Creating a Timeline of the Life of Captain William Sturgis

By William Mathews and Marion Weeks, Sturgis Community Outreach Coordinators

Last October, John Temple reached out to inform us that Sturgis Library  would be celebrating their 150th anniversary in August 2017. Since Sturgis Library and Sturgis Charter Public School share the honor of being named for Captain William Sturgis,  John thought it seemed fitting to include Sturgis students and faculty in the celebration.  John is a member of the Sturgis Library Board of Trustees and has served on the William Sturgis Friends of Education Foundation since 2004. Both of his sons graduated from Sturgis: Alex Temple (Class of 2005) and Patrick Temple (Class of  2008).

After years of involvement in Sturgis organizations, it seemed only natural for John to wonder if the library and the school might be interested in collaborating on a creative project to help celebrate the library’s 150th milestone. When John called to discuss the idea of a possible collaboration,  we thought the prospect of joining forces and building community with fellow William Sturgis fans seemed like a great opportunity to celebrate our namesake and learn more about the library.

Sturgis Library

Sturgis Library is located in Barnstable Village in a house built in 1644 for Reverend John Lothrup, the founder of Barnstable.  William Sturgis, a direct descendant of Lothrop, was born in the house on February 25,  1782.  Years later, after a successful career as a shipmaster, merchant and legislator, Captain William Sturgis died on October 21, 1863 at the age of eighty-one.  In his will, he donated his childhood home to the Village of Barnstable to be used as a library. He also donated his considerable collection of books along with the sum of $15,000 to support the library and create a lasting legacy. After lengthy renovations, Sturgis Library opened in August 1867. The library has expanded over the years but the original section is considered “the oldest building housing a public library in the United States.” (For more information about early American libraries, seeMirror mirror on the wall, who’s the OLDEST of them all…?

Captain William Sturgis

In the final application submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Education for Sturgis Charter School  in January 1998, the founders describe their decision to name the school for William Sturgis:

 A native of Barnstable and long time resident of Boston, William Sturgis (1782-1863) was a shipmaster, merchant, legislator, and philanthropist.  His many endeavors – economic, political, cultural, and civic – resulted in lasting benefits to his birthplace and his nation.

In William Sturgis, the curiosity, character, and courage he cultivated in his youth produced the good judgment and generosity of his later years.  The school celebrates his decision – at sixteen and in difficult circumstances – to make education his priority.

Also, in the original charter for the school, one section entitled “Sturgis Vision” noted the importance of Barnstable’s marine environment and maritime culture:

To motivate its students to achieve at high levels, Sturgis will draw on Barnstable’s marine environment and maritime heritage to develop the esprit de corps and individual curiosity, character, and courage necessary for all to succeed.

Beginning a Sturgis Collaboration

Pocket watch of William Sturgis inscribed “This watch has been twice around the world and three times to China.”

Sturgis Homestead Drawing

On October 26, we met at Sturgis Library with Lucy Loomis, Library Director, Marcella Curry, Adult and Reference Services Coordinator and John Temple to brainstorm how Sturgis students and faculty might contribute to the 150th anniversary celebration.  John suggested it would be helpful to create an illustrated timeline of the history of Sturgis Library including significant historical events of local or national interest. After discussing various ideas for posters and timelines, we decided the creation of a timeline of the life of William Sturgis would help Sturgis students and faculty learn more about his life and career. In addition to creating the timeline for the library, we thought it would be beneficial for the school to have copies of the timeline to display beside the portrait of William Sturgis in the lobby of each campus. When asked about a deadline for the project, we offered the idea of completing the project by February 25th to celebrate his 235th birthday.


Students create drawings of Sturgis family portraits

We asked Lucy Loomis and Marcella Curry to send us a list of dates and some images they thought would be important to include.  The images and information they provided were quite interesting and gave us an excellent starting point: Sturgis family portraits,  a photo of the pocket watch of William Sturgis, a drawing of the Sturgis homestead, and the Last Will and Testament of William Sturgis including his unique signature.

Following the library meeting, we spoke with Sturgis art teachers Xanthipi Abel and Pete Richenburg to see if they would be interested in participating. They were game so we shared the information we had received from the library. They in turn invited several art students to collaborate on the project.  Six students decided to participate: Lily Bergeron, Class of 2018 – East; Caroline Dorfman, Class of 2018 – West; Thomas Harris, Class of 2018 – East; Juan David (Alex) Marquez-White, Class of 2017 – East; Alex Scott, Class of 2018 – West; and Jennifer Smith, Class of 2018 – East.

