Privateering out of New London

Nathaniel Shaw Jr. Continental (Naval) Agent Appointment Letter

As you enter Shaw Mansion you may see a plaque next to the door stating that the Shaw Mansion served as the U.S. Naval Office during the American Revolution. The meaning of this simple statement is a bit complex.
The Continental Navy was officially established on October 13, 1775. However this did not mean the country would be building ships which flew the a United States flag. Any new navy needs regulations and clear chain of command. The arduous task of composing the regulations fell Congress. Esek Hopkins was appointed to command the Continental Fleet consisting of six ships, a mere fraction of the overall navy of the Revolution. When the Continental Navy needed more ships, they asked governors of various states to loan vessels from the state navies. The he U. S. Naval Office in New London had little to do with the Continental Navy.

On March 23, 1776, Congress approved a maritime act allowing for general reprisal and the use of letters of marque against British vessels. The legislation was the first step to instituting the practice of privateering in the revolutionary war. “Resolved that all Ships &c. belonging to any Inhabitants of Great Britain as aforesaid, which shall be taken by any Vessel of War, fitted out by and at the Expense of any of the United Colonies, shall be deemed forfeited, and divided, after deducting and paying the Wages of Seamen and Mariners as aforesaid, in such manner and proportions as the Assembly or Convention of such Colony shall direct.” British ships were now legally available to privateers as prizes for the taking.

Privateering is often erroneously defined as legalized piracy. However, that definition is quite inaccurate. There are some significant differences between pirates and privateers. Pirates were individuals who chose to leave institutionalized maritime activity to be free of laws and regulations. Their activity at sea was often democratic. They elected their captain and voted on their destination. The captain was only allowed to be in command during battle. That notion is quite different from traditional ships where the captain is the sole authority aboard the vessel. When a ship was taken by pirates, the money associated with that capture was divided by the agreement of the crew. Conversely, privateers had to obey laws, their course was determined by the ship’s captain or owners, captures were determined legal through the courts, and prize money awarded was apportioned using strict guidelines authored by Congress.

On April 3rd 1776 Congress issued the articles under which privateers were to sail. Additionally crew conduct was assured by owners posting a surety pound bond with the naval agents. A letter of marque issued by the naval agent was required by anyone who wished to engage in privateering.
A letter of marque is document which provided protections to the privateer, as it declared the privateer was a military combatant. As such the captured privateer was treated as a prisoner of war. Without the letter of marque, the privateer was subject to piracy laws, thus available to be charged and tried for piracy. Prisoners of war enjoyed rights of decent treatment, available for prisoner exchange, and a guaranteed safe return home after a treaty was signed. Pirates were typically hung.

Naval agents were appointed administer the continental navy in each state, but the larges portion of their job involved organizing the privateering effort. The agent’s job was arduous. They were required to keep all the administrative records of all individuals and ships engaged in the activity. Most colonies had agents, in some instances there were two, in the case of Virginia there were none. In Connecticut, Nathaniel Shaw Jr was appointed the Navy Agent on April 17, 1776. Shaw not only served as the agent for the Continental Congress, he also served as agent for the colony of Connecticut. He became the sole administrator for all warships entering and exiting the port of New London.

After a privateer captured an enemy vessel, the process for receiving prize money was lengthy. The law stated that any captured ship was to be brought to the closest colonial port. Once there the ship was inventoried and written accounts of her capture were collected. The inventories and accounts were then sent a state county court to be reviewed, and the court declared whether the capture was legal. Then the courts awarded prize money. Everyone involved in the capture, crewmen, officers, captain, naval agent, investors, state government, and the Colonial government was allocated a percentage of the money earned from every sale of captured ships.

There are different estimates concerning number of ships taken by privateers and brought into the ports of Connecticut. Several sources record that 500 ships were taken, while others state 600 ships. The confusion for the numbers is two fold. What constituted an official prize coupled with the records destroyed when Arnold burned New London in 1781. The privateering effort of New London, for all of the colonies was significant at least in an economic standpoint. British shipping to the colonies became quite hazardous, and the insurance rates for such voyages rose to be prohibitive. Privateering during the Revolution was quite lucrative. Men motivated by the prospect of a 150% pay increase signed aboard privateers taking advantage of the opportunity to profit. That opportunity was responsible for the largest fleet of American ships sailing during the Revolution.

Forgotten Patriots: Captain Robert Niles

Document authorizing back pay to the crew of the Spy for her service on the Paris mission.

