I know not how I sink or swim

Surely it was heartbreak that fueled his devotion to the cause, this once-sanguine young man whose quiet despair now accompanied him thousands of miles from home. That this, my great (x 4) grandfather, was prepared to die is made abundantly clear in a hand-written message, dated August 16, 1776:

I, Shadrach Winslow, of Rehoboth, in the State of Massachusetts Bay, being sensible, although now in a comfortable state of health, that life is uncertain, and being bound on a cruise in the privateer sloop-of-war called the Joseph against the enemies of the United American States, and knowing the many contingencies that in the Course of Divine Providence daily must and do await mankind in every age and station of life, and willing that those temporal goods, and such estate as God has blessed me with, should be so disposed of in case I should not return, as would be most satisfactory to me; Do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament, recommending myself through Christ, first of all, to that merciful being who gave mine and what I possess, and hoping through him to enjoy felicity hereafter.

Upon reading this I had no choice but to delve deeper into the story of Shadrach Winslow MD. So I turned to our family genealogy and learned that the good doctor was a devout Calvinist and superior Latinist who graduated from Yale, Class of 1771. Then, with the outbreak of Revolution

“… his patriotic feelings were aroused to the highest pitch and he resolved to do all that was possible for the cause. Being a gentleman of means he contributed largely to the outfitting of a warship to attack the enemy on the high seas and went aboard her as a surgeon … The ship was captured off the coast of Spain and all onboard were taken prisoner and brought to Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn and placed aboard the dismal prison ships … Here Dr. Winslow was detained as a POW about one year and suffered much. He never fully recovered from the damage to his health, aboard these prison ships where 12,000 soldiers and sailors perished.”

That he did return is certainly “most satisfactory to me” and mine, because he went on to marry the pleasant Elizabeth Robbins, with whom he fathered ten children as was then common, including my great (x 3) grandfather, Isaac.

I could have left it with that. But I didn’t, and so learned of a love story that never quite made it into the family history.

The hand-written will was referenced in an 1878 centennial address for the Town of Foxborough.  Given by the son of one of Isaac’s brothers, John Winslow (who had a penchant for lame Calvinist jokes), the speaker also recounted a conversation he’d had with an old man who knew Shadrach well and spoke of the winsome Betsy Peck to whom the young doctor, just out of college, was soon to marry.

Sadly, young Betsy was “suddenly removed by death” and his inability to save his truelove “produced a deep and lasting influence upon Shadrach’s sensibility.”

Though the romance was cut tragically short leaving little time for love to fade away like morning dew, when I think of that pensive crossing, I’m reminded of this variation of a popular 17th century Scottish ballad, sung by singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff.

In 1776 the strapping young doctor was the same age my son is now. Throwing himself into the cause of independence surely helped to assuage his anguish, and though there are no records the old man spoke of Shadrach’s wanderings in France, Turkey, Portugal, and Spain, using his Latin to communicate, prior to his capture and ghastly imprisonment.

When at last he was released, emaciated and rather cynical, his great good fortune in meeting Elizabeth is the stuff of legend. Not only was she amiable and attractive, but she was a woman capable of such fathomless, redeeming compassion that their first child was named Betsy Peck Winslow. 

The Water is Wide

The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

And neither I have wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row – my love and I

Now love is gentle, and love is kind

The sweetest flower when first it’s new

But love grows old, and waxes cold

And fades away like morning dew

There is a ship, she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep as deep can be

But not as deep as the love I’m in

I know not how I sink or swim

The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

And neither I have wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row – my love and I

And both shall row – my love and I.


1 thought on “I know not how I sink or swim

  1. That is so sweet I am also a Great X3 grandaughter. My daughter is leaving for the Navy and I wanted to give her something for her shipout date. This is perfect. Happy sailing.

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