By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
This is the second of a series of short biographies of people who are buried in the churchyard of Gloria Dei (Old Swedes’ Church) in Philadelphia. The churchyard dates back to around 1677, when Gloria Dei’s first church at the site was established. Research on the churchyard is being carried out by Amy Grant and Michael Schreiber, in preparation for a book on the subject.
Sacred to the memory of Catharine wife of Peter Cruse who departed this life August 9th 1830 aged 33 years 4 months and 15 days.
Also, Joanna H. Cruse who departed this life July 28, 1830 aged 7 years 1 month and 13 days.
“Transporting thought, thou dearest man adieu
I feel no sorrow but in leaving you
O thou my comfort, thought and only care
In these last words, thy kindness I’ll declare”
“My blessing to my babes; thou wilt be kind
To the dear infants whom I leave behind
Train them in virtue, piety and truth,
And form their manners early in their youth.”
“Farewell to all who now on me attend
The faithful servant and the weeping friend
The time is short till we shall meet again
With Christ to share the glories of his reign.”
The above inscription on Catharine Cruses’s gravestone leaves a message for her “dearest man,” presumably her husband Peter, and the children that she left behind. It is unlikely that Peter Cruse, a sea captain, was at Catharine’s side on the Sunday morning when she died; Philadelphia customhouse records for 1830 suggest instead that he was en route to Honduras, having left port three weeks earlier. This message in stone might reflect the final words that Catharine would have liked to say to her husband if he had been with her at the end.
Throughout her married life, Catharine knew the duress, loneliness, and fears that all mariners’ wives suffered during the long months that their husbands were at sea. Catharine and Peter lived next to the docks, first at 85 S. Water St. and later at 19 S. Penn St., and we can imagine Catharine on a cold morning watching her husband’s ship sail slowly down the river and wondering whether she would ever see him again. As it turned out, she preceded Peter in death—but merely by two years.
Catharine was the eldest daughter of James and Isabella Simpson, who lived outside the city on the Frankford Road, according to the 1805 tax rolls. Catharine was born in 1797, and baptized at age four in 1801 at Gloria Dei. Her father was a ship builder, and her brother James Jr. later followed the trade, establishing a marine railway (a device with a winch and rollers for hauling ships out of the water for repairs) at the foot of the Christian Street Wharf with his partner John L. Neill in 1838.
Peter Cruse, on the other hand, was a recent immigrant when he married Catharine. He was born in Gothenburg, Sweden, on Aug. 24, 1785. His granddaughter, Mary McCalla Evans, wrote in 1918 that Peter served in the Swedish Navy, having run away to sea. After he had confided in his mother that he longed to go to America, she urged him to seek out her cousin, the Rev. Nicholas Collin, who was pastor (1786-1831) of Gloria Dei church. Peter’s application for naturalization as a U.S. citizen, dated May 20, 1817, and signed by him in Philadelphia, states that he entered the U.S. at the port of Baltimore in March 1815, having come from Nova Scotia. Peter and Catharine were living at 85 S. Water Street at the time of his application, in the district of Southwark. He was employed as a first mate, working in the maritime trade between Cuba and Philadelphia. On June 19, 1815, for instance, he arrived in Philadelphia from Havana on the schooner Fair Trader, under master Peleg Hall.
Peter and Catharine probably married shortly before that voyage; Catharine was 17, and Peter 12 years older. The marriage with the Swedish seaman appeared to be a step down economically for Catharine—and Mary McCalla Evans writes that the parents had other prospects in mind for their daughter. Perhaps the Simpsons’ pastor at Gloria Dei, the Rev. Collin, put in a good word for his young cousin Peter.
The Cruse’s first child, named Isabella after her grandmother, was born Jan. 30, 1818. Isabella lived into old age, though she never married, and she is buried in the Gloria Dei churchyard next to her mother (see photo of her stone at top of page). Her brother John Peter, born Nov. 22, 1820, also survived into adulthood. He was nine when his mother died, and it was he and Isabella (and perhaps seven-year-old Johanna) whom Catharine referred to in her epitaph, “My blessing to my babes …” All of the Cruses’ other children died at a very young age—several of them as stillborn infants.
Johanna (Joanna), named for her aunt Johanna Hunt, died just a week before her mother expired. Both died of the same disease, “dysentery,” according to burial records made by the Rev. Collin. We can barely imagine the suffering that Catharine, perhaps already wasting away in her sick bed, would have felt on hearing of her youngest daughter’s death—unless news of the tragedy was kept from her. Dysentery was common in districts with poor sanitation and tainted water supplies. At the time, a disease with similar causes, cholera, was making its way around the world as a lethal epidemic, and within a couple years would hit the United States in full force—killing thousands.
A notarized “proof of citizenship” document from 1822, used to apply for a seaman’s certificate from the port of Philadelphia, describes Peter Cruse as having blue eyes and light hair, and standing five feet, seven inches in height. Cruse appears often in the Philadelphia customhouse records and in the shipping news columns of the newspapers of the period.
