Saturday, September 10, 2016

Life sketch of Sampson Dyer, 1773-1843

and the naming of the “other” Dyer(s) Island

© 2016 Christy K Robinson
Top: Prudence Island
Middle: Dyer Island
Bottom: Aquidneck Island with the town of Portsmouth

Photo by Christy K Robinson, July 26, 2016

 A few weeks ago, I was half-listening to a nature program on TV, when I heard the words “Shark Alley” and “Dyer Island.”

There’s a Dyer Island in Narragansett Bay, named after William Dyer, 1609-1677, a cofounder of Portsmouth and Newport, Rhode Island. He was granted the island in 1638, and several men wrote affidavits in 1669 that it was William’s possession. In August 1670 (possibly on his son’s birthday), he gave it to his second-eldest son, William. The island is only 28 acres in size, and is an uninhabited bird sanctuary acquired for preservation and incorporation into the Narragansett Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve using state and NOAA funds.

William Dyre to William Dyre.
I, William Dyre of Newport, Gent., Do Give my Sonn William Dyre, my Island, Called Dyres Island lying and being scittuated in Narrogansett Bay upon the Northern side of Rhode-Island over against Prudence Island.
fifth day of August, One Thowsand six hundred and seventie.
Wit. William Dyre
Daniell King
Though great white sharks are well known in Long Island Sound and off the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, the few sharks in Narragansett Bay (actually not a bay, but a river estuary) are dogfish sharks. There's no Shark Alley in Narragansett Bay!

Though I’d missed the narrator’s location of Dyer’s Island, it was rather easy to do a search, and find a Dyer Island off Cape Town, South Africa. Shark Alley lies between Dyer and Geyser islands. Being curious about how it was named, I learned it was the property of one Sampson Dyer of Newport, Rhode Island. And if you know this website or my books at all, you know that “Dyer” and “Newport” used together make my heart beat faster.

Dyer Island (with the Google map pin) and Geyser Rock
at the bottom. Shark Alley is the bit of water
between the islands. Click to enlarge.
Dyer Island was inhabited by African penguins and covered with their guano (droppings), which Sampson Dyer sold on the mainland for fertilizer. Geyser Rock was home to hundreds of thousands of fur seals, which he killed for their pelts. The water between the two volcanic seamounts is Shark Alley, where great white sharks hunt for seals, and eco-tourism companies take brave/insane divers to be submerged in shark cages for the joy of, well, I honestly don’t know.

Why was Sampson Dyer so far from his birthplace of Newport, and his wife and children at home on Nantucket? Let’s back up and learn a bit more about him.

Sampson was the son of James and Elizabeth Dyer, but I can find no background on them. He was a freeman of mixed race, African and Wampanoag (Native American tribe in southern Massachusetts and Rhode Island).

Some of the Rhode Island Dyer descendants were employed in the slave trade: the colony’s ports were the apex of a triangle trade which started with distilling rum, which was traded for African slaves, who were transported to grow and harvest sugarcane in the South and Caribbean, and shipped the sugar/molasses to Rhode Island to be made into rum.

English owners generally didn't bestow their surname on slaves, similar to the way that you don't give farm animals a surname. Slaves generally only had one given name, and usually they were the names of slaves or servants or strong people in the Bible: Sampson was such a name, as was his first wife, Patience. How was Sampson a freeman? Perhaps his father or grandfather was freed when the Quakers rejected lifetime servitude.
Sampson Dyer, about 1802-1804, a
painting by the Chinese artist Spoilum.
The Nantucket Historical Association
purchased the portrait from an island family.
The hand-in-waistcoat pose denoted
calm leadership, good humor, and
suitably elevated character.

There are several possibilities for the Dyer surname:
1. His father or grandfather was an African slave, and took the name of Dyer from his owner after he was freed, and his mother or grandmother was a Wampanoag;
2. His father or grandfather was a Dyer descendant who married a woman of mixed race.

The portrait of Sampson Dyer shows a 30-year-old man with short black hair, no facial hair, and medium-tone brown skin.

In 1792, at age 19, he married Patience Allen (she had a surname, so she was probably mixed-race and free), also of Newport, and they moved to New Guinea, a town on Nantucket where people of color lived. Nantucket, thanks to the efforts of the Quakers, had outlawed slavery in 1773. Even though free, perhaps Sampson and Patience had been mistaken for slaves and harassed in Newport.

Sampson was employed as a harpooner on a whaling ship, and eventually became a ship’s steward in the China trade. A side business of whaling was the slaughter of fur seals for their pelts and oil. He was the commander of a sealing expedition to the Juan Fernandez Islands off Valparaiso, Chile, and sat for a portrait by a Chinese artist in about 1804. He also worked for a South African firm, preparing seal skins on what became known as Dyer Island and Geyser Rock.

By 1810, he and Patience were the parents of Charles, Trilonia who married a Pompey, Charlotte, Harriet, and Sampson Dyer Jr., none of whom I can find genealogical information for. The oldest child might have been 17 by then. But the last time Sampson sailed into Nantucket harbor, Patience was pregnant with another man’s baby. At the age of 37, Sampson left Nantucket, never to return, and sailed back to Cape Town on another sealing expedition.

