Early Life and Family
Joshua James was born on November 22, 1826, in Hull, Massachusetts. He was the ninth of twelve children to Esther Dill, who was from Hingham, Massachusetts, and William James who had emigrated from Dokkum, Holland as a young man. Little is known of William James' early life except that he was a soldier in the Dutch Army before running away and becoming a sailor. In time he made his way to America, landing in Boston, where he earned a living as a sailor on numerous small schooners that provided paving stones to the city. Eventually he made his home in Hull and via frugality became the owner of his own schooner and engaged in the paving-stone business for himself.
Esther Dill was the daughter of Nathaniel and Esther (Stoddard) Dill, of Hull, both descended from the early English colonists. Her great-grandfather, Daniel Dill, served as a private in the Revolutionary Army and during the War of 1812. Ester Dill was the only girl in a family of seven children and was sixteen at the time of her marriage to William James in 1818. Soon after their marriage, in 1818, William James purchased some land by the sea and built a home. Like most people from Holland, he was a Lutheran, and it was his custom to read from the Bible he brought with him from Holland. When his children were old enough they were required to read every morning in English from the King James version of the Bible. The family attended the Methodist Episcopal church, the only Protestant church in the village, and all took part in the Sunday School, either as teachers or scholars.
He was described by his is elder sister Catherine that he had a thoughtfulness and reserve that distinguished him from other children. He was the favorite of his father, beloved by his brothers, idolized by his sisters. Joshua was a great reader from childhood on, preferring historical and scientific books, notably astronomy. His preference for practical literature is most likely due in part to his parents, whose strict religious views largely guided the children’s choice of reading. Esther Dill prohibited the reading of novels and fiction of all kinds, and forbade the neighbors lending her children novels. On one occasion she destroyed a beautiful and expensive copy of The Children of the Abbey that she found in the hands of one of her daughters.
At a very early age Joshua began to go to sea with his father and his elder bothers, Rainer and Samuel; there his fondness for astronomy stood him in good stead, and he soon became an expert navigator. His father in later years was fond of relating incidents illustrative of Joshua's good seamanship and the confidence reposed in him by other sailors. William James continued in the paving-stone trade between Hull and Boston until cobblestones were replaced by more modern paving materials. At one time he had a large contract for filling in the west end of Boston, and owned a fleet of twelve vessels of from 50 to 125 tons burden. It was his practice to give each of his sons on reaching the majority age of 25 a complete outfit for the business, including a new schooner. Joshua, with his deep love of the sea and his early training on his father's and brothers' vessels, was a natural seaman, and with such an outfit provided by his father, entered business for himself, lightering and freight-carrying. Captain Joshua James, as he now came to be called, continued in his chosen profession until his appointment as keeper of the Point Allerton Life-Saving Station in 1889.
On April 3, 1837 Joshua witnessed a pivotal event in his life; he was an eye-witness to the death of his mother and a baby sister in the shipwreck and sinking of the schooner Hepzibah in Hull Gut, only a half-mile from safe harbor. Mrs. Ester James was returning from a visit to Boston in the Hepzibah,a paving-stone hauling vessel owned by her son Reinier James. As they were passing through the treacherous Hull Gut, a sudden squall threw the vessel on her beam; the Hepzibah filled and sank before Mrs. James and her baby, who were in the cabin, could be rescued. This event was no doubt influential in shaping Joshua's life. His older sister by five years, Catherine, took over raising the family after the death of their mother.
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