they lost the use of some of their limbs.  Here again I was the lucky boy, for my employment was to get wood from the hold, keep the stove warm in the cabin, and dry the sailors’ stockings and mittens.  We were so much rejoiced when the wind backed to the westward, and permitted us to sail up to the city.  Captain May was eager to have abide with him, telling me that I did not know when I had a friend.  Here he was mistaken; I was not insensible to his kindness, but I did not like the voyage he was going to undertake.  I told him he would get taken by the British, and it happened so.  Another reason I had for leaving him was, I was then in my seventeenth year, and had formed a resolution to go to Connecticut, and learn a trade. >>  



On 23 April 1807, John May unloaded his cargo from a run to Curacoa in the brig ST-BRIDES; “first quality Caraceas Cocoa” to WM. H. Morton, 27 South Street, NY.  On 15 August 1807, John May unloaded the cargo from his brig BLACK WALNUT, recently from Havanna, Cuba, with a cargo of “segars” (cigars) and sugars both white and brown, all to the store of Thomas Buchanan & Son at No. 41, Wall-Street, NY.  In a Philadelphia shipping news of 6 April 1809, John May is the master of the brig FEDERAL, bound for Boston, carrying sundry items, to sail on the 14th coming of the month.

In May 1811 the brig RECOMPENCE lay at Edgar’s Wharf in New York, waiting for the hold to be filled and thence a voyage to Cuba.  The vessel was rated at 150 tons burthen and had been purchased the previous month at Murray’s Wharf by Fred & Franz Dederichs & Co. of 79 Washington Street, NY. The vessel was cleared for sail on the 27th of the month and likely sailed on that day or the following, headed for Havanna, Cuba  John May Sr. died on the return voyage to New York on 31 July 1811 of consumption (tuberculosis) and was buried at sea. The brig was returning with sugars from Havanna to F. & F. Diederichs & Co, when John May, captain of the vessel, succumbed to his disease, and the mate Howes took over.  The vessel was boarded by the British sloop of war GOREE, (built 1794), Captain Henry Dilkes Byng, and treated politely while off the Floridas, and the RECOMPENCE put in at NY about the 10th or 11th of August 1811.  It is likely this incident that Horace Lane refers to regarding being “taken by the British”, with the probability that Horace did not have the whole story but merely word of mouth.  The 16 gun HMS GOREE was returning south (Around this time, the GOREE also intercepted and took into Nassau the SAN CARLOS, after determining from an inspection of her papers that she was “An American ship engaged in the African Slave Trade under Spanish Colours.”) from having escorted to Nova Scotia the HMS LITTLE BELT from a battle encounter with the USS PRESIDENT: a major incident leading to the War of 1812.  The stone marker for John is in his memory alongside his beloved Dolly, but his mortal remains are not beneath it.

Photo taken by the author, 2007.

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