Immigrant John Fillmore
This week we turn to tales of high sea adventure, complete with swarthy pirates, and we even come across an American president.
Not much is known about the first John Fillmore (there are four generations of John Fillmores in succession). John Fillmore I (my seven times great-grandfather), was born in England in 1676, some say in Kent, others in Manchester. John was a mariner.
At an early age, John immigrated to Massachusetts. The exact date and the name of the ship that carried him are unknown.
While working in Boston as a seaman in the year 1711, his ship was captured by the French. The entire crew was taken prisoner to Martinique. The sailors were later ransomed, but they were believed to have been poisoned by their French captives. Many of the crew died on the return voyage, including John. He left behind his wife, Abigail Tilton Fillmore, and three young children.
Eleven years later, the widow Abigail’s two brothers were involved in a sea adventure of their own. Jacob and Daniel Tilton achieved some degree of fame when they overcame and killed several Indians who had taken them hostage on their fishing schooner. Their tale was immortalized in a poem by the name, “Traqick Scene,” published in the New England Courant in December 1722.
Abigail and John’s oldest son, (John Fillmore II), was also a mariner. This career choice was contrary to his mother’s better judgement. Who could blame her after losing her husband and almost losing her brothers? Abigail had hoped her son would follow in the footsteps of her father and become a carpenter, but John II developed a love for the ocean.
As it would turn out, John II suffered his share of misfortune on the high seas as well.
On September 5, 1723, Captain John Phillips, an infamous pirate, captured young John II as he and his crew-mates fished for cod aboard the sloop Dolphin. John was forced into the pirate’s service.
Captain Phillips was brutal and ruthless, even by pirate standards. One day, in a fit of rage and paranoia, Phillips ran his sword through one of his own men, breaking off the tip in the man’s spine. Even then, not finished, he pulled out his pistol and shot the man through the head. Seeing what he had done, he exclaimed, “I have sent one of the devils to Hell! Where is Fillmore? He shall go next!”
John Fillmore was then brought on deck. Phillips held the nearly four-foot barrel of the gun to John’s chest, but the gun misfired. When Phillips tried a second time, John was successful in deflecting the barrel away when the shot went off, resulting in no injury. Captain Phillips then ordered John back to duty, telling him the incident was but to “try him.”
John realized his death was likely a matter of time, and he masterminded an escape plan. About eight months after his initial capture, John and two other captives overtook Phillips and his band of pirates, in a true-to-life action plot you would only believe could happen in the movies.
At the appointed signal, the prisoners sprang into action. Armed with a carpenter’s axe and hammer, the team took down four of the pirates in a bloody fight to the death. The remaining pirates surrendered. (Look at me! I’m the captain, now!)
Victorious, John and the other subjugators sailed back to Boston. The captive’s tale of their uprising and the overthrow of their pirate oppressors fascinated the town and the local papers championed their heroism.
A court of admiralty found the surviving pirates guilty and they were shipped to London and hung on Execution Dock. The same court presented John with the pirate’s gun, silver-hilted sword, a “curious” tobacco box, a silver shoe, knee buckles, and two gold rings.
After his harrowing experience (and after very nearly echoing his father’s death at sea), John gave up fishing and moved to Norwich (later re-named Franklin), Connecticut. Ironically, he was thereafter known as “Captain” John Fillmore. He married Mary Spiller and the couple had fourteen surviving children, including John Fillmore III.
John III moved to New Brunswick, Canada in 1760, after the British defeat of the French in Montreal. British Governor Charles Lawrence urged settlers from New England to relocate and settle in eastern Canada. John III’s family was among the estimated 8,000 who emigrated between 1759 and 1768.
My ancestors lived in New Brunswick for five generations before my grandmother, Hazel Adelia Weldon, immigrated back to the United States in 1930 (See Part Three).
As far back as I can remember, I have heard my family’s oral tradition that we were somehow related to Millard Fillmore, thirteenth president of the United States. My research bears out truth to the claim, although the relationship is a distant one.
President Fillmore is my second cousin, five times removed. Our most common ancestor is Captain John Fillmore II, who was Millard Fillmore’s great-grandfather, and my six times great-grandfather.
