1843: James Thwing Homans to James Edward Homans

This letter was written from Hamburg, Germany by Navy Captain James Thwing Homans (1805-1849), the son of Benjamin Homans (1765-1823) and Martha Newell (1766-1850). Benjamin Homans was secretary to the Massachusetts Governor in 1811 and Secretary of State in Massachusetts in 1812. Benjamin also served as Chief Clerk of the Navy during James Madison’s presidency.

Passport of James T. Homan (1843)

Passport of James T. Homan (1843)

James Homans was a naval officer; there are several notices of him on the internet. He married Elizabeth Kay on 3 September 1829 in Albany, New York, and by the time of his death in 1849, the couple had six (living) children: Martha Isabelle (b. 1831), James Edward (b. 1833), Elizabeth (b. 1835), Henry (b. 1838), William (b. 1839), and John (b. 1843).

The purpose for James T. Homan’s journey to St. Petersburg, Russia, isn’t clear. He resigned his commission in the U.S. Navy in May 1843, a few months before this letter was written. ¹ At the time this letter was written, there was considerable interest by the U.S. Navy regarding Russia’s method cultivating hemp for the manufacture of rope. Homan’s journey may have had something to do with this interest.

Capt. Homans wrote the letter to his son James Edward Homans (1833-1882). After his father’s death, James would graduate from Kenyon College in Ohio (A.B. 1857) and the Theological Seminary at Alexandria, VA. (A.M. 1860) and had a long, successful career serving the Episcopal Church.

Capt. James T. Homans is buried in the Old City Cemetery in Sacramento, California. He died 20 July 1849. In 1858, when the Captain’s son, William M. Homans, died in New York, William’s body was conveyed to Sacramento to be buried next to his father.

The steam ship Stephani was making regular trips between Hamburg and New York City at the time this letter was written, carrying large numbers of German emigrants to the United States.

Addressed to Master James Edward Homans
Care of R. E. Launitz, Esq., New York, U.S. of America

From Capt. J. T. Homans, October 18th 1843

Hamburg [Germany]
October 6th 1843

My Dear Son,

Having safely arrived thus far on my journey to Russia, my first care has been to acquaint your dear Mother of it, knowing that she would be anxious to hear from me. I have also written to Mr. Lauritz on account of the warm friendship he has evinced towards me in many ways, not the least valued of them has been his kindness in taking charge of you at a time when my circumstances in life were suddenly changed from comparative ease to those nearly allied to great poverty. I should have been poor indeed but for the kind feelings manifested in good acts by Mr. Lauritz & other friends. I hope you will be a good boy, be mindful of ho much you owe to Mr. & Mrs. Lauritz, attend carefully to your studies at school; indeed, in all things do what is right so that you can look back upon all your actions in life without having to reproach yourself with any evil deeds, the recollection of which will harass you as equally will a good course afford gratification with every review of it. Do this and you will surely be happy in whatever sphere of society it may be the will of Divine Providence you should occupy. You are now far enough advanced in age & in your studies at school to admit of your writing to me occasionally in my absence; your so doing will be a means of improvement in more respects than one. Write me of all that interest you either at school or at home, and of any other matters you may think I would be interested to hear. You will thus see your thoughts recorded, and in correcting them, improve yourself. You must take pains with your writing at all times. Never allow yourself to write so fast as to write badly. You will thus acquire a good hand, which will remain always obedient to you. Beside getting the habit of writing badly by writing fast, you will make errors in language requiring alterations, or additions. These look badly & are easily avoided by a little care, which eventually will be no trouble at all simply because you have accustomed yourself to it, which of itself would render it easier for you to write well, than badly. Do not write a letter and afterwards be ashamed to send it on account of the mistakes you have committed. I mean this when writing to me more especially, as you will promise yourself to write better he next time. And if you only do so, you can refer with satisfaction, & I will observe with pleasure, the improvement made in your subsequent letters.

My residence will probably be in St. Petersburgh for six to eight months to come – perhaps for a much longer period of time. Should my absence be thus protracted, I am sure you will have pleasure in receiving letters from me while so far away, as I will have in letters from you. But in order to induce me to write to you, or answer any letters you may send me, you must take pains with them, for all persons take more pleasure in receiving interesting ones, & in answering them. Yours will always be so when I can see that you have taken pains & that each one has some improvement upon the former one. I shall not expect you to produce very correct, or handsomely written epistles at present. All I ask is a gradual increase for the better as they increase in number, which depends entirely upon yourself with whom I therefore leave the whole matter for due consideration & action.