Captain Robert Niles filled the canvas bag with his orders and correspondence, then added some lead shot and cast it into the sea. For seven hours Niles and his schooner Spy, attempted to elude the Channel Island privateer brig Bazley commanded by Noah Gautier. Bazley appeared on the horizon off the coast of France on the morning of August 29, 1778, and Niles ordered his smaller Connecticut vessel to flee. Sadly high seas and a favorable wind gave Bazley the advantage and Spy was captured. The only solace for Niles was his capture came after he delivered two ratified treaties, the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance, to the American commissioners in France.
Instead of being imprisoned, Niles and two of his crew mates were placed aboard a Dutch ship which delivered them to a French port. Once there they awaited any vessel bound for the United States to take them home. Some historians believe Niles bribed Gautier for this special treatment, but there is no evidence to support that theory. As for the remainder of his crew, they were pressed into the service of His Majesty as sailors on the frigate HMS Seaford. Gautier placed a prize crew aboard the Spy with orders to sail her back to the Jersey Islands where she met the fate of all privateer captured vessels. Spy and her cargo were sold at auction, and the money earned was divided into shares for the Bazley’s crew, captain, ship owners, and voyage investors.

Born in Groton on September 2, 1734, Niles spent his early life on the family farm. At the outbreak of the French and Indian War, Niles enlisted in militia service as a clerk and rose to the rank of Lieutenant. After the war he relocated to Norwich with his wife and children to begin a career commanding merchant ships. Niles proved to be a talented captain, making him much sought after by local merchants. However, he was most often employed by Nathaniel Shaw Jr, and his friend Christopher Leffingwell. Both Shaw and Leffingwell were heavily involved in the naval war effort during the American Revolution. Shaw was the Continental Agent and Leffingwell was an assistant agent. Considering his maritime prowess, coupled with influential friends and prior military service, it is not surprising that Niles was offered a command when Trumbull ordered the formation of a state navy.

For his part, Niles was not considering naval service. At the outbreak of the war, Niles and forty seven Norwich residents petitioned the Connecticut Assembly to form the Norwich Light Guard Militia, however the Assembly rejected the request. Colonel Edward Mott at Fort Ticonderoga wrote Governor Trumbull asking that Niles command a gunboat on Lake George to defend the fort. Trumbull denied that request. Instead, at the urging of Christopher Leffingwell, Niles was tasked with the capture the brig Nancy. Nancy was a loyalist merchant ship that drifted into Stonington harbor. An armed sloop was placed under his command and Niles took the vessel with ease. When the Nancy struck her colors she became the first British ship captured by an American vessel. Nancy held 19,000 gallons of molasses which, along with the ship, were sold at auction. The money was used to support the Continental Army.

In 1775, under the direction of the Governor and the Connecticut Council of Safety, the schooner Britannia was purchased in Stonington and renamed Spy. The Spy was sailed to Norwich and fitted out for service, with Niles as the uncontested choice to be her captain. As the captain, it was his responsibility to see Spy ready for service. In Norwich she was properly rigged and armed with a dozen blunderbusses purchased from Nathaniel Shaw Jr., and Niles was given £100 to provision and crew her. A few days prior to her departure, half a dozen four pound canon were put in place and 150 pounds of powder was loaded aboard. During the process of outfitting Spy, Niles twice wrote Governor Trumbull asking for more money. Trumbull agreed and provided £300 more to ensure Spy was ready for duty.
Niles’ orders were simple. He was directed, “to seize and bring into port any provision vessel or vessels which she may be able to discover and take, in or about the harbor of New London, offing, or sound, bound to sea and the same hold or detain,” Additionally Spy was to gather intelligence during her cruises and report findings to the Continental Congress. In October of 1775 Spy was sent to capture the Loyalist
ship Peggy out of New York bound for Falmouth, laden with pig iron, staves, and wheat. Niles succeeded in his mission and Peggy was sailed to Norwich to keep her from the enemy.

Over her entire career the Spy captured eight enemy vessels, gathered a vast amount of intelligence on British ship movements in Long Island Sound, obtained goods and materials for use by the state of Connecticut, and delivered supplies to the Continental Army. Her sphere of operations expanded from New London harbor and Long Island Sound to include the coastal waters of Maryland and Virginia. Niles excelled at every mission assigned to him. Unlike other Connecticut ship captains, he decided against commanding privateers. He preferred supporting the war effort in Connecticut state navy.
The last ship captured by the Spy with Niles as captain was the Dolphin. After this prize was deemed legal, the state of Connecticut purchased Dolphin and put her into service with Niles in command. Zebediah Smith, first mate of the Spy, was promoted to captain, and both ships were ordered to the West Indies where they were to trade ivory for iron. Prior to departure, however, Governor Trumbull received a request from the Continental congress. The Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with France had been ratified. The Governor was asked to provide a vessel to carry Congressional dispatches and copies of the treaties to the American commissioners in France. Trumbull agreed and the Marine Committee returned Niles to the Spy and gave him the mission.

