Captain of the South Shoal Lightship 1872-1882
Thomas S. James has been attributed with popularizing basket making while at sea among his mates, taking the craft from whale ship to lightship, and, in turn, solidifying a tradition that has remained strong for over 150 years.
The late David Wood, historian, basket collector and curator of the exhibit “The Lightship Baskets of Nantucket, a Continuing Craft,” compiled a lifetime of research before he passed away. One of his notes says, “according to Mitchy Ray, a Nantucket character and third generation basket maker Thomas S. James was the first man to return from a whaling voyage with baskets he had made in his spare time. They were deep bottomed, with vertical staves and flat wooden bottoms made from white oak; they had wooden handles that folded down when the baskets were not in use. Mitchy also said; as time went on, James found that he could make the baskets better if he used a wooden mold or form to weave over.” Perhaps Mitchy’s Grandfather Charles B. Ray (1798 – 1884), who started out as a cooper aboard whaling vessels and became a well respected Captain and prolific basket maker, told Mitchy about Thomas S. James.
Thomas S. James was the son of Thomas James and Elizabeth Winslow. He had four children with his first wife Eliza Ann Bump, who passed away two short years after giving birth to her fourth child, in 1850. He then married Eliza R. Cartwright but had no more children. Thomas James died in 1885.
Thomas S. James Obituary published in the Inquirer & Mirror in 1885:
“Thomas S. James who died Thursday at the age of seventy four years was a citizen of exemplary habits, and was highly respected in the community. His early life was passed in the whaling service, later he commanded various packets plying this port and larger seaport cities as far south as Baltimore. He subsequently was appointed first officer of the South Shoal lightship and upon the retirement of Captain George C. Gardner in 1872 was promoted to position of Captain, which he held for a period of almost ten years. When failing health compelled him to relinquish the position and retired from active life. He leaves a widow and one son.”
The obituary does not mention Thomas S. James making Nantucket lightship baskets; however it is evident through our research, that he influenced a legacy that starts with his days in the whaling service through the years spent on board the South Shoal lightship with other basket makers such as Andrew J. Sandsbury, Davis Hall, David E. Ray and many others. Weavers such as A D Williams and Mitchy Ray, who learned from these men, carried the tradition forward in turn influencing José Reyes, who brought the lightship basket phase into the ladies handbag craze. Today the craft is as strong as ever. Contemporary basket making has evolved tremendously and has become known worldwide as an iconic symbol of Nantucket.