Captain Nash De Cost (1783-1858) was a ship-master who came to Skaneateles in 1830. He served on the Vestry of St. James’ church and was said to be as much a part of the village scene as the church steeple itself.
Nash De Cost was born in 1783 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and went to sea on a whaling ship at a young age. By 1803, at the age of 20, he was already a sea captain. The seas were perilous in many ways; he once outran a French ship of war after a pursuit that lasted 48 hours, and on another occasion had to guide his ship safely to port after losing the mainmast in a gale.
In June of 1809, he took the Euphrates to Madiera, thence to the East Indies, and returned to New York more than a year later, in September of 1810, with $500,000 in goods from Calcutta.
In the 1820s, De Cost was sailing for the firm of Fish & Grinnell *, and settled on a more regular schedule, shepherding cargo, passengers and mail from New York to Liverpool and back again. Clement Cleveland Sawtell, in Captain Nash De Cost and The Liverpool Packets (1955), gives us a glimpse of his life:
“By the time the sailing date rolled round, usually the 8th of the month for the Grinnell packets, the bales of cotton were safely stowed and the crew shipped, while the riggers had her fitted for sea and warped out to Staten Island to wait for the steamboat carrying Captain De Cost with his flock of passengers and mail pouches. And the more the merrier from the Captain’s point of view, for in those days all the letter money and part of the passenger money went to line the captain’s pocket…
“In the cabin were to be found all sorts: retiring ambassadors, naval officers bearing dispatches, Canadian army officers, writers, actors, scholars, globe tortters, cotton speculators, ship owners, agents, New York and Liverpool merchants and their wives and families. They came from all corners of the earth and went to all corners of the earth and trod the decks of the York in passage. Over this shifting group Captain De Cost presided at his table aboard ship and came to know many of them quite well, especially those who made a number of voyages with him.”
In good weather, the voyage to Liverpool could take 21 days, and 31 days to sail back. In the summer, the passengers enjoyed the deck; in the winter, they huddled in their cabins while the sailors above climbed the icy lines and sailed the ship through rain, sleet and snow.
Nash De Cost was respected by owners and loved among passengers, a gentleman with a reputation for an amiable disposition, excellent seamanship and safe arrivals. He retired in 1830, after his 47th birthday and 99 successful Atlantic crossings.
Two of his young children had died in the city, and so in retirement he looked to the country for a more healthful situation. He purchased a farm within sight of the water on the east side of Skaneateles Lake. His wife Betsey died at the age of 51 in 1837, and De Cost later married Hannah Coe, the widow of Chauncey Coe. He died in 1858, and The Sailor’s Magazine of March 1858 remembered him thusly:
“[He was] one of the most popular shipmasters in the ‘Swallow Tail’ line of Liverpool packets. Those who had occasion to cross the Atlantic at that period, will remember him as commander of the favorite packet ship ‘York.’ Previous to his connection with that ship, he severally commanded the ships ‘Euphrates,’ ‘Cortes,’ and ‘Averick’ in all of which he not only gave satisfaction to owners, but also to those who took passage with him… He was always a good friend of the sailor, and has often boasted that he never had occasion to flog a man who sailed with him, in the whole course of his life. He possessed a good heart and it was always in the ‘right place’ when appealed to by those in distress. He was a sincere Christian, and died in the hope of a glorious immortality.”
Capt. De Cost is remembered by a window at St. James’ church which portrays Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:7).
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* The shipping firm of Fish & Grinnell, whose senior partner was actually named Preserved Fish, was founded circa 1815. The co-founder was Joseph Grinnell of New Bedford. In 1825, Joseph’s brothers, Henry and Moses, joined the firm. Circa 1830, Robert Bowne Minturn also joined, and it became Grinnell, Minturn & Co.
Henry Grinnell had earlier (1822) married Sarah Minturn, Robert Minturn’s sister. In 1829, the couple had a son who they named Robert Minturn Grinnell, who late in life summered in Skaneateles and after his death was honored at St. James’ by an enlarged chancel and Tiffany window donated by his wife in 1901.
His life is noted more fully in Skaneateles and St. James’, along with more than 100 others, available in the gift shop at the Creamery on Hannum Street or from the author; stop him on the street and make arrangements for personal delivery.
Portrait of Nash De Cost by Charles Loring Elliott, 1845. Photo of the De Cost window by Lauren Mills Wojtalewski.