One of Wethersfield’s favorite sons quietly returned to town recently. Lt. Jonathan Church represented the United States as one of its first Marines in the closing years of the 18th century. He retired from active service to start a new life in Wethersfield with his young family, keeping a tavern on Broad Street. Before leaving the service, Church had his portrait painted which is believed to be the earliest depiction of a US Marine in uniform. Church’s descendants carefully passed down his portrait to succeeding generations over the course of two centuries. In October 2007, Church descendant Meredith Seikel and her husband Oliver graciously gifted Wethersfield Historical Society with the portrait and related Church objects, hastening the lieutenant’s return to town.
Jonathan Church was born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1763 and served in the Continental Navy during the American Revolution on board the war sloop Republic. He later became one of the first commissioned officers of the nascent Marine Corps, recruiting men in New England for active service. During the late 1790s, as the United States and France fought the Quasi-War over free sea trade, Church served as the commanding officer of Marines aboard the frigate Boston and saw heavy action in the West Indies.
Church’s portrait is rendered in oil on canvas, mounted on a wood backing, possibly with a later gilt frame within a plain black case. It measures 5.5″ wide by 6.5″ long, exclusive of the frame, an interestingly diminutive image of a smart, strong figure. Although the paint is cracked in several sections, the portrait remains in good condition, with clean lines and vibrant colors. The work is unsigned and it is unclear as to when or where it was rendered. Using Church’s Marine service as a guide, from his signed commission by President John Adams of September 5, 1798 to his resignation on October 26, 1801, one could surmise that the work would date from this time frame, but before his death in 1804.
Church’s portrait captures the only known depiction of U.S. Marine of this early period. As a lieutenant, he wears a blue uniform coat with red facings, collar and cuffs. A single gold epaulet on his right shoulder indicates his rank as first lieutenant; a second lieutenant would have worn one on his left shoulder. The portrait reveals other clues of dress: a red vest peeks out from beneath the coat; a heavy black leather stock encircles his neck, giving rise to the Marine appellation “leatherneck;” a black leather strap across his chest denotes his sword carriage or belt, affixed with a plain brass plate. He wears a black bicorn hat with black leather cockade over powdered hair tied in a fashionable queue.
In his portrait, Lt. Church looks confidently to his right as his right arm crosses his chest to point to an object to his left, out of frame. The image depicts him from the waist up only, so the entire costume is not visible. However, the small portrait provides valuable insight into early Marine dress as no other images or uniforms from this era survive. By 1804, the uniform had changed so that Church’s portrait remains a solitary witness of previously undocumented military dress.
In failing health most likely caused by tuberculosis contracted during his time in the West Indies, Church left active service and brought his family to Wethersfield in 1801 to establish a tavern on the corner of Broad and Garden Streets. Dying at the tender age of 41 in 1804, Lt. Church is buried in Wethersfield’s Ancient Burying Ground. His recently restored gravestone testifies to his service in the Marines Corps in the Quasi-War with France.
This blog entry was composed by former Assistant Director Melissa Josefiak, who is one of Lt. Jonathan Church’s many admirers. A subsequent Collections blog post will detail the mahogany sideboard from the Church tavern, also donated by the Seikels, and will describe the family stories associated with the Church and later Crane Tavern.
Resources, Wethersfield Historical Society: correspondence, Hale, Kellogg, Arnold, Palmer and Seikel families and the U.S. Marine Corps; Nora Howard, “Jonathan Church of Wethersfield,” published in “The Wethersfield Post,” April 19, 1991; selected unpublished papers of Jonathan Church, transcribed and assembled by William Moss and Joseph Morneault, both of whom provided additional insight into the early U. S. Marine Corps.