Early in June of 1778 the Spy left Stonington harbor and sailed for France. Niles managed to elude British ships and made the difficult crossing to in twenty-two days. However his arrival in Brest was just the beginning. The American commissioners were in Paris and that meant three hundred and sixty miles stood between the captain and the completion of his mission. Niles left the Spy and journeyed south. Five days later congressional dispatches and copies of the ratified treaties were in the hands of the American commissioners. After discharging his duty, Niles met with other dignitaries where he was charged with their letters and gifts to deliver home. When he returned to Brest, he began loading Spy with cargo purchased to support the war effort and made ready to be underway.

In a letter to Benjamin Franklin, dated August 6th, Niles announced is intent to depart immediately. The next letter Franklin received came on October 27th. In it Captain Niles detailed the capture of his ship, his interrogation by the Admiralty Court on the Jersey Islands, and his release to Bordeaux France. Franklin used his influence to provide Niles with the means to secure funds for a return trip home. The captain managed to find passage on a Merchant ship bound for the United States. Ironically that ship also fell victim to privateers.

Once again Niles was detained on the Jersey Islands. While under arrest, he was not imprisoned, but appeared to have parole to move about the island. In his correspondence, Niles describes how well he was treated by his captors. As before, he managed to affect a transfer to France in January of 1779. This time he found himself in Nantes, were he resided until he obtained the funds to pay for a trip home. Franklin continued to work on Niles’ behalf and with the help of a French banker, the captain was given the money and arrived home on the 17th of July.

The mission to France was the last military mission he undertook. Captain Niles returned to the sea and merchant vessels after the war. The last command of his career was the Juno A packet carrying mail and passengers between Connecticut and New York. He was active in Norwich as a selectmen and retired from the maritime world in 1800, a man of 65 years suffering from all the infirmities obtained from a life at sea.
When his service in the navy was complete, he returned to Norwich to manage his affairs. Unfortunately while he was stranded in France he accrued significant debts. That coupled with his father’s death left him in difficult financial straits. He managed to collect the money owed to him by the state of Connecticut and the Continental Congress for his naval service. However it took three years and did little to alleviate his financial woes. In addition to money troubles, Niles saw much hardship with his family over the next few years.

A year after his return his oldest son Robert was lost at sea. Four years later his youngest son Frederick died. His daughter Mary was wed in 1786 and died shortly after in February of 1787. Then in 1796 Niles lost his wife Abigail, however the captain persevered amid all his loss.
A year after his wife’s death, Robert Niles married Polly Fitch of Norwich. Sadly Polly died in 1799. By 1802 Niles had married once again. This time it was Hannah Brown, the widowed sister of Polly Fitch. Hannah had children of her own, and Niles took them into his home. At the age 71 Niles became the father of a baby girl who was called for her mother Hannah, bringing him some joy in his later life.
Sadly Captain Niles did not enjoy a prosperous retirement. His meager savings was depleted when he loaned his step son the money to open a carriage factory. Illness and economic downturns closed that business by 1808. Niles was responsible for debts due and was forced to petition for bankruptcy. His petition was granted in 1809. His wife died a year later and Robert moved in with his daughter where he lived for the remainder of his days.


Forgotten Patriots is a Series of articles written by Steve Manuel, our Executive Director.

