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 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. According to the New York Times, Wolfe commanded 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 shiped back to Mystic.
With “The 7 Wonders” article finished, along with the , 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 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 stone 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 stored among other important documents. Perhaps I will learn 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 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 New England 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.
To see images of Captain Charles Sisson's home on West Mystic Ave (which includes family members standing out front) and his recovered Bible, visit my Mystic Pizza and Beyond: A Seafarer's Trail blog on the Sisson post where I include more details, such as the ships Sisson commanded, at the bottom of the post. Submit your e-mail on the blog if you would like to receive updates, such as why Sisson's first wife, Ann, died at sea. A tidal wave hit the Jeremiah Thompson, but I am unclear if that was the cause of her death. Visit: mysticpizzaseafarer.blogspot.com
*According to my cousin David Sisson, 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.