The Dixey Family
by Dan Dixey
This is the fifth in a series of articles on the”First Families Of Marblehead.” The Dolibers, The Peaches, The Ornes, The Goodwins, and, now The Dixeys. This is the history of the families that built Marblehead.
It was 7 a.m. on Saturday the 25th of April, 1629 when the sails were raised and the long journey from England to the New World had begun.
William Dixey was one of about 140 passengers aboard the “Talbot” and the “Lion’s Whelp,” two ships that together would challenge the danger of the high seas to reach their destination of Cape Ann, New England. It was on June 11th, grueling weeks later, when they spotted the shiny mountain of ice of the banks of Newfoundland.
Despite a storm and heavy fog, the ships had kept in contact by beating drums and firing cannon shot. On Friday, June 26th they were within three leagues of Cape Ann and everyone on board was quite excited by all they had seen during the trip along the coast. The fine woods, high green trees and yellow gilliflowers painting the sea, made their arduous trip finally begin to seem worthwhile. The paradise of New England was becoming a reality. The crossing of the Atlantic Ocean was behind them. But the hardest work of all was about to begin. In Cape Ann they found buildings and some signs of plantation life, but no Englishmen. So they left Cape Ann and went on to Naumkeag, where they were greeted by the friendly Indians. Houses were quickly built and crops were quickly planted in order to survive the upcoming winter. So the story of the Dixey family history in Marblehead begins with William Dixey, age 22, being one of the earliest English settlers to arrive there. William was to become one of the first land owners on the Darby Fort side of Salem (later named Marblehead) and remained so until April 20th, 1640 when he conveyed the land, located next to Throgmorton Cove, to Henry Harwood of Salem. Something about this rocky peninsula had attracted the Dixey family to its shores and would keep them there for over 360 years.
Thomas Dixey, a kinsman of William, was born in England and was living in Marblehead as early as 1644 when he maintained and operated the ferry there. The ferry ran from the foot of Turner Street in Salem to the end of Ferry Lane (Green Street) on the Marblehead side and was operated by Thomas and his son Thomas Jr. for over 45 years. This area was named Nogg’s Head (now Naugus Head) in 1709 by John Dixey, another of Thomas Sr.’s ten children.
During the 1700’s the Dixeys, as well as many other families, made their living from the ocean in occupations such as ferrymen, fishermen and sea captains. One captain, John Dixey (born in 1742), lived at 32 Orne Street. He was captured by the British, taken to England and imprisoned for almost three years. He later became a Marblehead Selectman (1793-1796).
Another line of seafaring Dixeys lived at 33 Washington Street in the early 1800’s. John Dixey (1776-1868), like his father Richard, spent a good part of his life as a ship master and had several sons that also went to sea. The most well known son was Richard W. Dixey (1809-1860) who, along with two other Marbleheaders, second mate Frank Millet and third mate William Symonds, captained the ship that took the first American Consulate to China. Richard was also Captain of the 1300-ton ship, the “Robert H. Dixey” named after his brother and said to be one of the fastest ships of its era. It was on this ship that, in 1860, Captain Richard Dixey lost his life during a hurricane in Mobile, Alabama. Captain Dixey refused to leave his ship and crew. His last words to his pilot, who survived, were “Goodbye. I hope we shall meet in Heaven.”
This tragedy was not the first time the Dixeys had suffered a loss of life at sea. Some years earlier, in September of 1846, a devastating gale struck the fishing fleets off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Marblehead lost 11 fishing vessels along with 65 men and boys in this disastrous storm. Among them were Edward H. Dixey Jr., 45, on the schooner “Senator” and his second cousin, Edward Dixey Jr., 20, on the schooner “Sabine.” The Marblehead fishing business would never be the same after this townwide calamity.
Another Dixey who was quite well known in his day as customs official and pilot was Peter Dixey of 5 Lookout Court. Sitting high upon the hill in the room atop the house had magnificent views as far as Cape Ann to the north and Cape Cod to the south. This perch allowed Captain Dixey to spot vessels bound for Marblehead harbor long before they reached it. As they approached he would signal the craft and upon receiving a return signal would hasten out to meet them and safely guide them into the harbor for a profitable pilot’s fee.
