Thursday, March 11, 2010

Paper Collectibles Show

Shortly after discovering our wonderful treasures and the stories behind them, my mom found an advertisement for a historical paper collectibles show about 40 minutes from home. Being the enthusiastic mom-and-daughter duo that we are, we thought it would be a fun field trip, with my other sister, to take the book and telegram and see what we could learn.

Upon entering the convention center, we were directed into the exhibit hall to meet the “expert,” a dealer/exhibitor named John Heleva (who wasn’t exactly the Antiques Roadshow type). I was young at the time, but my mother pulled out her journal recently, and here is how our conversation with Mr. Heleva went...

We showed him the book.

“Hmmmmm....a thousand dollars, maybe” he said.

My mother was honestly surprised. It seemed more important than that to her, but, she figured: what do I know? We realize now, that was exactly what he was thinking: “What does she know?” There she stood, with me and my sister, Ashley, in a wheelchair; she was obviously “just a mom”.

We showed him the telegram. “Wow”, he whispered, in spite of himself.


“Is it worth more than the book do you think?”

“Naaah. I’d sell them as a set. Four to five thousand.”

That makes it worth more than the book if my math is correct, thought Mom. This was the first sign that everything wasn’t quite right here.

“Sell to whom?” she asked.

“I know the guy who bought out all the Central America treasure. Dwight.”

“Really? Can you tell me how to reach him?” It was a lead at least to someone who might care more than this guy.

His answer shocked us. “No”, he replied after a long pause, “You’ll have to deal through me.”

“I see. Fine...thank you for your time.”

The next time we saw him, as we were leaving the show, he was sitting at his booth, his back to us, stuffing down a sandwich. His pants were too low, and we had to avert our eyes.

Before we left the show however, we stopped at a stamp collection booth, something I was into as a little girl. As I was looking at the stamps, my mom was looking at an original art piece of a side-wheel steamer. She struck up a conversation about the art piece with the dealer.

“It’s beautiful,” she said. “My grandfathers captained paddlewheel steamers in the Pacific Northwest. In fact, that’s why I’m here. My third great-grandfather was the 2nd officer on the S.S. Central America and I have some artifacts with me connected to the shipwreck.”

We showed him the things.

There was a wonderful pause.

“Wow,” the exhibitor and a nearby patron responded in unison. “You know what you ought to do with that?” said the exhibitor with excitement. “Take it over to the F.U.N. show at the Orlando Convention Center—just down the street here. Ask for David Bower, booth 400 something, section E, left hand side of the aisle, I think.”

We felt the thrill of inner confirmation though we had no idea what F.U.N. stood for. The exhibitor went on to explain that the F.U.N Show was the biggest coin collector show in the nation.

Of course! we realized. The Central America was a sunken gold mine, recovered in 1989; the treasure had just begun entering circulation! Who would be more interested in our artifacts than…TA! DA!...coin collectors!

And there they were – all those numismatic enthusiasts -- all together that very weekend – right across the street...

Sunday, February 28, 2010


“Will you go down with me?”

“Yes, Captain.”

Even though James had a young wife, and two small children at home in Brooklyn, he agreed to stay at his captain’s side until the end. They both dressed in full uniform and stood together on the wheelhouse – waiting for their inevitable doom. All of the sudden the ship made three great lurches as it started to go under. A massive wave engulfed the ship and tore James from Captain Herndon’s side.

As he splashed into the sea, James instinctively threw off his boots and coat and swam away from the crowd of drowning men and the whirlpool effect created by the sinking vessel.

He then spent several hours in the open ocean, throughout a dark, stormy night, desperately holding onto a chair. Close to complete exhaustion, James came upon one of the ship’s passengers, Dr. Obed Harvey, who was using a door as a floating device. Even though it was a risk to his own life, Harvey agreed to share his door with James. Dr. Harvey is later quoted with saying:

“The man said his name was Frazer and that if he were lost at sea, he would leave a young family in New York destitute. ... I told him ... that we would sink or survive together."

In the very early morning, they were rescued together by another ship, the Norwegian bark Ellen. At his first opportunity, in the port at Norfolk, Virginia, James sent his wife the precious telegram we found in the box.

“Ship foundered at sea. Will be home as soon as I can. J.M. Frazer”

After learning more about our ancestor’s history and connection to the notorious event, our family heirlooms (the book and telegram) became even more of a treasure to us. We handle them carefully like the cherished objects they are; considering them more precious than gold…

Now….if only we could have gotten our hands on some of that sunken gold….Oh wait, we did!

To be continued…

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Telegram

Just when we thought our Mary Poppins-like box had run out of surprises, one last dive into the unknown unearthed a folded, yellowed piece of paper.

See image:

It was a telegram! - a telegram sent from my forth-great grandfather, James Monroe Frazer, to his wife in Brooklyn, New York!

“Ship foundered at sea…”???

What did THAT mean? The telegram was sent September 18, 1857, just six days after the sinking of the SS Central America!

Was my grandfather a part of that historic event?!
WHY was he on the ship?
did he survive?

Little did my mother and I realize that the search for answers to these questions would occupy us for the next several months -- even years. We searched and analyzed every possible resource: newspapers, books, websites, forums, historical societies, and even traveled to New York City - all in our quest to discover more.

Of course, we first assumed that James was one of the passengers on the Central America. But shiver me timbers! Imagine our surprise when we discovered that he was actually an OFFICER! but not any officer! he was the captain’s 2nd mate! and not only 2nd mate, but the highest ranking officer to survive the sinking!

