Descendants of
 Captain Robert Brown
                            1809 – 1894



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Heppingstone-Brown Challenge, August 22-24, 2014

Is it possible to have TOO much fun?  We certainly tested the limits at the second match-up of the Heppingstone-Brown Challenge.  A long time in coming, the date for the latest gathering was chosen to follow the Charles W. Morgan’s restoration and return to Mystic Seaport after her 38th voyage.

The turnout wasn’t as big as last time, but even so, family members came from greater distances, both in terms of geography and relationships.  Descendants of three different Heppingstone children attended, including great-great-great grandchildren of Robert Jr., Charlotte, and John.  (We do know where some of Ellen and Elizabeth Ann’s descendants live, so perhaps they’ll join us next time…or maybe we’ll go and crash one of their parties. Road trip, anyone?) One step down the generational ladder, we had representatives of three different branches of the Haley clan, including descendants of Charlotte, Anne, and Frederick.

Meet & Greet

Friday night, arrival at the hotel. Among the descendants, we had rabble-rouser-in-chief Louise, who dragged her husband and sons to the event. Ellen brought spouse and children. Rounding out the New England clan was John with his amazing camera. Also joining us from the east coast were Pete and Chris from Virginia. The west coast sent us sisters Holly and Christi from California, plus Roger and Tae who drove all the way from Washington. The prize for the for the greatest distance traveled goes to Anne who flew in all the way from Western Australia (and seems to be taking the long route home … we do hope she’ll get there safely one day).  Most folks stayed at the Mystic Hilton, but even those who found other lodging managed to join us for a meet and greet in the hotel pub, which led to dinner, which led to more time for “talk story” in the hotel’s hospitality suite.


Roger brought a magnificent family tree, which occupied a full wall of the room, tracing something like 22 generations of the Haley lineage.

The rest of us had plenty of show-and-tell: books, stories, photographs — far more than we could ever have hoped to get through. The good news is that we’re all still around, willing and eager to compare notes.

Part of the Images of America series, Kit Foster and the Ledyard Historical Society’s book on Ledyard and Gales Ferry has a picture of the original home of Nathaniel Brown. Built in 1722, it has had many facelifts over the years, but it still stands as a private residence.


Saturday at the Seaport

We had a plan for Saturday. (Really, we did!) But things being what they are, much of it ended up as more of an ad hoc affair.

The Race

The official plan for the boat race was to start on the early side, in the faint hope of having more open water in which to maneuver.  That didn’t happen. By the time we got all the right people in the right place, it was closer to mid-day, and that was only the beginning of our little pageant. 

The seaport has a fleet of rental boats in various shapes and sizes.  A few folks opted for rowboats, from which they could watch the “race” (and I use the term very loosely). A few more hopped aboard Breck Marshall, a 20-foot catboat that the seaport uses to take folks out for sailboat rides with a professional sailor at the helm. And our official photographer snagged a ride in the committee boat.  In all, nearly everyone got out on the water in one craft or other.

Alas, for various reasons, neither of the primary contenders from the previous challenge could make it to Mystic, so the field was wide open. Our challengers comprised three teams:  Roger and Anne, Mike and Ellen, and Louise and Owen, all in fairly evenly matched catboats (except for one whose gaff peak wasn’t properly secured, but that wasn’t the boat crew’s fault).
While it looked simple enough, the single lap windward-leeward race was deceptively complicated. Catboats are wide with a relatively shallow draft and a single gaff-rig sail, ideal for fishing coastal waters, which was their original purpose. It also means they’re relatively easy to sail and very difficult to tip over, ideal (again) for sailors of varying skill levels in unfamiliar boats.
The course itself was a different story entirely.  The starting line was marked by the committee boat (headed by seaport staffer Chris Williams) and a temporary buoy, and the windward mark was one of the can buoys that marks the shipping channel.  Here’s where it gets tricky:  our gorgeous Saturday in high summer meant there was plenty of boat traffic on the river, including one big motor boat that seemed intent on having a very close view of the pretty sailboats, especially as they were trying to maneuver around the windward mark. The wind and tide were both headed downstream, and catboats–despite their many virtues–don’t point terribly high on the wind, so sailing to windward requires a lot of tacking. It’s a river, which means it has a current, and this one is narrow with one side substantially shallower than the other.   … all of which meant going down river was easy, but getting back was a beast!

