John Fitch and I are second cousins eight times removed. That means my ninth great grandfather was his second great-grandfather, and my eighth great grandfather was his great-granduncle.
It’s nothing I’d get too excited over. Except that I wouldn’t know about him if I didn’t have this connection, and you wouldn’t be reading about his major-motion-picture life of an itinerant button maker.
I’m thinking Joseph Gordon-Levitt.
Am I right?
(To be read aloud in your finest action movie trailer voice):
“As a mapmaker, his surveys helped open the Western Reserve territories… As a silversmith, he was renowned as the finest in the land… As a button-maker, he built a fortune… And as a land investor, he was captured in Kentucky Territory by hostile Natives…
“And that’s only the beginning… Fitch was traded to the French. He was confined to a prison island, and made another fortune. Bound on a prison ship, he narrowly escaped being sunk in sea battle by his own American comrades. Set free in New York, he set out for Kentucky to do it all again… And then…he invented the steamboat.”
Researching your genealogy isn’t just about dates, places, and begats. It’s history. And a way to learn history. When I saw the loooooong line of Fitches that stretch out behind me for many hundreds of years, I wanted to know more about this family and the history it wound itself through. It happens that there’s more out there on Fitches than for your average fairly anonymous ancestor.
One of the things I dug up was a little (as in diminutive) 413-page book about James Fitch, published in 1857.
The book is The Life of John Fitch, Inventor of the Steamboat, by Thompson Westcott. You can get it free at www.archives.org.
Author Westcott treads the victim theme pretty heavily, from Fitch’s reprobate family (How could he rise from this?!) to the many times he was slighted, cheated, lied to, given empty promises, and otherwise played the patsy. But I didn’t see it. I mean, how do you take a man who builds part of his fortune on supplying beer and tobacco to troops in the field and call him anything but an opportunist? And opportunists sometimes get their hands slapped.
Be that as it may, Fitch was brilliant and industrious, and knew how to turn a circumstance to his advantage.
When he was born in 1743 there were just under one million Colonists in America. By 1760 that number had swelled by three quarters, to a million and a half, and they were revving themselves up for a Revolution.
That’s the world John Fitch was born into. Roiling, uncertain, full of promise and knee-deep in opportunity, but as changeable as a fire wind.
With no guidance from people who loved him, John had to find his own place in the world. And because he was full of ambition but short on patience, he took a few ground balls to the chin along the way.
Fresh out of his father’s home, Fitch endured an unsuccessful apprenticeship with a clockmaker who wouldn’t teach young John how to make clocks, so after fulfilling the duties of his three-year indenture he was tossed to the world with scant skills at age 21, which was considered somewhat of a late start.
By grit and determination he found himself a position making buttons for a lazy silversmith, and before long he had bought out the man’s equipment, which he financed by making brass buttons and selling them town to town, traveling by foot.
His reputation grew and he somehow finagled himself the commission of armorer to the Revolutionary Army, providing arms and ammunition to the ill-equipped recruits who flooded in from small towns and woodland settlements to fight the bloody British.
He set up a small factory to build guns, but continued to supplement his income by making and selling buttons town to town.
By this time he was worth the healthy sum of 800 pounds. But with British forces ever on the move forward, and his racing around from town to town hauling buttons, he worried about his money.
After considering the alternatives, he decided to secretly bury it on his friend Charles Garrison’s place in Buck’s County, Pennsylvania.
And that’s when the story really gets interesting.
To be continued!