The Salvage of the HMS Resolute

HMS Resolute frozen in the Ice as her crew abandons her


In September 1855, New London-based Captain James Buddington ordered the crew of the George Henry to fend off the ice threatening to encase the ship in the Davis Strait between Greenland and Canada.
His failure to get his ship into the strait spelled doom for his second expedition for whales in the North Atlantic.
So successful was his first voyage aboard the George Henry that the Perkins and Smith whaling firm engaged him for two more. Sadly, on this voyage he was forced to give orders to turn and make for New London.
A week into their voyage home, the George Henry spotted a vessel off the coast of Baffin Island. They gave signal, but no reply came.
It took five days for the George Henry to sail the four and a half leagues to the ship. Upon arrival,
Buddington ordered George Tyson, a seaman aboard George Henry, and three others to go aboard and report back.
When they climbed over the rail to the deck they found not a soul. They did discover tables below holding wine decanters and half-filled glasses along with partially eaten meals. Uniforms and various other personal items were left behind as well.
With further investigation, the crew learned they were aboard HMS Resolute. It was a one of the ships that had sailed in search of the Sir John Franklin expedition that had mysteriously disappeared in the Arctic with 128 men aboard.
Tyson signaled Buddington, and the captain seized an opportunity to turn a failed whaling voyage into a successful salvage operation. Money earned from salvaging the HMS Resolute promised to be lucrative for the firm, the investors, the captain, and the crew.
“Sunday, May 15 1854, The sun rose on the morning of the last day we were to spend onboard our old ship, endeared to us all by many bygone associations. Without affecting any absurd sentimentalities, it may easily be imagined we all experienced feelings of regret as the time approached; abandon the staunch old craft to her fate…by the ice. There were a thousand and one things we would have desired to save, had our weights permitted.
“45 pounds is, however too low a figure to indulge in luxuries.”
George M. McDougall, Master, HMS Resolute
Sir John Franklin set out on his two vessels, the Terror and the Erebus in May 1845, to at last discover the fabled passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans to the north of Canada. This Northwest Passage, long sought since the 15th century as a way to expedite trade to Asia, continued to be an explorer’s nightmare well into the 20th century, and Franklin’s expedition was no exception.
Two years passed with no word from Franklin, and in 1848 expeditions were sent out in search. HMS Resolute, under the command of Captain Thomas Kellett, was part of the Belcher expedition.
Originally named the Ptarmigan, Resolute was outfitted for arctic exploration and joined the nine-ship flotilla tasked with finding the Terror and Erebus. Leaving in 1852, Resolute became trapped in the ice.
Remaining trapped for a year along with several other boats from the flotilla, Belcher believed there was no hope of a thaw. After a debate among his captains, he ordered a reluctant Kellett to abandon ship. In 1854, Kellett gave the order and he and his crew left Resolute to the ice, expecting it to be lost to history.
But the Resolute had other plans. When the New London crew of the George Henry found it more than a year later, it was in remarkably good shape.
In less than a week, 13 men from the George Henry’s crew made Resolute seaworthy. Buddington
took command of the British ship and sailed the bark to New London. Meanwhile, the inexperienced first mate of the George Henry, a man named John Quayle, was tasked with captaining the whaling ship back home.
HMS Resolute arrived in New London Harbor on Christmas Eve of 1855, and Quayle arrived a week later with George Henry.
The Perkins and Smith firm was owned by three partners, all New London residents: the brothers Elias Perkins and Nathaniel Shaw Perkins Jr, called Shaw, and a retired sea captain named Franklin Smith.
When Buddington arrived in New London, Shaw was the only partner in the city. Elias Perkins was in Hawaii looking after the firm’s Pacific interests, and Smith had come out of retirement to sail the Laurens to Desolation Island for elephant seal oil.
Technically the British still owned Resolute until they released the rights of ownership. The Perkins and Smith firm needed to confirm with the British government that since one of their ships had salvaged Resolute, the vessel now belonged to them.
A vast amount of correspondence was exchanged between
two British consulates, the Perkins and Smith firm, and Henry Grinnell. The latter was engaged by Perkins and Smith because Grinnell understood salvage laws from both the British and American perspectives.
In British salvage law, ownership rights were given to the captain of the ship which found
the salvage. In the United States, the firm which owned the ship was given the salvage ownership rights.
Eventually the British awarded the salvage rights of Resolute to the “owners of the George Henry.”
Once the ownership issue was settled, Henry Grinnell enlisted LaFayette S. Foster, the senator from Norwich, in a plan involving the purchase of HMS Resolute. Grinnell knew about the rocky relationship between Britain and the United States and he hoped refitting and returning the ship to England would go a long way in earning good will from Britain.
Foster agreed with the plan, and put forth legislation to create a
committee to investigate the idea.
As the idea for using the
Resolute’s return to England to help mend differences between the two countries was discussed in the Senate, James M. Mason of Virginia contacted Foster and together submitted a joint resolution to purchase Resolute, repair her, and give her to England. The resolution was passed unanimously on June 24, 1856.
HMS Resolute was purchased for $40,000 by the United States. However, the Perkins and Smith firm did not receive any of that money.
The panic of 1857 forced Perkins and Smith to sell their whaling assets to the Williams and Haven
firm. Now, Henry Haven owned George Henry, and all profits gained from the sale of Resolute. Traditionally money earned from the sale of salvage was divided among the ship owners, voyage investors, captain and crew. However, Haven refused to release any of the salvage money to Buddington and the crew. He argued that Buddington leaving George Henry to command the HMS Resolute broke his contract.
That meant the captain and the crew forfeited any right to shares in the salvage. Buddington sued Haven in court. The judge decided that Buddington did break his contract and was due no money, but he did award salvage shares to the crew of the George Henry.
In a matter of months, HMS Resolute was restored and outfitted with every detail exactly as she had been prior to her abandonment. On the 13th of November she set sail from New York to Portsmouth, England.
She arrived home on December 12th to cheering crowds and a grateful country. In the following weeks, thousands came to celebrate her return. Even Her Majesty Queen Victoria visited and toured the ship.
Though never again used in an official capacity, Resolute endured as a symbol of international friendship for over 20 years before Queen Victoria had her decommissioned and broken up in 1879.
The next year President Rutherford B. Hayes was given a desk built of the timbers from the retired ship. The Resolute Desk is still in the Oval Office today.
Steve Manuel is executive director of the New London County Historical Society.