|Mathews County Historical Society, Inc.||
Christopher Tompkins (1778-1838)
Memoir of Christopher Tompkins Late of Mathews County Virginia
compiled by his son, Christopher from papers & records of authentic character. 1860
Christopher Tompkins Collection ARCHIVES Box 25 R 117-1 MCHS
The subject of this memoir was born in Caroline County, Virginia, January 25, 1778.
He was 10th in the order of birth of thirteen children, nearly all of whom attained maturity. It is known that he left school when barely fifteen and the first exact mention of his career is dated at Norfolk, Va, May 1793. He had reached that place unaided and unknown for the purpose of embarking upon that element which was destined to be the scene of his most active if not
most useful life. His elder brother William followed and found him in Norfolk a cabin boy on board a brig and without a pair of shoes to his feet. This brother gave him two dollars and that sum was the largest he had ever held in his own right. It would seem that his brother William had pursued him to Norfolk for the purpose of restoring him to the school he had left on account of some difficulty with the master, but William was satisfied on seeing him bound apprentice to the Captain of the Brig.
Little or nothing is known of his novitiate and from the date of his entry on board the Brig in 1793 til 1801, he seems to have been constantly afloat and a regular commander of vessels sailing from Norfolk to the West Indies and ports of Europe. He has been heard frequently to refer to this period of his apprenticeship and to mention with pride the fact that he was promoted to the command of a vessel as soon as he attained the lawful age. In those days the command of a vessel involved high responsibility & a respectable knowledge of business. The Captain was not only the navigator but the supercuigo and the agent of the owners in transactions which involved hundreds of thousands of dollars. Accordingly he sailed from Norfolk in May 1801 for Cuba with letters of credit and instructions to trade between the islands and if expedient to sell the ship. On this occasion, he visited St. Domingo and had an interview with the famous General Tousaint L'Ouvature who spoke "like a man of business" and seems to have made a pleasing impression. His next voyage was to Bilboa, thence to Nantes, on the Loire, thence to Cadiz and Lisbon, sometimes running into blockading squadrons and sometimes into unexpected ports availing himself of a cartel and mingling freely with French, Spanish, Dutch, & English. In 1802 he sailed from Norfolk in the ship Lucy Ann from England and after a passage of 32 days "of the worse weather he ever experienced crossing the Atlantic" reached Falmouth and writes to Messrs. Wilson and Cunningham that he would have perished if "the vessel had not been built of the very best materials. The people were kept at work all the time." He says, "My men behaved so well on this voyage out when in distress that I cannot think of turning them off. The old mate I have discharged and taken an oath never to ship another yankee in that capacity."
Again from St. Petersburg 13th August 1802 "I have not been able to get rid of one of my sailors_ they are a prodigy_ not one of them has conducted himself with the least impropriety."
In 1803 he cruised in the Mediterranean and occasionally to St. Petersburg, Copenhagen & Lisbon acting the while without instructions from the owners & always in the most scrupulous regard to the rights of others & with a manly confidence in his own integrity. The complicated laws of trade which governed the commerce of those countries often involved him in the hazards of enterprise, but under all circumstances his ruling motive appears to have been always the same (illegible) regard for the interests of his employers. As a sample of many letters to Messrs Wilson and Cunningham he writes, "I only wish it was possible for you to look into all my acts when absent from you. There is not one act, or one hour that I would wish to conceal."
In 1804 he was sent (perhaps the first time) to Mathews County to superintend the construction of a ship which was called the Thomas Wilson and which when finished he sailed to London and sold for $ 40,000. It must have been during this sojourn in Mathews that he made the acquaintance of the second daughter of the Revd Armistead Smith a clergyman of the Episcopal church which flourished long after the colonial emancipation of that section of the country. But he did not long enjoy the pleasures of social life, nor linger a captive amidst the gardens and groves of Bellevue, for early in the year of 1805 he was again in the West Indies in command of the Hornet. His mission was to purchase prize vessels sold in the French & Spanish ports and he spent several months in Martinique, Guadeloupe, St. Thomas & other islands. This responsible duty was completed by the purchase of two ships the "Eliza Ann" & the "Earl of Liester" and then of the revisiting Norfolk he is again in command of another ship the "Lucy Ann" and bound to Liverpool. Here he exchanged the "Lucy Ann" for the Roba and the Betsy and returned to the U. S. in the winter of 1805-6. He was again sent to Mathews County to superintend the building of vessels & his marriage with Miss Elizabeth Cary Smith took place May 8th 1806. He was not very long in the retirement of domestic life, for the ship Pocahontas was completed & ready for sea but the embargo was a terrible blow to the enterprise of Norfolk and for a while all commercial operations were suspended - "Half the merchants were pitching quoits in one quarter of the town and their clerks playing cricket in another." In the mean time he had settled a farm in Mathews County which he named "Poverty Plains" and occupied his time in constructing vessels. When opportunity offered he sailed the Pocahontas until 1810, when he left the sea and became a resident of Mathews. He was busy during the war of 1812-13-14 in fitting out guns and in expeditions against the Enemy. He also served two terms in the Legislature and was so high in the confidence of the Executive that he was frequently consulted upon affairs of the State, specially appertaining to the war with England.
