USS Essex (1799)

The first USS Essex of the United States Navy was a 36-gun [3] or 32-gun[4] sailing frigate that participated in the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War, and in the War of 1812. The British captured her in 1814 and she then served as HMS Essex until sold at public auction on 6 June 1837.

United States
Name: USS Essex
Namesake: Essex County, Massachusetts
Builder: Enos Briggs, Salem, Massachusetts[1]
Cost: $139,362
Laid down: 1798
Launched: 30 September 1799
Commissioned: 17 December 1799
Captured: 28 March 1814
United Kingdom
Name: HMS Essex
Acquired: 28 March 1814
Fate: Sold at Public Auction, 6 June 1837
General characteristics [1]
Type: Fifth-rate Frigate
Displacement: 850 long tons (864 t)
Tons burthen: 897 2294(bm)
  • 138 ft 7 in (42.2 m) (overall)
  • 117 ft 2 78 in (35.7 m)
Beam: 37 ft 3 12 in (11.4 m) (keel)
Draft: 12 ft 3 in (3.7 m)
Depth of hold: 11 ft 9 in (3.6 m)
Propulsion: Sail
Sail plan: Full-rigged ship
Speed: 11.4 knots (21.1 km/h; 13.1 mph)
General characteristics American service
  • 40 × 32-pounder carronades
  • 6 × 12-pounder guns
General characteristics British service
Complement: 315 officers and enlisted
  • Upper deck: 26 × 18-pounder guns
  • QD: 12 × 32-pounder carronades
  • Fc:
  • 2 × 9-pounder guns
  • 2 × 32-pounder carronades
Service record

Service history

The frigate was built by Enos Briggs, Salem, Massachusetts, at a cost of $139,362 subscribed by the people of Salem and Essex County, to a design by William Hackett. Essex was armed with mostly short-range carronades that could not hope to match the range of 18- and 24-pounder naval guns. She was launched on 30 September 1799. On 17 December 1799 she was presented to the United States Navy and accepted by Captain Edward Preble.

With the United States involved in naval action against France on 6 January 1800, Essex, under the command of Captain Preble, departed Newport, Rhode Island, in company with Congress to rendezvous with a convoy of merchant ships returning from Batavia, Dutch East Indies. Shortly after commencement of her journey, Essex became the first US Naval ship to cross the Equator. Congress was dismasted only a few days out, and Essex was obliged to continue her voyage alone, making her mark as the first US man-of-war to double the Cape of Good Hope, both in March and in August 1800 prior to successfully completing her convoy mission in November.

First Barbary War

Captain William Bainbridge commanded Essex on her second cruise, whereon she sailed to the Mediterranean with the squadron of Commodore Richard Dale. Dispatched to protect American trade and seamen against depredations by the Barbary pirates, the squadron arrived at Gibraltar on 1 July 1801 and spent the ensuing year convoying American merchantmen and blockading Tripolitan ships in their ports. Following repairs at the Washington Navy Yard in 1802, Essex resumed her duties in the Mediterranean under Captain James Barron in August 1804. She participated in the Battle of Derne on 27 April 1805, and remained in those waters until the conclusion of peace terms in 1806.

Returning to the Washington Navy Yard in July, she was placed in ordinary until February 1809, when she was recommissioned for sporadic use in patrolling American waters and a single cruise to Europe.

War of 1812

When war was declared against Britain on 18 June 1812, Essex, commanded by Captain David Porter, made a successful cruise to the southward. On 11 July near Bermuda she fell in with seven British transports (Silverside being one) and by moonlight engaged and took one of them as a prize. On 13 August she encountered and captured the sloop HMS Alert after an engagement. By September, when she returned to New York, Essex had taken ten prizes. The youngest member of the Essex crew was 10-year-old midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, who would become the first admiral of the US Navy. Farragut, who was Captain Porter's foster son, remained with the ship for the next two years.

Essex sailed in South Atlantic waters and along the coast of Brazil until January 1813, decimating the British whaling fleet in the Pacific. Although her crew suffered greatly from a shortage of provisions and heavy gales while rounding Cape Horn, she anchored safely at Valparaíso, Chile, on 14 March, having seized the whaling schooner Elizabeth, and the Peruvian man-of-war Nereyda along the way. Nereyda had captured two American whalers, Walker and Barclay, only to have the British whaler and privateer Nimrod take Walker. Nereyda had sent Barclay to Callao, where Porter was able to capture her before she could enter port. He sent a disarmed Nereyda back to the Peruvian authorities as a gesture of good will. He searched for Nimrod and Walker, but was unable to find them.[5][Note 1]

In the next five months, Essex captured thirteen British whalers, including Essex Junior, (ex-Atlantic) which cruised in company with her captor; Porter put his executive officer, John Downes, in command of Essex Junior. The two ships and nine of their prizes put in at the island of Nuku Hiva in the Marquesas Islands on 25 October 1813 for repairs. While they were there, their crews became involved in a local dispute that resulted in the Nuku Hiva Campaign, which temporarily established the United States' first colony and naval base in the Pacific Ocean. Essex and Essex Junior departed Nuku Hiva in mid-December 1813.