Because of this, his official deposition of the incident was recorded in all the country’s major newspapers. His survival story was also recorded.

After a fierce three-day battle with a foundering (sinking) ship in the middle of a tremendous hurricane, the captain, Lt. William Lewis Herndon, directed the transfer of all one hundred women and children to the brig Marine, another vessel five miles off. Once all of the women and children were safely on board the Marine (a heroic feat for the Captain, his officers, and crew), Captain Herndon turned to my grandfather and asked: “Would you like to go down with me?”

And my grandfather answered...

To be continued…

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Box

Like Mary Poppins’ magical bag stuffed with never ending wonders, the old cardboard box kept my grandparents, mother, and I pulling out discovery after discovery. At the top of the box’s contents were dozens and dozens of photos of unknown ancestors, some with identifiers and others without.

“James M. Frazer? Who’s that?”

“Mary Ann McGovern?”

“Are these their children?”

Curious to discover more, we dug deeper into the “magical box.” As we each pulled out some new item, we studied and analyzed our findings. My grandmother, finding a very old, skinny book, sat down on a dining room chair and started carefully examining the book’s pages.

“Oh my word! Ramona, look at this!”

Her excitement captured our attention.

"In Memory of W. M. Lewis Herndon, Commander of the U.S.N.... 'On the 12th day of September last, at sea, the U.S. Mail Steamship Central America, with the California mails, most of the passengers and crew, and a large amount of treasure on board, foundered in a gale of wind.'"

We gasped!
What could this be?

As we would learn later, the SS Central America was one of a fleet of ships commissioned by the U.S. government to handle the people, wealth, and mail that needed transporting between the California gold fields and New York City during the mid-nineteenth century. Passengers would travel on these steam wheelers from California to Panama, take a open air train across the isthmus, and then pick up another steam wheeler at Aspinwall which carried them to New York after a brief stop in Havana. On September 12, 1857, the side-wheel steamer, S.S. Central America, hit a tremendous hurricane two hundred miles off the Carolina coast. Four hundred and twenty-five passengers and crew, along with nearly two million dollars worth of gold and thirty-five thousand pieces of mail were lost, sinking eight-thousand feet to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.

But what does this tragic American disaster have to do with my ancestor? Only everything…

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Beginning Continued...

What makes 60 year-old grandparents jump into a 15-passenger van and drive across the continent from Olympia, Washington to Orlando, Florida? A cardboard box. Yes, this is one of those family history stories that starts with a box: a box covered in dust, found in a basement, under a bed, or in a closet, placed there by the provident fairy that filled it with a genealogist’s dream treasure. This story is no different.

After discovering the stack of letters in the hutch, my mother called her parents to share the findings. Reacting with the same excitement we had felt, my grandparents said, “You know, there’s this old cardboard box that we’ve had in our basement for years that great Aunt Cassie gave us before she died. We’ve never known what to do with it.” Still on the phone with my mother, they unearthed the box and started going through its contents. Through the telephone we heard exclamation after exclamation:


“Oh my word!”

“What is this?”


“Ramona, you won’t believe it!”



“What! What!” my mother demanded back.

“The stuff in this box is too precious and fragile to mail. We’re bringing it ourselves!”

From their home in Washington State, my grandparents packed up their 15-passenger van, while my mom and I waited impatiently at our home in Orlando, Florida. We charted their path across the continent on a large US map as each day slowly went by. Finally, the big old van and the anything-but-ordinary cardboard box arrived! We all wasted no time but dove immediately into the box and carefully began withdrawing its contents, only to reveal the absolutely unbelievable….

To be continued…..

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Beginning

The day felt like any other day, that is, until I lifted my head from my school work on the table to the family's dinning room hutch across from me.

“Mom, what are those?”

My little eleven-year-old voice turned my mother’s attention from her daily task to my little finger pointing to the old, tall side-board against the wall. Together we peered through the display glass window into the collection of fragile heirlooms, handed down from my mother’s parents. In the back left corner was a worn-out pouch, with a carefully embroidered “M” on the front.

“I don’t know. Let’s look!"

We carefully opened the hutch with its long antique keys and gently removed the bulging pouch, placing it on the dining room table. We tingled with curiosity as we opened the flap to the pouch. “They're letters,” my mother deduced.
Letters? We pulled out the worn-out stack of papers, and discovered letter after letter after letter of correspondence between my mother’s great-great grandfather’s family, the Messegees. As we began to interpret the old-fashioned cursive handwriting, our minds filled with wonder and our hearts with joy. Ancestors we had never heard of, life histories, vital information and more were all preserved on these personal documents. My little eyes got bigger with excitement, and my child heart grew with my mother’s as I saw her joy increase with each letter we studied together. This was the start of my love for family history. And this was only the beginning of one of the greatest journeys my family would take - the discovering our long lost heritage.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


Welcome to Pioneers on the Waterways of the Pacific Northwest! This site is dedicated to George D. Messegee and James M. Frazer, my fourth and fifth great grandfathers. James M. Frazer’s daughter, Catherine Jane, married the Greek immigrant George D. Messegee on 16 January 1878 in Seattle, King Co., Washington. Both families settled in the beautiful Pacific Northwest in the 1860s, spreading out across Portland, Oregon up to Seattle, Washington. They participated in the growth of the Northwest, playing a significant part in its history and founding, and most prominently its maritime history. On this blog you will find updated research on the tracing of this family, as well as general information, history, and exciting finds. Happy Researching!