Youngest Son Goes to Sea

Week 32: #52 Ancestors — Youngest

By Eilene Lyon

My parents’ surnames illustrate an interesting dichotomy. The name “Smith” is among the ten most common surnames in America. “Halse,” on the other hand, is so uncommon that one source indicates fewer than 4000 people in the world share this last name.1 I believe this name originated at a place called Halse in Norway. From there, it traveled to Britain with the Vikings around 800 CE.2

The name is found in both places, and also in places that the British settled during their empire years. More than one line of Halses came to America from England. Mine originates with Robert Halse and his wife Eliza Jane Drake.


Robert Hillier Halse was born in Exeter, Devon, England, to John Jeffery and Ann Shears Halse, and baptized on April 29, 1825.3 Robert had two older siblings, Georgena Shears and Thomas Jeffery. John Jeffery’s profession at the time of Robert’s birth was malster.4 This is a person who either produces malt in a brewery, or more commonly, produces malt to order for many brewers.

St. Sidwell’s in Exeter as it would have looked when Robert was baptized there.

In 1828, John was appointed an excise officer (i.e. collecting tax on goods produced in the UK, including malt).5 The family moved around quite a bit, including to Ireland, ending up in Manchester.6 Thomas was apprenticed in Exeter and remained there most of his life. John Jeffery died in Manchester in 1841 of liver disease, just 43 years old.7


In 1838, at the age of 13, Robert Halse became an apprentice in the Merchant Navy.8 This would not have been a pleasant experience. In The Men of the Merchant Service, Frank Bullen points out that these apprentice boys had never been taught at home how to clean or mend anything. He was invited into the apprentice quarters on one journey out of London:

It smelt. That rank aroma which is the product of deficient ventilation, foul clothes, and stale food caught me by the throat as I entered. The bunks of those young gentlemen were like the bins in a rag-dealer’s shop; their chests were little if any, better; and there was a thriving population of vermin of various sorts. Not a plate, knife, fork, spoon, or mug had been washed since our departure from London.

No doubt the unsanitary living conditions were the tip of the iceberg. Despite that, Robert stayed in the Merchant service and became a seaman. Records for his service in 1845-1847 indicate that he made five domestic journeys during those years.

One of the ships he served on was registered to the port at Preston, which is northwest of Manchester. Other information found on this document includes 1) he may have served in the Royal Navy and been in foreign service (the hash marks are ambiguous), 2) he was 5’ 9” with fair complexion, brown hair, hazel eyes, and no marks, 3) his home when not employed was Killyleagh, near Belfast, Ireland, and 4) he knew how to write.9

Immigrating to America

It’s clear that Robert’s profession helped bring him into contact with the North Irish lass he married in Killyleagh in 1844, Eliza Jane Drake. Robert and Eliza Jane had three children in North Ireland: Anna, Richard and John, born in 1845, 1847 and 1849. I have not been able to find any immigration record for Robert. I can only speculate that he managed to desert from a ship that sailed to America, probably in 1849 or early 1850.

Eliza Jane and the three children came to America in 1850 aboard the ship M. Howes, along with some of her Drake family members. They landed at Castle Garden (the precursor to Ellis Island) on May 22.10

It could be that Robert was on the crew of the ship that brought his wife, children, and in-laws to America and he abandoned ship when they arrived in New York. Desertion was rampant in the Merchant Navy. One source indicates that 14,000 deserted in 1848 alone, with 8,000 of those jumping ship in America.11 I have not been able to locate a crew manifest.

A New Life in a New Country

The Halses and Drakes settled near Providence, Rhode Island, and Robert found work as a mariner.12 Some of the Drakes worked in the fabric mills. In 1851, little John died at the age of 2½. He is buried in Lincoln, RI.13 Sometime before December 1853, the family moved to New York City. There, Robert and Eliza Jane had another son, Samuel Vincent. Around 1858, the family moved to Winneshiek County, Iowa.

