Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Close to Home - Joseph May of Boston - 52 Ancestors: #9

For this week's 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks writing challenge from blogger Amy Crow Johnson of No Story Too Small, the theme is "Close to Home."

I have lived most of my life in suburban Boston, Massachusetts. My parents, my grandparents, and my great-grandparents all were born outside of Massachusetts. Only three of my 16 2nd great-grandparents were born in Massachusetts. (See my "heritage pie chart" for those sixteen here.)

Joseph May
However, I do have plenty of earlier Massachusetts ancestors. One prominent Boston ancestor is Joseph May, a 4th great-grandfather (and my 5th great-grandfather; I descend from him two ways).

He was born in Boston on March 25, 1760, one of thirteen children of Samuel May and Abigail Williams. He lived his entire life in Boston.

He attended the Latin school and was there until the outbreak of the Revolution. At that time, his family began to associate themselves with Old South society which identified with the patriot movement. Joseph was a talented singer from a young age and supposedly sang at Old South as a youth (as well as enjoyed music and singing throughout his lifetime). Joseph's father moved his family from Boston to Connecticut for a short time during the war for their safety.

The Old South society used King's Chapel for its services between 1777 and 1783 (because the Old South Church was being used by British troops), and when Old South returned to its own church in 1783, Joseph remained at King's Chapel, becoming very involved with the church and close friends with the ministers who served here.

He married Dorothy Sewall in Boston, on December 28, 1784. She was daughter of Deacon Samuel Sewall of the Old South Church. (See my Sewall ancestry here.)

Joseph and Dorothy had twelve children, all born in Boston between 1785-1800. Six of his children died before reaching the age of six; one daughter died at age 18; one daughter died at 23; one daughter died at 37; only three of his children (Charles, Samuel, and Abigail) survived him. They also adopted a daughter, Caroline Greenwood, who cared for him in his last years.

Joseph was a merchant. From about 1784-1798, he was in a business partnership in the flour and produce trade, but the business failed in 1798. That and a brief illness meant that Joseph had to move his family from a larger house on Milk street to No. 1 Federal Court, a more modest home (right in the middle of today's financial district), where he lived until 1835.

From 1799 until 1838, Joseph May worked as secretary of the Boston Marine Insurance Company, with a salary that never exceeded $1,500, but he served the position well. According to a wonderfully descriptive article in the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, written by a younger relative who knew him well, he enjoyed the job because it gave him flexibility of time to participate in his other (mostly charitable) interests.

His life during this time was a happy life. The family lived comfortably, though not extravagantly. Joseph is described as a good conversationalist "with an excellent memory and ready wit." He continued to enjoy music and singing as well as participating in helping the needy and ministering to the dying, although he had to do it within his moderate means.

Joseph May acquired the "Colonel" title by serving with the Independent Corps of Cadets between 1786-1799. Wikipedia explains that the cadets served as the governor's official bodyguard, and mobilized to serve the state, as needed.

His youngest daughter, Abigail, married Bronson Alcott; they were the parents of Louisa May Alcott, whom I wrote about here.

About a year after his beloved wife, Dorothy, died in late 1825, Joseph remarried to the widow Mary Ann (____) Cary. In 1835, they moved from the house at Federal Court to a house on Washington Street (now part of Chinatown). His second wife died in 1839.

Joseph died 174 years ago last week, on February 27, 1841, at his home. He and his wife, Dorothy, are buried at the historic Central Burying Ground, on Boylston Street at one side of the Boston Common.

I have only touched upon the effects of his charitable works. From the last paragraph of the remembrance of him from the New England Genealogical and Historical Register:
"Some benefit by munificent gifts, by noteworthy contributions to great public needs. Colonel May could do nothing of this, but by the sunshine of his nature, by the uprightness of his life, by the vigor of his thought, by the winning tones of his musical voice, by the protecting strength of his friendship, he succored many needy and bereaved, saved many young and tempted, wiped away the tears of orphans and found or gave them a home, and diffused hope, light and cheerfulness wherever he went."


I descend from his daughter Louisa (1792-1828) who married Samuel Greele and from his daughter Elizabeth Sewall May (1798-1822) who married Benjamin Willis.

Sources include:
May, Samuel, A Genealogy of the Descendants of John May : who came from England to Roxbury in America, 1640. (Boston: Franklin Press, Rand, Avery, 1878.)

May, Samuel, "Col. Joseph May, 1760-1841" New England Genealogical and Historical Register Volume 27 (April 1873), pp. 113-121. [This can be found at and]


My descent from Joseph May:

Joseph May > Louisa May > Samuel Sewall Greeley (married Eliza May Wells) > Ethel May Greeley > Lowell Townsend Copeland > my mother > me.

Joseph May > Elizabeth Sewall May > Elizabeth Sewall Willis > Eliza May Wells (married Samuel Sewall Greeley) > Ethel May Greeley > Lowell Townsend Copeland > my mother > me.

Samuel Sewall Greeley and Eliza May Wells were first cousins once removed.


  1. Replies
    1. A nice complement to your post about the memoir written about him. Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. A Boston diarist wrote frequently about "Uncle May" and also gives background on the adoption of the young Miss Greenwood:

  3. Essentially, Mr Greenwood was a manic-depressive who eventually committed suicide. Mrs Greenwood went pretty soon after, doubtless pushed a little faster by grief and years of stress. May's nephew John Gallison had looked after Mr Greenwood, and had introduced him to his uncle.

    1. I've wondered about this adopted daughter for a long time. Thank you very much for visiting my blog and sharing this link!