Captain Jonathon Walker
The Man with the Branded Hand
by Kelly Daniels
The grave of Capt. Walker, The grave of Jane Walker,
the Man with the Branded Hand, wife of Jonathon, in the
in Evergreen Cemetery Norton Shores Cemetery
This is a brief summery of the life of Captain Walker, of interest to this website because the last 14 years of his life were spent here in Muskegon County. He’s buried under a memorial in Evergreen Cemetery, but more on that later. All of the facts concerning Jonathan came from “Jonathan Walker the Man with the Branded Hand” by Alvin F. Oikle. This is a must read for anyone interested in the full story of our good Captain.
Jonathan was born on March 22, 1799 to Seth and Marcy Walker; he had 3 older brothers and 3 younger sisters. The place of birth was Harwich Massachusetts on Cape Cod. He came from a family of farmers but at the age of 17 when it was time for him to chose a life for himself, he chose the sea. It seems this fact is what led him to his attitudes on slavery and equality for all people. His travels exposed him to many different people and cultures. The skills he learned in this time were how he earned his living for the first half of his life.
On October 8th 1822 he married Jane Gage whom he had 9 children with. All 9 survived their parents. They remained married until Jane’s death here in Muskegon County on October 12th 1871; she was 68. She is buried in the Norton Cemetery, how she came to be buried separately from her husband will also be addressed later. For now we’ll look at the fact that brought Captain Walker some certain fame, the branding of his right hand.
Before Saturday June 22 1844, Jonathan was an abolitionist in mind set and feeling, after that he was one in deed also. It was on that day that he tried to help 7 slaves escape from plantations in Pensacola Florida by sailing them to Nassau in the Bahamas. He made it as far as the tip of Florida when he was captured in the area of the Florida Keys on July 8th. The 7 escapees were returned to bondage and Jonathan was held in a jail on Key West. He was returned to Pensacola on the 18th, held aboard ship and turned over to the authorities on the 19th. He had almost a year of captivity to look forward to before his troubles would be behind him.
His first trial wasn’t held until November 11th. It was in the US Federal court of Florida in Pensacola. This was a long time to be held with out charge and with out counsel even back then. On the 11th it was determined that he had no lawyer so court was delayed until the 14th. At that time he was charged with 4 separate counts rather then just one count of slave stealing. The prosecutor separated each slave and made it a different charge; the last 3 were prosecuted during his second trial. He was found guilty of all 4 charges on the 14th. His sentence was announced on November 16th, he was to stand in a pillory for 1 hour, have his right hand branded with an SS (for slave stealer), serve 15 days in jail and pay a fine of $150 plus costs. He was to remain in jail until these fines were paid. Even if he had had the money at that time it would not have bought his freedom. On the 18th of November these penalties were carried out. The branding took place right in the court room; the 1 hour in the pillory was in front of the court house. Then before he was returned to his cell he was served with the papers for the last 3 charges.
This second trial didn’t occur until May 8th 1845. Once again after a short trial he was convicted on all counts. This time the only penalties assessed were fines, a total of almost $600 - a truly staggering amount of money at the time. His friends back on Cape Cod had started a Walker Committee; they managed to raise the money for the fines and another $300 to pay a lawyer to deliver it. By May 20th Jonathon was a free man again.
After his return to Massachusetts Captain Walker turned to the abolitionist lecture circuit rather then back to the sea for his living. The Branded Hand was a big draw to the cause of freedom for the slaves, but it was not a lucrative one. By the early 50’s Jonathon and his family were penniless. Tired and getting older Jane and Jonathon decided to start over in the old North West. It was 1852 when they moved to Wisconsin. It was here that Walker; always the social reformer, on 2 occasions attempted to found organized communities. These are the types of communities we called communes in the 20th century. Both of these efforts failed and he moved once again. In early 1864 Jonathon and his wife Jane moved to Michigan.
Walker settled at Lake Harbor in Norton Township. Jane died here in 1871 and Jonathon passed away April 30th 1878 and was laid to rest next to Jane in the Norton cemetery. It seems though that even in death Captain Walker was a wanderer. At his first funeral Jonathon was attended to by friends and neighbors, it was small and simple service. After the news of his passing reached the rest of the country his many friends decided this was not enough, so a plot was donated in Evergreen cemetery in Muskegon by a friend and a fitting monument purchased. On August 1st 1878 there was procession a mile long and an estimated 6000 people in attendance. But this still was not the final resting place of our good captain. On August 16th 1921 to make it easier for tourists to find his monument he was moved up by the entrance to Evergreen cemetery, were he remains to this day.
In closing I’d like to leave you with part of a letter Jonathon wrote in the 1870’s describing life on his farm and the township:
“And now we see all about us the broad acres of fruit trees, grape and strawberry vines, raspberries, etc. Of the strawberries this season, over 3000 bushels were shipped from here in a steamer for the Chicago market. We have also our corn, wheat, and oat fields with an ample supply of all kinds of vegetable production that can be grown in this climate. And instead of the wild animals, which had no respect for the “rights of man,” we have the domestic animals to provide us with bread and butter. And “Lo,” the poor red man that roamed over our section with rifle, spear, and traps, has fled to other parts in pursuit of business. These changes have been gradual. A large steam sawmill in full operation, three district schools well attended, and two railroads passing through our township speed us on our way to progress.”
What he thought of all these changes is unknown, it’s my feeling though that they were bitter sweet to him.
So this is as stated, a very brief introduction to the life of Captain Jonathon Walker. For those interested Mr. Oickle’s book will fill in the rather larger gaps I have left here.