Title: Continental Navy Captain, Revolutionary War; merchant shipmaster
Birthdate: September 9, 1751
Death Date: September 18, 1820
Plot Location: Section 112, First Baptist Church plot
Sir Francis Drake said, “It’s not that life ashore is distasteful to me, but life at sea is better.” After 35 years as a mariner, James Josiah would concur. He was the son of a shipmaster-turned-shopkeeper who heard his father tell tales of the sea, then had to see for himself.
James was the youngest son of Philadelphians Emmanuel and Ann Josiah. By age 14 he shipped off as a cabin boy on a West Indian trader. By 1775 he was a shipmaster and with the approaching war he was given the rank of lieutenant in the newly formed Continental fleet. During an engagement in 1776 he was taken prisoner onto a British ship and mistreated for six months before being released in a prisoner exchange. After his return to Philadelphia he married Sarah Reynolds on April 1, 1777.
He was called to serve again, lured this time with a promotion to captain, but the Continental Navy was unable to hold Philadelphia against the advancing British fleet . He was ordered to set fire to his ship in late 1777 to prevent enemy takeover. After that he left the Navy and their fighting ships for good to become a merchantman. In this role he found his niche, and would become one of the outstanding merchant captains of his era.
For the next three years he sailed to St. Thomas in what was then called the Danish West Indies, and then made two excursions to France with the ship Anne. James relinquished command of that ship in 1782 to John Ashmead, another mariner who is buried here at Mount Moriah. His Notable story can be found here.
James had become a widower sometime in the previous four years, but on April 4, 1782 he married Elizabeth Marsh. One last voyage to France was made, during which time preliminary terms of peace were signed by British and American negotiators in November. He knew many other captains had become casualties of the war, so he was grateful to have escaped without injury to himself or his ships. For the next 18 years of sailing he had to contend only with the sea, not enemy guns.
The sea then took him to St. Croix, returning with cargos of sugar, but when it became routine he found new adventure in sailing for China. The portrait above was made in 1787 before that trip. He chose to be portrayed in his navy uniform, a sign of his pride in the service.
Nearing his 40th birthday James considered giving up the sea, but instead he returned to regular London runs, including one with his wife in 1792. It was her only voyage overseas, although by this time the ships were larger with private accommodations for 30 cabin and steerage passengers.
He stayed home for most of 1799, being asked to supervise the construction of an even larger ship. Despite wifely objections, he decided to accept the owner’s invitation to make the inaugural run with the ship to Indonesia to bring back coffee. After a long and arduous trip he knew he was finished, and retired in 1801.
The couple remained childless but had adopted the daughter of Elizabeth’s brother and his wife. The parents had both died in a yellow fever epidemic. James became active in the Society for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Masters of Ships, and in 1809 he joined its board of managers. The Josiah family joined First Baptist Church and James also became active in the First Marine Bible Society.
Civic duty called in 1813 when the city appointed him Master Warden of the Port of Philadelphia. In 1817 the old seaman found a partner to join him in the ship chandler business, providing supplies, provisions, and equipment for ships. Then an affliction of dysentery three years later took his life, and he was buried in the First Baptist burial ground.
In 1859 the church bought Section 112 at Mount Moriah Cemetery so it could relocate the graves en masse, but it was recently discovered that the old graveyard wasn’t completely emptied. Researchers removed and examined what amounts to about 700 individual remains, and some have said as many as 3000 were not re-interred. For more information see https://www.archstbones.org/ or https://www.livescience.com/65139-colonial-cemetery-philadelphia.html
Support the Friends of Mount Moriah
Help us in our mission to restore and maintain the beautiful Mount Moriah Cemetery by donating to our cause or volunteering at one of our clean-up events.