Rare Photo Shows NH Revolutionary
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

George FIshley in Joe Bauman Collection as seen on KLS.com TV in Salt LakeHISTORY MATTERS

Sure he’s dead, and has been in South Cemetery for over 150 years. But George Fishley is on his way to becoming one of Portsmouth’s most famous veterans – again. The man who fought with Washington at Valley Forge is among the only known Revolutionary War soldiers ever photographed. And that picture is getting more and more attention.

 

It has been eight years since antiquarian Peter Narbonne stumbled across an extraordinary photo on the second floor of the Portsmouth Historical Society.

"I noticed this daguerreotype tucked against the back wall in a glass cabinet," Peter said. "I immediately realized that I was holding one of the rarest images ever photographed -- and a wonderful piece of Portsmouth history."

READ MORE: The Eyes of George Fishley

The framed slightly blurred daguerreotype was dated June 11, 1850 and showed a 90-year old man. He wore a large "cocked hat" like those popular in the 1700s. Could this possibly be the face of a man who fought in the American Revolution?

It was true. Captain George Fishley (1759 – 1850) belongs to an extremely elite veteran’s club. Hundreds of Revolutionary War soldiers lived long enough to have their pictures taken. The earliest photograph of a person in the Library of Congress dates to 1839. But only about a dozen documented images of Continental soldiers are known, two of them from nearby Maine.

I happened to be at the historical society the day the daguerreotype turned up among 2,500 items in the museum. It was a chilling moment. We were looking – not at a painting or a sketch – but at a photograph of a guy who was born in 1760 when Benning Wentworth was still Royal Governor of the British colony of New Hampshire.

Catching up with Captain Fishley

Fishley grew up in turbulent times. As a teenager, he fought at Valley Forge and at Monmouth with Gen. George Washington. He served under New Hampshire military heroes Enoch Poor, Henry Dearborn and John Sullivan. After his discharge in 1781, Fishley signed onto a privateer, was captured and imprisoned in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He married Kezikah Nason of Kittery in 1801. Later he commanded a coaster sailing between Portsmouth and Boston.

Fishley was a popular figure in Portsmouth patriotic events for decades. He was one of the few surviving veterans to attend the opening of the Bunker Hill Monument in Boston in 1843. During another ceremony, dressed in his Revolutionary War uniform, he stood aboard a miniature wooden ship that was carted inland from Portsmouth to Concord, NH as hundreds of spectators cheered.

George Fishley did not survive long after sitting for his portrait and died a decade before the Civil War. He is buried with his wife in the South Cemetery. But thanks to the Internet, George Fishely is more famous this year than ever before.

CONTINUE: Keep up with Captain Fishley


 

Portraits of the first patriots

Historians rarely get scoops, so for me, this was a whopper. The world, however, didn’t take much notice when I posted an exclusive story about Capt. Fishley on my web site back in 2002. Fishley was not, after all, the last survivor of the Revolution. There were five still standing in 1864 when photographer E.B. Hillard published his study "The Last Men of the Revolution". Hillard’s book contained almost a dozen pictures of ancient veterans. But Hillard missed Capt. Fishley --- and we found him.

Captain_George_Fishley (c) Portsmouth HIstorical Society in NHDaniel Frederick Bakeman, who died in 1869, is officially the last soldier of the Revolution, although he was not technically able to prove his military record. Esther Summer, for those who are keeping score, was the last widow of a Revolutionary War soldier, although she cheated. Esther married veteran Noah Damon when she was 21 and he was 75. She died in 1906.

Our guy is the real deal, a documented "pensioner" of the Revolution. Joe Bauman of Salt Lake City has a second rare image of George Fishley, clearly taken on the same day. Bauman contacted me three years after my Fishley article appeared online. He has been fascinated by the Revolution since he was a boy. He owns eight photographs of 18th century war veterans – the largest collection of its kind.

