The lone survivor?

November 02, 1997|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff

CHINCOTEAGUE, VA — CHINCOTEAGUE, Va. -- Ben Benson, who thinks he has located the treasure ship he was looking for, is now determined to know if he has also found its only survivor -- a child thrown up on the beach at Assateague almost 200 years ago.

Benson believes that most legends have some truth in them. He is ready to accept as true the story of James Alone, and put up the money to see where this belief leads him.

The legend of James Alone is an old one in these parts, and there are at least two versions of the story.

According to an old Chincoteague travel guide, the child was washed ashore in the late 1800s, strapped to a plank from a foundering French ship. The story relates that he was given the ** poignant name of James Alone by the people who took him in and raised him, the Lunn family. He spent his entire life in the old village of Assateague, which was abandoned more than 60 years ago.

When he was 20, the story goes, James Alone crossed Chincoteague Bay, walked to the Accomack County Courthouse and changed his name to Lunn.

He is, according to a genealogy constructed by the husband of a Chincoteague woman who claims to be a relative, a forebear of many of the older families that survive on and near Chincoteague Island today.

Another version of the story reports his arrival many years earlier -- in much the same fashion, but off a Spanish ship destroyed in a storm. Benson leans toward this version: He thinks the travel guide dates are a mistake, as well as the nationality of the ship, since there is no historical record of a French ship in distress off Assateague around that time.

Benson hopes to prove that James Alone was the only survivor off the Juno, a treasure ship traveling from Mexico to Cadiz, Spain, that went down in a storm in 1802.

"If there can be a survivor traced back to the ship, that would be interesting," says Benson. "I know there were children on the boat, but I don't know their ages."

Benson says he plans to hire a researcher to continue probing the archives of Accomack County. It will be a local person, he said, someone who might also be able to encourage people in and around Chincoteague to open their family records.

He also says he may hire a researcher to probe maritime archives in Spain, possibly to find the manifest for the Juno, or a passenger list.

"I assume the child was younger than 5 years old," says Benson. "If I can't find a child around that age, then I'm barking up the wrong tree."

He advertised in the local newspaper in September, offering a reward for people who came forth with items they had found on the beach or fished up off the coast that might help him locate two Spanish ships.

People brought him coins, ancient pistols and bottles, and other objects dating from the 17th and 18th centuries. They also brought him the story of James Alone.

Driven by curiosity about this mysterious person, Benson put another ad in the Chincoteague Beacon on Oct. 8. It read, in part:

"In the late 1700s or early 1800s, an olive-skinned baby came ashore tied to a hatch cover, the lone survivor of a shipwreck on the southern end of Assateague Island. He was raised by the Lunn family on the island and when he was 20 he changed his name to James Lunn."

Accomack County census reports show that a James Lunn married twice, in 1835 and 1842 (his first wife died). His direct descendants are included in the Lunn, Holston, Bowden, Watson, Carpenter, Bointer, Taylor, Clark and Riley families -- all names long associated with Chincoteague and Assateague islands.

The story of James Alone is known among the shrinking number of people who grew up or spent parts of their lives in the village of Assateague, or whose parents did. Mrs. Herbert Lee Daisy, 87, who lived in Assateague from age 6 to 14, recalls: "When I was little I heard the story. Everybody knew of it."

She has no idea if it is true, or just a legend of the island.

Ernestine P. Holston, 68, has no doubt. She claims to be the great-granddaughter of James Alone. "I know that this is true," she says, "because my grandfather told my mother about it."

Her late husband, John Holston, constructed a genealogy on an immense piece of brown paper, listing all the families that contain descendants of James Alone.

The Holston family Bible has within its pages an obituary written on the stationery of J.T. Lunn & Sons, Planters and Packers of Fancy Oysters and Clams. It is dated April 11, 1913, and reports the drowning death of Ernestine Holston's grandfather and owner of the company, James T. Lunn.

It includes the following about his origins:

"His great grand father was taken off a stranded French bark near this place and was so young that he did not know his name and the natives gave him the names of James Lone [sic], which subsequently was changed to James Lunn."

"My mother was Lillie Lunn," says Mrs. Holston. "She was the granddaughter of James Alone."

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