The Birthplace of the
American Navy

-- Duane Westfield and Bill Purdin

It was Wednesday, September 5, 1775 and an armed schooner of uncertain origin sailed forth upon North Shore waters under the orders of none other than General George Washington himself. The sailors and officers of the now famous Hannah were ordered to seize "such Vessels as may be found on the High seas or elsewhere, bound inward and outward to or from Boston in the Service of the ministerial Army."

The only eyewitness account we have of this momentous event is a short journal entry made that day by Ashley Bowen, a Marblehead sailmaker and chronicler of occurrences in his beloved community. The entry reads: "Sailed on an Unknown Experdishon a Schooner of Capt John Glovers Nick Broden (Broughton) Capt of Mereens (marines) and John Gail (Gale) Mastor of Schooner."

Upon being immediately sighted by HMS Lively, the Hannah sailed directly for the safety of Gloucester Harbor. This is certainly not what we have come to expect from legends of history, but this little story marked the beginning of the American Navy and the long history of the world's most powerful marine forces ever known. From small beginnings great history is often written and the saga of Marblehead and her little ship, the Hannah, are proof of that. And, it should be noted, that nuance and inference often confuse simple beginnings causing controversy where there really should be none. In the dust of history many facts are conveniently overlooked.

In the controversy concerning where exactly the American Navy began there are many contenders: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Whitehall, New York; Beverly, Massachusetts; and Portsmouth, New Hampshire have all made claims to be the "birthplace." But, in the case of the Hannah, no other claim has the two important components of Marblehead's: the direct orders of George Washington (right) to attack the British, and an owner/captain and crew so clearly from one small New England seacoast community. Beverly's claim is based on the fact that Hannah often berthed and resupplied in Beverly's safe shallow-water harbor. While without Beverly's facilities Hannah would have had a much harder time, and therefore her role in establishing a Navy is rock solid, the birthplace of the American Navy can be no other than the town where the ship called home port, where the owner/captain lived and where the vast majority, if not all, of the original crew lived as well. Out of Marblehead's maritime ways and history came the ship, crew and know-how to carry out General Washington's command. How and where they did is also part of history, but a later part than the beginning, the birth if you will.

John Glover owned the little ship. He was, at the time, a long-time prominent Marblehead merchant and a colonel in Washington's army, garrisoned in Cambridge. Nicholson Broughton was a n experienced sea captain and Marbleheader. In an exhaustive and authoritative study entitled: "In Troubled Waters: The Elusive Schooner Hannah," The Peabody Museum, 1970 by C. F. Smith and Russell W. Knight, took all of
speculation about the origins of the Hannah, where was she constructed?, when?, who was her captain?, who were the men of her crew?, was there just one Hannah or many?, and put the real story on firm historic ground once and for all.

Because records of ships' clearances from the colonies are non-existent due to the evacuation of the British from Boston and various fires affecting custom houses (including one in Salem) the authors reled on records of ships' clearances from Barabados and concluded that there were several Hannahs owned by the Glover family. One was owned by Jonathon, John Glover's brother (as confusing as that is) and was named for his daughter, Hannah. There was a second one, owned by John Glover, and named for his wife, the former Hannah Gale. The former, captained at one time by Richard James, John Glover's borther-in-law, and later by Richard Stiles, who was lost at sea in the West Indies. The authors also discovered that John Glover's Hannah, listed in Glover's "Colony Ledger" as 78 tons, was actually smaller than that; actually 45 to 50 tons. Based on Smith and Knight, the Hannah was a vessel with a keel of 43 feet, a beam of 16.5 feet, and a seven-foot depth of hold.

Pictured above: the Hannah running the Gauntlet avoid a British patrol.

There are no documents to substantiate Beverly's claim to the "Birthplace." There is a tradition of them saying it, and it is clear from oral history that John Glover's expanding business did make use of his facilities in Beverly. While provisioning the Hannah, Glover did scoured the entire Massachusetts Bay area in search of guns, sails, and supplies. He probably did berth the vessel in Marblehead and Beverly. But Barbados records lists the Hannah, of Marblehead, as late as July 5, 1775. A second notation in Bowen's Journal dated June 6, 1775: "This afternoon Arived John Gail (John Glover's captain) from Burbados and he Run the Gantlet and Pased ye Marling (HMS Merlin) and Run in to the Worfe (wharf). C John Glover went of (off) and met her and the Marlons Barge mett her at the Same Time the Offeser of the Barge order her to Bring two (to) Glover ordered her not and the Schooner Run under the Ship Starne. All is Well that Ends Well," he concluded. All of this took place in Marblehead Harbor, emphasizing the fact that Marblehead was home port to the Hannah and undermining Beverly's faulty historical claim of inference.