In 1825, Peter Cruse, now almost 40 years old, became master of his own vessel, the schooner Argo. For a while he captained the schooner Packet, and two years later, the Argo again. Cruse voyaged between Philadelphia and Cuba around four times a year. Cargoes generally included tobacco and cigars, coffee, sugar, and oranges.
A Feb. 17, 1827, letter from Cruse, now in the collection of the Pennsylvania Historical Society, reveals that he had recently been wounded in the arm and was petitioning to receive benefits from a government-sponsored hospital fund. Cruse wrote that the wound “is a very severe one and my physician says it will be several weeks before it will be healed sufficiently for me to make use of it.”
An accompanying letter from Treasury Secretary Richard Rush, from Feb. 20 of that year, approved granting funds to Peter Cruse on condition that he submit “a weekly certificate from the attending physicians of the Hospital of the state of his wound.” It seems, however, that Cruse was not content to remain in port while reporting to doctors every week. Despite his wound, he was soon at sea again. On the same day that Rush approved his application, Cruse’s vessel, the Packet, was cleared to sail for Havana.
By 1829, Cruse was master of the schooner James Monroe, sailing to Truxillo (today spelled “Trujillo”), the main port of Honduras, then part of the Federal Republic of Central America. The following year, he became master of the brig Atlantic, carrying goods (sarsaparilla, hides, etc.) and passengers between Truxillo and Philadelphia, and sometimes stopping in New Orleans, Richmond, New York, and other ports.
Mary McCalla Evans wrote that her grandfather, being a pious man, would speed his brig on the return voyage up the Delaware, in order to be on hand during the first Sunday of the month, when the sermon at Gloria Dei was preached in the Swedish language. Peter himself, she wrote, was fluent in seven languages.
Evans also wrote that Peter Cruse was the “first conveyor of rubber in America.” She told a story of how her grandfather had brought to Philadelphia a cargo of rubber shoes that were crudely constructed by South American “natives,” and that he had showed off his “queer cargo” to the great wonderment of several Philadelphia shipping merchants.
The event is difficult to verify, however. By 1825, when Peter Cruse became a sea captain, rubber shoes had been around for a while. Rubber shoes for “ladies” were advertised in the Philadelphia newspapers in early 1825, and were said to have appeared on the market several years before that. In that period, however, Cruse was still making the run to Havana, Cuba, where rubber trees had not yet been introduced.
Evans wrote that she heard the tale of the rubber shoes from her late Aunt Isabella, but Isabella was a child in the 1820s and might have misremembered one of her father’s stories when she retold it to her niece many years later.
Of more compelling interest are the reports that Peter Cruse gave to newspapers in the United States regarding events in Central America and the Caribbean that he had witnessed. Before the installation of international telegraph lines, sea captains like Cruse played a vital role as foreign news correspondents.
Central America in the 1820s and ’30s was seething with wars, coups, and revolutions. Moreover, interested parties in the United States and Europe were avid to get their hands on the untapped natural resources of the region.
For example, the U.S. Gazette in July 1829 reported that Capt. Cruse of the schooner James Monroe brought to Philadelphia a copy of the articles of capitulation resulting from the 1828 defeat of the Guatemalan government by mainly Salvadoran troops headed by General José Francisco Morazán.
That event extended the sovereignty of the Federal Republic of Central America over most of the region, but entrenched forces in Guatemala and elsewhere continued to resist the rule of the new republic and Morazán’s liberal reforms. Over two years later, the Philadelphia Inquirer (Dec. 29, 1831) reported that Cruse, master of the brig Atlantic in port at New York City, had said that tensions were continuing between El Salvador (joined with Honduras) and Guatemala, and that Guatemala had just sent 3000 soldiers into Honduras.
We learn from other newspapers of Dec. 29, 1831 (i.e., the National Gazette), that Cruse’s vessel, the brig Atlantic, was carrying hides and other goods on that voyage from Honduras to the merchant Peter Bousquet in Philadelphia. But because of ice on the Delaware, the brig was diverted to New York City and had just arrived at the Manhattan docks.
Where did Peter Cruse go after New York City? Unfortunately, after that date, there are no extent newspaper articles about Peter Cruse’s voyages, or the brig Atlantic, that we could locate. Philadelphia customhouse records indicate that the Atlantic’s crew, such as first mate Allen G. Pitchel, scattered onto other vessels.
The only notice on Peter Cruse that we found appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer of Nov. 21, 1832, stating that he died the previous September in Truxillo, Honduras. No circumstances are given in the article about how Cruse might have met his death. But there are clues. In fact, the August 13, 1831, edition of the National Gazette cited a report by Peter Cruse that might have presaged his own death.
The events chronicled by Cruse and other sea captains concerned the 1831-1832 revolt incited by Ramón Guzmán, governor of the castle fortress at Omoa, a port in Honduras that is about 200 miles to the west of Truxillo by sea. Guzmán solicited support from the Spanish colonial governor of Cuba and raised the Spanish flag over the castle. At the same time, his confederate, General Vicente Domínguez, seized the castle in Truxillo with some 500 men. Morazán’s government sent troops from Honduras, and later from Guatemala, which placed the castles under siege, and finally subdued the rebellion in September 1832. Guzmán and Domínguez were condemned to be shot, and Guzmán’s head was hung over the castle gate.
