Friday, November 19, 2010

Burnham Wooden Ships, Essex, Massachusetts

H. A. Burnham
Essex, Massachusetts Wooden Ship Builder
There's one in every family-- someone who keeps the family name prominent in the old hometown. Perhaps they live on the old family homestead, or participate in the local historical society where their ancestors settled. In Essex, Massachusetts, the main industry at one time was ship building, and the biggest family in town was the Burnham clan. The H. A. Burnham ship building company is still building wooden ships in Essex, located right behind the Ancient Burial Ground, and the Essex Shipbuilding Museum near the causeway. I don't know how exactly I'm related to Harold Burnham, but I'm sure that we are cousins many, many times over. It's nice to drive through Essex and still see a business with the Burnham name. According to Harold's Google profile, he is the 28th Burnham to operate a ship yard in Essex since 1819!

Just take a look in the Essex Massachusetts Vital Records, and count up the Burnhams. According to the list of 1782 Householders in Chebacco Parish, Ipswich, Massachusetts (now known as the town of Essex) transcribed by Kurt Wilhelm on the site for Essex, there were 23 families under the name of Burnham. The next most popular surnames were Andrews with 12 households, followed by Choate and Story with 10 households each. I have so many Burnham lineages, I have lost count. My grandfather was from Essex, and his ancestry goes back to the original settlers of Chebacco Parish, who were the Burnhams, as well as a handful of other families who all intermarried with the Burnhams. Many of his ancestors were Burnhams who married Burnhams. You can click on the name BURNHAM in the right column of this blog to find all the stories I have posted about this family.

By 1820 there were 43 different surnames in the town of Essex. Burnham had 53 households, Andrews 29, Low had 18, Story had 17 and Choate had 11. According to the census there were 292 people named Burnham, 166 named Andrews, 85 named Low, 93 named Story and 65 named Choate.

By 1830 there were 336 Burnhams, 136 Andrews, 119 Storys, 111 Lows, and 55 Choates.

By 1850 there were 399 Burnhams, 184 Andrews, 144 Storys, 64 Lows, 44 Perkins, 33 Cogswells, 31 Haskells, 25 Choates and 22 Allens. The town was becoming more diverse with more surnames in total, but the number of Burnhams had exploded! The three biggest occupations were farming (118), shipbuilding and shoemaking. An amazing total of 34 schooners were built and several more started. 170 men were listed in trades having to do with shipbuilding (mariners, shipwrights, caulkers, ropemakers, etc), not including all the blacksmiths, carpenters, painters, teamsters and day laborers.

And by 1860 there were 356 Burnhams, 172 Andrews, 148 Storys, 70 Lows, 38 Cogswells, 46 Mears, 28 Haskells, 25 Lufkins, 22 Polands, 21 Allens, and 19 Choates. According to the Essex Rootsweb calculations by Kurt Wilhelm “The six most commonly found names in Essex, accounting for 50% of the population, were Burnham with 356 people (21% of town population); Andrews with 172 (10%); Story with 148 (9%), Low with 70 (4%); Mears with 46 (3%); and Perkins with 45 (3%). Forty percent of the town were named Burnham, Andrews, or Story.” 170 men were involved with shipbuilding, as well as 11 mariners, out of 604 listed male occupations. That means that 33% or one-third of the men were involved with ship building.

More two masted ships were built in Essex, Massachusetts than any other town in the world. This is an amazing statistic, considering that in 1850 there were only 1,585 people in Essex. In 1860 there were only 1,701 people in town. A small town with a lot of ships, and a lot of Burnhams! There are still wooden ships being built in Essex, and there is still a ship building company with a Burnham name.

Click here for a video of the Essex built schooner Isabella, being laid, built and launched in 2005 -2006 by Harold Burnham.

This blog post was written for the 100th Carnival of Genealogy "There's One in Every Family"

For more information on Essex Shipbuilding: Town of Essex website, hosted by Kurt Wilhelm, acting curator of the Essex Historical Society and the Ship Building Museum, also chairman of the Essex Historical Commision. Kurt's analysis of the 19th century Essex census records gave me most of the details I used in this post about the Burnhams in Essex.

A blog by Laurie Fullerton about the Burham Boatbuilding company - "Boat Building with Burnham"

Essex Shipbuilding Museum -

Frame Up!: A Story of Essex, Its Shipyards and Its People, by Dana A. Story, The History Press, 2004

Growing Up in a Shipyard: Reminiscences of a Shipbuilding Life in Essex, Massachusetts, by Dana A. Story, Mystic Seaport Museum, 1991

Essex Shipbuilding, by Courtney Ellis Peckham, Acadia Publishing, 2002 (Images of America Series)

Images of America, Essex, by Dawn Robertson and Kurt Wilhelm, Acadia Publishing, 2010

"The Shipbuilders of Essex" a 1940s documentary.
This video is shown at the Essex Shipbuilding Museum: 

Copyright 2010, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Wow! That's a lot of Burnhams! I love the image your first paragraph evokes. It took me right back to my Edwards family in New York. I'm sure everyone can relate to that homestead town where their people came from. You've created a very good exercise the way you looked at the Burnhams from Essex. I may have to do the same for my family.

  2. Great post, Heather, and the video was mesmerizing!

  3. I can't stop watching the video! I love the ebb and flo of the tides to the music, and the passing of the seasons as the boat grows bigger and bigger. Thanks for your comments!

  4. What a lot of great historical information on the Burnham family! Thanks for the terrific research!

  5. Wow ! very great information about Burnham family . the image is very interesting . to know more information about Essex builder

  6. I ran into this today 10/15/ name is Randy E Burnham I was born in ipswich ma 1966. My father was Newell Burnham my mother was Brenda H Story .here mother was a Andrews . I know on the Story side we go back in essex to mid 1600s .on the Burnham side I think 1830s