Millard Fillmore was born into poverty in upstate New York. He truly was born in the preverbal log cabin. He worked on the family farm and had no formal education. He apprenticed as a wool carder and then worked in a law office. He was admitted to the New York Bar Association at the age of 23.
Fillmore held political office, and eventually was elected Vice President. He ascended to the presidency in 1850 when Zachary Taylor died about one year into his first term. Never directly elected to the office, he became dubbed “the Accidental President.”
Fillmore championed every cause Taylor had opposed. He is almost always included on lists of the least effective, and most disliked presidents.
Fillmore supported the Compromise of 1850, which resulted in postponing southern state succession, but did so through the expansion of slavery and the authorization of the Fugitive Slave Act, a law requiring civilians to assist in the recovery of runaway slaves and denying a fugitive’s right to a jury trial. For the first time, federal officials became responsible for enforcing the law.
The law proved a disaster for former slaves attempting to build new lives in the North. The Underground Railroad became more active during this period, and an estimated 20,000 Blacks left their homes and fled to Canada between 1850 and 1860.
Although he took a formal stance opposing slavery, for Fillmore, the issue was more political than moral.
When Fillmore ran for President as the incumbent in 1852, his own Whig party passed him over in favor of another candidate, and even then, the Democratic party candidate, Franklin Pierce, won all but four states in an embarrassing landslide.
Fillmore was the last Whig ever to hold the presidency. The Whig party imploded and the Republican party gained in stature. Fillmore refused to join the Republicans, and instead ran unsuccessfully for President again in 1856, this time under the American Party, better known by their nickname, the Know Nothing Party.
Fillmore’s politics were frequently anti-Masonic, anti-Catholic, anti-Irish, anti-German, and particularly significant for this Blog, anti-immigrant.
Millard Fillmore was the epitome of a man who realized the American Dream. He was a man who was fully aware of his family lineage, and early immigrant status. He was a man who enjoyed the freedom to worship as he chose.
Despite all this, Millard Fillmore worked to deny future immigrants entry to our country based on their religion and country of origin—entry to the very country that provided him with all the components he needed to move from an improvised log cabin to the most powerful house in the land.
It is also interesting to note Millard Fillmore held possession of the sword Captain John Fillmore II received for his part in slaying the pirate, John Phillips.
President Fillmore can be admired for being a self-made man and thriving in the face of hardship, but I cannot honor his political views or the legacy of his presidency.
John Fillmore I immigrated to New England seeking a life of boundless opportunity and a hope for economic prosperity. My family has benefited in countless ways from his choices and his adventurous spirit. I believe it is time for all descendants of immigrants in this nation to team together and support families who are not as fortunate.
Has your family benefited from immigration to America? Do you believe our diverse population makes us stronger? Do you want to be part of the solution? Consider the following:
Medical Teams International is a global non-profit, with offices in nine countries and five states. The charity provides disaster relief from natural disasters and man-made crises, where needs outstrip the local capacity to respond. Their teams provide crucial healthcare supplies and support when hurricanes, earthquakes, war, or other natural and man-made disasters threaten lives. Here is the link to their website:
The world is facing the largest refugee crisis since World War II, surpassing 65.5 million refugees worldwide, an unprecedented number—that’s more than the population of eight western US states combined!
In the words of Medical Teams International:
“More people than ever before are suffering as the result of both natural and human-made disasters. When political actors fail to fix a broken world, it’s incumbent upon people who are compassionate to restore physical, emotional and spiritual wholeness.”
Please be a part of the solution and consider offering your support to Medical Teams International. You can provide medical and dental care, humanitarian aid, and holistic development programs to people in need.
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My Family Tree:
- Edward Fillmore
- Captain John Fillmore (1676) Immigrant from England to Massachusetts
- John Fillmore (1702) Great-grandfather to President Millard Fillmore
- John Fillmore (1725) Emigrant from New England to Canada
- John Fillmore (1763)
- Rufus Fillmore
- Margaret Elizabeth Fillmore
- Edgar Wilson Weldon
- Hazel Adelia Weldon (Immigrant to the United States, See Part Three)
- Weldon Paul deMeurers
- Me (Alan deMeurers)
Running count of my direct immigrants from Europe to North America = 27