Harwich sea captain nominated for U.S. stamp
He was a Harwich sea captain, an abolitionist and in the mid-19th century, a much sought-after public speaker.
He was tried, convicted and branded in a Florida courtroom for trying to help slaves escape. Yet Capt. Jonathan Walker died in poverty, was buried in Michigan and today his name resides in relative obscurity except among history buffs and some of his family's descendants.
Now a move is afoot — led by his great-great nephew — to have the U.S. Postal Service commemorate Walker, known in his own time as the Man with Branded Hand, with a stamp.
"I think his story needs to be told, and one way to do that is to get a stamp issued with his image," said John Walker, a technical and freelance writer from Wisconsin. He has petitioned the postal service to honor his great-great uncle. "During his day, he was a well-known abolitionist. But he seems to have been lost over time," Walker said.
Capt. Walker was indeed a well- known figure in antebellum America. Leading poet of the time, John Greenleaf Whittier made him the subject of a lengthy poem. Frederick Douglass described what happened to Walker as "an atrocity." And for a number years, following his branding, Walker earned a living giving abolitionist speeches and putting his branded hand on display.
His great-great nephew heard stories about Capt. Walker from "my great-grandfather. He was Capt. Walker's grandson. He said his grandfather was a man who believed in justice and tried to live his life according to his beliefs," Walker said.
"He is a genuine American hero," said Alvin Oickle, author of the book "Jonathan Walker, the Man with the Branded Hand."
A former reporter and editor from western Massachusetts, Oickle now lives in Florida after living briefly on the Cape. Walker first came to his attention in 1991 when he was vacationing in Florida.
"I came across this reference to a sailor for Harwich who had been branded in a Florida courtroom, and couldn't wait to get home to start researching him," Oickle said in a telephone interview last week.
Walker was born in Harwich on March 22, 1799, captained a fishing vessel in his early years, then moved to Florida in 1840 to become a railroad contractor. In 1844, he was arrested off the coast of Florida while trying to help several slaves in an attempt to escape to the British West Indies. Convicted in federal court, Walker was sentenced to jail and had one of his hands branded with the letters SS for slave stealer.
"He sacrificed a normal life after he got branded. He moved back and lived on Cape Cod from 1845 to 1852 and traveled all over New England speaking. He didn't get rich, that's for sure. At one point, he and his eight children lived in a one-room shack in Plymouth, but he still took people in as part of the underground railroad," Oickle said. "He was excoriated by people for years, even in Massachusetts. Finally, he gave up and moved to what was then the Northwest in 1852," Oickle said.
"It's a great story," he said. "He was a man who dedicated his life to justice and fairness."
According to a spokesman from the U.S. Postal Service, the decision whether someone is commemorated on a stamp takes about three years and is made by Postal Service representatives and a Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee. Ideas for stamp images should be submitted at least three years in advance of the proposed issue date.
According to the criteria, "Only events, persons, and themes of widespread national appeal and significance will be considered for commemoration."
Man with Branded hand
On the Web: http://captjonathanwalker.blogspot.com/
http://www.geocities.com/brandedhand/index.html - Web site put together by John Ho, the great-great nephew of Capt. Jonathan Walker
http://www.co.muskegon.mi.us/walker.htm - Web site of Muskegon, Mich., where Capt. Jonathan Walker is buried; includes photograph of Walker's grave monument which depicts his branded hand.
http://noplaceforhateharwich.blogspot.com/2006/03/happy-207th-birthday-capt-jonathan.html - the Harwich No Place for Hate Web site, which honored Walker on his birthday three years ago and includes images of Walker and a plaque honoring him in Harwich.
Anyone who wants to support the campaign to have Capt. Jonathan Walker honored with a stamp may write:
Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, c/o Stamp Development, U.S. Postal Service, 1735 North Lynn St., Ste 5013, Arlington, VA 22209-6432