The Careers of John Thomas Wescott, Jr. - Life-Saving Service and Captain

Published on 1 May 2021 at 08:00

The Wescott family. I grew up with my mom's paternal side, the Wescotts. We heard many stories of my grandfather's father and his grandfather. My grandfather told stories of how his great-grandfather was at the first Wright Brothers' flight, but he did not witness it because he was taking a nap at the time. Oh, the lore of the family history!  


The Wescott family was there alright, but the story is a little different. His brothers and cousins who were there, not him.

John Thomas Wescott, Jr. was my 2nd great-grandfather. In his 86 years of life, he married twice, had two full-time careers, was an inventor, and had several business ventures. He started school when he was six years old. His father was a fisherman in Currituck, North Carolina.  


Around that same year, the American Civil War came to North Carolina. J.T. recalls the Burnside Expedition; The Battle of Roanoke Island. In a newspaper article dated June 1, 1939, he states his father became a prisoner because they harbored two Confederate soldiers who were injured. Also in the article, he refers to Virginia Dare, the first English-born child in the Americas and who Dare County is named after. We, my genealogical cousins and I, have been unable to find any record of John Sr. being a POW, but that does not mean he was not one. It could have been an overnight stay in jail, or he had to pay a fine, or he was part of the prisoner exchange.


John Thomas engaged in the Life-Saving Service as a Surfman in the Nags Head Station- then known as No. 7- at age 22 and served there for five years. He married Lovey C. Tillett (his 3rd cousin) in Dare, North Carolina on, October 19, 1876, when he was 23 years old. Lovey was only 16. 


Photo Above: Nags Head Station

A year later, their daughter, Dora D. Wescott, was born. Sadly, Lovey died precisely 11 months later. Many believe she had complications with her birth and could not overcome them. John found himself with a new career, farming his land, and a widow with an 11-month-old baby.


His aunt, Sabra Hackett, lived with him and helped him raise Dora. With the help of his aunt, his career started thriving, and his brothers soon joined him.


Photo Above from Left: Charles Davis Wescott.  The three men above right are Edgar Chadwick,

Obadiah Wescott, and John Thomas Wescott. (Edgar is Martha Chadwick's brother)


John's position was a boatswain with the United States Revenue Cutter Service, which, at that time, delivered supplies to the life-saving stations along the coast. He served this position for six years. 


John soon married again to Martha Ann Chadwick. She was 18 and John was 30. They had five children plus Dora. A year after the marriage, his father died.


Later that year, they moved to Elizabeth City, and his daughter Laura Chadwick Wescott was born.


In 1887, he was appointed Keeper of the Poyner's Hill Lifesaving Station at the rate of $700.00 per year. During his tenure here, he helped save over twenty-five lives, all under grim and perilous conditions.

The land the station was on was owned by the Currituck Shooting Club. It was an exclusive club for hunters of fowl from all over. You can read more about the club here. I do not believe the Wescotts were members. 


When John's daughter Mary was younger, she wrote a letter describing her life on the sandbar to the St. Nicholas Magazine: An Illustrated Book For Young Folks by Mary Mapes Dodge.

In 1892 John designed the box for Coston signals. (Did you know that Coston Signals were invented by Madame Martha J. Coston?)


The Surfmen were supplied with appropriate clothing and boots, a lantern, a Coston Signal Kit, and a Surfman’s brass badge or token on which was noted his station and number. The Coston Signal was not unlike today’s flare gun and was to be used as a warning device when necessary. It was the duty of the Surfman to constantly look seaward as he walked, looking for ships in distress. If he saw a vessel that was headed into danger he fired a Coston Signal in the hope the master of the ship would realize his error and turn seaward. If the vessel was already in the process of foundering, the signal was deployed to indicate they had been discovered and help was on the way. In such a circumstance it was critical that the patrolman take accurate note of the circumstances and quickly return to the station to appraise the Keeper of the details. Accurate information was essential to allow the Keeper to decide what apparatus should be transported to the scene. ~History of the U.S. Life-Saving Service - III, Life At The Station by Tom Wimbrow

In 1900 J.T. was Secretary and Treasurer of the newly founded North Carolina Surfman's Mutual Benefit Association.  He also designed a Cartouch Box similar to this one (Right).

His mother died in 1902, and shortly afterward, Mabel Agassiz Wescott was born. Her middle name has always fascinated me, so I did a little research. I found Alexander Agassiz made three expeditions aboard the Albatross to collect specimens, explore the ocean depths, and study coral islands and reefs. John was such a lover of the sea and ships, so maybe he named her after Alexander.


In 1903, the Wright Brothers came calling to the Kill Devils Hill Life Saving Station in Kitty Hawk. 


John T. Daniels, my 1st cousin 3x removed, married Amanda Wescott, my 2nd cousin 3x removed, John Thomas Wescott's Aunt. John T. Daniels is now famous for taking the first picture of the Wright Brothers' flight and, for “a few minutes, though unconventional, Daniels “flew” with the flier, becoming the third man to fly in the Wright Flyer and the first man to be involved in an airplane accident."  John T. Daniels in an interview with Collier’s Weekly, September 17, 1927.


In 1915, the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service and the U.S. Lifesaving Service merged to form a new agency, the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1939 the Coast Guard absorbed the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and by 1946 it had also absorbed the Steamboat Inspection Service.


Two years later, in 1917 and at age 63, Captain John Thomas Wescott retired. I believe if he had not been forced to retire, he would have continued in the Coast Guard. But, retirement did not stop J.T. On to another career.

By the following year, Captain Wescott moved his family to Waynesville, North Carolina, better known as Lake Junaluska. 


Captain Wescott was in the right place at the right time, for the first passenger boat was put on the lake; it was operated by a Captain Wescott and was named "Unagusta." Captain Wescott started his new career at age 64. A boat was built to ply the lake and transport visitors from the railway station to the Terrace Hotel. Captain Wescott, who for a period was manager of the Terrace. The name was later changed to Cherokee; this boat became obsolete, and in 1952 the Cherokee II was built. 

~Source: Junaluska Jubilee: A short history of the Lake Junaluska Assembly, Inc. on the occasion of its Fiftieth Anniversary.

"The Cherokee", picture courtesy of the Spence/Wescott family.  Circa 1920.

At age 76, Captain Wescott was still going strong. The Duke alumni held their reunion at Lake Junaluska where the Captain took them on a tour of the lake before their retreat.  

On December 26, 1933, J.T., age 80, and Martha, age 68, celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary. He passed away on March 11, 1940 at the age of 86, of heart failure. He was living with his son, Albert Read Wescott, Sr. at the time. He is buried at Maplewood Cemetery in Durham, NC.






About the author:  Marlee Logan’s interest in genealogy was to learn more about herself and, to do that, she had to find out about her ancestors and what they went through. As her grandmother always said, ‘It’s all in the genes’. She now enjoys helping others find more about their own ancestors.

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Stanley Wescott Spence
3 months ago

My father Talmage Tolly Spence road the boat at Lake Junaluska during the summers as a boy. Captain Wescott was his Grandfather.
Loved your article. Great writing,