This is an interesting development, because in Iowa, Robert became a farmer. What did he know about farming?! He must have managed to learn, because he spent the next 20 years doing just that. The couple had two more children in Iowa: Elizabeth and Robert J.

Robert died of unknown causes in January, 1878. He is buried in the Big Canoe Lutheran cemetery near Highlandville.  Over the next five years, his family, with the exception of daughter Elizabeth, moved to Codington County, South Dakota.

Robert H. Halse headstone in the Big Canoe Lutheran Cemetery, Highland, Iowa.

Feature image: “Mariner” from Popular Technology; or Professions and Trades Vol. I by Edward Hazen, A.M. p. 178.

Note: Through Ancestry, I contacted a “cousin” in England who is a descendant of Thomas Halse, Robert’s older brother. She does not believe we are related and says that John Jeffrey and Ann Halse had only two children, Thomas and Georgena. I respectfully disagree with her, based on the documentation I have located to date. Considering that Robert went to sea at 13 and never returned home, and the fact that he decided to wed in Ireland and move to America, the family in England may have expunged him from their life story.



  1. Forebears. 2015. Halse surname meaning and statistics.  Online at: 
  2. Griffiths, Sarah. 2014. Raping and pillaging? Viking conquests were more like ‘romantic breaks’: DNA reveals warriors brought their women when raiding British Isles. Online at: 
  3. Robert Hillier Halse. England Births & Baptisms 1538 – 1975. 2015. Online at: 
  4. Ibid. 
  5. Halse, John Jeffery in the Guise-Mist Family Tree. 2015. Online at: 
  6. Halse, John. 1841 England Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc, 2010. Class: HO107; Piece: 571; Book: 6; Civil Parish: Manchester; County: Lancashire; Enumeration District: 14; Folio: 45; Page: 31; Line: 19; GSU roll: 438723. 
  7. Halse, John Jeffery. FreeBMD. England & Wales, FreeBMD Death Index, 1837-1915 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations Inc, 2006. 
  8. Robert Halse. Merchant Navy Seamen. Online at: 
  9. Ibid. 
  10. Year: 1850; Arrival: New York, New York; Microfilm Serial: M237, 1820-1897; Microfilm Roll: Roll 088; Line: 8; List Number: 441. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. 
  11. Topic: royal navy or merchant navy records 1835-1840. 2015. Online at: 
  12. Year: 1850; Census Place: Smithfield Districts 2 and 3, Providence, Rhode Island; Roll: M432_846; Page: 118B; Image: 243. 1850 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2009. Images reproduced by FamilySearch. 
  13. John Halse. Online at: 

24 thoughts on “Youngest Son Goes to Sea

Add yours

  1. A fascinating story. Going off to find your fortune at 13! So young by today’s standards. I bet that you’re right about Robert being expunged from the family history. Sounds believable in a passive-aggressive family way.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an interesting development, because in Iowa, Robert became a farmer. What did he know about farming?!

    This echos my wife’s Irish history. Her great-great grandparents bought a farm when the railroad they worked for went bankrupt. He was the construction crew foreman, she was the bookkeeper. Neither had farming experience as far as anyone knows.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. 😆 Exactly! Well, I never get good responses when my research conflicts with someone else’s and I mention it. Best just to keep it to myself, I suppose. But then I might miss out on getting to know a relative.


  3. Great story! I always thought mariners would have had to have non-sensitive noses. My sensitive sniffer would never have survived! Also, perhaps (eventually) more evidence will turn up and your cousin will have to admit to being related! :o)

    Liked by 1 person

  4. OKAY! This is amazing!! You need to make an entire novel from this because you are so talented!! I’m so glad that I found your blog and subscribed!! So excited to read more of your posts 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. ”One source indicates that 14,000 deserted in 1848 alone, with 8,000 “

    But all I keep reflecting on that they were ok risking their life’s sailing on the ship/boat

    Honestly this thought is terrifying – being stranded at sea Not knowing if you will be making it to the shore. People are so brave

    Liked by 1 person

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