Cruse said that before he left Truxillo on the Atlantic in July 1831, he had encountered the schooner Phoenix, out of New Orleans. He said that the schooner had been detained in Truxillo as a “suspicious vessel” for carrying a pivot gun not mentioned in the port clearance and containing an unusually large complement of men on board.
Cruse took on a passenger who had been traveling on the Phoenix, who told him that the schooner had been bound for Havana, but was diverted instead to Truxillo. Strangely, the commander and co-owner of the Phoenix, a Mr. Duplessis, had said that he was waiting for the arrival of a French 14-gun brig, with which he intended to embark on a “great expedition.” If true, the news was ominous, suggesting that foreign forces, taking advantage of the ongoing rebellion, were trying to get a foothold in Central America through armed action.
A much later follow-up to Cruse’s account appeared in the New York Herald, dateline Guatemala City, Feb. 1, 1853, and titled, “Very Interesting from Central America: Unsettled Claims of U.S. Citizens.”
The Herald stated, looking backwards to December 1831, that the Phoenix was soon released by the authorities (i.e., General Domínguez) on a bond provided by a U.S. consular official. The schooner escaped to sea but was quickly captured by the rebel schooner Executive [renamed the General Domínguez] and taken into Omoa, where she was confiscated by Dominguez’s forces. The captain, Duplessis, was charged with piracy and shot in the central plaza of Omoa.
Several contemporary articles from 1832 also followed the story of the Phoenix. A dispatch from the Boston Courier, reprinted in the New York Commercial Advertiser (July 7, 1832) and other papers, contained information from Capt. Lyon of the schooner Plandome in Honduras, which was conveyed to Boston via the brig Elizabeth. Lyon said that on May 14, intelligence had been received in Truxillo that the Phoenix [now serving the rebel Domínguez] had landed troops in the vicinity, which had plundered nearby plantations. The local commandant then took possession of the Plandome, placed 100 soldiers and several carriage guns on board, and sent her in pursuit of the Phoenix, compelling Capt. Lyon and his first mate to navigate. Off the island of Roatán (northwest of Truxillo), the two vessels exchanged shots, and the foresail of the Plandome was shot away. The Phoenix escaped, and the Plandome returned to Truxillo on May 16.
A postscript to the article, datelined May 29, stated that the U.S. consul based in Omoa, Mr. A.P. (Peter) Hosmer, was killed a day earlier, just an hour after both legs had been blown off by a cannon shot (see photo of his grave below).
The story was taken up by another dispatch, this one based on the report of a Capt. Scott, of the schooner Lady Bentley, which returned to Philadelphia in July 1832 from Honduras. Scott told the newspapers that the Lady Bentley had left Omoa on May 27, 1832, [actually, it was probably May 28], and that they had spent 15 days there, still in the midst of revolution. He said that the forces holding the castle included about 200 men and 300 women and children. Government troops laying siege to the castle were blockading food from entering. In the meantime, the castle forces were bombarding the town with their artillery, “and every house has more or less damage done to it.”
Scott said that the government forces had three captured American vessels that were aiding them—the previously mentioned Plandome, the Wasp, and the William (a schooner just arrived from New Orleans).
Capt. Scott reported that loading their cargo of mahogany logs onto the Lady Bentley was impeded by the fact that musket shots were often flying past them. He witnessed several men being killed. In fact, the supercargo (the direct representative of the merchant who hired the vessel) attached to the Lady Bentley, a man whom the article named “Peter Cruser,” “went to town every day, and in one instance, came very near being killed, being in [U.S. consul] Mr. Osman’s house a 24-pound shot passed through within 10 feet of him.” “A.P. Osman,” also spelled “A.P. Osmen” in the same article, is obviously a misspelled reference to A.P. Hosmer, the 29-year-old U.S. consul killed by the cannonball.
How did Peter Cruse die? It is not unlikely that Peter Cruse was the man that the newspapers named “Peter Cruser.” It would have made sense for a Philadelphia merchant to hire Peter Cruse to supervise his cargo in Honduras; few Americans knew the Honduras buyers and sellers better than he did.
Further, we might suppose that Cruse was severely wounded on May 28, 1832, when the cannon ball crashed through the wall at the consul’s house, killing Hosmer. If Cruse had been standing just 10 feet away from the point of impact, he would have found little safety from the collapsing wall. We might guess that when the Lady Bentley set sail that same day, Cruse was unable to return to Philadelphia in his debilitated condition. He probably died later from his wounds, though it should be noted that within a few months Omoa and its region had become devastated by the cholera epidemic and by yellow fever, and American seamen were among the victims.
Whatever the circumstances of Peter Cruse’s death in faraway Honduras, it does not appear that his body was ever brought back to Philadelphia. Not only did he fail to fulfill the wish of Catharine that he provide a guide for their children into adulthood, but he was never able to be placed next to his wife in the place he most revered—the churchyard of Gloria Dei.
(A notice in the newspapers in 1835 stated that their son John Peter Cruse, still a minor, would be provided for by the trustees of Peter Cruses’s estate.)