The Armed Ship America - James Otis - ebook

The Armed Ship America or, When We Sailed From Salem written by James Otis Kaler who was an American journalist and author of children’s literature. He wrote under the name James Otis. This book was published in 1900. And now republish in ebook format. We believe this work is culturally important in its original archival form. While we strive to adequately clean and digitally enhance the original work, there are occasionally instances where imperfections such as missing pages, poor pictures or errant marks may have been introduced due to either the quality of the original work. Despite these occasional imperfections, we have brought it back into print as part of our ongoing global book preservation commitment, providing customers with access to the best possible historical reprints. We appreciate your understanding of these occasional imperfections, and sincerely hope you enjoy reading this book.

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The Armed Ship America

or, When We Sailed From Salem


James Otis

Illustrator: J. W. Kennedy














“In the United States every possible encouragement should be given to privateering in time of war with a commercial nation. We have tens of thousands of seamen that without it would be destitute of the means of support, and useless to their country. Our national ships are too few in number to give employment to one-twentieth part of them, or retaliate the acts of the enemy. By licensing private-armed vessels, the whole naval force of the nation is truly brought to bear on the foe; and while the contest lasts, that it may have the speedier termination, let every individual contribute his mite, in the best way he can, to distress and harass the enemy, and compel him to peace.”—From a letter written by Thomas Jefferson, July 4, 1812.


A package of manuscript, the pages of which had evidently been cut from an old ledger or journal, each leaf yellowed by time and worn as if with much use, lately came into the possession of him who, rightfully or wrongfully, claims to be the author of the yarn spun between these covers. Both sides of the paper were covered with writing in a boyish hand, and much of the subject matter related to private affairs such as could be of no especial interest to the general reader. All that had reference to the cruise of the private-armed ship America, and the doings of the writer, Nathan Crowninshield, and his comrade, Simon Ropes, has been preserved herein. It is set down very nearly as it was written eighty years ago, by the lad from Salem, who, at the time of preparing the manuscript, was living on Staten Island in New York Bay. That it is a true and faithful account of the eventful cruise, we know full well, since the more important happenings have been verified by documents to be found in the custom-houses at Salem, Boston, and Portland, Maine.


It is not my intention to claim that Simon Ropes, son of that famous mariner, Captain Joseph Ropes, or myself, Nathan Crowninshield, nephew and cousin of the well-known Salem firm of ship-owners, the Messrs. George Crowninshield and Sons, bore any important part in the war between the United States and Great Britain which was begun in the year 1812; but that we two lads did all which might be expected from youngsters of our age is a fact that can be proven by more than one sailing-master or seaman hailing from the Massachusetts coast.

It is near to eight years since Simon Ropes and I signed articles for a cruise on board the private-armed ship America.

Then Simon, who was the elder, had just turned fifteen years, and I was three months his junior.

Why we were allowed to ship on board such a famous craft as the America, should be set down first in this tale, which I am writing simply in order that, after we have grown to be old men, it may be possible for us to recall more minutely the events in which we bore some little share than if we trusted solely to memory.

If, perchance, this poor attempt at what a clerkly mind might fashion into a most entertaining story should at any time come into the possession of others, it is well that I repeat why it has been written, lest strangers think I did it simply for the self-glorification of Simon and myself, instead of which the tale has been preserved, if it so chance it be preserved any length of time, for the purpose of making public the doings of all on board that armed ship hailing from Salem, which wrought so much injury to British shipping.

The America was built in Salem, in 1804, and should have been given some other name because of the fact that many have since believed her to be the same craft which made a cruise in 1802, when the United States was at war with France.

Our ship was Salem built, of three hundred and fifty tons burthen, carrying twenty guns, and with a complement of from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and seventy-five men.

She was then, and I believe of a verity is now, the fastest ship afloat, being credited with having brought into port, during this last war, one million, one hundred thousand dollars’ worth of property; with having destroyed nearly as much more, and netting her owners, between September of 1812 and April, 1815, six hundred thousand dollars.