Over the years records show the Dixey family responded to every call for military service. During the Revolution in the 21st Regiment in the Province of Massachusetts Bay, commanded by Colonel John Glover students of history will find one William Dixey in Company One under Captain Joel Smith and another William Dixey in Company Eight under Captain William Bacon. The war of 1812 included Peter, Peter Jr., John, Thomas, Edward and several other Dixeys. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, John G. Dixey and William F. Dixey were stationed in Cuba. Numerous Dixey names can also be found enlisted in WW1 and WW2.
In the 20th Century many old Marbleheaders may remember fisherman “Rock Cod” Dixey.
Apparently, one day he obtained an anchor down by the State Street wharf. When questioned about it he responded “I found it on a float.” But by the time the story was conveyed to the rest of the Townies it became “I found it afloat.” So Marbleheaders for a long time when meeting on the street would ask “who found the anchor afloat?” in which the other would reply “Rock Cod Dixey.” Then both would laugh and continue on their way. One day, later in life Rock Cod left the harbor at his usual time in his Gloucester dory but failed to return when a Nor’easter blew in with heavy rain and very rough seas. Later that day, as a group of “Old Salts” heard the news that Rock’s half-swamped dory was found empty a few miles outside the harbor one of them asked, “Wonder what the hell possessed him to go out on a morning like this?” To which Rock’s companion “Bushy” Lane replied, “The sea was Rock’s life. Rock’s gone Home.”
There is an interesting link between what could be the two closest families in Marblehead history: the Dixeys and the Homans. The Dixey and Homan families first met in the mid-1600’s. Mary Dixey, youngest daughter of Thomas Dixey the ferryman, married Gabriel Homan in the 1660’s and they lived happily ever after in Marblehead. This was to be the first of seven Dixey/Homan marriages in Marblehead, the most recent being as late as 1976 when Barry Dixey (currently a Lieutenant in the Marblehead Fire Department) married Sandy Homan. After more than 300 years these two families remain close friends and relatives. In addition to the Homans there are many other Marblehead families that can be found on the Dixey family tree. Familiar names such as Devereaux, Doliber, Pitman, Ingalls, Crowninshield, Glover, Stacey, Girdler, Vickery and others keep appearing. Many variations in spelling can be found with surnames and this often causes confusion to a genealogist trying to piece together a family. Dixey can also be found as Dixie, Dixcy, Dixcey, Dixy in the Vital Records even though all the same family.
An interesting situation developed in 1992 when Lady Penelope Dixie of Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, England contacted and then came to visit the Marblehead Dixeys. She arrived in Marblehead to continue a long search that her late husband Sir Wolstan Dixie, 13th in a line of baronets, had begun before his death in 1975. His quest was to find an heir to his English title that was created in 1660 by Charles I and can only be passed on through a male in the family line!
Sir Wolstan and Lady Penelope had two daughters, one of whom made front page news in The New York Times in 1976 when her appeal to the Queen of England failed to change the rules of hereditary titles. Having no male cousins in England, the search expanded to North America. Sir Wolstan Dixie had inherited over 400 years worth of family documents in which he found a connection to New England through Sir Wolstan Dixie, Lord Mayor of London in 1585. Through his great wealth, Wolstan Dixie had sponsored many merchants seeking the new world, and his nephews and great nephews, Thomas and William Dixie, were amongst those early pioneer settlers in Salem Massachusetts in the early 1600’s. Claiming the title may be a long and expensive proposition according to Lady Penelope but she and her daughters would like to see the baronetcy continue after all of these years. Who knows, maybe someday we will have an English Baron living right here in Marblehead!
No story about the Dixeys would be complete without mentioning edicated historian and genealogist, Helen Louise Dixey Doane (1914-1983). Helen spent a great deal of time researching and documenting Marblehead history and its families. Most of her work was done the old fashioned way, by hand, without the aid of copying machines and high speed computers of today. Her hard work will be appreciated by many generations in the future.
Marblehead has seen a lot of changes and an endless amount of building since our founding families first arrived , but has it really changed that much? Marblehead will always have its harbor and crooked, narrow streets and no one can ever take away its rich history. But the most important thing Marblehead has is its people. Good friends and good neigh-bors make good communities, sometimes you just have to know where to look and a little bit about who you’re look at.
References used: Family interviews Helen Dixey Doane notes, Marblehead Vital Records, Founding of Marblehead by Thomas Gray, Story of Marblehead by Joseph Robinson Marblehead Messenger Clippings, History and Traditions of Marblehead by Samuel Roads, Letters from New England 1629-1638, Marblehead in the Year 1700 by Sidney Perley, and History of Salem Mass. Vol I, II, III by Sidney Perley.