So, given those conditions, we won’t go into details of how many times any of us got stuck in the mud, who got stranded on a lee shore and had to be towed to the starting line just in time to nab a prime starting position, or who managed to dump their crew overboard — although the Spiderman-like re-entry into the boat was a thing to behold! The boathouse staff deserves infinite praise for their efforts to keep us all in line. (Here’s hoping they don’t use us as an excuse to discourage similar events in the future.) It might have been a comedy of errors, but nobody was hurt, nothing was broken, and it sure was fun!

Profound thanks go out to Al Burnett and his crew at the Mystic boathouse for getting us all through the ordeal in one piece. (It looked like it may have been a bit touch-and-go for a while there.)

It was a great day to be out on the water!

Ultimately the laurels went to Roger and Anne for crossing the finish line first without breaking anything.






There’s a lovely patio behind the seaport’s membership building. We had box lunches delivered there, which meant we had a private place to sit and avoided the noise and lines at the Galley. The seaport caterers are fabulous, even if the portions were enormous!


Because we were fortunate enough to bump into him the day before, seaport historian Matthew Stackpole stopped by to chat with us about the seaport, the Charles W. Morgan, and the importance of sharing this maritime legacy with our children. Thank-you Matt!


Seaport Rambles

The afternoon was an open agenda. Some folks strolled about the seaport, one went back to the hotel for dry clothes ...


The Charles W. Morgan is the last of her kind and the crown jewel of Mystic Seaport. She just came through an extensive restoration, which made her seaworthy for the first time in nearly a century.  Her “38th Voyage”, which was about history rather than whale oil, concluded earlier in August, so she was back in her regular berth waiting to greet us.


In addition to the whaling careers of the Browns and Heppingstones, we have a special connection to this whaling ship, in particular. Nelson Cole Haley, who married young Charlotte Brown, was a harpooner during the Morgan’s third voyage and chronicled his adventures in Whale Hunt. The book is still in print, and his original handwritten manuscript is in the seaport archives.

The poster on the bulkhead in the Morgan’s main cabin describes him as “Captain Nelson Cole Haley”, but to the best of our knowledge, he never rose above the rank of first mate in the whaling industry. He may have headed some other vessel later on, but the details are still a mystery. There are family stories of him working in the sandalwood trade between Hawaii and the Orient, but those details have yet to be confirmed. If anybody knows any more of this, please step forward.

Carl Cutler, named among the founders and largely responsible for bringing the Charles W. Morgan to Mystic, is doubly significant to our clan in that his uncle, Captain Roswell Cutler, married Robert and Charlotte Brown’s middle daughter, Alura.

This plaque is on the Wendell building, now home to the seaport’s collection of ships’ carvings and figureheads, and a regular venue for musical performances.

Roann, an eastern-rig dragger, was the Morgan’s faithful companion during her 38th Voyage.
Sabino is a 1908 steamboat, originally used as a ferry between Maine and the coastal islands, now carries passengers and party cruises up and down the river. We didn’t get out on her this time, but one of these days...

More than ships (although there are plenty of those), Mystic Seaport covers 19 acres on the shore of the Mystic River, comprised of a 19th century maritime village (not reproductions, but  authentic buildings, many relocated to the site), exhibit halls, a planetarium, millions of historic artifacts, and a world-class maritime research facility.

Every vessel, every building, every corner, every artifact has a story. We just wish we had time for them all!

...and some of us relaxed on the terrace at the Spouter Tavern next to the Morgan’s berth at Chubb’s Wharf sipping adult beverages because, frankly, we needed them.



