Timothy Parmele 1764-1791
Joseph, Timothy, Joshua, John, John


The crown did not consider Americans captured during the Revolutionary War as prisoners of war. To do so would acknowledge the Colonies as independent. So the British resorted to housing members of the army in abandoned buildings and obsolete warships.

Meanwhile, hundreds of Americans captured at sea, primarily those aboard privateering vessels, were sent to prisons in Britain and spent a large amount of their time plotting escapes. Surprisingly, many succeeded -- bribing guards, stealing keys, scaling walls, digging tunnels, or escaping through privies.

Soon after Benjamin Franklin arrived as minister plenipotentiary at the court of Versailles in December 1776, he was met with the pleas from American escapees who'd made it across the English Channel to France. Alarmed by their letters describing the deplorable conditions of British jails, he tried to negotiate a large-scale prisoner swap with Lord Stormont, his British counterpart in Paris. When that proved unsuccessful, he helped set up an underground network for escapees: Once a man found one of Franklin's agents, he'd receive money in exchange for a note allowing the agent to be compensated by Franklin. Franklin put up his own money at first, but as the war continued, these payments became official expenses. Those who couldn't hitch a ride across the channel took their chances in stolen small boats. And if they succeeded, they had to avoid French authorities who were unable to distinguish Americans from British to make it to Franklin's home in Passy, then outside Paris, today within the city, on the Right Bank. Franklin issued promissory notes to hundreds of escaped prisoners so they could return to America or rejoin a privateer. By 1780, he was printing the notes in triplicate on a press he kept in his home.

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One of those letters that arrived at Franklin's door was written by Timothy Parmele, on behalf of himself and fellow escapee Peter Green, in 1783. The two were stranded in France's largest port city, Nantes, southwest of Paris, in the waning days of the Revolutionary War. Here is our family's oldest surviving letter.

I've taken the liberty of cleaning up some of the ink seep-throughs.

To Passe [Passy]
Benjamin Franklin
Esr Minister of the
Eunited States of America
pour M. franklin—à Paris

Nance [Nantes] June 12th AD 1783.

Sur, You will Excuse my Boldnes but it is In

A Case of distress to Let yo now the Circumstance

That we two are in with many others.

We have taken all opertunitys to meet with Mr

[Jonathan] Williams* the American Agent but we Cannot finde

Him we go day after day to his Clerks they Always tell us

He is Coming home when we Show our pass and Lets

Them now how we ware prisoners to the English they

Tell us they Can do Nothing For us.

We have had one Shift of Clothes From the Clerks.

The man that we have boarded with will Keep us

No Longer and keeps our Clothes they Will not pay our

Board For tim paste nor to Come So we Expect to Starve

In the Streets, we Can get No Ship atall, nor work. ...



The other prisoners Are on board Cap Cuningham [Gustavus Conyngham]**

Ship we have Spoke With him but he will not take

Any More For he Says hes got Somany that he

Does Not Know what to do with them.

So I Remain Your most Humble Servant

Peter Green
Timothy Parmele

* Jonathan Williams, an American merchant, scientist and associate of Franklin's, would return to the United States with the statesman in 1785. (Williams' mother was a niece of Franklin's.) According to correspondence housed at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin founded in 1743, Williams made two long trips to Paris that year, between early April and June 17; he was only back in Nantes between May 24 and approximately June 1. Timothy and Peter Green are listed on Williams' account of those who received support.

** Capt. Gustavus Conyngham was an Irish-born American merchant, privateer and officer in the Continental Navy who'd captured at least 24 ships by the time this letter was written. He'd been freed from Britain's notorious Mill Prison at Plymouth in a prisoner swap. As master of the Hannibal anchored at Nantes, he would transport mariners that summer to Philadelphia. The Oct. 1, 1783, edition of the Philadelphia Pennsylvania Journal shows that the ship, with Conyngham in command, was cleared for Baltimore. He remained with the ship for a number of years. At right is an advertisement from the April 22, 1785, edition of Baltimore's Maryland Journal.

On April 27, 1783, Timothy, Peter Green and three others signed notes for 24 French livres tournois, promising to repay their debts to the Continental Congress.

Timothy was born in Branford, Conn., the oldest of Joseph and Sarah (Howd) Parmele's nine children, eight of whom reached adulthood. I had no idea he'd played any part in the Revolutionary War until his letter to Benjamin Franklin surfaced; I have yet to find any accounts of his capture, detention or his journey back home. Shortly before he was married, Timothy's name appeared in the Jan. 30, 1788, shipping news column of the New Haven Connecticut Journal, left, as captain of the Lion. The sloop had arrived back in Branford after a nearly two-month voyage from Curracoa [Curaçao, a Dutch island off the coast of Venezuela]. Records at The Museum of America and the Sea at Mystic, Conn., show that the Lion was built in 1787 at Branford. The 46-ton ship measured 49 feet, 11 inches, had a beam of 18 feet, 9 inches, and a draft of 6 feet, 1 inch. It had a single mast atop its single deck, and a square stern. The Lion's other masters included Caleb Smith and Raymond George.

Timothy and Matty Norton were wed Aug. 24, 1788, in Branford. Matty, born in 1761 to Thomas and Mercy (Tyler) Norton. Sons John and Timothy were born in 1789 and 1791 respectively.

The Journal of April 4, 1790, above left, says Timothy and the Lion were cleared at the Port of New Haven for Martinico [Martinique]. And Hartford's Connecticut Courant of Dec. 20, 1790, above right, puts him at St. Eustatis, a Dutch volcanic island east of Puerto Rico.

Dorothy Smallwood's Parmelee Data states that Timothy was aboard the Hawk when it sailed from Branford on Oct. 4, 1791, and was "never heard from." The sloop, with Stephen Trowbridge master, was bound for Martinique in the Oct. 10, 1791, edition of the Danbury, Conn., Farmers Journal. I haven't been able to determine if she meant that it was just Timothy or the entire ship and all aboard that disappeared. Three years later, widow Matty opened probate with this announcement in the Nov. 13, 1794, edition of the Connecticut Journal. Sons John and Timothy were 5 and 3, respectively. She would lose both of them to the sea at age 19: John in 1808 and Timothy two years later. At that time Matty made about a dozen real estate sales -- many of them to her Norton relatives -- in Branford. The last was a quit-claim to Asa Norton in 1830.

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