Chincoteague Island Heritage Day draws descendants of James Alone, the Spanish child who was the only survivor of an 1802 shipwreck

Chincoteague Island Heritage Day draws descendants of James Alone, the Spanish child who was the only survivor of an 1802 shipwreck

Reported this week, visitors to the Chincoteague Island Museum Heritage Day were able to discover more about their origins, particularly the many descendants of the young sole survivor of an Assateague shipwreck in 1802.

In 2000, writer Helen O’Neill wrote about the remarkable impact the child’s arrival had on future generations of Assateague and Chincoteague islanders.  The young boy’s mother had strapped him to a hatch-cover and desperately pushed him into the ocean as their ship went down.  The islanders found him on the beach.  Unable to understand the few foreign words that the olive-skinned child spoke, they called him James Alone and raised him as one of their own.

James Alone became a firm part of island life.  One day, when he was about 20, he rowed to the mainland and walked 30 miles to the county courthouse in Accomac.  There he changed his name to James Lunn, then made his way back to the island and stayed for the rest of his life.  Today hundreds of islanders carry James Lunn’s DNA.  He married twice and had 4 children: James T. Lunn, John Pernell Lunn, Delany Lunn and Comfort Lunn.  They all married, and went to produce further generations of Lunns.  In the early 1900s, their descendants were forced off the island of Assateague by an absentee landowner and moved to the neighbouring island of Chincoteague, where today about 25% of the population of 3,500 can trace their roots to James Lunn.  With their dark complexions they are known locally as the ‘Mediterranean Chincoteaguers’, and most bear the surnames Barrett, Birch, Hills, Clark, as well as Lunn.

The grandaughter of James T. Lunn, Ernestine Holston, recalled her grandmother showing her the spot on the Assateague beach where James Alone was found, and telling her about life in the village where he had grown up.  Ernestine inherited the old family Bible and inside it found her grandfather’s obituary, which reported his death by drowning in 1913.  It also told how James T. Lunn’s father was washed ashore from “a stranded French bark.” Ernestine’s late husband, John Holston, spent his last 20 years researching the James Alone story and hand wrote a genealogical chart of around 350 of his descendants on a 9 foot long scroll which Ernestine still keeps.  It shows how most Chincoteaguers are interconnected in some way through this common ancestor.

It was an ‘outsider’, ex-Navy submariner Ben Benson who settled in Chincoteague in 1996, who shed most light on the half-forgotten James Alone story.  With a specific interest in wrecked treasure ships, he found no record of a French wreck off Assateague and believed it was more likely that James Alone came from a Spanish treasure ship called the Juno.  The Juno was a 34-gun Spanish frigate, en route from Puerto Rico to Cadiz when it sank in a fierce storm in 1802.  It was carrying 425 passengers, including Spanish soldiers, and some of their wives and children. It was also reputedly laiden with gold and silver.

Benson had detected the wreck of the Juno buried in shallow waters off the coast of Assateague, and local fisherman confirmed that an 18th century anchor, snagged in their nets in 1989, appeared to have the name JUNO faintly engraved on it.  When Benson had appealed for information about Spanish wrecks in the Chincoteague Beacon, the islanders produced salvaged muskets, an ornately carved table, and late 18th century ‘pieces of eight’, which had been passed down the generations.  They also led Benson to the story of James Alone.

Benson borrowed John Holston’s chart, and hired professional genealogists to research archives in Spain, Puerto Rico and Virginia.  They uncovered documents relating to the Juno, including newspaper accounts of its sinking, letters of condolence, and a list those who perished, including Captain Don Juan Ignacio Bustillo.  With the state of Virginia’s permission, Benson dove on the site and recovered artefacts such as anchors, musket balls, coins, pewter plates, and a small cannon, but he was forced to stop when Spain claimed jurisdiction over the site.  This didn’t stop him continuing his research of the story of James Alone and his descendants, which he hoped would eventually lead to the tracing of the boy’s parents; Benson had already narrowed it down to three couples on the ship.

This week’s exhibition featured John Holston’s genealogy chart, with James Alone at its apex.  Some visitors learned for the first time that they were also his descendants, and were able to add many more additions to the family tree.  A digitized version is being created by volunteer Ruth Spann. Replicas of the original family tree are are available at the Museum for a donation of $20 and the digital version will be available soon for a $30 donation.



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Posted by Abroad in the Yard on Friday, 14 August 2015