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John Howard Wilson

JOHN HOWARD WILSON was born April 9, 1871, in Philadelphia, and grew up in a period in which scientific discoveries were numerous and were given, for the first time, widespread and immediate attention. Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published some ten years earlier and was the cause of much public controversy until well into the twentieth century. The theories of Darwin, Huxley and Lamark were matters of discussion and the meeting of Huxley and Marsh at Yale, when the latter showed his magnificent collection of fossil bones, and Huxley saw each step in the evolution of the horse from the small four-toed mammal to the horse of today, captured the boy’s imagination by its drama. Indeed the complete documentation of the evolution of the horse was a bit of scientific perfection which remained a pleasure all his life.

     J. Howard Wilson’s mother, Cassine, was the daughter of Elizabeth Ceely and David Cartwright who were born and brought up, and, in 1824, were married, on Nantucket. With the decline of the whaling industry, David Cartwright, who was a ship’s master, went into the merchant service, moving to New Haven and then to New York, where he established the commission house of Cartwright and Harrison. He was a member of the Maritime Exchange and the Produce Exchange and a Director of the Commercial Mutual Marine Insurance Company. After a few years the Cartwrights moved to Brooklyn, New York where a cousin, Thomas Raymond Bunker, and his wife, the former Emmeline Birkbeck lived. Emmeline had several brothers active in the manufacture of steam engines and machinery for the refining of sugar, and in the operation of sugar refining plants; her younger sister married Edward Crabb and lived on the Crabb sugar plantations in Cuba, and her elder sister, Ann Eliza, had married Thomas Wilson who died of yellow fever in 1843 while in Cuba on business. Thomas Wilson left a young widow and a son of seven, John Birkbeck Wilson. In 1863 John B. Wilson was a partner in the firm of Crabb and Wilson, Sugar Refiners, located at the foot of Bridge Street, Brooklyn.

     John Birkbeck Wilson and Cassine Cartwright were married June 7, 1866, the wedding reception was at her home 318 Henry Street, Brooklyn, New York. Their first child, Edward, was born in Brooklyn, but in 1870 they moved to Philadelphia, where John B. Wilson was then manager of the Delaware Sugar House; there John Howard, and, in 1875, Arthur Everett were born. Some of the Birkbeck cousins also moved to Philadelphia. George Bunker, Thomas Bunker’s son, came to assist John B. Wilson in the business. George’s brother, Albert Bunker, remained in Brooklyn to work with his uncle, John Birkbeck, in the Atlantic Sugar House. The family life seems to have been very friendly, with much visiting. John B. Wilson went to Cuba in 1860 to visit his aunt and to learn the end of the business there; his cousins, aunts, and uncles, as well as his grandmother also went to Cuba, and visiting between Philadelphia and New York and Brooklyn was frequent. Summers the relatives went to resorts on the New Jersey coast or inland to the mountains in family groups, or to Nantucket where David Cartwright returned each summer.

     For several years John Birkbeck, John B. Wilson, Edward and George Crabb, and George Bunker had planned a sugar plantation and sugar refinery at Oak Point near New Orleans. Since John B. Wilson was responsible for the machinery and its installation there, in the fall of 1877, he and Cassine went to Oak Point for a week or two. A year later he returned with George Bunker to oversee the work. They went by boat to avoid an epidemic of yellow fever at New Orleans, but John Birkbeck Wilson became ill and died November 29, just thirty-five years to the day after the death of his father in Cuba.

     The happy, lively life seemed over. Cassine went back to Brooklyn with her children, their grandmother died in 1881, Edward was not well, and only the summer holidays remained somewhat the happy family excursions that they had been, usually with some weeks on Nantucket.

     In the winter of 1890-1891 Arthur and Howard went to Florida and Cuba, and to Nassau, where they were met by their mother and brother. After a few weeks Arthur and Howard returned to Brooklyn, which they had hardly reached, when they were called south again because their brother was worse. Edward Wilson died in Tampa, Florida, March 5, 1891. In July of the same year David Cartwright died in Brooklyn and Cassine had no wish to return to Nantucket. Hearing of Castine from Henry Williams, Mr. Harrison’s son-in-law, who had, in 1882, purchased Nautilus Island at the entrance to Castine Harbor, the Wilsons, after visiting North Conway and Intervale, went to Portland, Camden and Belfast. At Belfast “we changed to the little steamer Electra and came to Castine where we arrived about 5:30 P.M. Stopped at little landings on the way. Went to the Castine House.” (From J. Howard Wilson’s diary, July 13, 1891.) The following year they were settled in the house on Perkins Street which Mrs. Wilson purchased, their boats were in the water, and Howard’s small observatory was planned.

     In the fall of 1894 Howard and Arthur went abroad for three months, but the next year Howard continued his interrupted education, receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts from Brooklyn Polytechnic in 1895. Winters were then spent traveling but summer brought the Wilsons back to Castine.

     One of Mr. Harrison’s grandsons had married a Brooklyn neighbor, Alice Corbett, whose forebears came from Corbettsville, near Binghamton, New York. Alice Corbett’s cousin, Georgia Johnson, had often visited her in Brooklyn, but it was not until she visited her on Nautilus Island in 1900 that she met Howard Wilson.

     In 1902 Howard and Arthur again went to Europe; this time, knowing what interested them, they visited fossil bearing strata and prehistoric sites along the valley of the Somme, and, with Monsieur Delambre, of the Musée de Picadie, the excavations near Amiens. They also visited St. Castin in the south of France.