As I devote the time immediately on arrival to letters home, I have not yet had a look at the great city of Hamburgh where there is much of interest to a stranger like me. I therefore cannot tell you anything about it except its being a place of great commerce with all parts of the world, contains about 130,000 inhabitants, and is one of the Hanseatic or Free towns so called. The others are Bremen & Lubeck. You must look in some good book of history respecting Europe for the origin of the title these towns possess.

From this place I next go by land journey to Lubeck situated on the shore of the Baltic Sea, there to take the steamer across the Baltic & up the Gulf of Finland to St. Petersburgh – a distance in all between 900 and a 1000 miles, occupying three or four days to perform it. You can trace on the maps in your atlas my entire route from New York [City] across the Atlantic Ocean, through the English Channel & part of the North Sea, to the mouth of the River Elbe, nearly a hundred miles up the river t this place, & so on to the end of it.

You must however, my son, be mindful not to make my voyage the subject of conversation, nor mention it anywhere except at home. The good ship Stephani, in which I took passage from New York, had rather a longer passage than I calculated upon, as head winds prevailed so much, but nevertheless it was a pleasant one, all things considered. I had with me a very interesting account of St. Petersburgh in a book [published in 1842] called, “Russia & the Russians,” written by a German gentleman named [Johann Georg] Kohl who resided there some years. As I read it very twice very carefully & would soon see the place itself, I have left the books in the ship to go back to New York for Mother to read. She will, no doubt, let you have them also & you will be greatly pleased with the descriptions of he “City of the Czars.” I shall likewise endeavour to write now and then a letter to your sister Martha, who I trust will try to improve herself by taking pains with the letters she writes to me, and as it is probable I may not send letters to both of you at the same time, it will be well for you to take your letters from me for her to see, when she will shew you those she may have received. The advice, or descriptions given to one, will answer for both.

I must now take leave of the good ship that has been my home for forty days, & borne me safely & comfortably across the wide Atlantic, as well as take my leave of my companions of same time. I remain, my dear son, your affectionate father, — James T. Homans


¹ The following information on James T. Homans was found in U. S. Navy Records:

COURT MARTIAL – The Court Martial which convened on board the Columbus, at the Navy Yard, Charlestown, Mass. closed the 17th ult. The Boston Evening Transcript of Friday last gives the following as the issue of its proceedings:

Lieut. James T. Homans was tried on a charge of unofficer-like and ungentlemanly conduct, under which were two specifications: the first, that on the 15th of August last, on baord the Erie, he made use of improper and threatening language to Purser Henry Etting; and the second, that he did on that day assault, attack, &c. the said purser Etting, outside and near the Navy Yard, Charlestown.

The charge and specifications against Lieut. Homans having been proved, he was sentenced to be suspended one year, and the sentence to be read at the Navy Yard, Charlestown, and at all the naval stations in the United States.

At the same Court, Purser Etting was tried on a similar charge arising out of the above contest with Lieut. Homans, and sentenced to be reprimanded – the reprimand to be read at the Charlestown naval station.  Source: American Railroad Journal, 1832

Henry Etting was born in Baltimore May 20, 1799; died at Portsmouth, N. H., July 10, 1876. He commenced his career Jan. 1, 1818, as midshipman, and by Nov. 7, 1826, attained the rank of purser. Four years later he was appointed paymaster, with the rank of commander (7 November 1830), and retired from the navy with the rank of captain Dec. 21, 1861. Throughout the Civil war Etting held at New York the office of purser and fiscal agent of the Navy Department. After fifty-three years of active service he was finally placed on the retired list as pay-director, with the rank of commodore (3 March 1871).

Henry Etting had a successful career as a navy officer though, as a Jew, it was not always ‘smooth sailing.’  “In 1832, in August and September, Etting had been court-martialed in Boston for using improper language toward a fellow officer and for assaulting him; in a quarrel between the two, Etting’s opponent had threatened to cut off his head, beaten him with a rattan, knocked him down, and called him a ‘damned Jewish son-of-a-bitch.’ Etting defended himself and wounded his assailant with a dirk. The court found Etting guilty and sentenced him to be reprimanded publicly by the Secretary of the Navy. In his plea before the court, Purser Etting found it necessary to defend himself as a Jew, for his opponent had drawn attention to the fact that Etting was a follower of the Jewish faith.” From the book, United States Jewry, 1776-1985, page 104.

James T. Homans, 1819, Navy Yard, Washington, D.C.
James T. Homans, December 3, 1819, Leave of Absence (from Ship Columbus) Surveying.


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