Capt John Leitch- a clue to the family’s roots?

Tressa Leitch, the daughter of Judge James Leitch wrote a family history in 1941, she talked about the family left behind in Saltcoats, Scotland. Particularly she wrote about the brother of her great-grandfather James Leitch [whom she referred to as Archibald- but records call him James] who was a sea captain. According to family lore, which she committed to paper “John Leitch who was master of one of the first Cunarders, and was among the first to navigate the Gulf of St Lawrence in a Cunarder.” Apparently, the family – James, his wife Jean, and his three daughters, Mary, Christina and Jean, and his son, my ancestor, William, were transported by John in his ship, to Canada in 1832.

Up until recently I didn’t know how to deal with this information. The family did move to Canada in 1832, a fact I have confirmed with other sources. The ship they were on remains unknown to posterity, but it was not a Cunarder, because the Cunard line did not run until 1839, when Samuel Cunard got the Liverpool-Halifax-Boston mail contract. But I have found in my travels through the Montreal Gazette for my PhD thesis that there was a Capt John Leitch travelling through Montreal and Quebec City, but in the 1840s. Did he captain a Cunard ship? No idea. Was he related? No way to know.

Then I was bored one day, and began googling the name of relatives and ancestors to see what I could find. I googled John Strickland Leitch, who was the son of Judge James Leitch, and the first cousin of my grandfather. I had met him a few years before his passing and thought him quite nice. John Strickland Leitch was an engineer, and a graduate of the Royal Military College in Kingston. And it was here that I found this article from the Class of 1965 yearbook “182 No. 503, John Strickland Leitch, CE, presented a very old marine sextant to the college in May, 1964, it was probably the property of Sea Captain John Leitch who commanded one of the first steamships of the Cunard Line to use the port of Montreal in the 1830s.” [p192]

Well, the Cunard ships did not plough the waters of the St Lawrence until later, and Cunard, while a ship-owner in Halifax in the 1830s, did not actually own a steamship at this time. Their first ship, the Unicorn made the London Halifax trip for the first time in 1840, and also visited Montreal on its maiden voyage. Am I being picky about dates? Were the family stories mashed together to make more sense?

Anyway I decided to check up on this whole Captain and Sextant thing. I wrote two letters, one to the Cunard Archives at the University of Liverpool, and the other to the Royal Military College in Kingston. This is what I found out.

Sian Wilks from the Cunard Archives was the first to respond to my enquiry, and unfortunately there wasn’t much to say. Employee records from this early period do not exist for the company. There is a letter to a Captain Leitch dated in 1872, but this might be a little late for my family. So no luck there.

Ross McKenzie from the RMC provided me an archival description and a photo of the sextant donated to the RMC museum in 1964. The museum curator PT Nation, had done some research including looking for more information about Capt Leitch, but was unable to find out more on him- or his voyages.

Capt John Leitch Sextant, c. Royal Military College Museum, Kingston, ON
Capt John Leitch Sextant, c. Royal Military College Museum, Kingston, ON

“Efforts to verify the story about the first Cunarder to reach Montreal have been in vain. Captain Leitch’s record at the Lloyd’s Registry does not include this trip, and the ship’s name has not been discovered.”[1970]
The sextant itself is a “nautical vernier sextant with detachable telescopes,” and does date from between 1790-1810, and was manufactured by Spencer, Browning and Rust of London, as indicated by the SBR in black ink at the top centre of the ivory scale.

So what to make of this. That the eldest son, of the eldest son of James Leitch, my immigrant ancestor possessed the sextant of his “uncle John” lends a lot of credence to the fact that someone in the family was a sailor. Saltcoats Scotland though is a port, and it does not necessarily mean that it was James’ brother. It could have been his father, or another relative. It also could have been a relative of his wife Jean Frew (aka Jean Frue Neal). There is nothing on the sextant to indicate ownership, but rather dating. And it dates to James’ lifetime.

So I have more information, and still no answers.