She is owned by the Messrs. George Crowninshield and Sons, the senior member of which firm is my uncle, a whole-souled, generous man, as all who know him can testify, and none better than myself; for from the time my father, Captain Benjamin Crowninshield, died, which was in 1810, Uncle George cared for the widow and son of his brother more tenderly than the majority of men care for their own.

It was in August of the year 1812 when the America was overhauled and made ready for a privateering cruise. Previous to that time she had been in the merchant service, and earned for herself much credit, it being stated by those who sailed her that there was nothing afloat to which she could not show her heels.

When the people of the United States had finally discovered that patience ceased to be a virtue, that the time was arrived when we as a nation should protect our own seamen against Great Britain’s press-gangs, my uncle and cousins decided that the good ship America should take part in the struggle, by teaching the Britishers a much needed lesson at the same time that she brought in many dollars to her owners.

Captain Joseph Ropes, Simon’s father, was allowed to be the most skilful navigator and the ablest sailing-master in the United States.

In view of what has been done since then by privateersmen from Portland and Baltimore, it would seem as if that which has just been set down is a rash statement, and yet must I hold to it, for when the war broke out Captain Joseph could have commanded any vessel, outside the navy, which struck his fancy.

We of Salem believed, and this belief was afterward proven to be correct, that the America was by long odds the finest craft of her kind afloat, and therefore the people along the Massachusetts coast took it for granted that she would be commanded by Captain Ropes.

The ship was well worthy such a master, and certain it was she would never come to grief through any carelessness or misjudgment of his.

Therefore, when it was announced that Captain Ropes would sail the America, no one in or around Salem expressed surprise, or even intimated that a better choice could have been made.

While the ship was being fitted for sea, Simon and I, as may be supposed, were constantly on board of her, watching the men as they put in place the twenty formidable-looking guns, and listening to the yarns told by old Joshua Seabury, who had, during the war with Tripoli, proven himself as good a gunner as he was seaman, than which no greater praise could be bestowed.

“Master Josh,” we lads designated him, and very careful were we to tack on the “Master” since the day he flogged Daniel Kelley with a rope’s end, for daring to call him “Josh.”

A good friend to Simon and me was the gunner, and, before he had been given the charge of superintending the arming of the America, he spent much time with us two lads, spinning yarns of his adventures with the Tripolitan pirates.

There was not another lad in Salem allowed to come over the rail of the America while Master Josh was aboard, and even though one of us was the nephew of the owner, and the other the son of the captain, we two would have been denied the privilege but for the fact of our friendliness with the old gunner.

We little dreamed, during the early days of the war, that through the old man’s friendship we would become members of the famous ship’s crew, for where there were so many eager to sign articles it did not seem likely Captain Ropes would lumber his craft with green lads.

From the first hour the work of arming the ship was begun, Simon and I watched keenly every portion of the work, and I question if a single block was put in place, if the smallest rope or hawser was stretched, without our knowledge. When Master Josh desired to send word ashore, either Simon or I was selected as the messenger. In case any trifling task within our power was to be performed, the old sailor called upon us for assistance, as if we were in duty bound to render it, and right proud were we of such distinction, for it was a distinction to be ordered here or there by a man who had fought the Tripolitan pirates,—a man who had borne his share in the destruction of the Philadelphia when she lay beneath the guns of Tripoli.

Well, this condition of affairs, so far as we two lads were concerned, went on throughout the month of August, and until the ship was so far in readiness for the cruise that the water and provisions were being put on board. Then Simon and I were literally astounded by a proposition which the old gunner made as if it was the natural outcome of events.

We two lads were lounging around the gun-deck after the day’s work had come to a close. Master Josh was seated on a small-arms-chest smoking his pipe and enjoying a well-earned rest before turning in.

Simon, believing we had earned the right to hear a yarn from the old gunner, began leading up to the subject by asking questions concerning the destruction of the Philadelphia, knowing full well that once we could get Master Josh warmed up to the affair, he would hold to it so long as we might be able to listen.