Without benefit of divorce, perhaps because he thought Patience’s infidelity annulled their 20-year marriage, he married a Dutch woman, Margaretha Engel, in 1812. Sampson’s brother James went to visit or stay with his brother in 1814, and died there. The news that came back to Nantucket said that Sampson had died, and Patience thought she was free to marry her lover, Samuel Harris. Harris was a successful businessman who owned several properties.

Sampson Dyer sought and won British citizenship in 1813, and wrote to the British governor that he’d prepared 24,000 sealskins in four seasons. Sealing and guano sales made him a wealthy man. He owned farms on the mainland near Overberg. In 1824, when he was 51, he was called “a most extraordinary man of uncommon industry, honesty and sobriety." Sampson and Margaretha Dyer had several children:
3 daughters (for whom I couldn't find names),
James Lucas Dyer (possibly Jan Johannes Albertus Dyer) b. 4 Aug 1813,
Samson Washington Dyer b. 6 Nov 1817  (father paying tribute to America’s George Washington)
Michiel Johannes Dyer b. 7 Mar 1820

Sampson was baptized and died in 1843, when he was 70 years old. His descendants in South Africa changed their name to Dyers, and if you look for his genealogy, you’ll find it as “<private> Dyers, SV/PROG.” The letters stand for "StamVader," meaning the first ancestor by that surname in the country or, as in this case, "progenitor" = PROG. Perhaps the South African descendants didn’t want to trace their ancestry from a man of mixed race.

The two Dyer Islands, connected by Sampson Dyer of Newport, RI.
Both tiny islands are bird sanctuaries.
Click to enlarge.
As for the “other” Dyer Island, after countless thousands of fur seals were slaughtered there, and the bird guano was removed, the African penguin population declined precipitously. The penguin eggs had been laid in tunnels in the guano, but when the guano was removed, there was only bare volcanic rock, and eggs and chicks were preyed upon by gulls and other birds. Eggs were also a delicacy for humans, and thousands were harvested. And don’t forget the sharks that preyed upon the remaining seals (40,000) and penguins (5,000). The islands were declared a nature reserve, and only biologists and scientists are allowed to land at the islands today, though there are adventure boat excursions from Danger Point. To, you know, flirt with and torment hungry sharks.  

Was Sampson Dyer descended from William and Mary Dyer? Or were his forbears owned by Dyer descendants? Surely, being from Newport, he was well aware of Dyer Island in Narragansett Bay. There are two Dyer Islands, and Sampson is the connection, but we’ll probably never find what happened in the missing 100 years or the details of family relationships. It seems that Sampson didn't want it known.

2022: Dyers Island appeared in a Washington Post article on sharks being killed by orcas. 

Sampson Dyer, Portrait of a Nantucket Mariner, by Elizabeth Oldham, Historic Nantucket, Nantucket Historical Association, Vol. 63, No. 2, Fall 2013, p. 19

Christy K Robinson is author of these books (click the colored links):
Mary Dyer Illuminated Vol. 1 (2013)  
Effigy Hunter (2015)  

And of these sites:  
Discovering Love  (inspiration and service)
Rooting for Ancestors  (history and genealogy)
William and Mary Barrett Dyer (17th century culture and history of England and New England)
Editornado [ed•i•tohr•NAY•doh] (Words. Communications. Book reviews. Cartoons.)


  1. Comments in Facebook groups:

    Pam Richardson: What a great story!

    Gail Arnold: busy man...
    Christy K Robinson: LOL. Seems so!

    Gregg Legutki Walter: This is the kind of research we should all be doing on at least one of our special ancestors. Really a lot of work!
    Christy K Robinson: Thanks, Gregg! Check the sidebar archives for my Dyer site. My primary interest is William and Mary Dyer, but since they didn't exist in a vacuum, I've done many articles on the Anne Hutchinson family, Katherine Marbury Scott, John Winthrop Sr., Hugh Peter, John Endecott, and many, many others. I'm not related to any of them, but their stories are integral to the community the Dyers lived in. My site isn't a true "genealogy" blog, but a history blog full of stories of real people. And I'm proud of it!

    Joy Robbins: Very well written and I enjoyed reading about them even though I don't have any of them in my ancestry.

    Pat Cook: I'm also a descendant of the Dyers, except I'm from New Brunswick, Canada. I like anecdotes from my New England ancestry. Thanks.

  2. Loved it im from South Africa about 2 hrs drive from Dyer island

  3. I am one of the South African descendants of Samson. Interesting article.

  4. A comment from "Kurt," which I can't publish as-is because it contains a hyperlink, and I have no way to contact him, says this:

    "I don't think the Dyers and Engels are trying to hide his profile on GENI because they are ashamed of his mixed race roots. Magaretha Johanna Engel herself was mixed race, her father was most likely born of a European and slave and her mother of a dutch man and Bengale born slave. I think the reason it is hidden is because of another Samson Gabriel Dyers profile on Geni that has very inaccurate information. I think they're protecting it from being merged."

  5. There is also a Dyer Island off Rottnest Island, Fremantle, Australia. I am busy writing a book about South Africa's offshore islands, and was excited to glean more information of the islands naming, adding to what I found on Wikipedia, which concurs with your account. I would like to know if his date of death is actually known and where was he laid to rest.


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