"Got Clear to America By Way of France" - The Adventures of Privateer Captain Offin Boardm
If you’ve taken a tour with Untapped History, you know that we will often end the tour with stories about the exploits of Captain William Nichols, the famed Newburyport privateer from the War of 1812. Nichols was a nasty thorn in England’s side and was often referred to as the “John Paul Jones” or “Holy Terror” of American privateering.
That said, shame on us for overlooking Captain Nichols’ Revolutionary War equal - Newburyport’s Captain Offin Boardman.
Boardman was born in the “waterside” of Newbury in either 1747 or 1748. He was a third generation sailing master and merchant. In 1771 he married Sarah Greenleaf. Together they had five children. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, Boardman had already established himself as a successful businessman.
Sensing financial opportunities by targeting British wartime shipping, Boardman and several other Newburyport investors petitioned the Massachusetts Committee of Safety for a letter of marque. On December 9, 1775, the petition was granted. By December 11, 1775, Boardman was already outfitting and supplying a forty ton schooner named the Washington. The ship was equipped with nine cannons, ten swivel guns and a crew of approximately forty men.
Captain Boardman and the Washington sailed from Newburyport near the end of December, 1775. Two weeks later, he hit the mother load. On the morning of January 15, 1776, the Washington was off the coast of Plum Island when it observed the sails of the Loyalist owned brigantine Sukey. Boardman quickly moved to intercept the vessel and captured it without firing a shot. A search of the vessel not only revealed a massive cache of beef, butter, tongues, pork, oats, lard, tripe, peas, potatoes and wine, but also two British officers. The vessel was quickly escorted into Newburyport.
That same day, Boardman and the Washington were once again off of Plum Island. The captain’s attention was drawn to a two hundred ton supply vessel named Friends. The ship was repeatedly tacking, which led Boardman to conclude it was lost As it turned out, the ship’s captain, Archibald Bowie, was not only lost, he believed he was just outside of Boston Harbor.
Boardman and his crew boarded three whaling vessels, rowed over to the Friends and posed as harbor pilots. They immediately boarded the ship, overpowered the crew and sailed the captured vessel into Newburyport.
As with the Sukey, the Friends was ladened with a large supply of fruits and vegetables. More importantly, a search of the prize revealed a hidden compartment which contained military and government documents from England to British officers in Boston. Officials in Newburyport immediately turned the paperwork over to George Washington.
By March, 1776, Captain Boardman had left the Washington and had become the unofficial “commodore” of a privateer wolf pack that operated from Tracy’s Wharf. Over the next three years, he would lead this small fleet from the decks of the Black Prince and the Dalton.
Captain Offin Boardman by Christian Gullager, about 1787 (Worcester Art Museum)
Boardman was quite successful at privateering and amassed a small fortune from the sale of captured vessels. Unfortunately, he was captured with the crew of the Dalton in 1777 and imprisoned in England. However, on January 31, 1778, Boardman and four other American officers escaped with the help of two guards.
Boardman was apprehended in London on February 17th and was imprisoned in Mill Prison on April 18th. According to his journal he was returned to Mill Prison on April 18, 1779. He escaped again on January 4, 1779 and “got clear to America by way of France”. While in that country, In Boardman "was introduced to His Excellencies Franklin and Adams who desired me to stop to dinner, which I did myself the honour to accept." He then spent the next few weeks securing much needed equipment and supplies for American privateers.
By 1779, Boardman was back in Newburyport and in command of the Betsey. On April 1, 1780, the Betsey departed Nantes, France for Newburyport Two weeks later the ship was intercepted by a British privateer Union. Outgunned, Boardman ordered his crew to outrun the vessel. According to crewman Isaiah Bagwell there was “a chase of about eleven hours, during which chase there were several shot exchanged between us; after we surrendered our Vessel . . . [we were] put on board his Majesties Ship Arrogant, of 74 Guns.”
The officers of the HMS Arrogant attempted to impress Boardman’s crew. The men refused. In response, the Royal Navy abused the crew. “I contradicted the report, and was by the Lieutenant ordered to be floged and made do duty on board the Ship; I refused, and in a few days after I was ordered to hold myself in readiness to go on board of another of his Majesties Ships which was going [several illegible words], I still refused, as holding myself a prisoner. The Capt. of the Ship came on boad which was the first time I had seen him, I went on the quarterdeck to the Capt. and stated my situation as a prisoner; he asked me if I would not receive a bounty and serve his Majesty in preference to going to prison: my reply was Sir I do not wish to serve his Majesty. he then said the Ship is going into dock next Friday to be repaired and you shall be sent to prison.”
The Betsey and her crew were sent to Poole, England. The Betsey was tried and condemned in the High Court of Admiralty in 1780, while her crew were divided up and sent to various prisons. Boardman was sent to a jail in Spithead, England. According to Bagwell, conditions inside the prison were poor. “I was sorely afflicted, and lost the use of my right Leg and thigh entirely, and just strength enough in the other Leg and thigh to walk on Crutches, and have continued in this situation almost 52 years.”
As with his captivity in 1778, Boardman once again escaped and returned to Newburyport. He continued to participate in privateering activities until then end of the war.
His first wife died on August 29, 1796, and the following spring he married Sarah Tappan. Just a few months before his second marriage, he purchased what is now known as the Spencer-Pierce-Little Farm. The property consisted of three hundred acres of land and a late-seventeenth-century house made of stone and brick.
Boardman's diary records his activities on the farm, including the addition of a west wing to the house and a tenant farmhouse attached to its rear. He also noted digging potatoes, gathering apples, taking milk to market, putting up fences, hauling seaweed, looking for lost sheep, making soap, attending meeting, and hosting social events.
Boardman died at his country house on August 1, 1811.