On this night the scheme was not a success, much to our disappointment. He answered Simon’s questions curtly, while his mind seemed to be far away from that which he ordinarily was only too willing to hold forth on, and I was beginning to feel as if we had been in a certain measure defrauded of our rights, when Master Josh said suddenly, startling me almost out of my wits by the boldness of the idea:

“Are you two lads countin’ on shippin’ aboard this ’ere craft?”

“Do you mean Nathan and me?” Simon asked, in astonishment.

“Ay, lad, and why not ‘Nathan and me’?”

“Why not?” Simon repeated. “Do you allow that my father would take on two boys, when able seamen are tumbling over each other in their eagerness to ship aboard the America?”

“Well, what of that?” and the old man puffed vigorously at his pipe.

“I reckon we would stand little chance against those who are begging Captain Ropes for permission to ship aboard this craft,” I said, and for the hundredth time there came into my heart the thought that, if we might be allowed to join the crew, it was possible we could show ourselves worthy the great honour; but yet I realised how hopeless was such an ambition.

“How old was your father when he first went to sea?” Master Josh asked of Simon.

“Nearly three years younger than I am now.”

“An’ I allow some captain gave him a chance, else he never’d earned the name he’s made.”

“That goes without saying,” Simon replied, as if in bewilderment, for he failed to understand what the old man was driving at.

“Then it stands to reason he should do as good a service for his own son; an’ if George Crowninshield can’t serve his nephew a friendly turn at a time when everything is to be gained, things have come to a pretty pass.”

Simon and I stared at the old man in silence, for it seemed much as if he had taken leave of his senses.

From the moment it was known that the America would be armed as a privateer, the ablest seamen from far and near were coming into Salem with the hope of being allowed to ship on board her, and one could not walk the length of the town without hearing on this corner or on that speculations as to who would be the lucky men when the articles were ready for the signing.

The old gunner smoked on, as if the subject had come to an end so far as he was concerned, and, the hope which had been so often in my heart growing stronger, I ventured to ask, but with a certain hesitation as if I were simply proving my folly:

“Do you suppose, Master Josh, that it would be of any use for Simon and me to beg of Captain Ropes or Uncle George that we be allowed to go on this cruise?”

“Do you suppose, Nathan Crowninshield, that Captain Ropes or Uncle George would get down on their knees an’ beg you two to come on this ’ere cruise, if it so be you never let on that you was achin’ for the chance?” Master Josh asked, mockingly.

I caught at the words eagerly, believing, as I afterward came to know was the truth, that in them lay a suggestion to us.

The old man had no mind to openly advise us lads to apply for a berth aboard the America, but would have been well pleased for us to do so.

Instead of continuing the conversation, Master Josh smothered the fire in the bowl of his pipe with his thumb, and, without giving further heed to us, walked forward, leaving Simon and me staring at each other as we tried to put into shape the thoughts aroused by his words, which were forming themselves in our minds.

How long we sat there gazing at each other like a couple of stupids I know not, but after a certain time it flashed across me that we were showing ourselves dull indeed by not following the advice contained in the old man’s words, and moving closely to Simon, as if fearing some one might overhear and make sport of us for having such high and mighty notions, I whispered:

“Surely it can do no harm if we apply for berths on board this ship?”

“Are you so puffed up as to believe that we might be allowed to sign articles?” Simon asked, in a scornful tone, and, now grown bold because of increased hope, I said, as if having weighed well the matter, although of a verity it had come only with Master Josh’s speech:

“There’s an old saying, that if nothing be ventured nothing can be gained, and surely we shall be in no serious condition if your father and my uncle refuse permission for us to become members of the crew.”

“We are like to gain their laughter and scorn; but nothing more,” Simon replied.

“Well, and surely that is not so serious a matter. In these times two men will hardly give many hours to making sport of a couple of lads, and, as Master Josh has said, they will never ask us to join the crew unless we show a desire.”

“I am not of the mind to make such a simple of myself,” Simon replied, doggedly; whereat, nettled by his words, I said, bravely:

“If you but come with me I will do the talking, and afterward, if it so be your pleasure, you may deny that there was in your mind any idea we might be taken on.”

