A Voyage of Discovery

A Voyage of Discovery

Tracing a Route to Captain James Cook.

Eric Caton, TheGenealogist Subscriber

Eric Caton

TheGenealogist Subscriber

Among the many conversations we had, one of the things that stand out in my memory is that we are related to Captain James Cook.

According to the book Captain James Cook, By Richard Hough, James Cook snr. was a Scot who migrated South in search of work. He settled in the village of Marton, in the district of Cleveland, in the far North Eastern corner of England, in the second decade of the c18th.

He got work as a farm labourer, met, and married, Grace Pace of Thornaby. In Marton they raised eight children, of whom James was the second, born 27.10.1728.

When he was eight, the family moved to the village of Great Ayton, three miles away, when his father gained the position of bailiff for the Lord of the local Manor.

Along the Cleveland Coast there are a number of fishing villages and towns-Redcar, Saltburn, Sandsend, Staithes, and Whitby, all within a distance of twenty three miles of one another, and roughly twenty miles from Marton.

It was to Staithes first, then Whitby that young James Cook’s remarkable voyages of discovery began, in 1745, shortly before his 17th birthday. It is a well documented story recorded in a number of books.

One of those coastal villages, now a town of some considerable size- Redcar, eight miles from Marton, is the place of my birth.

The history of Redcar dates from the beginning of the c12th-at least. It was in the Northeast area that the last resistance to the Norman conquest took place in 1069a.d. In retaliation, the Normans put the entire Northeast to the sword.

The Doomsday Book records it as a ‘terrae wastae’-wastelands! This, then, is the region that gave England’s most famous navigator to the world stage-Captain James Cook, my ‘almost’ ancestor.

As a young lad, one of my delights was visiting my paternal grandmother Mary Crame Caton (nee Baker). She lived almost next door to my parents house, so the visits were frequent.

She lived alone in one of the oldest houses still left standing in the town. It was built of sandstone, roughly plastered, and colour (yellow) washed once a year; lit by gaslight even to the year she died in 1956. It is also the house in which I was born. Once, when referring to the Captain Cook connection, her reaction was: Oh, that old chestnut .

Among the many conversations we had, only two things stand out in my memory. The first, that we have French and Welsh blood running through our veins (well diluted by now) and second, that we are related to Captain James Cook!

At the time those things didn’t register much with me, I just took it for granted. After all, aren’t grandmothers the fount of all wisdom and knowledge? And the family was/is of seafaring stock (except for me, that is!).

It wasn’t until 1977 when, as a (by now) minister in the Maori section of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, in the Parish of Whakatane (North Island), that I began to think more deeply of my ‘relationship’ to Captain Cook, and the need to establish it as fact.

The opportunity came when, as a part-time industrial Chaplain to a factory in the town, I decided to take three months study leave on Industrial Chaplaincy with the Tees-side Industrial Mission. It was the first of its kind in Britain, which just happened to be based in Middlesborough, eight miles from Redcar. I was able to stay with my parents whom I had not seen since emigrating to New Zealand in 1949.

This gave me the chance to delve further into my lineage. Through visits with surviving relatives, and searching local Church records, I was able to glean some information based around my grandmother’s maiden name, Baker, which was also a seafaring/fisherman family.

My research was very amateurish, and was limited to the the time I was able to spend away from my studies, and Chaplaincy at two large factories.

Needless to say, I didn’t progress very far, but was determined to devote the last two weeks in England researching my Grandmother’s claim, by going to to view the records section of the County seat -Northallerton- but I never made it; my father died the night before I was to make a start.

So those remaining two weeks were devoted, instead, to caring for my mother, helping tidy up my father’s affairs, and arranging for his funeral, and preparing to depart for New Zealand.

For the next twenty two years I put all thoughts of James Cook and our relationship out of my mind concentrating, instead, on my calling as a minister of the Gospel, serving in four Parishes before retirement in 1996 (although I still serve a Parish on a part-time basis).

