Thomas Tretcher joined HMS Discovery on 29 May, 1776, as an AB,1 and sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage. Tretcher had been baptised on 2 May, 1760, at St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, the son of Thomas and Eleanor Tretcher.
Tretcher appears twice in the journals of the Third Voyage. On 22 May, 1777, he was punished with six lashes at Lifuka in the Ha`apai Group in Tonga Islands. Captain Charles Clerke wrote that it was “for suffering the Indians to steal his Boathook”.2
On 29 December, 1779, Tretcher and Barthold Lohman became lost on Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean. Tretcher was found the next day, and Lohman (Bartholomew Lowman) on the 31st. The event was described in the official account of the voyage, thus
In the afternoon, the party who had been employed in catching turtle at the south-eastern part of the island, returned on board, except a sailor belonging to Captain Clerke's ship, who had been missing for two days. At first, there were two men who had lost their way; but happening to disagree with respect to the track that was most likely to bring them to their companions, they had separated; and one of them found means to rejoin the party, after an absence of twenty-four hours, during which he had experienced great distress. There being no fresh water in the whole island, and not one cocoa-nut tree in that part of it, he, in order to allay his thirst had recourse to the extraordinary expedient of drinking the blood of turtle, which he killed for that purpose. His method of refreshing himself, when fatigued, was equally singular, though he said he felt the good effects of it: he undressed himself and lay down in the shallow water on the beach for some time. How these two men had contrived to lose their way, was a matter of astonishment. The land over which their journey lay, from the sea-coast to the lagoon, where the boats were stationed, did not exceed three miles across; nor was there any thing that could impede their view; for the country was level, with a few shrubs dispersed about it; and, from many parts the masts of our vessels could be easily discerned. This, however, was a rule of direction which they did not think of; nor did they recollect in what part of the island the ships lay at anchor and they were totally at a loss how to get back to them, or to the party they had so carelessly straggled from. Considering what strange people the generality of sailors are, while on shore, we might, instead of being much surprized that these two should thus lose themselves, rather wonder that no more of the party were missing.3
I have been unable to find anything to suggest that Tretcher continued with a naval career. Whilst searching the internet I came across the following information—Captain Thomas Tretcher was buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery at Alexandria, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington D.C.
The Captain Cook Society is a wonderful organization for, as luck would have it, we have a member who lives in Alexandria, Stuart Bradley. When approached, he was most enthusiastic and willing to help. He proceeded to take photographs of the graves of Captain Tretcher and members of the extended family. He also carried out extensive research in local libraries and archives. However, very few extra details of Tretcher’s life and career have come to light.
The wording on the gravestones of Tretcher and his wife provided two puzzles—his gravestone describes him as a Captain, while hers mentions that she crossed the line (i.e. the Equator) three times with her husband.
Sacred to the memory of Capt Thomas Tretcher this is dutifully erected by an affectionate dau- ghter. This gentleman was a native of England and accompanied the celebrated Cook in his Last Voyage round the World. He departed this life after a lingering Complaint on the 15th of ctober, 1815 aged 53 years.
Sacred to the memory of Eleanor Tretcher this is dutifully erected by an affectionate daug- hter. this lady was a na- tive of England and thrice crossed the line with her husband. she departed this life three weeks before him after a short illness on the 24th September 1815 aged 51 years.
No evidence supporting these statements has been located. Tretcher was never a captain in the Royal Navy, but it may be that he became a sealer, or whaler captain, operating from the Northeast United States to the South Atlantic. Such captains sometimes were able to take their wives with them, but their travels are not documented.
Thomas Tretcher married Eleanor (Elizabeth) Taylor on 26 August, 1783, at St. Mary’s, Whitechapel. They had one child, Elizabeth, who was born about 1795, and died on 26 November, 1854. The Tretchers lived in a house at the corner of King Street and Royal Street in Alexandria. He died of consumption on 15 October, 1815, just three weeks after his wife.
Their daughter, Elizabeth Tretcher, married James M. Steuart (1787-1849) on 23 April, 1812, at the Old Presbyterian Church, Alexandria. James M. Steuart (also spelt Stewart) was a grocer and tavern keeper at King Street and Water Street in Alexandria.
The Steuarts had eleven children and one, James M. Steuart (1826-1880), was a distinguished captain in the Confederate Army during the American Civil War, before becoming Official Postmaster for the US House of Representatives in 1875.
1.Recorded as number 89 on the muster roll.
2.Cook’s Log, page 1952, vol. 25, no. 2 (2002).
3.Cook, James and James King. A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean Undertaken, by the Command of his Majesty, for making Discoveries in the Northern Hemisphere To determine The Position and Extent of the West Side of North America; its Distance from Asia; and the Practicability of a Northern Passage to Europe. Performed under the direction of Captains Cook, Clerke, and Gore, In His Majesty's Ships the Resolution and Discovery In the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, 1779, and 1780. 1784. Vol. II. Pages 122-124. Also Cook’s Log, page 2015, vol. 25, no. 4 (2002).
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 34, volume 40, number 2 (2017).