Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Tracing a Third Connection

Whistler is a name that has embedded itself in the American consciousness in a small but indellible way. If you have ever heard of the portrait known as "Whistler's Mother," you are more likely to be able to tell me that it was painted by James Abbott McNeill Whistler than that it was officially named, "Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1."

However, for our purposes today, it is not Whistler's mother I'm seeking—nor James Whistler, himself—but Whistler's grandfather, Captain John Whistler.

As we've already seen, all my research contortions, in hoping to discover just how it was that John Jay Jackson in Saint Louis would come to meet Sarah Howard Ijams of central Ohio, have up to this point proved fruitless. However, a chance discovery in the military records from the War of 1812 yesterday led us to someone bearing the exact same name and Maryland whereabouts as Sarah's father, William Ijams.

It just so happened that this younger William Ijams at one point served under Captain John Whistler at Fort Wayne. As far-fetched as it may seem at this point, the connection between this other William Ijams and John Whistler may be the very point leading us to an explanation of how John Jay Jackson met up with William Ijams' daughter, Sarah. Before we can contemplate the possibilities, though—and why they might be useful to our current research mission—we first need to explore what can be discovered about John Whistler, himself.

John Whistler had an interesting military career—actually, in one way, unusual. Although ridden with conflicting reports, his was a story in which most of the inconsistencies do not detract from what we need to know about his career path.

Born about 1756 in Great Britain—most likely, in or near Ulster in Ireland—John Whistler was reported to have run away from home as a teen and joined the British army, serving under General John Burgoyne during the years of what their colonial American enemies might have referred to as the Revolution. With the surrender of the British general at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, Burgoyne's entire captured army became prisoners of war, including John Whistler.

Though at this point, there are conflicting reports of Whistler's timeline, after the war's conclusion, he eventually married and settled in Maryland.

Before 1790, however, Whistler had joined the army again—only this time, it was the United States Army—and in its service was stationed at various outposts in their western frontier over the course of the next two decades.

With the start of the War of 1812, he served with his company in the First Infantry, under General William Hull, who had charge of the United States Army in the northwest. That particular general had been instructed to prepare for an invasion of Canada, but ended up surrendering to the enemy at Fort Detroit despite outnumbering the British forces, thus putting John Whistler in the ironic position, during his military career, of having become a prisoner of war on each side of America's two early wars with Great Britain—as a British soldier captured by the colonists in 1777, and as an American soldier captured by the British in 1812.

What makes John Whistler of interest to our story, however, is that he served in the capacity of building or rebuilding forts in various locations along the waterways of the then-western portions of the United States—not unlike my husband's fourth great grandfather, John Jay Jackson. Here we stumble upon a possible nexus—not only with this other, so far unidentified William Ijams, but with John Jackson, as well.

There is yet another event that strengthens this possibility—though just as lacking in documentation as the other connections. This one involves the Captain's own bereavement of his wife, Anna, and remarriage, within the next few years, to none other than the widowed wife of the elder William Ijams, Sarah Howard Ijams' father.

So now we have three parties, somehow connecting: Captain John Whistler, various members of the William Ijams family, and John Jay Jackson, the quartermaster stationed at Fort Belle Fontaine near Saint Louis. It will take a closer look at Captain John Whistler's assignments before, during and after the War of 1812 to discern where that connection between the three parties might have occurred.

Above: Illustration of Captain John Whistler from B. J. Griswold's 1917 volume, The Pictorial History of Fort Wayne, Indiana; in the public domain.


  1. Tres cool! And now I wonder if Whistler painted portraits of any other members of the family.

    1. Considering that it was unlikely that James Whistler spent much of his time in the United States, I doubt his grandfather's second wife would make the cut in his artistic endeavors. But one can hope...

  2. Replies
    1. Going on the theory that everybody is related to everyone else, I thought this was a pretty neat discovery. Considering James Whistler was born after his grandfather died--and then, spent a good deal of his growing up years in either Russia or England--it's more a connection on paper than in personal relationships. Still, a curiosity, nonetheless.

  3. Bizarre being a POW for both sides of a war (or two)!

    1. I thought that was a singular claim, but now I'm wondering how many others could say the same thing, back then.

  4. Jacqui
    Sad to say, but that is not a picture of John Whistler. Griswold got it wrong! That is an engraving from a photograph of his son, Colonel William Whistler probably taken just before his death in 1861. This image also was published, correctly identified as William Whistler, along with an image of his wife, Julia Fearson Whistler, in the book, "Chicago Antiquities" by Henry Hurlbut, c. 1881.

    1. Interesting! Thanks for pointing that out! I'll have to see if I can pull up an online copy of the Hurlbut book. This is not the first time for discovering an error in an old book. Goes to show the synergy of our at-your-fingertips, digital connections.

  5. Thank you Jacqi for this interesting research. Whistler is a family name of ours. My maternal grandfather and his sister (Dear Auntie!) always claimed that we had a distant connection to James McNeill Whistler. Our ancestors named Whistler migrated from Indiana to Northwestern Wisconsin in the 1840's. Getting any relative of James to have an Indiana connection makes my grandfather (and Aunties's) claim much closer to believable. Knowing that we might be related to an officer of the revolution and the war of 1812 is also exciting! Tony


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