Jonathan Walker “The Man With The Branded Hand”

Jonathan Walker was born in Harwich, Massachusetts on March 22, 1799. Harwich is east of Hyannis with Cape Cod Bay to the north and Nantucket Sound to the south. Early on Walker knew his life was going to be the sea. At 15 he was on ships bringing slaves to America. He was bothered by the inhumanity to these people when others could have cared less. He would hear the chains and shackles and irons down below deck out on the Atlantic at night. He was too young to make a difference and if he made his opinion known regarding slavery he’d lose his job and perhaps worse, his life. So, he kept still for many voyages. Jonathan Walker

  As a young man he would be found almost drowning several times, left for dead on a remote island in the Indian Ocean by pirates, and in another harrowing experience his life was spared after being captured by dark skinned people off the coast of Africa.

   Jonathan Walker’s first wife was Jane Gage (1803-1871) from New England. “A friend of slaves and an abolitionist.” She is buried in Norton Shores, a Muskegon suburb. This quote is on her grave monument (a newer one from 1998) “From New England Friends & Admirers.”

   Over time he became Captain Jonathan Walker who owned a 12 ton whale boat and living in Florida with his wife Mary and their children. By this time during slavery he was speaking out against it. Captain Walker wanted nothing to do with and had nothing to do with transporting slaves. He was running a straight commercial business until that night in 1844, when seven runaway slaves who knew Walker was an ardent abolitionist, came to him pleading for help to freedom. This was a very dangerous business and Walker knew it. However, he quickly agreed to do what he could and soon his whale boat was underway with the seven slaves, headed toward the Bahamas. He had been ill before boarding and out at sea he got very sick to the point where he was incapable of guiding the ship. Helplessly, the whaler drifted for some time while Walker lay paralyzed, probably with a fever, in a dazed state, until a search boat found him and the slaves and picked them all up and then headed back to Key West and then Pensacola.

   No good deed goes unpunished and Walker was in big trouble with the U.S. Slave Office in Pensacola. While he was brought to the main city street to be tortured, pelted with eggs and other things that would injure him for an hour at a time, an order was given to a blacksmith to make a branding iron with an S. S. for Slave Stealer. The blacksmith said he’d make the iron but he would not brand the right hand of Walker, which had never been ordered by the U. S. government to a white man in its history, plus the blacksmith must have had some compassion in him to tell authorities he had no intention of permanently disfiguring the man that he must have had some respect for. It is conjecture at this point whether the two of them knew one another.Branded Hand

   Walker went to trail, was found guilty and thrown in a prison cell with nothing else in it, which means no bed or wash facilities or something to use as a toilet. He was fed, but his body, already weakened by his sickness, then torture, became skin and bones in solitary confinement. Fortunately for Captain Walker some people with power came to his plight and were major in getting him released from captivity after serving 15 months of a much longer sentence. He went back home, with his branded hand, got healthy again, and went all over the country talking about abolition to large crowds and anyone else that would listen, until the issue was no more. Writer, John Greenleaf Whittier wrote the poem “Branded Hand,” for Walker in 1846 and it is the preface for the first book on Walker, “The Man With The Branded Hand,” released shortly afterward.

   After all Captain Walker had been through, he made the decision to leave Florida and go where no one would know his name. He could have gone home to Harwich or many other places and been welcomed as a hero, but he didn’t want to do that. Instead, at 63, in 1862, he brought his wife Mary and all their memories to a 16 acre fruit farm he built by the now Mona Lake Channel in Muskegon, Michigan. He purposely had no road leading to his modest home. He became a vegetarian, taught a neighbor boy how to fish, and spent many of his days on the water on then, Black Lake now known as, Mona Lake and Lake Michigan doing what he loved doing, exploring in a boat, this one much smaller than the 12 ton whaler. He fished, gardened vegetables with Mary, wrote letters to his children and grandchildren, and Whittier wrote a letter to Muskegon’s Henry Holt in 1877 saying, “He should not be forgotten in the woods of Michigan, who suffered for freedom.” Walker, the once handsome seas captain with the look of sea all about him, had become almost a hermit with flailing long white hair on his head and an equally long beard, died April 1878 at the age of 79, months after Whittier’s letter to former Muskegon Mayor, congressman and Lt. Governor Holt.

Jonathan Walker
Berry Wood wrote about Jonathan Walker many decades ago in his “History of Lake Harbor”. Know that the man is well over 63 on some of the following highlights. His travels to far corners of the world resulted in the below:

Walker took a morning swim all year ‘round even if it meant having to cut a hole in the ice.

He once was in a furious storm with very high waves in Lake Michigan with his scow on a fishing mission. Employees of the Ferry Brothers’ sawmill at the Black Lake Channel closed down the mill and concentrated on find Walker once he washed up dead on shore. He sailed into the channel safely and later said to some of the Ferry Brothers employees with a scoff, “It was a bit bumpy.” They were flabbergasted. Compared to oceans and seas, Lake Michigan was just a large bathtub.

Walker was actively farming his fruit farm and had a cow and a pony along with a wagon that would regularly be on his scow for pasturing across Black Lake, and sometimes into downtown Muskegon.

Walker never drank coffee or tea and insisted his second wife, Mary, follow his rules, which included being a vegetarian. She would sometimes have to sneak over to the neighbors to eat a regular meal, which may have included fish her husband caught, for others to eat.

One time a neighbor boy was trying very hard to lift Walkers’ anchor out of the scow on either Black Lake or Lake Michigan. He finally just rolled it over the side. Walker was a tall, very strong man, watching with amusement during this particular fishing expedition. When the two of them returned back to the farm, walker is said to have thrown the anchor carelessly with one hand just short of 20 feet into one of his out buildings, like it was a peanut. The young lad was in awe of this feat performed with no effort by his mentor and friend.

This quote on Jonathon Walker in his Muskegon Chronicle obituary dated May 3, 1878 points out “In 1835 (Walker) went to Mexico to assist Benjamin Lundy in colonizing American citizens who had escaped from bondage. Got ashore in 1836 with his vessel on the Mexican coast, was shot and robbed.”

After his death, his second wife, Mary, remarried and left the area.

Over 6,000 people from all over the Untied States came to Captain Walker’s funeral. Many people who couldn’t attend sent letters of caring and sympathy to his widow and one year later, after having read “The Man With The Branded Hand”, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sent a note to Holt applauding the courage and life of the abolitionist who chose to spend his retirement years in the woods of Michigan.

A few years later, the little boy he had taught how to fish bought the Walker Point farm now known by the boy’s name as Rood Point in North Shores, just east of the old Lake Harbor Bridge near the Mona Lake Channel.

No white man since Walker ever has had his hand branded in the history of our country. We do not know how the seven slaves’ lives turned out but he was one captain who did what he could to help out his friends and neighbors, who to him were colorless and deserving of full, productive and happy lives while on this earth. He wasn’t one to toot his own horn but we think he just might have a movie, with some help in 21st Century.

Thousands, if not more said the S. S. branded on his hand should have meant Slave Savior, in those dangerous different times.