In the historical society’s photo Fishley’s eyes are blurred and indistinct, leading us to consider, briefly, that it might be a macabre "momento mori" image taken after his death. But in Bauman’s picture the captain’s eyes are sharp and clear, his arms are in a different position, and he appears alive and alert.

Pensioner of the Revolution

Bauman, now a retired journalist, spent 30 years digging into the lives of the earliest American veterans in his collection, including Fishley. He lectured on his findings at the Smithsonian Institute and published his research in the official Daguerreian Society magazine in 2007.

By 1818, according to Bauman, Captain Fishley was in rough shape. He could not find work as a mariner due to his age and to infirmity caused by a rupture. He received a government lifetime pension. Congress retracted the pension the following year claiming that Fishley’s family owned a store of groceries and rum valued at $150, and were therefore not destitute.

Fishely petitioned again, explaining that these supplies all belonged to his creditors. For the next decade Fishley and his lawyer petitioned to prove he was a legitimate and impoverished veteran. By 1829 he was deeply in debt and too poor to support his 62-yaer old wife and their 19-year old daughter. With the help of the famous local attorney Levi Woodbury, Fishley finally got his lifetime pension.

Then tragedy struck. In 1839 Captain Fishley’s wife and daughter died for reasons still unclear. At 74 the pensioner moved in with his son George Fishley, Jr and his family on Jefferson Street in the South End.

The first photographic portrait in the Library of Congress archives was shot in that same year in 1839. By the 1840s amateur daguerrrians were hoping to strike it rich in this new entrepreneurial field. Among them was Francis W. Ham who set up the Excelsior Daguerreotype Room at Congress Hall in Portsmouth in 1848. Ham advertised in the weekly Rockingham Messenger claiming that his studio had the "best light and first rate instruments". He also offered "the best pictures…at prices as low as can be had in town."

CONTINUE Catching up with Captain Fishley


 

Back in the limelight

Joe Bauman believes it is likely that George Fishley sat for his portrait at Ham’s studio during a Whig convention in July 1848. Fishley was a died-in-the-wool Whig. Local legend says that Fishley initially refused to shake hands with President James Polk during a rally in Portsmouth, saying he had no political sympathies with the man. Born under the reign of King George, he lived under the first 13 American presidents, just missing New Hampshire born Franklin Pierce, who became President Number 14 in 1853.

The complex daguerreotype process that required fixing images on a reflective silver surface was largely out of fashion by the Civil War. It was replaced by newer high-tech procedures leading to the familiar cartes de visite (CDV’s) that could be quickly printed on paper in quantity. Daguerreotypes, by contrast, were one-of-a-kind images, although they could be re-photographed by professionals like Francis Ham, who appears to have made at least one copy of Fishley’s portrait that was recently offered for sale on eBay,

Since 2002, Captain Fishley has been building his fan club. Although he is currently resting in the historical society archives, Fishley has twice been featured in museum exhibits. He gets a fair amount of email at my web site from readers across the country. Genealogists, veterans and patriotic groups want to know more about this curious continental patriot with the haunting eyes.

A park ranger at Valley Forge almost put Fishley’s photo on a national park t-shirt. His virtual fame is expanding throughout the Internet on web sites, news reports, chat rooms and even TV clips. Readers who Google "Joe Bauman" can see a video clip of the author on Utah television with all of his unique collection of images spread out on the coffee table in his living room.

Bauman is planning to turn his detailed study into a book. A second book including George Fishley is slated to appear this summer. Family history expert Maureen Taylor, better known as "the Photo Detective" will release The Last Muster: Images of the Revolutionary War Generation with co-author David Lambert, a genealogy expert.

These are pictures that require a double-take. These are men -- and still undiscovered women -- who fought, not to preserve America, but to create it. And there are more of them out there awaiting discovery, perhaps at your local historical society -- or in your attic.  

 

Copyright © 2010 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson is owner of the history Web site SeacoastNH.com and his column appears here every other Monday. His latest history book for children is Striking Back: The Fight to End Child Labor Exploitation.