In honor of “Talk Like A Pirate Day” here is a story of a wooden Pennsylvania build ship that took on Pirates.
The old growth trees of “Penn’s woods” provided ample material for the construction of wooden sailing ships. Especially desirable was the Eastern White Pine trees, with their tall, straight trunks that were ideal for use as masts. The Pine trees were also used to produce Pine Tar, used in ship construction. With access to such resources Philadelphia be came a major center for shipbuilding in the 1700’s.
After the American Revolution the newly formed United States disbanded the Continental Navy in 1785. The navy ships were sold off by the new nation that lack the funds to maintain them. This act left the United States without an armed maritime presence until the U.S. Revenue-Marine (fore-runner to the modern Coast-Guard) was founded in 1790. The U.S. Revenue-Marine only consisted of ten small Cutters that could patrol the US coasts but left American Merchant Vessels unprotected on the High Seas.
Prior to independence American Merchant Vessels were under the protection of the powerful British Navy. Once this protection went away these ships were vulnerable to attack from pirates and privateers, especially to attacks from pirates operating around the Barbary Coast of Africa with the support of local nations.
The Barbary States demanded tribute to be paid in exchange for not attacking American shipping. The United States initially agreed to pay these tributes but political humiliation of paying for protection from pirates led to the creation of the United States Navy with the Naval Act of 1794.
The Naval Act of 1794 proved for the construction of six frigates. These frigates were designed by noted Philadelphia Shipbuilder, Joshua Humpherys. The first of the frigates, the “USS United States” was build by Humpherys at his shipyard and launched in 1797. (The “USS Constitution” is the last surviving ship of the original six frigates and is the world’s oldest commissioned naval vessel still afloat.)
To complement these six frigates the citizens of Philadelphia raised money through subscription to build a frigate to give to the new national navy. Laid down in November of 1798 and launched in November of 1799 the frigate “Philadelphia” was constructed at Humpherys’ shipyard. While there may have been patriotic inspirations behind Philadelphians’ desire to fund a new ship to give to the US Navy, it was also in the best interest of the merchant men who’s ships were in need of protection.
Under the command of Captain Stephen Decatur (Sr.) the “USS Philadelphia”‘s first action was not against pirates but against the French during the Quasi-War. The Quasi-War with France was an undeclared war fought on the seas in response to France’s violation of American’s neutrality during the Napoleonic War. Much like the Barbary pirates, the French Navy had been capturing unprotected American merchant vessels and men. During her first cruise (1800-1801) the “Philadelphia” captured five French ships and freed six merchant ships that had been captured by the French.
During the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary States and their pirates had continued to capture American Merchant men and demand high ransoms for their return. President Jefferson, determined to cease payment to pirates, sent US Navy ships to the Barbary Coast for a fight that would become known as the “First Barbary War”.
The “USS Philadelphia” first joined the blockade of Tripoli in 1802. After returning to the United States, “Philadelphia” returned to Tripoli with Captain William Bainbridge in command. On October 31st, 1803, while giving chase to a pirate ship, “Philadelphia” ran aground on an uncharted reef. Immobilized the ship and the crew were captured by the pirates. This setback led to a daring raid on February 16th, 1804 by Lieutenant Stephen Decatur (Jr.), son of the “USS Philadelphia”‘s first captain. Lieutenant Decatur and a volunteer crew, sailed the captured Tripolian ketch “Mastico”, renamed “Intrepid” into the enemy harbor. Unaware that the ketch was a captured ship the Tripolians allowed it to pull up next to the refloated “Philadelphia” . Decatur and his men boarded the ship, defeated the crew and managed to set it on fire before safely returning to open sea.
While the “Philadelphia” may have met a sad fate, the show of force of the new US Navy, made in part with Philadelphia built ships, made in part with Pennsylvania Lumber eventually put an end to the threat of Barbary pirates on American shipping.