At the end of one of our Church conferences in November of 1999, I was to journey to Auckland on a family matter, and I was asked to take two people with me, who lived there, one a Maori and the other a Pakeha (caucasian). The Maori took no part in the ensuing conversations (she fell asleep in the back seat, meetings can be so tiresome!)

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My other passenger began to ask me about my life; how I came to emigrate to New Zealand, how I happened to be married to a Maori, and how I became a minister?

At the end of my long story she said: “Why don’t you write about it, that’s very interesting.”

“Why?” I replied, “Who would want to know that?”

“Your children”, she said.

On my return to Whakatane (I had retired there), I forgot about our talk for three months, until one of my daughters started to ask me about my side of the family (my wife’s Maori lineage is well documented).

This was the catalyst to encourage me to start writing, and the more I did, the more I realised the need to do some serious research in order to establish a family tree and to find, one way or another, a connection to James Cook.

I joined the local branch of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists at the beginning of 2000, and was fortunate to receive some much needed guidance from two of the senior members, one of whom put my name on the Internet in the hope that someone would connect with it (I didn’t have a computer at that stage).

Someone did, and it turned out to be the daughter-Janine- of my first cousin Margaret. Janine, living in Leigh-on Sea, had been researching the Caton/Baker names for some years. We had met in 1977, but genealogy was never a topic for discussion at that time.

It was much later, when living in South Africa, that she took it up and had, by now, discovered quite a lot about the family lineage. For a while, until my daughter gave me a computer, I was correspponding with Jan by way of ‘snailmail’.

Once, when referring to the Captain Cook connection, her reaction was: “Oh, that old chestnut”.

There’s some doubt as to whether there is a relationship, but I can’t prove it yey, one way or another. It wasn’t until early in the year 2002 that she was able to prove an ‘almost’ relationship, not a direct one , as my Grandmother had claimed (unless I misunderstood her).

James Cook and his wife Elizabeth had six children: Two (31 and sixteen) died at sea, two others in their teenage years, and two in infancy. There is no direct line of descent from the family. This too, is so well documented. So where does the ‘almost’ relationship come in?

I am now in communication with close cousins that I had lost touch with and distant cousins in England and Australia.

As a result of the prolific emails between Jan and myself, I am now in communication with close cousins that I had lost touch with, and distant cousins in England, Australia, and the ‘Fleck’ connection, here, in N.Z., helping to build a ‘tree’ which confirms our family place alongside the Captain.

It goes like this, and is a confusion between two Margarets. The french blood that is in us is through (as far back as we can get) Wilmi Fleck-1548. Coming through this line we get to James Fleck, and his sister Margaret.

James, a fishermen and shopkeeper of Redcar, married James Cook’s sister, Margaret, in 1764. They lived in Redcar, and raised eight children. Margaret Fleck married Thomas Thompson, also a fisherman of Redcar, in 1765.

They raised nine children from whom Jane, the eighth, I am descended. Thus:

  • Fleck. 1548.
  • Thompson. 1765.
  • Burniston. 1816.
  • Crame. 1821.
  • Baker. 1868.
  • Caton. 1888.

As Hough’s book records, the Captain’s connection with Redcar is maintained through his sister’s residence there, and his father who, after the death of his wife, moved there to live with his daughter and her husband. He died there at the age of 84 and is buried close by at the Church of St. Germain, Marske, outliving his son by six weeks.

In December 1771 James and Elizabeth visited his sister Margaret, and brother-in-law, James Fleck, during one of his few periods ashore. It was the first time Elizabeth had met any of her husbands family.

While there, James took the opportunity to visit old friends at Staithes and Whitby, leaving his pregnant wife behind; the journey from London had been exhausting  enough!

So, after my long, convoluted story, it transpires that my ‘almost’ relationship to Captain James Cook is just that ‘almost’. His sister Margaret was a sister-in-law to my Gggg grandmother.

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