In the end, of course, it is John Glover himself, the ship's owner, who is and has to be the overriding factor in establishing where the Hannah was home ported and then of course where the birthplace of Washington's Navy actually was. Commissioning the Hannah was just one of Glover's Revolutionary War actions that seal the deal. He rose from humble beginnings and circumstances to become one fo the most respected and influential merchants in the colonies. He was born in Salem in 1732 to Jonathan and Yabitha (Bacon) Glover. He grew up with brothers. His mother was widowed when John was four. Successively, John ultimately became a cordwainer, common seaman, merchants, a soldier in the American Revolution, and George Washington's right hand man in battle.

John Glover's quarrel with England was set off by myriad issues and incidents over the years and rose to revolution with the ascent of King George III (1763). The tightening of the Navigation Laaws aimed at limiting colonial trade in the West Indies was one of the first "incidents." King George replaced lacsidasical custom agents with zealots of the crown who did everything they could to restrict the freewheeling colonial traders. Writs of assistance gave these mandarians unlimited power of search and seizure or ships and warehouses. The King also vastly expanded the authority of the vice admiralty courts -- no jury -- and dispactch armed patrol vessels to monitor shipping. The Jamaica was sent to Marblehead and Salem. Glover and his men strenuously and successfully boycotted to the Stamp Act which taxed colonial business. In the end though, objections and boycotts proved impotent in the face of tryanny. The Boston Port Bill (which closed the port until the tea lost in the harbor was compensated for) and the Restraining Act (which threatened to close the Gand Banks) precipitated war and revolution. After the events at Lexington and Concord, Glover's 21st Regiment (later the 14th Regiment) joined Washington in Cambridge. Glover's Mariners were almost to a man all from Marblehead. Washington at times complained about the Marbleheaders, calling them "mutinous." That some of the crew pilfered fruits and sweetmeats for their ladies did not improve the General's opinion and might have accounted for his decision to put them to sea on the Hannah.

Her career, though legendary, was brief, not particularly successful, and full of trouble. Two days out, she captured the Unity, a large ship from Portsmouth, and a crew from the Lively. At this point Hannah's men and officers were full of anticipation of prize money and glory. Washington disallowed the capture and returned the ship to the British. 36 members of the Hannah rebelled against this decision, were arrested and led away to Cambridge to face sentencing. Undaunted, Glover drafted another crew from his Marblehead regiment and the Hannah set out again on her mission. During this period the Hannah encountered HMS Nautilis in Beverly Harbor on October 10. She was run aground while fleeing from the British ship, a 16-gun sloop. Saved from destruction by spirited resistance from local patriots, she was soon decommissioned in early November by Washington, who had meanwhile hired vessels more appropriate to the Army's needs. The Hannah had never accomplished her primary mission of attacking British troop and supply ships and seizing material for Washington's troops.

Hannah did demonstrate the ability of colonial-built and crewed vessels to maneuver in the presence of much larger British warships. And, she forced the British to spend valuable time and money to arm, escort, and convoy ships entering Massachusetts waters.

And while the trumped up controversy of where the Birthplace of the American Navy is or is not may continue ad infinitim true students of American history know that Marblehead is the only birthplace that really matters, and they know without question that John Glover was the father of the American Navy.
Duane Westfield is a native of Beverly, a former minister of the Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Massachusetts, and at the time of this writing a member of the faculty at Endicott College. And while this article was extensively researched and in large part written by Mr. Westfield, it was edited by Bill Purdin.

If you would like to support Marblehead's historic role, against the onslaught of wannabes, you can purchase our famous bumper sticker in our online store. Just click on the image below: | Search | Ask | Archives | Online Store | Contact Us
Ad Info | Employment | Courier Pages | Marblehead Magazine
Stuff of the Day