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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

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Monday, December 18, 2017 
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