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Pennsylvania Lumber Versus Pirates

In honor of “Talk Like A Pirate Day” (September 19, 2020), here’s the story a wooden Pennsylvania-built sailing ship that took on pirates.

The old growth forests of “Penn’s woods” provided ample material for the construction of wooden sailing ships. Especially desirable was the Eastern white pine; with its tall, straight trunk it was ideal for use as ship masts. Pine trees were also used to produce pine tar, used as waterproofing in ship construction. With prime access to these forest resources Philadelphia be came a major center for shipbuilding in the 1700’s.

After the American Revolution the newly formed United States disbanded its Continental Navy in 1785. The ships were sold-off by our new nation which lacked the funds to maintain them. Unfortunately, this 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, leaving American merchant vessels largely unprotected on the high seas.

Prior to independence, American merchant vessels were under the protection of the powerful British navy. Once this protection ceased these ships were vulnerable to attack from pirates and privateers, especially from pirates operating around the Barbary Coast of Africa, supported by 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 the 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. (You can tour “Old Ironsides” at the Charleston Navy Yard, Boston, MA.)

To complement these six frigates the citizens of Philadelphia raised money through subscription to build a seventh frigate to gift 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.

Birch, William Russell, Engraver. Preparation for War to defend Commerce. The Swedish Church Southwark with the building of the Frigate Philadelphia
Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, United States, 1800. Retrieved from the Library of Congress
The “USS Philadelphia” was originally named “The City of Philadelphia”- Philadelphia Gazette November 29th 1799

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 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 US merchant vessels that had been captured by the French.

During the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary States and their pirates 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” joined the blockade of Tripoli in 1802. After briefly returning to the United States, “Philadelphia” re-engaged at 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 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’s harbor. Unaware that the ketch was under American command, 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.

Decatur and his men driving the Pirates off the captured Philadelphia. Image- US Naval History and Heritage Command
Burning of the USS Philadelphia by Edward Moran 1897- Image US Naval History and Heritage Command

While the “Philadelphia” may have met a sad fate, the show of force of the new US Navy, largely comprised of Philadelphia-built ships made of Pennsylvania lumber, eventually put an end to the threat of Barbary pirates on American shipping.