Nautical Terminology: Learning a New Language at the War Department

November 20th, 2012

Before the formation of the Department of the Navy in 1798, naval affairs came under the direction of the War Department.   Among Washington’s Cabinet members, former bookseller, Continental artillery officer and staunch Federalist, Secretary of War Henry Knox was the most vigorous proponent for the development of an American Navy.  Against the objections of many Anti-Federalists, Congress nevertheless passed the Naval Act of 1794, approving expenditures of $688,888 for the construction of six frigates.  A contemporary living along America’s coast might catch a glimpse of the new American navy -beginning with the laying of the keel-at one of six shipyards: Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Gosport,  Virginia,  and Baltimore. Paid an annual salary of $2000, “naval constructors” were professional shipbuilders-a couple of the better known  were the Philadelphia Quakers Joshua Humphreys and Josiah Fox.   “Superintendents” were the Navy Captains who were expected to command the ships.  These included notables such as John Barry, Thomas Truxtun and Samuel Nicholson.  “Naval agents” such as Henry Jackson of Boston worked with the War Department to procure men and materials for the ships.  Shipyard clerks oversaw the day to day operations of the yard and kept track of expenditures.  With the building of a naval organization came a unique and confusing lexicon of nautical terminology.  Here are definitions for some of the terms found in this letter forwarded by Knox to the Secretary of Treasury containing Joshua Humphreys’ recommendations and estimates on the costs of procuring white oak timber and planking.

A frigate was a sailing warship with a single continuous gun deck, typically used for patrolling, blockading, etc., but not in line of battle.  (The American frigates were built to be fast enough to get away from a ship of the line, but heavy enough to overpower the typical, lighter European frigates.)

Beam is the width of a vessel at the widest point, or a point alongside the ship at the midpoint of its length.

The bilge is the compartment at the bottom of a ship where the water collects.

Futtocks are pieces of timber that make up the transverse frame or the ribs of the ship.

The gun deck is designed for the mounting of cannon to be fired in broadsides.

The hold is usually a storage space inside the ship’s hull for cargo.

The keel is the central structure of the hull.

Knees connect two parts roughly at right angles.

Here are a couple of  websites that might prove useful to anyone interested in learning more about nautical jargon.





The Battleground State of Ohio

November 9th, 2012

Much like this election season, in 1794 Ohio was a battleground state. But in a different way. There American settlers and Native Americans clashed over land rights.

In October of 1794 The Northwest Indian War had been fought for the previous nine years and after the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20 of that year the Chief of the Wyandots sought peace.

In this war native tribes banded together to prevent American settlers from entering their land. These tribes, who called themselves the Western Confederacy, were the Wyandot, Delaware, Shawnee, Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, and Kaskaskia. The Ohio lands they sought to defend had been guaranteed to them by the British Empire with the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. But following the American Revolution, the U.S. felt that this treaty was no longer applicable and settlers sought out lands in the Ohio River valley.  American settler’s intrusion into native lands sparked the war in 1785.

It had been a long war and after the loss at Fall Timbers the Wyandots wanted peace. The Wyandot Chief knew that he could not negotiate a full peace without the other native tribes, but wanted a truce all the same. This was a divisive move amongst the natives, but the Wyandots sought to at least guarantee a ceasefire on the land west of the Ohio River until a formal treaty could be drawn up.

Later a full peace would be negotiated with the Treaty of Greenville in August of 1795.  At this time the natives would loose large tracts of land, which include present day Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago. But for now the Chief of the Wyandots moved his people west of the Ohio, and waited for peace.

Check out the full document here.