A gravestone in Acton’s Woodlawn Cemetery with an unfamiliar name recently caught our attention. Captain Robert P. Boss died in 1863 at age 59. Given his title and the year of his death, we wondered if, despite his age, he served in the Civil War. The first step to learn if he was a local Civil War veteran was to check the Acton Memorial Library's extensive online Civil War Archives. The only Boss listed is William H. Boss, Robert’s son. So who was Captain Robert? Was he an "undiscovered" veteran?
Additional research showed that Robert Prior Boss was born in Newport, Rhode Island on February 21, 1804. He was the son of William Boss and Edith Dickinson Prior, one of 14 children. Captain Robert lived in Boston in 1839 when he married Hannah Sampson, born in Charlestown to Daniel and Hannah (Dingley) Sampson. The couple first lived in Charlestown and had at least two children there; Robert P. Boss Jr. and William Henry Boss. Information about Captain Robert’s early career is not easily obtainable, but in 1849, Captain Robert seems to have become involved in the California Gold Rush. In May, 1849, Captain Robert P. Boss of Charlestown sailed out of Boston on the ship New Jersey, carrying over 175 passengers (reports vary about the exact number). The ship was owned by the Suffolk and California Mutual Trading and Mining Association; transcriptions of the passenger list show that Captain Robert was a member. They arrived on October 12, 1849, and, as described in the Boston Evening Transcript [Feb 24, 1890 reminiscence], "as soon as the port of San Francisco was reached, little heed was paid to contracts or agreements, and all made a rush for the gold diggings." Discovering whether or not their venture was a financial success would require more research, but soon afterwards, Captain Robert changed careers. An 1851 birth record of George W. Boss, born to Robert and Hannah, shows that the family was living in Acton by then. (Charlestown was written as their residence and crossed out.) Robert was listed as a farmer. As far as we can tell, Captain Robert spent the rest of his life in Acton. The 1860 census listed him there with Hannah and their two youngest sons. His Acton death record listed him as a retired sea captain.
A listing of “Enlisted Men in the United States Navy,” also linked to Acton’s Robert P. Boss, showed that the Robert P. Boss in question was age 21 and a printer when he enlisted in the Navy on September 24, 1861. He became an officer in 1862. Clearly that person was not Acton’s Robert. Fortunately, the 1902 book An inquiry concerning the Boss family and the name Boss has been made available online. From that source, we found that Acton’s Captain Robert had a nephew Robert P. Boss, born in Rhode Island in 1840. Research indicates that he was a likely match for the printer who signed up for the Navy in 1861.
We have found three children of Captain Robert and Hannah. Robert Prior Boss, Jr. was born in January 9, 1840 in Charlestown, MA and died in Acton on July 29, 1853. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery with his parents.
William Henry Boss was born about May 1842 in Charlestown, Mass. He lived with his family in Acton during the 1850s and early 1860s. He enlisted in Company D, Third Regiment, Massachusetts Volunteer Heavy Artillery. This was supposed to be garrison duty serving in Massachusetts, mostly in defense of Boston Harbor. An 1863 list of Acton men eligible for the draft says that he was in service, having signed up for three years at Fort Warren.
George Washington Boss was born in Acton on November 17, 1851. He was still a minor when Captain Robert died in 1863, and his mother became his guardian. Captain Robert’s will was very clear about his confidence in his wife Hannah’s abilities and the fact that she would look after her son’s interests. Hannah and George moved to Malden by 1865. Unfortunately, Hannah died in 1867, necessitating another guardian for young George, Charles W. Irving. (Their exact relationship is unclear, but Charles and George lived in the same household in 1865.) George Boss was living in Boston and working as a laborer when he married Clara A. Skillings (daughter of Cyrus and Margaret) on February 6, 1872. On April 21, 1879, he married Melissa Edgars (daughter of Robert and Mary). George was working as a brakeman and residing in Boston at the time. In between George’s marriages, he apparently joined the Cavalry, though his time in that role was abbreviated at best. He appeared in court records in October 1877, seeking an accounting of his parents’ funds from his guardian. Eventually, the accounting was made; there is no indication that the funds were misused. After a possible listing in an 1880 Lowell, Mass. directory, no other information has been found about George W. Boss or either of his wives.
The family's time in Acton seems to have been fairly short. However, researching Captain Robert reminded us that with all genealogical projects, it is important to question assumptions, to watch out for people of the same name, and to keep searching even after finding “the answer.” For those who want to learn more in non-digitized sources, Captain Robert's logbook from his 1849 voyage to California is in the archives of the Peabody Essex Museum, and passenger Charles Stumcke's recollections of the voyage around the Horn are held at the University of California, Berkeley.