     J. Howard Wilson and Georgia Johnson were married February 4, 1903, at her home in Binghamton, New York. Their wedding trip was in Europe, and it was fortunate that Georgia had spent a summer there a few years before, and had enjoyed the cities and the usual tourist attractions, as this trip was a search for prehistory. They visited Stonehenge, Avebury Circle, the megalithic monuments of France, and the valley of the Vézère, which, even now contains more famous prehistoric sites than any comparable area of the world. Georgia Wilson’s memory of this trip includes damp and chilly French country inns of stone, where guests tried to reach the main room early in order to obtain the warm seats in front of the fireplace, and when going up to bed one took a candle or two from a table at the foot of the stairs, a table which would be covered with candles of all lengths in a variety of holders.

     J. Howard Wilson’s notebook for February and March mentions visiting an allé couverte near Cherbourg, a number of dolmens, covered passages and chambers in Locmariarquer, tumuli, alignments and cromlechs at Carnac and at Plouharnel. The middle of March they went to Les Eyzies “a small village about one hour southeast by railroad from Perigueux in a fine valley with cliffs all about and overhanging ledges and grottos. Under the ledges (abris) is the stratified deposit of bone breccia, and in the grottos also, which are sometimes filled.” In one of these caves a French family was living, and there the Wilsons spent the night. He wrote of this: “From the road a path led up a short slope to the foot of the cliff, there a ladder placed in the waterworn fissure furnished the means of attaining a ledge above. Then more slopes, ladders and rustic stairways until a large open grotto was reached” eighty feet above the highway. “Here in the open outer room commanding a fine view down the valley was a long rough table with benches running its length on either side. The next grotto had been enlarged for a kitchen and had a fireplace cut into the rock with a hole through the outer wall for the escape of the smoke, a small window cut through the same wall letting in much needed light.” The Wilsons were given the next chamber for their bedroom, on one side of this “a dark narrowing passage led into the heart of the rock whence one almost expected to see creep forth some strange animal or savage, half-human form.” On a narrow shelf of rock just below the cave was a garden and chicken run, and a small reservoir which held the fresh water that ran slowly from the rocky wall. In the evening “we could look as we sat at the bare wooden table in the open mouth of the cavern, down into the valley where the white road and the shining stream catching the light from the rosy sunset sky, wound together to the south.”

     They continued to explore the Vézère and the Dordogne River valleys, seeing Le Moustier, La Madeleine, Font de Gaume with its famous sculptures and paintings of extinct animals. Toward the end of April they went from Lucerne to Zürich where they met Mr. H. Messikommer and went with him by train to Wetzikon and then drove to Robenhausen, a very famous lake village site. A few days later they went to Schauffhausen where they met Dr. Nüesch and drove with him to Schweizerbild, where artifacts have been found of all ages from the Paleolithic to the Iron Age.

     These trips remain important as they resulted, not only in the fine exhibits of prehistoric material in the museum, but also in such papers, by Mr. Wilson as, “Some of the Localities in France and England Where Monuments of the Late Stone and Bronze Ages Have Been Found,” Popular Science Monthly, 1905, and “Recent Journeys Among Localities Noted for the Discovery of Remains of Prehistoric Man,” Annals of the New York Academy of Science, Vol. XI. The trips also interested him in the effect, on man, of the glacial periods, and showed the need there was for the aid that stratigraphic geology could bring paleontology in the matter of more accurate dating. Mr. Wilson had been long investigating fossil bearing strata and collecting fossil shells; his attention now focused on stratigraphic and glacial geology. He attended Columbia University Graduate School, obtaining the degree of M.A., 1905, and Ph.D., 1906. He wrote “The Glacial History of Nantucket and Cape Cod,” and “The Pleistocene Formations of Sankaty Head, Nantucket,” The Journal of Geology, Vol. XIII, and “A Glacially Formed Lake in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania,” Bulletin of the American Geographical Society, 1914.

     The Wilsons continued to travel winters even after the birth of their three children, Birkbeck, Sturgis Starbuck and Ellenore. Each summer, however, they returned to Nautilus Island which Dr. Wilson had purchased soon after his marriage. Just across the harbor was his mother’s summer home, and, in 1921 she gave an adjacent lot so that a small museum could be built. There J. Howard Wilson’s growing collections found a permanent home.

     Dr. Wilson was always an ardent fly fisherman, and was interested in Astronomy and photography. He was distressed at the waste of America’s native resources and worked for the increase of our National Parks and for the preservation of the redwoods. He was a member of the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Anthropological Association, and the Société Académique d’Histoire Internationale and a Fellow of the American Geographical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Royal Society of Arts, London. Dr. Wilson died in 1936.

Open: May 27 - September 30
Weekdays 10 am - 5 pm, Saturday & Sunday 2 - 5 pm
John Perkins House Bullet The Village Blacksmith Bullet Woodshop
July - August, Wednesday & Sunday, 2 - 5 pm
Group visits can be arranged by appointment.
(207) 326-9247   info@wilsonmuseum.org
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Admission is free, except for the John Perkins House,
where there are guided tours on the hour.
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A non-profit organization, tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) IRS Code
120 Perkins Street, PO Box 196, Castine Maine 04421
(207) 326-9247    info@wilsonmuseum.org