During a meeting to discuss the plan for creating a timeline, students viewed images provided by Sturgis Library and selected the ones they were most interested in recreating. The following examples show the original images beside student interpretations:

Student artists work with Pete Richenburg

Images included in a Timeline of the Life of Captain William Sturgis

On Saturday, February 25, Sturgis Library hosted a birthday party and open house to not only celebrate the 235th birthday of William Sturgis, but also to officially kick off the 150th anniversary celebration of the library.

Birthday Party and Open House

The open house celebration featured:

  • An opportunity to gather together with friends, neighbors, Sturgis Library patrons, and members of the community
  • The debut of the Sturgis community family tree
  • Exhibits of documents and photographs related to the history of Sturgis Library
  • The debut of  a timeline of the life of Captain William Sturgis that highlights important moments in his life.  The timeline created by students and faculty of Sturgis Charter Public School includes original drawings, paintings, and digital images. In addition to the timeline, two handouts were provided: a bibliography of resources and a summary of images.

Reflections on the Timeline Project

Xanthipi Abel, Art – East

“In the spirit of William Sturgis, our students took on a task that served our local community, was multi-faceted and somewhat uncharted territory in working collaboratively to produce a cohesive and long lasting product for our community.

Students created hand drawn sketches, paintings and digital drawings representing important moments in the life of William Sturgis.  I am so proud of their hard work in devoting many lunch periods and after school hours to showcase their artistic and creative talents.”

Lily Bergeron, Class of 2018 – East

“Hearing perspectives from other students and teachers while collaborating was a very helpful strategy to experience for effective brainstorming.”

Paul Marble, Lucy Loomis, John Temple, Pete Richenburg and Xanthipi Abel

Lucy Loomis, Sturgis Library Director

“I would like to say that it was a pleasure to work with Sturgis faculty, staff, and students on this collaborative William Sturgis timeline project.  The research, combined with the artwork and graphic design resulted in a beautiful and engaging timeline.  Our framed timeline will hang in the lobby of Sturgis Library, and copies of the printed timeline will be made available to visitors.  Many, many thanks!”

Sturgis Library Thank You Letter




Pete Richenburg,  Art – West

“My students and I found the William Sturgis Timeline project a means to better understand and appreciate the remarkable person whose namesake we bear.”

Student Artists with Timeline

Jennifer Smith,  Class of 2018 – East

“While collaboration is a new experience for me, I slowly overcame some of my shyness when working with other students to create a final design. My favorite part was getting to see the different ways the other students used their creativity to produce different representations of each event in William Sturgis’ life.”

Marion Weeks, Sturgis Community Outreach

Map of Northwest Coast Painted by William Sturgis in 1845

“As a former reference librarian, this project enabled me to combine two of my interests: research and Sturgis history. One of the greatest rewards of research occurs when you learn something new about a subject. I experienced three surprises during the timeline project.

The first occurred when Xanthipi Abel and I were looking at a copy of A Most Remarkable Enterprise: Lectures on the Northwest Coast Trade and Northwest Coast Indian Life by William Sturgis.  We thought it would be interesting to scan the book’s cover for the timeline but a library bar code interfered with the image. While looking through the lectures to see if we could find a better version, we happened upon the page featured here with a caption explaining that William Sturgis had painted this map of the Northwest Coast in 1845. In addition to his other accomplishments, I had no idea that William Sturgis was also an artist. Thanks to the Photoshop wizardry of Pete Richenburg, we were able to use Sturgis’ map as the timeline’s background. It was rewarding to see Sturgis students join William Sturgis across more than two centuries to provide artwork for the timeline.

The second surprise came in a 1913 book by Francis William Sprague entitled: Barnstable and Yarmouth Sea Captains and Ship Owners.  One of the stories often told about William Sturgis is how he and the crew of The Atahualpa were able to narrowly escape a pirate attack while moored in Macau during his fourth voyage to China in 1809. That particular story became more meaningful when I read in Sprague’s book that William Sturgis’ father died in 1797 aboard a ship captured by pirates in the West Indies. The threat of pirate attacks during that period was a significant risk. If William Sturgis had experienced the same fate as his father when attacked by pirates, the chances are slim we would be celebrating the 150th anniversary of Sturgis Library.

The third surprise was learning that William Sturgis played an important role in his support of women while serving on the planning committee for Barnstable’s Bicentennial in 1839: “Sturgis departs from social custom and insists that women be allowed to sit at the banquet table. His wishes prevail and more than 400 women join the festivities.” (See: Stephen Farrar’s  Barnstable published by Barnstable Historical Society, 2013).

Perhaps the fact that research for the timeline occurred in late January 2017 while Women’s Marches were being organized in Washington and Boston made the discovery of William Sturgis’ support for women during the 19th century seem all the more significant.

Bibliography for A Timeline of the Life of Captain William Sturgis


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