Needham History Center & Museum

Who is Antonio Courante?

By any measure, Antonio Courante should have been invisible to history – an illiterate immigrant laborer, who did not participate in public life. Just an honest, hardworking man. Why do we know so much about him?

Wyeth Winter Painting
The Joshua Lewis House, built circa 1776, detail from NC Wyeth’s painting, Winter (1913). This house is still standing at 178 South Street. It is better known in Needham as the home of Denys Zirngeibel – the originator of the Giant Swiss Pansy and grandfather of artist NC Wyeth. The house has recently been purchased and incorporated as the NC Wyeth Research Foundation. The painting is in the collections of the Needham History Center.

I am in love. He is dark and handsome, with long flowing locks and liquid brown eyes. At least, I think – hope – he is. I haven’t actually seen him. Antonio Courante died in 1853.

So, who is Antonio Courante? To explain, we have to go back a step. In 1776 (or thereabouts) Joshua Lewis built himself a house on a property of 1.5 acres along the Charles River, on South Street. The property had been inherited by his wife, Mary Lyon, from her father. Joshua and Mary married in 1776, and the house most likely was built for their new household. Joshua and Mary Lewis had nine children, of which six survived infancy.

Their fifth child, Abigail (“Nabby”), was a sore disappointment. In 1806, at the age of 19 or 20, she married an able seaman from the Azores named Antonio Courante, called Anthony Currant. Currant was born on the tiny island of Santa Cruz da Graciosa around 1780, so would have been about 26 at the time of their marriage. He was illiterate, and signed his name with an X. Currant lived in Boston, in the vicinity of Battery Wharf. It is now increasingly-pricey waterfront property, but at the time it was a dockside slum, mostly populated by sailors and the trades that relied on the shipping industry. 

Why Currant settled in Boston and anglicized his name, I have no way of knowing. Boston was an important seaport, and sailors did gravitate there. How he came to meet and court the daughter of a Needham landowner, I can’t begin to guess. How could his work have brought him to Needham? For what reason would she be near the wharves? Don’t underestimate how exceptional this marriage was in Needham in 1806 – this was not a town that welcomed any sort of diversity, or outsiders of any variety (ie, anyone born farther away than Dedham).

Anyway, meet they did, and marry (this is where I am hoping that the long locks and liquid eyes come in). Papa Lewis was not happy, and he promptly disowned is daughter. The couple lived (probably) in Boston, and had three children. Currant went back to sea and in 1812 was on a ship captured by the British, and pressed into British service. No more news of his fate reached his family, and in his absence their situation became difficult. Rather than have his daughter live in penury, Joshua Lewis forgave her and brought her and the children back to Needham, installing them in a house he owned on Blind Lane (Green Street). The winter passed without news.

Then one day in the spring, Nabby was out in the nearby woods with her children, when “a Pirate with brass buttons on him” appeared and swept her into his arms. This children, frightened, ran back to the house to call their grandfather. Currant was back; he had escaped to an American privateer, plundering British ships and eventually making his way back to Needham and his wife.

The Currants returned to Boston, and eventually had four more children, who, remarkable for the time, all survived to adulthood. At that point, Anthony Currant begins to show up in the Boston directories – as a “mariner” from 1813 to 1816, and then as a “stevedore,” loading and unloading ships’ cargoes. Their address changed every couple of years, suggesting that they lived in rented rooms, but all within the same wharf-side neighborhood. In November 1815, Currant became an American citizen, renouncing all allegiance to the Kingdom of Portugal.

Nabby died in 1820, at the age of 33, leaving Currant with seven children between the ages of 13 and 2. She is buried (as Abigail Current) in the Needham Cemetery alongside her mother, who died in 1808. Her father Joshua was still living, and in his will split the house and grounds between his four surviving children and Nabby’s children. Nabby’s children were given approximately one-half of the house, and portions of the land and outbuildings. In doing so, Lewis was effectively leaving his grandchildren’s share under the administration of Anthony Currant until the children should reach majority. Lewis had not only reconciled to the marriage by that point, but it is said that he came to regard Currant as the best of his sons-in-law. (Which says something, given that two of his sons-in-law were Kingsburys!)

With seven small children to care for, Currant married again about a year later. He married for a third time in 1836. He had several more children from both marriages. Currant was listed in the Boston directories until 1847, still as a stevedore and in the same part of town. After that, he drops out, though the directories over that period of years show his sons reaching adulthood and establishing themselves in comfortable trades.

A random factoid that I have no other context for – Anthony Currant travelled to San Juan, Cuba aboard the brig Eliza Burgess in 1847. His son Anthony Jr. did likewise in 1853. Anthony Jr. eventually settled in Cuba, sometime after 1855.

Anthony Currant dropped out of the Boston directory in 1847 when he moved to Needham. It is believed that he was managing and renting out the property on behalf of the family between 1823 and 1847, and then in 1848 (aged about 68 at that point) moved into his children’s portion of the house with his third wife and one of their daughters. He lived there until he died in 1853 of heart disease. The children sold off the property a few years later, and by the mid-1860s, it was the residence and nursery of Denys Zirngiebel of pansy fame.

As I tell this story, I continue to be amazed at how much there is to tell. By any measure, Antonio Courante should have been invisible to history – an illiterate immigrant laborer, who did not participate in public life, and basically just worked hard to support his family. A few directories, a few public records, a family letter, and just pulling on the threads until something comes loose. And behold – a romantic tale of a dashing pirate who stole the hand of a Needham maiden. Be still, my heart!

Gloria Polizzotti Greis, Executive Director, Needham History Center & Museum