James was not just a man of the sea; he was also a man of the surf.
He was born in 1826 in Hull, located on the beaches south of Boston;
and he would grow, reach adulthood and live out his days in Hull.
And he would dedicate the majority of his long life to rescuing
those imperiled by stormy weather and heavy seas in the waters
surrounding that seaside town.
In the 1800s, it was not uncommon to live a lifetime in one place,
and not uncommon to be born into a large family like Joshua's of
twelve children. James loved his family, but he adored his mother,
Esther Dill James, a native of Hingham, Massachusetts.
As a youngster, James gravitated to the sea. He learned every trade
a waterman could do to earn a living. He also developed a unique
sixth sense from living on the coast and experiencing every kind of
weather and sea state. According to Joshua James lore, the youngster
could “hear the land speak,” from the sounds of the sea as it washed
over beaches and rocks, and broke against islands and inlets.
In April 1837, an event occurred that left a lasting impression
on James and changed his life forever. On April 3, 1837, Joshua's
mother and sister were returning home from Boston on board his
brother's sailing vessel. Ten-year-old Joshua watched from shore as
the vessel approached the anchorage through treacherous Hull Gut.
Only one-half mile from the harbor, a sudden squall threw the vessel
on its side filling it with water. To Joshua's horror, the boat sank
and took his mother and sister to their deaths. Unable to rescue
them, young James resolved to prevent the same fate from befalling
others, and to do all he could to save those at the mercy of the
In December 1841, James made good on his pledge. He joined a
volunteer crew of the Massachusetts Humane Society, or MHS, when it
launched a surfboat off the beach at Allerton to rescue survivors of
the Mohawk, a grounded ship hammered by heavy seas. The society was
a privately run charitable lifesaving service that operated stations
along the Massachusetts coast. James would remain a faithful
volunteer of that organization for decades.
But James's story does not end there. During his lifetime, the Port
of Boston enjoyed a dramatic increase in shipping traffic, becoming
the busiest port in the nation. The Nantasket Ship Channel, located
off Hull's shoreline, saw 100 ships a day sail past on their way to
or from Boston Harbor. The growth in commercial shipping during the
mid-1800s and stormy Northeast weather resulted in greater numbers
of shipwrecks, with hundreds of vessels going ashore and thousands
of victims needing help.
Meanwhile, James had to earn a
living while serving as a volunteer lifesaver. He worked the usual
watermen's jobs, such as fishing, salvaging ships, lightering
cargoes from ship to shore and transporting heavy paving stones from
Hull to Boston. It was hard work, but James's growing family
required financial support and the demanding requirements of his
paid jobs kept him physically fit for his lifesaving duties.
In fact, the story of Joshua James's record is one of life-long
dedication and physical exertion. He began his sixty-year lifesaving
career at age fifteen and was recognized at age 24 with the MHS
Bronze Medal for rescuing the crew of the brig L'Essai. At the age
of fifty, he became an MHS station keeper. In 1884, he received the
MHS Silver Medal for more than forty years of “brave and faithful
A rare photograph of Keeper Joshua James and his U.S. Life-Saving
Service crew posing in front of their surfboat. (U.S. Coast Guard
Likely, the highlight of James's lifesaving career took
place in the late 1880s. During the Great Storm of 1888,
from November 25th to the 26th, he led his MHS crew in
rescuing twenty-nine men from six different shipwrecks. It
was an unprecedented feat of skill, leadership, and sheer
physical strength, especially for a man of sixty-two years
of age. For this rescue, James received the MHS Gold Medal
as well as the United States Gold Lifesaving Medal. James is
the only man to receive both gold medals for one rescue.
And yet, the Joshua James saga was far from over. By
1890, after nearly fifty years of dedicated service, he had
saved over 450 victims without a single loss of life. That
same year, at the age of sixty-three, he became keeper of
the new U.S. Life-Saving Service Station located at Point
Allerton. This was in spite of the Federal service's maximum
age limit of forty-five years.
For the next thirteen
years, Joshua James served as keeper of the Point Allerton
Station, rescuing another 540 individuals. This was 100 more
souls than he had saved in his previous fifty years as an
MHS surfman and keeper. Again, no loss of life was
associated with James's rescue of these victims. He and the
surfmen from Hull, both MHS and Life-Saving Service, became
renowned for their amazing prowess as lifesavers.
March 17, 1902, tragedy struck Cape Cod's Monomoy Island
Life-Saving Station. During a rescue attempt, nearly all of
the station's surfmen were accidentally drowned by the
panicking victims they had tried to save. James learned the
news two days later and felt the loss deeply. Two days
later, he ordered his men to the surfboats for intensive
practice and drilling. Working the steering oar, the
seventy-five-year old James ordered the boat ashore. He
stepped off the boat, collapsed on the beach and, according
to eyewitnesses, issued his dying words, “The tide is
Joshua James's record of achievement has stood the test of time. He
devoted 60 of his 75 years to the service of others. During that
time, he went in harm's way to rescue over 1,000 shipwreck victims
without any loss of life. James and his Life-Saving Service
crewmates were true models of heroism in their time and ours, and
they were members of the long blue line.
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joshua James, the latest National Security
Cutter commissioned by the Service. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)
Today, Joshua James's name graces the hull of the newest
National Security Cutter U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Joshua
James; and he is the namesake of the Ancient Keeper Award
presented by the Office of Boat Forces to a boat station
commanding officer in recognition of their longevity of
service and outstanding performance in boat operations.
The Joshua James Ancient Keeper Award is named for Capt. Joshua
James, who is credited with saving more than 600 lives in his
lifetime. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick
By William H. Thiesen, Atlantic Area Historian, USCG
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