Tuesday, February 6, 2007

At Sea with Captain Seaver - Part 1

I haven't taken the opportunity recently to use the America's Historical Newspapers, 1690-1878 database, available on Newsbank and GenealogyBank. I can access them through my New England Historical Genealogical Society subscription on the http://www.newenglandancestors.org/ web site premium databases.

I recently received an email from a correspondent asking about Benjamin Franklin Seaver, who died at sea off Montevideo in 1813. The only thing I had in my Seaver database was his parents names, baptism and death, and nothing else. So I thought to myself - "I wonder if he made the newspapers of that time?"

Oh boy, did he ever, and it is an interesting set of stories about Benjamin Franklin Seaver. I found that I could use quote marks around several words on the America's Historical Newspapers database, but I could not use wild card symbols. After several searches, I settled on "Captain Seaver" and "Franklin Seaver" to help me find articles in the East Coast newspapers from 1798 to 1813.

I will transcribe a number of these articles over the next few days. Here are the first five:

Weekly Companion, and The Commercial Centinel, dated 29 September 1798, Newport RI, Vol. 1, Issue 23, page 3:

Headline: Newport, Sept. 29

Text: Last Thursday the Herald sloop of war, of twenty guns, commanded by captain Seaver, and the armed brig Pickering, of 14 guns, Capt. Chapman, returned here from a short cruise, to receive fresh instructions from government. They will both sail again immediately for the protection of the American coasts.

Windham (CT) Herald, dated 17 January 1799, published in Winham CT, Volume VIII, Issue 411, Page 3:

Headline: Shipping News Extract from the report of the Secretary of the Navy, to Congress, of the 25th December, 1798.

Text: Vessels Built:
(partial) Ship Herald, Capt. James Seaver, 279 tons, 18 guns, 120 men, at Boston, ann. exp. 51,989 dols. 10 cents.

Courier, dated 29 Oct 1799, published at Boston MA, Volume III, Issue 50, Page 3:

Headline: Massachusetts. Boston, Oct. 29

Text: (partial) Capt. Clark, of the marines, is ordered to recruit for the Congress, Capt. Seaver, the Essex, -----, and the Warren, Capt. Newman.

Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser, dated 31 December 1799, published in Baltimore, Maryland, Volume XI, Issue 1907, Page 3:

Headline: Congress; Boston; Newport; East Indies

Text: The frigate, Congress, captain Seaver, had sailed from Boston, and gone round to Newport, to wait for the convoy to the East Indies.


Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, dated Monday, 17 March to Thursday 20 March 1800, published in Boston MA, Volume XXXII, Issue 1982, page 2.

Headline: Disaster of the Congress Frigate. Extract from Captain Seaver's letter to the Secretary of the Navy.

Text: On board the frigate Congress, at sea, January 14th, 1800.

Under the impression of the most poignant regret, I have the misfortune to report to you, Sir, the disastrous situation of the United States frigate Congress under my command.

I sailed from Newport on the 6th inst. accompanied by the Essex frigate, capt. Preble, having under convoy a ship and a brig from Philadelphia; and a finall ship from New Haven; but finding them to sail very heavily, and two of three being in ballast only, on the day succeeding that on which I left Newport, I determined on leaving them; and with the Essex to make the best of my way, to carry into effect the instructions, with which you had been pleased to honour me. The first three or four days subsequent to leaving port, we had the winds, far northwardly, the weather cool, attended with snow and hail.

On Saturday the 12th the wind veered to the southward and came on to blow very fresh, attended with warm rain, and a heavy sea; this weather produced an astonishing effect upon my rigging (which had previously been in very good order) it stretching so much as to induce apprehensions for the safety of the masts. The weather being such as to produce the practicability of setting it up, I caused tackles to be got up to sirccour the masts, and the rigging to be swiftered; but unfortunately every step taken to support the mast proved futile.

On Sunday morning the 11th it blowed hard, as a heavy sea running, at half past six the main mast sprung about eight feet above the upper deck; I immediately caused the main yard to be lowered down; (the top gallant yard having been previously sent down, and the top gallant masts housed) on consultation with the officers, it was decided as affording the only probable means of saving the mainmast, to endeavour to cut away the main top mast. This was immediately attempted; Mr. Bosworth my 4th lieutenant, and four or five smart active men, going into the top to perform that service; while in its execution the mast unfortunately gave way, and in its fall involved the loss of that active deserving officer; the other men who were aloft, and engaged in the same service, were all happily saved.

The fall of the main mast carried away the mizen top mast, with the head of the mizen mast. Being under an apprehension that from the roughness of the sea, the hull of the ship might be essentially injured by the actions of the wreck, I was induced to clear it from the ship with all possible expedition; by which means a very small part of the rigging and sails attached to those masts were saved.

I now turn all my attention to, and made use of every practicable exertion to preserve the fore mast; the wind still continued to blow hard with a very heavy sea, and the ship from the loss of her masts, laying in the trough and laboring very much - at half past 12 she rolled away her fore top mast; soon after which it was discovered that the bowsprit was very badly sprung just without the gammoning. I immediately caused the jib boom to be rigged in and endeavoured to secure the bowsprit by strong lashings around the heal of the jib boom; at the same time getting up tackles to the foremast head to secure the mast (which was already sprung) and to relieve, in some measure, the stress upon the bowsprit, caused by the fore and fore preventer stays.

It is with great regret I am to add that all my endeavours proved of no further consequence, than probably to retard, for a very little time what eventually took place as at half past 3. P.M. the bowsprit gave way, and at the same instant the foremast went over the side, leaving us totally dismasted; and with the loss of the principal part of the sails and rigging; which, in our then situation, it was not practicable to preserve.

Thus, Sir, were we left in the short pace of a few hours, in a most deplorable situation, entirely at the mercy of the winds and waves; and thus my expectations of being enabled to render important services to my fellow citizens, by affording a protection to their commerce, were at once marred. I hope, Sir, you will do me the justice to believe that this misfortune (which I most sensibly feel) is not attributed to any negligence on my part; every thing practicable having been attempted to ward off the evil which the nature of the circumstance would admit.


This Captain Seaver is James N. Sever of Kingston MA (born 1761, died 1845), according to his biography in the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati book. The book provides the following biography:

James Sever, a son of William and Sarah (Warren) Sever, he was born in Kingston, Mass Nov 2 1761, died there Dec 16 1845, aged 84. A.B. Harvard 1781; Ensign, 7th Massachusetts Feb 1, 1781; transferred to 4th Massachusetts June 12 1783; and served to June 20, 1784. appointed one of the first six Post Captains in the US Navy May 11 1798; superintended the building of the frigate "Congress" at Portsmouth NH, and afterward commanded her; honorably discharged June 18, 1801. Returned to Kingston, his birthplace, and spent the rest of his life there; was a member of the Standing Committee of the Massachusetts Society of the Cincinnati in 1837 and 1838, Vice-President 1839-1845, President in 1845. He married in Plymouth Mass Feb 22 1796 Jane Russell.

Not a word about the mishap (!) on the Congress. He sure was a silver-tongued fellow, wasn't he!

This is an excellent example of the type of information you can find in the online newspaper databases if you look for them and can define satisfactory correct search terms.

UPDATED: Tuesday, 8:30 PM. I initially thought that these articles referred to Captain Benjamin Franklin Seaver, but found that they referred to Captain James Seaver instead - after using a different search string to find more articles.

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