William Furness (c.1759 - c.1820)

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Birthplace: Berwick, York, Maine
Death: Died in Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States
Occupation: Privateer
Managed by: Erica Isabel Howton, (c)
Last Updated:
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Immediate Family

About William Furness

From Journeys Hike Scripts - William Furness, 1800

In the mid-1700s, this street was called Furness Road, after the seagoing Furness family, who owned a wharf on the riverbank.  Blacksmith Robert Furness lived in a house across the street, not far from the Landing.  He made iron tools and hardware, nails and horseshoes in his blacksmith shop.  Robert and his wife Abigail had ten children.  Three of his six sons—John, Robert, and William—were teenagers when the Revolutionary War began, and when they reached manhood, all three served as soldiers or sailors in the war for independence.   Each left by boat from the wharf here at the Landing and went away to sea.

In 1777 the son named Robert Furness, after his father, joined the crew of the frigate Raleigh, one of America’s first navy ships.  The same year, his brother William joined a famous captain, John Paul Jones, aboard an even more famous navy ship, the Ranger.  William Furness became a seaman after the war, and by October 1791 he was captain of the Olive Branch, a brig newly launched from Pipe Stave Landing, sailing to ports in Virginia, the West Indies in the Caribbean Ocean, and across the Atlantic Ocean to Portugal in Europe.

Two years later in October 1793, the Olive Branch was on a voyage to Portugal, only 15 miles from the port of Lisbon, when Algerian pirates attacked the ship.  William and his crew were captured and taken to prison in Algiers on the north coast of Africa.  He and his crew worked at hard labor in a mine and suffered from starvation and disease. 

Finally, after three cruel years, he was ransomed by the United States government and came home to South Berwick.  William continued to sail, but only a year after he returned as captain he was captured again, this time by French privateers in the Caribbean.  The high drama of his career as a master of ships in the 1790s reflects the enormous risks—and huge profits—in the business of maritime trade when this country was a new Republic.

When he was 40 and returned from a four-month voyage to Martinique, William married a young woman from South Berwick named Martha Leigh.  He made other voyages to the islands of the Caribbean, but in a smaller vessel—a schooner, rather than a ship. 

Furness House

They had two children, Abigail and Benjamin, and lived in a house that still stands, just up from the Landing, on what is now Liberty Street. 

Notes

3. Martha Leigh, bpt Portsmouth NH 10 Jan 1780, d Furnessville IN 1863, m 25 July 1798 Capt William Furness, son of Robert (NEHGR 82:16), 2 ch. The Furness family (Robert) owned property next to Judge Chadbourne in 1762

Sources

  1. Revolutionary War Pension Files for William Furness: File with copies of the pension application records for William Furniss. He served on the frigate Ranger, Capt. John Paul Jones, from June 1777 to November 1778. His wife Martha and his son Benjamin are named in the records. Mar 1818 Alexandria, District of Columbia [Virginia]
  2. State papers and publick documents of the United States, from the accession ... By United States. President, United States. Dept. of State. Page 338. "Confidential. American Vessels Captured by the Corsairs of Algiers in consequence of the Peace with Spain, in 1785, and the Truce with Portugal, in 1793, viz. ... "Brigantine Olive Branch, Wm. Furnass, master, belonging to colonel Thomas Hamilton, New Hampshire, captured 11th October, 1793; crew ... Recapitulation: 13 vessels, 119 Total American Captives."

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Capt. William Furness's Timeline

1759
1759
Berwick, York, Maine
1798
July 25, 1798
Age 39
1820
1820
Age 61
Washington, District of Columbia, District of Columbia, United States