Friday, June 26, 2015

My Great Great Grandfather, the Deputy Customs Collector

Salem, Massachusetts is famous for the witch trials and the hysteria of 1692, but it is more important for its role in role as one of the most lucrative ports during the age of clipper ships to the Far East, importing porcelains, tea and spices.  This age of wealth was short lived when the larger ships to Asia and the Pacific no longer fit in Salem harbor.  By the time of the Civil War, most of the trade had moved to larger ports such as Boston and San Francisco.  Nathaniel Hawthorne worked at this custom house as a surveyor from 1846 – 1849, before he removed to Concord, Massachusetts.   The opening paragraphs of his famous book The Scarlet Letter describe the custom house in Salem.

In the 1870s, my 2nd great grandfather, Abijah Franklin Hitchings (1841 – 1910), began to work at the custom house.  He was a Civil War veteran, injured at the Battle of Fredericksburg, and unable to do manual labor.  He walked on crutches for a long time, and used a cane later in life.  He was the deputy customs collector until his death in 1910. 

This is the only photograph I have
of Abijah Franklin Hitchings
in his Salem Zouave uniform from
the Civil War

While he was at the custom house he wrote a book that listed all the ships registered in Salem since 1789.  You can see copies of this book at the Phillips Library in Salem and at the New England Historic Genealogy Society in the rare books collection.  The book lists the ships by name, with their statistics and the names of the captains and owners.  It is a valuable resource for Salem genealogy and maritime history.   His obituary mentioned another book about earlier ships that was unfinished at the time of his death, but I don’t know what happened to that manuscript. (See below for the obituary and genealogical information)

This custom house was built in 1819.  It was the thirteenth custom house on this site since the first one was built by the English in 1649 to collect duties for the British Crown.  This building housed the US Customs officials and their offices, and a warehouse for storing bonded and impounded cargos.  The eagle on the roof was carved by Joseph True in 1826.  The customs service was active here until the 1930s, and in 1938 the building was acquired by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site.
The interior of the Salem Custom House

The park ranger let me hold the key to the
Custom House inside the Deputy Collector's Office.
This would have been my 2x great grandfather's office

You can see that room #3 was the
Deputy Collector's Office

This was the collector's office, which was open to the public in its day

The collector's desk, where paperwork was filed and customs duties were levied

Today you can tour the Salem Custom House by appointment.  Only 20 visitors are allowed inside at any one time, accompanied by a park ranger.  On the day we visited, the custom house tour was combined with a tour of the USS Friendship, which is moored in front on Derby Wharf.

A view from the second floor of the Salem Custom House,
from the window of the Custom Collector's private office.
You can see Derby Wharf and the USS Friendship

My great great grandfather’s book:

Ship Registers of the District of Salem and Beverly, Massachusetts, 1789 – 1900, by A. Franklin Hitchings, Salem, Massachusetts:  Essex Institute, 1906.

Salem Custom House links:

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site

The US Custom House in Salem: Introduction

Salem Maritime National Historic Site at Wikipedia

The Records of the Salem Custom House 1762 – 1901 are held at the Peabody Essex Museum, under the call number MH 261.  They contain 9 boxes and 9.5 linear feet of material.

Additional material is held under The Records of The U.S. Customs Service , Record Group 36 at the National Archives and Records Administration in Waltham, Massachusetts.

A blog post which contains a transcription of a letter written by A. F. Franklin, the Deputy Custom's Collector, in 1902 

Genealogy Information:

Generation 1:  Daniel Hitchings, born about 1632 in England, died 15 April 1731 in Lynn, Massachusetts (yes, he was nearly 100 years old!); married first to Eleanor Unknown, mother of his children.  She died 10 September 1694 in Lynn.  He married second to Sarah Cushman, widow of John Hawkes, daughter of Thomas Cushman and Mary Allerton (my 10th great aunt in another lineage, daughter of Isaac Allerton, the Mayflower passenger, my 11th great grandfather).   I descend from two of Daniel Hitching’s five children.

Generation 2: Daniel Hitchings, born about 1660 in Lynn, died 15 January 1735 in Lynn; married first to Sarah Boardman (no children), and married second to Susannah Townsend on 19 October 1708 in Lynn.  She was the daughter of Thomas Townsend and Mary Davis, born 5 November 1672 in Boston and died 12 May 1737 in Lynn. Five children.

Generation 3:  Daniel Hitchings, born 19 October 1709 in Lynn, died 25 April 1760 in Lynn; married in June 1735 in Lynn to Hannah Ingalls, daughter of Nathaniel Ingalls and Anne Collins.  She was born about 1713 and died before 15 April 1798.  Twelve children.

Generation 4: Abijah Hitchings, born 18 January 1753 in Lynn, died 27 March 1826 in Salem; married first on 24 June 1775 in Lynn to Mary Gardner, daughter of Benjamin Gardner and Sarah Randall.  She died before 1792.  He married second to her sister, Sarah Gardner.

Generation 5: Abijah Hitchings, son of Abijah and Mary, born about 1775 in Lynn and died 26 July 1868 in Salem; married 21 December 1795 in Salem to Mary Cloutman, daughter of Joseph Cloutman and Hannah Becket.  She was born about 1775 in Salem and died 28 November 1853 in Salem.  Eleven children.

Generation 6: Abijah Hitchings, born 18 January 1809 in Salem, died 18 January 1864 in Salem; married on 4 December 1836 in Salem to Eliza Ann Treadwell, daughter of Jabez Treadwell and Betsey Jillings Homan.  She was born 27 August 1812 in Salem, and died 31 January 1896 in Salem.  Four children.

