Sole, Solly and Soul.... Prisoners of War
in the American War for Independence
by Lois Thompson Rekowski
This article was originally published in the August 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
In researching my family name of SOLLEY, my cousin and I have traced our line to one Silas Solley, born in New Jersey about 1800.
The 1860 US Census unfortunately does not list his town of origin, only the state. We believe him to have been born in the little town of Greenwich located not far from the Delaware Bay because there are two Solleys, a Nathan and a Silas (too old to be the one born circa 1800) who are identified as having enlisted into the New Jersey militia from that area.
In attempting to determine which of the two (if either) could be the father of our Silas, I was reviewing military records, when I discovered a little known and grim bit of American history, and in the course of doing so, I discovered links to several of the names being researched by the Sole Society.
During the American War for Independence, there was little money to fund any naval forces. The solution adopted by the Americans was to issue letters of marque to merchant ships for the purposes of attacking British shipping. In lieu of payment, these merchants turned privateers were granted the right to some portion of the spoils that they captured or destroyed. This enabled the cash poor colonists to establish a naval presence detrimental to the British.
Meanwhile, the British Navy needed men to man its ships and had adopted impressment as a method of acquiring sufficient numbers of sailors. Captured American militia and captured privateers were given the choice of serving in His Majestyís Navy or being held as prisoners of war. Twelve, perhaps as many as twenty, non-seaworthy vessels anchored in New York harbour were used to hold the prisoners.
Conditions on these ships, among them the H.M.S. Jersey, were apparently intolerable. Conditions were crowded and unsanitary; disease was rampant. Those that died had their bodies tossed overboard into the harbour or buried in shallow graves along the shore. It is estimated that over 11,000 persons died on the various ships; only 1,400 supposedly survived.
The site of these tragic events is today the location of the Brooklyn Navy Yard. During the original construction of its dry-docks in the early 1800ís, the remains of the deceased prisoners were dredged up and reburied in an appropriate memorial; they have since been removed to a crypt in nearby Fort Greene Park.
Fortunately, some of the records of those incarcerated on the prison ships, those of the H.M.S. Jersey, survived in the records of the British War Department and were recorded by the Society Of Old Brooklynites in 1888.
When searching for my possible ancestor I found the following names in that list, which I present in part for the use of the Sole Societyís members:
Could this be the NATHAN SOLLEY who enlisted from Greenwich? It is very possible, since his records show two different types of enlistment. Did he survive? I think so, since there is a Nathan Solly deceased in 1824 and buried in the Greenwich Presbyterian Church cemetery.
There is a snippet of oral history passed down in the family that someone in the family was a pirate, or that someone was hung for piracy, and that was the reason that our Silas, b. 1800, left New Jersey for the central Pennsylvania hills, far from the sea. Could this be a distorted version of the events surrounding Nathanís life? Or was the piracy story related to Silas?
Perhaps SILAS SOLLEY, the elder, accepted impressment and fought for the British? Or perhaps he continued a life of piracy during our War of 1812? All are questions I cannot answer, and I may never be able to answer them. And regretfully, none of this has made anything clearer about our Silasís parentageÖ
Lastly, who were ASSIA SOLE and MOSES SOUL? Those are other questions that I canít answer, but the information may prove useful to another member of the Society.
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