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"Loaded With Potatoes and Turnips Intended for the Enemy in Boston" - The Privateers of Tracy's Wharf

July 17, 2017

Along Newburyport's waterfront is a historical marker which highlights the role that Tracy’s Wharf played in the American Revolution.  The wharf was originally built by Richard Dole in 1678 and was acquired by Patrick Tracey in 1757.  

 

Mr. Tracy was born in Wexford, Ireland in 1711 and eventually immigrated to Newburyport.  A very successful businessman, Patrick Tracy erected along his wharf several large warehouses for the storage of merchandise.  His large and exquisite home, which was also located in the downtown area, was destroyed by the Great Fire of 1811.   

 

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Tracy’s Wharf served as the embarkation point for General Benedict Arnold’s expedition to Canada.  On September 19, 1775, continental soldiers and riflemen marched from the ropewalks (likely on or near High Street) and the Newbury Common to Tracy’s Wharf.  Once there, they boarded eleven vessels destined for the Maine coast.  The Essex Journal  would later report, "Last Tuesday morning the Troops destined for Canada under command of Col. Arnold sailed from this town."

 

 

Of course, serving as a staging point for General Arnold was not Newburyport’s only contribution to the American cause.  As we’ve discussed in previous blog posts, the town had a very active and dangerous privateer fleet.

 

William Coombs was the head of the Newburyport Committee of Safety and Correspondence.  In 1775, he advocated for Newburyport merchants to invest in a privateer fleet.  Patrick Tracy’s 24 year old son was one of the first to respond to Coomb’s proposal.  Like his father, Nathaniel was also a very successful entrepreneur.  He entered into a business partnership with Jonathan Jackson. The firm was quite prosperous, and for many years engaged in mercantile transactions.  As a result of his wealth, Nathaniel Tracy personally financed and fitted out a fleet of privateers.

 

The first privateer sailed from Tracy’s Wharf in August, 1775 and was quickly successful.  According to the September 9, 1775 edition of the Essex Gazette, "a privateer belonging to Newburyport carried into Portsmouth a schooner of forty-five tons, loaded with potatoes and turnips intended for the enemy in Boston."  Less than six months after Massachusetts privateer operations commenced, eight captured vessels had already been brought into Newburyport.  One period account from March 6, 1776 describes the fifth vessel captured.  "A few days since, the Yankee Hero sent into Newburyport another prize, a fine brig of about two hundred tons burthen, laden with coal, cheese, &c, bound for White Haven, for the use of the ministerial butchers, under the command of General Howe, Governor of Boston. This is the fifth prize out of eight which sailed states from the above port, and we are in hopes of giving a good account of the three remaining."

 

 

 

During the next eight years Nathaniel Tracy was the principal owner of twenty-four cruising ships, carrying 340 guns, and navigated by 2,800 men. His fleet captured one hundred and twenty vessels, which, with their cargoes, were sold for nearly four million dollars.  With these prizes 2,225 men were taken as prisoners of war.  

 

During the same period Mr. Tracy was the principal owner of one hundred and ten merchant vessels valued, with their cargoes, at $2,733,300. At the close of the war only thirteen were left, all the rest having been lost or captured by the enemy.

 

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