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"Guilty of the Crime of High Treason" - The Fate of the Privateer Dalton

The brig Dalton was privateer based out of Newburyport, Massachusetts. On October 7, 1776, the vessel’s owners petitioned the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for a Letter of Marque. According to the petition, the privateer was “one hundred and sixty tons, armed with four six, fourteen four, and four two-pound carriage, and twenty swivels, fifteen hundred weight of powder, and four tons of shot, navigated by one hundred and twenty men; has on board, as provisions, one hundred and twenty butts of water. Said brigantine is designed to cruise against the enemies of these United States. Your petitioners, therefore, would humbly request your Honours to commission said brigantine and commander for the purpose above mentioned. And your petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray. Officers on board are as follows: Eleazer Johnson, Captain; Anthony Knap, First Lieutenant; John Buntin, Second Lieutenant; Daniel Lunt, Master. Newbury-Port, October 7, 1776.”

Three day later, a Letter of Marque was issued to the Dalton.

On November 15, 1776, the ship left Newburyport for Portsmouth, New Hampshire. On November 26th, the Dalton left Portsmouth to cruise for enemy supply vessels. Unfortunately, over the next month the privateer and her crew encountered no such ships.

On Christmas Eve, the Dalton’s luck changed for the worse when it encountered the HMS Raisonable, a sixty four gun man of war. Captain Johnson of the Dalton ordered his crew to attempt to outrun the warship. The Raisonable gave chase. After an eight hour pursuit, the British ship caught up, fired two warning shots and ran alongside the American privateer. Recognizing she was outgunned, Captain Johnson quickly ordered the Dalton’s colors to be struck. The officers and crew were hustled aboard the Raisonable, robbed of their clothing and tossed into the cable tier of the ship.

Paul Sandby, View of Carlisle Bay, Barbados, with Ships and Boat.

Pen and ink drawing. Image courtesy of Yale Center for British Art.

Upon arrival in England, the crew was divided. Some were sent to a nearby coastal hospital. Most were confined to the prison hulk, HMS Blenheim.

The crew remained in these two locations until June, 1777. According to Newburyport’s Charles Hebert, on the morning of June 3, 1777 “the boat came for us and twelve of us went on board and were carried along side the Blenheim, to which ship our company, and that of Captain Brown, had been removed since we went on shore. Four of the twelve that were in the boat belonged to the captain’s crew. They were put on board the Blenheim, but the rest of us were carried on shore again, and guarded to the Fountain Tavern, to be tried by the judges; for that is the place where they sit. We were put into a small room, surrounded by a guard, and having eat nothing through the day, were very weak; so we got the soldiers to boil us a little meat, which we had obtained at the hospital. After this, we were all called up before the judges and examined. They asked each of us in what province we had been born, and whether or not we had a commission from Congress? At what time we entered on board the Dolton? Whether we were taken by the Reasonable? To each of their questions we answered. We were then sent below into the little room again; then we were called up the second time, one at a time, and asked the same questions, to which we answered. They then read them over to us, and asked us if it was true, to which we replied it was. We told them we were out to fight the enemies of the thirteen United States. After we were examined one by one, the third time, we were all called up together, as at the first, and our commitments were read to us and delivered to the constable. My commitment read as follows:

‘Charles Herbert, you are supposed to be guilty of the crime of high treason, and committed to prison for the same until the time of trial.’

We were then delivered to the constable, and guarded to Old Mill Prison, Plymouth. Alas! I have entered the gates but the Lord only knows when I shall go out of them again.”

Conditions at the Old Mill Prison were deplorable. According to fellow Dalton crew member Samuel Cutler “At 4 P.M., 3d June, 1777 I arrived at Mill Prison within quarter a mile of Plymouth town (?). There are four prisons all together. We are all committed to the largest - 132 feet by 23 - without any distinction, officers, people and negroes all in the same room. We are treated worse than the French were last war in these prisons. We are debarred pens, ink, paper, rope, candles, &tc. No person is allowed to come into the outer yard to speak to us. We have no communications with any person except Mr. Cowdry, the prison keeper, and the turnkey. Cowdry is as great a tyrant as any in England, and uses us with the greatest severity. . . To sleep upon, we have a hammock, straw bed, and one very thin rug.”

Food at the prison was poor. As Hebert noted “June 6. Our allowance here in prison is a pound of bread, a quarter of a pound of beef, a pound of greens, a quart of beer and a little potliquor that the beef and greens are boiled in, without any thickening, - per day.” Cutler recalled “Our allowance is 3/4 lb. beef, 1 lb. bread, 1 qt. very ordinary beer, and a few greens per man for 24 hours. The beef when boiled weighs about 6 oz. This is our allowance daily, except Saturday, when we have 6 oz. cheese instead of the beef.”

The guards routinely made life at the jail difficult. “[June] 7. Pleasant weather, but we are kept in all day as a punishment for a misbeholden word spoken to the sentry on guard.”

The following month, the prisoners devised an escape plan. On July 18, 1777, the crew began digging a tunnel underneath the prison. By August 4th, the underground passageway was finished. At eleven o’clock in the evening, thirty two American prisoners escaped from the jail. Over half of them were from the Dalton.

British guards did not discover the escape until the next morning. According to another prisoner, “We were Counted Out, then there was a Most Shocking herangue Some running One way some Another...” The British eventually caught most of the prisoners over the next week, with the help of a £5 per head reward.

Nevertheless, in January and February 1778 the crew of the Dalton made two more escape attempts. No less than twenty crew members and officers successfully broke out of the jail and were never recaptured.

The remaining crew members were eventually exchanged and returned to Newburyport by the end of 1778.

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