Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Dynamics of a Family Craft Dynasty and Evolution of a Trade: The Williamson Carpenters of Long Island, New York, 1725-1921

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

Dynamics of a Family Craft Dynasty and Evolution of a Trade: The Williamson Carpenters of Long Island, New York, 1725-1921

Article excerpt


As a carpenter and a student of history, my interest in the Williamson family began many years ago when I discovered Jedidiah Williamson's carpentry account book and numerous personal letters from his son, Seth, also a carpenter.1 These pages not only detailed the scope of the carpentry trade but also offered eloquent descriptions of its challenges. Further research uncovered thirty-two Williamson carpenters, spanning five generations and four pedigree lines-a true family craft dynasty-all within one geographical area, Long Island, New York.

This paper is a story of that dynasty. Part one looks at these carpenters as a consolidated group. Who were they? Where and why did they live on Long Island? What role did kinship and community connections play in supporting them? Why did the dynasty end so abruptly with the fifth generation? In the second section, life-work histories of selected carpenters explore what it meant to be a tradesman during the Industrial Revolution-a time of great change in American history. The progression from apprentice to builder, changes in the practice of the trade over time, and factors that prompted some carpenters to change course in their work are subjects highlighted.


Carpenters and Dynamics

In 1752, with the birth of the first of his four sons, carpenter John Williamson, Sr., put in motion a family trade dynasty that endured for almost two centuries. From colonial times to the nineteenth century, practitioners of capital-intensive crafts, like highly skilled carpentry, were more likely to create generational family businesses than other trades.2 The Williamson family consisted of ordinary people who practiced and passed on a skilled trade through five generations, from the birth of the patriarch in 1725 to the death of the last family carpenter in 1921. Three adjoining townships in Suffolk County, on the eastern end of Long Island in New York state, marked their territory: Southold on the north fork of Long Island and Southampton on the south fork, with Brookhaven connecting to the west (Figure l). John, Sr., established the family in Southold; after the Revolutionary War, sons John, Jr., and Jedidiah expanded roots to Southampton and Brookhaven, respectively.

The region provided a very British- and New Englandstyle environment, a result of its settlement during the mid-seventeenth century expansion of the New England colonies. Over time, the county grew from a self-contained village-society of farmers, fishermen, and some tradesmen to an agricultural region with smalltown centers of industry and business, all serving both local and regional markets. Whaling ports of Sag Harbor and Greenport, and shipbuilding communities of Setauket and Port Jefferson, arose among hundred-acre farms where farmers sowed cereal grains, tended barn animals, and managed wood lots. Southold, Southampton, and Brookhaven held residence for two-thirds of the Williamson carpenters. One-quarter lived in Brooklyn, and three resided off Long Island, two in nearby counties.3

Dynastic Structure

The Williamsons were by-and-large a family of carpentry tradesmen. Forty-two percent of all employmentage males in the five generation span worked either as house, ship, or general carpenters. All four sons of John, Sr., were carpenters and six of his ten grandsons also worked the trade. The last two generations witnessed fewer entering the family profession as a percentage of the whole, 41 percent (twelve) and 28 percent (nine) respectively, but the actual number working as carpenters in the fourth and fifth generations almost doubled that of the first three generations, twenty-one to eleven (Table 1). (The span of working years for each generation is: (I) 1745-1780,(11) 1770-1815,(111) 1800-1845, (IV) 1830-1880, (V) 1860-1910. This overlapping of generations in ten-to-twenty year increments generated strong continuity in the dynasty. In this discussion, the generation is listed in parenthesis following a mention of an individual's name. …

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