During a recent visit to the cemetery, on Lower Road, we found more than 13 graves bearing the names of local captains who were lost or died while abroad.
According to the 1906 book “Brewster Ship Masters” by J. Henry Sears, Brewster is believed to have supplied the most sea captains (as a percentage of population) of any town in the nation. By 1840, when the town’s population was about 1,000, more than 115 residents had captained a ship.
The following excerpt from the book demonstrates the importance of international trade to Brewster:
In the 40’s and 50’s the young man born in Brewster, who did not go to sea as soon as his schooling was complete was a shiftless no-account, unfit to associate with the aristocracy. His comrades shipped as cabin-boys, under Brewster captains of their fathers’ acquaintance and with Brewster mates and many Brewster members of the crew, studied navigation, and, at ages ranging from twenty-one to twenty-five, became captains themselves.
As the following excerpt illustrates, the dependence on the sea was hard on Brewster families, and often ended unhappily:
Women and children saw husbands and fathers only at long intervals and waited for news of their arrival in far-off ports. Sometimes they waited, and when the news came it was in the form of a letter from a mate or a steward and told of a death and burial at sea…Many a stone in the Brewster cemetery has “lost at sea” carven on it and the mystery of that loss will always be a mystery.
For example, Capt. Alfred F. Knowles was born in Brewster in 1839, and was lost along with the ship “Southern Eagle” after a typhoon struck during a voyage between Rangoon (the former capital of Myanmar, then known as Burma) and Liverpool in May of 1870.
Similarly, Capt. Nathan F. Foster was a Brewster native who was born in 1833. He was on the ship “Centaur” when it caught fire in August 1874 during a trip between Liverpool and San Francisco. The crew made it onto three boats, but Foster was never heard from.
The fact that many families multiple members at sea meant some experienced tragedy more than once. Capt. Theophilus Berry and his wife Sarah lost Theophilus, Jr. in 1817 at the age of 16 and Capt. Isaac F. Berry in 1829 at the age of 24.
According to the Sears book, the importance of the sea trade had passed by the end of the 19th Century and was gradually replaced by tourism as Brewster’s primary source of revenue. Instead of sailing to distant lands, Brewster’s youth has the safer choice of frying clam strips and scooping ice cream.
Many of the former captain’s homes remain along Main Street and, together with the headstones standing atop empty graves in Brewster Cemetery, help today’s tourists understand the town’s maritime past.