"Please assure the Governor (he says in a letter to the Adjt. Genl.) that it will always afford me pleasure to execute his commands to the extent of my ability more particularly when connected with the defense of our country"_ a sentiment worthy of Washington and his acts verified his declaration, for he was in command of a battalion which saw much service during the entire length of the war and that service of the most harassing sort.
On the 6th Sept. 1814 his wife died, leaving three children & on the 21st of Sept. 1815 he married his second wife, Maria Booth Patterson a daughter of Mr. John Patterson of Mathews Co. Va who was not merely a leading gentleman of the county but noted for his rare wit and extraordinary powers of conversation. From this period his life was one of uninterrupted usefulness as a citizen. Sometimes as a magistrate, again as a ruling man all the while as an officer of Militia, in private or in public as a gentleman dispensing the hospitality of a princely establishment, or as a merchant transacting business at the Court House, he was ever the same undeviating man of truth, of conscientiousness, and with all singular modesty. Scrupulous of the observance of others, he was tenacious of whatever was due to himself. In manner perhaps he was sometimes reserved and occasionally imperious towards the idle and the profligate he was haughty and contemptuous. The writer of this well remembers that his presence at the Court House was always the signal for the withdrawal of idlers. They shrank from this presence and kept out of his way. Of course his business which was multiform soon rewarded his exertions and for the last twenty years of his life his residence was the scene of munificent hospitality.
As this memoir is designed only for the privated eyes of those who can appreciate all that can be said upon this subject it may be pardoned the writer for indulging a few reflections which it naturally suggests. Here is the brief narrative of a man who was thrown into the stormy and uncertain era which succeeded the revolutionary period of our government, a stripling of 15 with little knowledge of books, no friends to guide seeking his future in a career which rarely rewards one votary in a thousand. Let us imagine his sensations the first day on shipboard. Everything was new to him. The very water salt. What could he know of ropes & sails & rudders & masts! He a landlubber from the fresh water swamps of Rappahannock, a lad barefooted perhaps clad in his native homespun, with elbows threadbare, may hap knees patched, as to hat it may (His "hat covered his family" he said to Mr. Taylor of Norfolk in 1802) - have been the transfer of an elder brother, but I warrant the face underneath was the subject of a painter. A boy "aboard ship" & a fresh-water boy at that. What thought he of the rough men around him? How they laughed at his awkwardness and how his young heart must have yearned for the sympathies of friends and kindred whom he had left perhaps forever. But the cabin boy has grown to manhood. What a few years have wrought! His very presence is the signal for order for propriety. He is not a man of many words, but when he speaks men listen to him and when he commands they are prompt to obey. Sometimes he is disposed to social recreation & his friends feel they are welcome because they know he is truthful when he tells them he is happy to see them.
A word more by way of finish to this narrative. The last days of such a man what were they? Full of worldly honours (at least to the extent of his ambition) surrounded by friends & connexures every member of his own immediate family present, & with unclouded mind he recognized the summons to quit his earthly tabernacle. It pleased God to delay his exit that he might put his house in order. One whose long life had been a vigil was not likely to be unprepared for the final trial. The hour came and the man was ready. He died on the 16th day of August 1838 about 2:00 P.M. I saw him in his agonies, perhaps an hour or so before his spirit had fled. He was reclining in the large armchair which had been his constant resource during his illness and his gaze directed over the beautiful waters which had borne him on its bosom in early life and which, with filial love, he delighted to contemplate. This occurred at Poplar Grove, Mathews Co. Va. and he was buried the second day in the pine grove where boughs wave over the graves of others of the family and seem to mourn a requiem to departed souls.
"Requiscat in pace"