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"She Means to Fight Us" - The Newburyport Privateer "Thorn"

The HMS Thorn was built in Mistley, England and launched on February 17, 1779. She weighed over 305 tons, had eighteen guns, was coppered along the hull bottom and pierced for eighteen guns. Unfortunately, service in the Royal Navy was short lived as the ship and crew were captured by two American naval frigates on August 25,1779. She was towed back to Boston and sold as a prize to Isiah Doane. The vessel was quickly outfitted and re-launched as the Privateer Thorn on November 11, 1779.

On Christmas Eve, 1779, the Thorn spotted two British privateers off the Massachusetts coast, the Sir William Erksine and Governor Tryon. The Thorn’s captain, Daniel Waters, ordered his crew to turn away from the two vessels in an effort to lure them into a pursuit. According to Waters, “the men [were] at their quarters, and in high spirits for engaging.”

By Christmas morning, the British vessels were still in pursuit and closing fast. However, at 9:00 AM, a wind came up from the southwest which permitted the Thorn to suddenly reverse course and steer down on its pursuers. An hour later, the American privateer pulled up alongside the Governor Tryon, “as she was the heaviest.”

The British officers on board the Governor Tryon were understandably confused as to how correctly respond to the developing situation. From their point of view, a Royal Navy warship that was flying an American flag was bearing down on them. As a result, when the American privateer pulled alongside, the Governor Tryon’s captain hailed the Thorn and demanded to know “what right he had to wear the 13 stars in his pendant.” Captain Waters quickly answered “I’ll let you know presently” and fired a full broadside “within pistol shot range”.

The Governor Tryon returned fire as the Sir William Erskine pulled up to join the fight. A heated exchange between the three ships continued for about an hour. During the engagement Captain Waters was wounded in the knee.

At the height of the battle, the Governor Tryon’s crew attempted but failed to board the Thorn. According to one account, the boarders received “such a warm and well directed fire from our marines” that they could not cross over to the enemy ship. After the failed attempt, the three vessels renewed the action “with surprising spirit.” Following a third broadsides from the Thorn, the Governor Tryon struck her colors. According to the February 24, 1780 edition of The Continental Journal “blood [was] running out the [Governor Tryon’s] scuppers.”

Following the Governor Tryon’s surrender, the Sir William Erskine attempted to flee. Rather than remain with his prize, Captain Waters ordered his crew to pursue. After the Sir William Erskine was struck several times with bow chasers from the Thorn she also struck her colors and surrendered.

However, in the confusion the Governor Tryon escaped. The next day, as the Thorn escorted its prize into port, it came across a debris field of oars, masts, spars and sails. It was presumed by Waters that the Governor Tryon sank and its crew was lost at sea.

On January 13, 1780, the Thorn encountered the 250-ton British privateer ship Sparling, which was en route from Liverpool, England to New York City to deliver coal and military provisions. Following a short engagement, the Sparling surrendered.

On April 5, 1780, Newburyport’s Nathaniel Tracey purchased the Thorn and appointed Richard Cowell as its captain. Over the next several months Cowell only captured two British supply vessels, the Dragon and the Aurora. The following year Tracey replaced Cowell with Captain Samuel Tucker of Marblehead. Under Tucker’s command the Thorn successfully captured no less than six British vessels over a nine month period.

One such vessel was the Lord Hyde. In early March, 1781 the Thorn sighted the ship which was en route to London from Jamaica. The Lord Hyde was clearly armed and not running away from the American privateer. Tucker called his men on deck and declared “She means to fight us and if we go alongside like men she is ours in thirty minutes; but if we can’t go as men, we have no business here!” The crew immediately rushed to battle stations.

The ships circled each other as both captains demanded surrender. When the Thorn finally swung towards the Lord Hyde, the British fired off a harmless broadside. In response, the American privateer opened fire with both cannon and muskets, sweeping the enemy deck. After pounding each other for over an hour, the British captain finally called for “Quarter. For God’s sake! Our ship is sinking! Our men are dying of their wounds!” Captain Tucker refused because the British ensign was still flying. One period account suggests Tucker shouted “How can you expect quarter while that flag is flying . . . cut away your ensign staff or ye’ll all be dead men!” The flag quickly came down.

On May 27, 1781, Tucker received word of a large British supply convoy carrying sugar, coffee, rum and cotton from the West Indies to Halifax. According to intelligence reports, the supply group was being escorted by three small warships, the largest being the HMS Elizabeth.

Days later, the Thorn found the convoy. The crew hoisted up an English ensign and quickly sailed up alongside the Elizabeth. Captain Tucker hailed the vessel and asked if she was the same Elizabeth bound for Halifax. When he received an affirmative answer from a Captain Pine, Tucker announced he was the commander of the “sloop-of-war Thorn, recently taken back from the Americans”.

As the conversation progressed, the Thorn, edged closer to the Elizabeth. Captain Pine protested “You keep too close to me!” Tucker turned and ordered his men to raise the American colors. With Captain Tucker in the lead, boarders quickly crossed over onto the Elizabeth and drove its crew below deck. (To add to the humiliation, Tucker broke his sword over Pine’s head.) During the action the Thorn’s first lieutenant and five sailors were killed, as were five British sailors.

The other ships saw what had happened and quickly tried to scramble and flee. However, Tucker managed to capture two more vessels before the remainder of the convoy escaped.

In June 1781, the Thorn was unexpectedly captured near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River. The officers and crew were taken ashore and imprisoned in Nova Scotia. Days later, as the vessel was being brought into Halifax, it was recaptured by the French warships L’Hermione and L’Astreè. The French then towed the vessel to Boston and sold it back to Nathaniel Tracey.

Because Captain Tucker was a prisoner, Tracey rehired Captain Cowell to command the vessel. Over the next three months Cowell successfully captured three additional British ships, bringing the total number of prizes captured in 1781 by the Thorn to nine.

In August of 1782, the Thorn encountered a small British troop convoy escorted by HMS Renown and HM Frigate Arethusa. The Arethusa, under the command of a Captain Pearson, quickly gave chase and captured the Thorn. The officers and crew were removed to the Arethusa, where they were well-treated by Pearson. Captain Cowell later testified that “The commander, with the officers, look upon themselves under the greatest obligation to Sir Richard Pearson and his officers for the kind, humane, and public treatment received from them during their stay on board the frigate and for Sir Richard’s particular attention in effecting their paroles.”

The Thorn was taken into Halifax where the officers were quickly paroled.

After its capture, the Thorn remained in the service of the Royal Navy until 1816. Afterwards, the ship was sold to the Marine Society of London to serve as a training vessel.

In 1797, British artist George Owen created a series of watercolors, including one of the Thorn, for a naval publication. Unfortunately, the images were rejected and never used. Although this image was drawn a little over a decade after the American Revolution, it is the only known drawing of a Newburyport privateer from the American Revolution.

This image (above), as well as three companion drawings, were sold at auction to a private collector on January 26, 2017.

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