In conjunction with the Morgan restoration, the seaport has ten reproduction whaleboats, which accompanied her on her summer voyage. During some of her port calls, visitors had the opportunity to take to the oars and go for short trips around various harbors. A series of chance conversations brought about a similar opportunity for us after the seaport closed for the day. Jim Mortimer, Liz Kading, and their crew from the seaport staff met us at the whaleboat dock and headed boats out for us to take our turns at the oars.

This isn’t your ordinary rowboat experience.  Depending on their position in the boat, the oars are 15 to 17 feet long, while the steering oar is 21 feet long, and they’re easily as big around as your forearm. These are some big oars, but –being made of spruce–remarkably light for their size.

It was late in the day, and doubtless most of us were tired, so nobody was up for a long pull. Just moving the oars in the proper direction at the proper time was more than enough exercise, even if it might not have felt like were pulling terribly hard because they’re so well balanced. You row, the boat moves, no biggie, right?  Wrong. Despite the excellent instruction from the helmsmen (Note: “hold” and “avast are not synonymous here), a few of us managed to crab oars or dunk the blades when we weren’t supposed to, and here’s where it got interesting. More than one person (and there were few lightweights among us), dipping an oar blade out of sync with the rest, was handily tipped over backward off the thwarts by the irresistible force of the oars meeting their chests. It’s impressive. What’s more, it demonstrates with stunning clarity how a half dozen men in a small and fragile craft could chase down and then return to their ship with the carcass of a whale that was often twice the length and 75 times the weight of their boat.




There’s a phenomenon the locals call the “Mystic bubble”, which happens surprisingly often when an ominous weather pattern threatens, but skips right around the seaport. This was just such an evening.

Grand plans for a comprehensive photo shoot on and around the Morgan turned into a quick click-and-run, but we did manage a portrait with most of the group, ‘tho a handful had already run for their cars.

Back to the hotel for dinner, talk story, and some much needed sleep.

Of Sawmills and Ancestors

When Nathaniel Brown first came to Connecticut in the early 18th century, he settled in Groton. For a time, the family lived in Preston, and finally in Ledyard. What’s remarkable about this is that they lived in three different towns without ever actually moving. Centered on local churches, new villages were formed and incorporated all around them.


The early Browns were farmers, but the land needed clearing and farms needed all manner of metal tools and other implements, so they operated a sawmill and blacksmith shop, as well. Generations increased. Brothers and cousins built up their own establishments, but for a hundred years or more, they stayed in the same general area, which came to be known as the “Brownton” section of Ledyard. In the 1830s, the Brown family bought a mill from Philip Gray and operated it for some 70 years. The present mill is a reconstruction of one built by Israel Brown (a young cousin of our Robert) in 1877. Aaron Brown (Robert’s father) had one farther upstream. The mill includes a period “up-and-down” saw, the same technology that has been used there for more than two hundred years, long before the circular saw was invented.


Much of the building has been reconstructed over the years, but a few of the original timbers remain, and the kind volunteers who maintain the Ledyard Sawmill (now a national historic site) graciously opened it to show us around.

Adjacent to the park is the Peckham-Brown-Main cemetery where much of the Brown family was laid to rest, including our Robert’s parents.

Polly Wilcox Brown

Aaron Brown

Anyway, it’s a lovely spot for a picnic.  We brought lunch, traded more stories, awarded Challenge prizes, and bid a very fond farewell … until the next time.

A Toast

When we started the Heppingstone-Brown Challenge, the purpose was to keep ancestral maritime skills alive in the following generations, but really it’s about bringing family together to honor our common ancestry, share stories (maybe make a few new ones), and remember where we came from.  I think we’ve done that.  The finest champagne couldn’t do justice to my heart today.

And so, I toast you with water, because it was water that carried our ancestors around the globe. There is no ocean they didn’t cross —granted that was salt water, but drinking that stuff never ends well, so this will have to do. I might have wished for a bigger turnout, but I cannot imagine a better one. Thank you all so very much for coming!

*Many thanks to John and Pete for supplying most of these photographs. If anybody else has pictures or stories to add, by all means, please send them along!



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