Generation 7:  Abijah Franklin Hitchings, born 28 October 1841 in Salem, died 19 May 1910 in Salem; married on 22 September 1864 in Salem to Hannah Eliza Lewis, daughter of Thomas Russell Lewis and Hannah Phillips.  She was born about 1844 probably in Salem, and died 15 February 1921 at the Danvers State Hospital, Danvers, Massachusetts.  Two children.

Generation 8: Arthur Treadwell Hitchings, born 10 May 1868 in Salem, died 7 March 1937 in Hamilton, Massachusetts; married on 25 December 1890 in Beverly to Florence Etta Hoogerzeil, daughter of Peter Hoogerzeil and Mary Etta Healey.  She was born 20 August 1871 in Beverly and died 10 February 1941 in Hamilton.  Eight children.

Generation 9:  Gertrude Matilda Hitchings, born 1 August 1905 in Beverly, and died 3 November 2011 in Peabody, Massachusetts; married on 14 February 1925 in Hamilton to Stanley Elmer Allen, son of Joseph Elmer Allen and Carrie Maude Batchelder.  He was born 14 January 1904 in Cambridge, Massachusetts and died 6 March 1982 in Beverly.  Seven children, including my mother.

Obituaries for Abijah Franklin Hitchings:
May 20, 1910
Newspaper unknown (found in a file at Harmony Grove Cemetery, Salem, Massachusetts, where Abijah Franklin Hitchings is buried).

Was Deputy Collector of the Port of Beverly and Salem for Many Years

                A. Frank Hitchings, deputy collector of customs for the district of Salem and Beverly, died at his home, 8 Bentley Street, last night.  He was born in Salem, was the son of the late Abijah and Eliza (Treadwell) Hitchings, and was in his 69th year.  He was educated in the Salem public schools, and afterwards worked at shoe making.  He was one of the original minute men, enlisting as a boy of 19 years, in the old Salem Zouaves.  Company J, Eighth regiment, M.V.M., Capt. Arthur F. Devereaux, and serving until discharged August 1, 1861.  He re-enlisted as a sergeant in Company H., 19th Massachusetts regiment, and was discharged July 25, 1863 on account of wounds received at the battle of Fredricksburg.  He joined Post 34, G.A.R., May 17, 1869.
                Nov. 19, 1873 Mr. Hitchings was appointed an inspector in the Salem Custom house and assigned to duty as clerk.  June 3, 1881, he was promoted to deputy collector, succeeding Col. J. Frank Dalton, who resigned May 7, 1881, to become postmaster of Salem.  Mr. Hitchings has held the position of deputy collector ever since.  He was a fine penman, very careful and methodical in everything that he did, and was a valuable government official.  In connection with Stephen W. Phillips he prepared for publication by the Essex Institute the official register of all Salem vessels of which any record could be found in the Salem Custom house, a work which is extremely valuable today.  He was a member of the Essex Institute.  He possessed a fund of valuable information of Salem's early history, gleaned from his long service in the custom house.
                Mr. Hitchings leaves a widow, a son, a daughter, and grandchildren.

Also, from a newspaper clipping (newspaper unknown)

May 24, 1910
In Memoriam
A. Frank Hitchings

                The death of Deputy Collector A. Frank Hitchings removes from Salem one of those characteristic figures we can ill afford to lose.  Since William W. Oliver, the Salem custom house has had no officer so thoroughly imbued with a love of all that was best in the city's commercial past, so absorbed in his allotted work, so thoroughly familiar with the detailed knowledge which makes a functionary of his class invaluable.  He had been identified with the government service long enough to become a part of it.  Enlisting for the Civil war among the youngest, he encountered every peril and bore every hardship with a murmur, and, at the end of the struggle, brought home, like so many more, wounds which have slowly sapped the currents of his life.
                Mr. Hitchings produced, four or five years ago, a complete abstract of all the ships' registers recorded at this port under the Federal constitution.  The aid rendered by George H. Allen and Stephen W. Phillips enabled him to make this monumental work a unique contribution to the antiquarian resources of this region.  It left only one thing to be desired.  The lack of a single feature, an index to the names of owners and masters, was a serious handicap to its practical utility.  Such an index would have been too bulky to be printed with the book, but without an index, curious descendants of the old worthies who made Salem famous could only trace the voyages of their ancestors where they knew before hand the names of their ships.
                This task Mr. Hitchings set himself at once to supply.  He had undertaken a card catalogue, already well advanced, which was to embrace, not only the ship's registers here since 1789, but also such earlier Salem ships as could be traced, besides the added tonnage of Newburyport, Gloucester and Marblehead.  A good deal of material for this work was already to be printed.  But the task awaits for its completion the time, energy, patience and skill of some public spirited deliverer in the hidden things.  The student who takes up the task where Mr. Hitchings has left it, and carried in forward to success, will be able to congratulate himself, not only on providing ready access to the very tonnage owned by each merchant, commanded by each shipmaster, of Salem's palmy days, but also on completing a well earned monument to one of the modest, painstaking, earnest workers in the field of local research.

R.S.R. Salem, May 23


Published under a Creative Commons License
Heather Wilkinson Rojo, "My Great Great Grandfather, the Deputy Customs Collector", Nutfield Genealogy, posted June 26, 2015 ( :  accessed [access date]). 


  1. I loved this historic site, having read and enjoyed The Scarlet Letter.

    1. When I found out that Abijah F. Hitchings worked at the Salem Custom House, the first thing I thought of was that opening scene in The Scarlett Letter. Thanks for reading my blog, Joel!