He looked at me for a moment as if questioning whether I was in my right mind, and then said, in the tone of one who would drive a sharp bargain:

“If you make the request known this night, Nathan Crowninshield, I will stand by your side while the words are spoken, and take upon myself such blame as may follow; but it must be done before we go to bed, for I’ll not try to sleep while there’s any prospect of such a possibility.”

“By those words you are admitting there is a chance that we be allowed to ship.”

“Perhaps so.”

“Then come with me, and we’ll have the matter settled at once. I am ready to do even more than make a simple request, on the possibility that we might leave port on board this ship.”

“My father was to be in your uncle’s counting-room to-night, so I heard him tell mother, and if your courage holds good, we two may be laughed at by all the clerks in the Crowninshields’ office before an hour has passed.”

Simon could have pursued no wiser course, had he wished to urge me on to such a step; for by his tone I understood him to intimate that I was afraid to make the attempt, and without further parley I cried:

“Follow me, unless it so be you are afraid! I count on asking permission from the captain and owner of this ship to sail in her, when she goes forth to work destruction upon British craft.”

Then, perhaps, fearing lest the courage should ooze out at my fingers’ ends, I went rapidly on deck, over the rail, and headed straight for the office of the owners.

Under almost any other circumstances I would not have dared to enter that portion of the counting-room where my Uncle George transacted the more private business of the concern; but at this time I was made bold by desperation, knowing full well that a delay of five minutes or more might serve to shake the resolution I had formed.

My Uncle George and Captain Ropes were holding what I could well fancy was a private consultation on matters concerning the ship, and both looked up in surprise, not unmixed with anger, when we two lads stood before them.

I knew from the expression on my uncle’s face that it was in his mind to say something harsh concerning our intrusion; and, feeling as if I had destroyed what little chance we might have had by such a display of rudeness, I blurted out the request which was formed in my mind, before either of the gentlemen had time to speak.

“We have come to ask that we be allowed to ship on board the America, and do so because of certain words just let fall by Master Josh,” I said, using every effort to speak distinctly, and at the same time rapidly. “My excuse for thus venturing here unbidden is that I dared not wait longer lest I lack the courage to make the request.”

“What has Joshua Seabury been saying to you?” my uncle asked, sharply. “Why should he above all others think that two boys may be allowed to call themselves members of an armed ship’s crew?”

Being thus called upon to defend myself, as it were, I repeated in substance the few words the old man had spoken, laying considerable stress upon the fact that Captain Ropes was three years younger than Simon and me when he first went to sea, and urging that, if Master Josh would take us under his tuition, we should beyond a question pay our footing, even though we might not earn the smallest wages.

Because of the fear—I might almost say the belief, that our request would be treated with disdain, and thinking another opportunity to make our wishes known might not present itself, I succeeded in stating our case fairly well, as I believed.

Before having concluded with all the arguments which presented themselves to my mind, I saw Captain Ropes look at his son in a friendly fashion, and then glance inquiringly at my uncle, whereat the latter, observing the mute question, answered:

“Two lads like those would simply be so much useless lumber aboard the ship, eh, captain?”

My heart sank at what I believed was the beginning of a refusal; but rose very suddenly when Simon’s father replied, with an air which told that he considered our request in a certain degree important:

“Unless we count on setting some of the men to do boy’s duty, we are like to need a few lads, Master Crowninshield.”

“Ay; but you want such as have had some experience.”

“If old Joshua Seabury cares to take these two lads under his wing, I’ll answer for it they will be experienced before we get well settled down to our work,” the captain replied, grimly, and Simon furtively kicked me, as if to say that fortune was smiling upon us.

“I question much if your mother would give her permission for you to join the America’s crew, Nathan,” my uncle said, after a brief pause.

“She is willing, sir, that I become a sailor, as was my father before me, and surely could not refuse her permission if I should have such opportunity of serving an apprenticeship as would come under the command of a sailor like Captain Ropes.”

“You have turned that nicely, my lad,” Simon’s father said, with a chuckle, “and if it so be Master Crowninshield is willing to trust you aboard the America