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Drawn to the Water
A Tale of One City and Two Shores

by John M. Roberts


The Dunn family of Mathews County and the Martin Family
 of Northampton County and Portsmouth, circa 1820-1904

My ancestral research of Mary Ann Dunn, my great-great grandmother, led to finding Henry Dunn, her father, in Mathews County.  Henry and his wife lived in Mathews county during the first part of the 1800's.  Though he was a farmer, his sons were quickly drawn to the bays and inlets of the Chesapeake to earn their living. In 1840, sons Joseph, age 25 and Thomas, age 34 pay taxes to "navigate the rivers, lakes and canals of Virginia", so they were probably either ferrying boats or harvesting seafood. Joseph and Thomas would apparently owe their living to the water for the rest of their long lives. Thomas, in 1840, is married to Maria Lloyd and they have one daughter, Sarah.  They later have a son, William born about 1844, and a son John, born about 1846 in Portsmouth. Sarah would marry a Portsmouth ship carpenter, Thomas Dwyer.

By 1843 or so, Henry Dunn has apparently died and the children, including a daughter, Mary Ann Dunn, have moved to Norfolk County where she weds James Bartee, farmer, of the Tinker's Creek area.  Mary Ann's brothers have moved to the area of one of the largest shipyards in the Americas, if not the largest, that is: Gosport. Apparently farming was no longer a viable means of fashioning a life for the Dunns and the water around Mathews offered less than the water around Norfolk and Portsmouth.  In the 1860 census, Thomas is a "riverman" now living in Portsmouth with his wife, Maria. They are both 54 years old. Mary Ann and her daughter, Emma Jane Bartee, is living with Thomas, her brother.  Emma was born in 1853 and never knew her father who, according to oral history, was killed by lightning before Emma was a year old, and indeed, personal property tax records for him end in 1853. Mary Ann fell back on her talent in sewing and supported herself as a seamstress.  One of her last pieces of work, on which she and her daughter worked in 1871, is the wedding dress of Emma, which is still in the family possession (1998).  Emma marries a 23 year old ship carpenter, Luther Lysander Martin, in the spring of 1871, and Mary Ann Dunn dies from tuberculosis, (consumption), in August.  Luther's father's family also came to Portsmouth, around 1830.

It is interesting that in the movements of both the Dunn and Martin families, when the family leaves an area, the whole family seems to go. And in both cases, it is 2 brothers and a sister who move.  The parents of Luther's father, Charles Martin, were Luke Martin and Mary Dalby, of Northampton County, Va. (This was proved through death certificates of their children which gave the parents names Luther and Mary Martin. Census records revealed that the Martins were from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.  And finally, searches in Deed records and Minute Books of Northampton County turned up two deeds where Mary is mentioned.  Marriage records show Mary Dalby married Luke in 1792.) Luke was also a farmer and apparently, a fisherman who, in 1820 owned Wreck Island, now a state park and barrier island in the Atlantic. I can attest personally that the oystering grounds there are still plentiful, having been there myself in 1997 by seakayak, a 16 mile trip.  Though he owned Wreck (375 acres) and 59 acres near Birdsnest, Luke was not well to do, as evidenced by the special personal property tax records of 1815 levied to pay for the War of 1812.  The only item taxed in his household is a chest of drawers, "not of mahogany."  In most years he owns at least one horse or mule and in 1816 he is taxed for a 2 wheel carriage.  In 1824 Luke sells all of his land at auction.  Why?  Perhaps he fell on hard times.  He dies in 1831, for the minute books state that the sheriff is to dispose of his property by law, no one claiming it.  By this time, the children of Luke and Mary including Charles, his brothers Thomas and James, and sister Nancy have left the eastern shore, and have mostly settled in Portsmouth where Charles works at the growing Gosport Naval Shipyard as an axman and later, carpenter.  The waters around Portsmouth will be Charles' livelihood until his death in 1863 during northern occupation.  A mortgage of his entire household belongings in 1858 brings unusual detail to light of their way of life, mentioning among other items two water buckets, a block, 12 plates, cups and saucers, and 3 bedsteads, (one for the couple, and one each for the three boys and three girls!).

The Civil War plays havoc with the Dunn and Martin families as both of Thomas and Maria's sons, William H., and John Thomas Dunn fight on the side of the South. William served in the Norfolk Light Artillery Blues, from 1861 to his capture at Petersburg in 1865.  And John was discharged twice from the Confederate Army for being under age.  A daughter, Sarah, married Thomas Dwyer, a mechanic, at the Gosport Yard.  Dwyer also fought for the South, moving to North Carolina to continue in building vessels. Luther Martin, however, enlists with the U S Navy (National Archives Navy records), when the north takes Portsmouth in April, 1861 shortly after the battle of the Monitor and the Merrimac.  In October, he is discharged as underage on the request of his mother. His brothers include Charles Martin Jr., blacksmith, Benjamin Martin, ship carpenter, who married Maggie Overton, Laura who married James Taylor, Ann who married George McHorney, and Margaret who married Alex McCone, a Navy Carpenter.

After the war, Luther Martin enlists in the Navy as a  Naval Officer, Carpenter, a duty which carries him away to sea for almost 13 of the next 30 years. His first voyage is to Greenland to resupply the Polaris which is looking for the lost Hall expedition.  (Hall was poisoned by Germans on board, and his body left on northern Ellesmere Island at the farthest north point reached by any vessel in that region in the last century. Hall's ship turned south, foundered, and many of the men endured a horrendous drift on ice for over 1000 miles before they were finally picked up.)  Luther also went to Europe, the Mediterranean, South America, the Caribbean, and Alaska and California while serving in the Navy.  During this time, his wife, Emma apparently leaned heavily on her uncles, the Dunns, for support during her husband's absences. In 1870 Joseph Dunn is still oystering, and his wife is Rebecca, daughter, Sarah.

Thomas Dunn, riverman and Joseph Dunn, oysterman both die in early 1901 in Portsmouth, Joseph living at the time with the Luther Martin family.  The bays, rivers, and seas provided them their livelihood initially in Mathews County in 1840 and later, in the burgeoning shipyard town of Gosport - Portsmouth.  The tale of both families is one of limited opportunities in the old communities and change with the growth of Norfolk - Gosport - Portsmouth.  The Luther Martin family and the children's' families moved again, altogether as in the past, in 1904, when Luther was given work in the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

It would be interesting to know if these Dunns were related to the Gloucester County family of Dr. Thomas Dunn, who died in 1858.

To contact the author: John M. Roberts, 3205 A Chamberlayne Ave., Richmond, Va. 23227-4806
Phone: (804) 329-0812

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Last Updated  Friday, 30 January 2004 06:20 PM