Thursday, June 23, 2011

Reaching Out From Beyond the Grave?

When I moved here last summer, I assumed my husband and I had left all family behind in New York, including the grave of our little daughter, Elizabeth. But some very bizarre trips back in time uncovered quite the opposite.

I first became intrigued by Mystic’s dead while researching the “back stories” for my article, "The 7 Wonders of Mystic.” Deciding that the Memorial Arch of Elm Grove Cemetery was a “Wonder,” I drove past the markers of the 13,000 souls buried there, many on the “Who’s Who” list of 19th century ship builders and sea captains, and looked for one to highlight. I became intrigued by a tall obelisk along the Mystic River depicting the steamship, City of Waco. The grave marker tells how Captain Thomas E. Wolfe died piloting her when it caught fire off the port of Galveston in 1875. Articles in the New York Times gave an account of Wolfe’s command of a vessel during the Civil War that transported supplies from New York to New Orleans until his capture by the Confederate navy. His boat burned, he was taken prisoner, but made a daring escape with some companions over a year later. After the war, he became a pilot for the State of Texas until his steamship exploded in flames and sank, killing all on board. His body was recovered and shipped back to Mystic.

With “The 7 Wonders” article finished, and a vote for the 8th Wonder conducted by Patch, I was curious to learn about the potential “Wonders” suggested by the public. I began by purchasing a copy of the Mystic River Historical Society’s walking tour booklet, Curbstones, Clapboards and Cupolas. Reading about the historic homes and former residents of West Mystic Avenue, which now extends to Allyn St. where I live, I was intrigued when I read, "Contractor Allyn built #12 for his brother-in-law (who could not make payments). Captain Charles Sisson bought the house in 1858 after an unsuccessful search for gold in California.” Could that Sisson be a long-ago relative of mine?

I contacted David Sisson, my cousin who has done extensive research on the Sisson line. Yes, Captain Charles Sisson was my cousin--and he had lived only 10 houses down from me! Captain Charles Sisson and I are fourth cousins five times removed, both descending from Thomas and Jane (Freeman) Sisson.

Not only were we cousins, which was enough to thrill me, but after his wife Ann died at sea in 1876, he married the widow of Captain Thomas E. Wolfe—the Civil War hero in my "Wonders” article! It turns out that Charles and Captain Wolfe were boyhood friends who searched for the California gold together—and married sisters! I couldn’t wait to visit the graves of Captain Charles Sisson and his first wife Ann at nearby Lower Mystic Cemetery, because I wouldn’t just be visiting interesting people, I’d be visiting family.

Their grave markers were not difficult to find in this small cemetery on Route 1. Charles’s tall stone, engraved with a sailing ship, declares: “The voyage is ended.” Ann’s marker is similar, but was placed in memory of her because she was buried at sea—with the stone giving the coordinates. When I saw a small grave marker nearby, I felt this must be the reason I was led here. On it was the name of their 10-month-old daughter. Engraved with “Our Little Ida,” I felt I was given a place to grieve for my own daughter, whose marker is engraved, “Our Little Girl.”

Taking my husband, Jim, there the following weekend, I thought I was going to show him where I had some dead relatives. Standing in front of their markers, we saw another couple walking around looking at stones. “Excuse me,” the man yelled over to us, “Would you happen to know if there are any Sissons buried here?”

Stunned, I yelled back, “Yes there are—and we're standing in front of them! I’m related to them!”

The man replied, “My name is Matthew Sisson.” A captain in the Coast Guard, Matthew told me he wasn’t sure if he was related to Captain Charles Sisson, but he couldn’t wait for me to find out. He mentioned that his Sisson family was coming from as far away as California to attend his upcoming Change of Command Ceremony in June. He just happened to stop at this little cemetery on the off-chance he would find some Sissons there.

Another flurry of e-mails to my cousin David Sisson revealed that Captain Matthew J.Sisson and I are distant cousins too!*

On Thursday, June 23, I went to Matthew’s Change of Command Ceremony at Fort Trumbull State Park in New London—and met a lot more cousins!

End Note:
If Captain Charles Sisson is still working from beyond the grave to reveal more Mystic secrets, such as that he and his friend Captain Wolfe did find gold in California, buried it somewhere, and want me to know where it is, I plan to look for clues at the Collections Research Center at Mystic Seaport, where Sisson's captain’s logs are reportedly stored among other important documents. Perhaps I will find out more about Captains Sisson's and Wolfe's treacherous trip back from California, which claimed the life of their third companion (who is buried near Captain Sisson). I will also look further into the circumstances of Wolfe's death in the steamship explosion because the inquest included some disturbing eye-witness accounts.

Another cousin of mine, genealogist Carol Sisson Regehr, was given Captain Sisson's family bible from Col. John Sisson, who received it as a gift from a friend who found it in a resale shop. Carol then donated the bible to the Mystic Seaport Museum. Through that and the captain's logs I hope to find out why Sisson's first wife, Ann, died at sea at the age of 45 on the ship, Jeremiah Thompson.

Captain Charles Sisson’s home on 12 West Mystic Ave, Mystic, which looks very much the same today, can be seen at:

The information available on the site (which includes a photo of Captain Sisson’s Bible) at,
states: “Charles was shipmaster of the Bridgewater, Jeremiah Thompson, and Thomas Dana… Charles married (1) Ann E. SAWYER...She died 12 May 1876 at sea on ship "Jeremiah Thompson.”
According to the Mystic River Historical Society’s walking tour booklet, Curbstones, Clapboards and Cupolas, Sisson "commanded the clipper ships Elizabeth F. Willetts and Mary Sutton." Eight volumes of his journals from 1863-1882 are said to be in the G. W. Blunt White Library at the Mystic Seaport Museum. 
Attention Sisson family members and/or descendents: To learn more about Sisson genealogy, visit:, where you can do family searches, learn about current genealogy projects, and the next bi-annual Sisson Gathering in Albany, NY, in 2012 (the purpose of these gatherings is to learn about ongoing Sisson research in the U.S. and England). To participate in Sisson-related conversions, join the Sisson listserve by registering at:

*My cousin David Sisson said that Matthew Sisson and I share ancestry back to Richard and Mary Sisson, an immigrant couple who were in Rhode Island (and later Plymouth Colony) by 1650. I descend from Richard and Mary's oldest son George, and Matthew Sisson descends from their son James.

Captain Charles Sisson and I are fourth cousins five times removed, both descending from Thomas and Jane (Freeman) Sisson.

1 comment:

  1. Great article! I love the serendipity of everything you write about.