In January 1814, Essex sailed into neutral waters at Valparaíso, only to be trapped there for six weeks by the British frigate, HMS Phoebe (36 guns), under Captain James Hillyar, and the sloop-of-war HMS Cherub (18 guns). On 28 March 1814, Porter determined to gain the open sea, fearing the arrival of British reinforcements. Upon rounding the point, Essex lost her main top-mast to foul weather and was brought to action just north of Valparaíso.[7][8]

Despite Porter's complaints to the US Navy on several occasions, Essex was armed almost entirely with powerful but short-range 32-pounder carronades that gave Phoebe, armed with long 18-pounders, a decisive advantage at long range. For 2 12 hours, Phoebe and Cherub bombarded Essex from long range, where Essex could only resist with her few long 12-pounders. Fires twice erupted aboard Essex, at which point about fifty men abandoned the ship and swam for shore, only half of them landing; the British saved sixteen.[9] Eventually, the hopeless situation forced Porter to surrender. Essex had suffered 58 dead and 31 missing of her crew of 214.[7] The British lost four men dead and seven wounded on Phoebe, and one dead and three wounded on Cherub.[9][Note 2]

The then Lieutenant Willliam Bolton Finch was said to have served with distinction on the Essex between 1812 and 1814.[13][14]

British service and fate

Because Essex was stored and provisioned for six months, and capable of sailing to Europe without "the slightest cause for alarm",[9] Captain Hillyar placed Lieutenant C. Pearson in command of her for the voyage to England, supported by acting lieutenant Allen Francis Gardiner. Essex arrived in England in November.[15] There, the Admiralty had her repaired and taken into the Royal Navy as HMS Essex.

The Royal Navy never fitted her for sea, but re-classed her as a 42-gun ship. She served as a troopship on 7 July 1819. She was hulked at Cork to serve as a prison ship in Ireland in October 1823,[1] and between 1824 and 1834 served in this capacity at Kingstown.[15] On 6 June 1837 she was sold at public auction for £1,230.[1]

During early 21st century resurfacing work on the east pier of Dún Laoghaire harbour, Essex's permanent mooring anchor was discovered embedded in the pier.[16]

Herman Melville wrote about Essex in "Sketch Fifth" in The Encantadas, focusing on an incident off the Galápagos Islands with an elusive British ship. The story was first published in 1854 in Putnam's Magazine.

Patrick O'Brian adapted the story of Essex's attack on British whalers for his novel The Far Side of the World.

The 1950 American film Tripoli is a fictionalized account of the Battle of Derne, and USS Essex is shown in it.

See also


  1. Barclay, Gideon Randall, master, completed her voyage, returning to New Bedford in March 1814 with 1800 barrels of whale oil. Built in 1793, she continued to hunt whales through 1857, and was finally broken up in 1859.[6]
  2. A first-class share of a portion of the prize money for Essex was worth £619 17s; a sixth-class share, that of an ordinary seaman, was worth £7 13s 6d.[10] The second distribution occurred on 24 October 1815 for which the value of a first-class share was worth £299 2s 9d; a sixth-class share was worth £3 2s.[11] A first-class share of the final distribution was worth £153 6s 6d; a sixth-class share was worth £3 2s.[12]


  1. Winfield (2008), pp.188-189.
  2. Lossing, Benson (1868). The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812. Harper & Brothers, Publishers. p. 729.
  3. "Historic Sites and Museums: National Museum of the United States Navy". The Official War of 1812 Website. Retrieved 12 June 2013.
  4. Robotti, Francis Diane; Vescovi, James (1999). "Essex and the Young American Navy". The USS Essex And the Birth of the American Navy. Books. The New York Times. Avon, MA: Adams Media. ISBN 978-1593371920.
  5. Daughan (2013), Chap. 11.
  6. National Maritime Digital Library - American Offshore Whaling Voyages: A Database: Barclay.
  7. "Title unknown". Archived from the original (msdoc) on 22 May 2011.
  8. "Diagram of Commodore David Porter's Exploits Against British in 1812–1814". The Vidette-Messenger. 10. Valparaiso, Porter County, Indiana. 18 August 1936. p. 4.
  9. "No. 16919". The London Gazette. 23 July 1814. pp. 1485–1846.
  10. "No. 16977". The London Gazette. 21 January 1815. p. 110.
  11. "No. 17072". The London Gazette. 21 October 1815. p. 2130.
  12. "No. 17059". The London Gazette. 6 September 1815. p. 1840.
  13. Canney, Donald L. (2006). "Ch. 7: Bolton and Cooper and the Nadir of the Squadron, 1847-1849". Africa Squadron: The U.S. Navy and the Slave Trade, 1842-1861. Washington, D.C.: Potomac. ISBN 9781597974646.
  14. Harrison, Simon. "William Bolton Finch (d.1849)". Threedecks - Warships in the Age of Sail. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  15. "NMM, vessel ID 366410" (PDF). Warship Histories, vol i. National Maritime Museum. Archived from the original (pdf) on 2 August 2011. Retrieved 30 July 2011.
  16. "The Essex 1824 – 1837". Dún Laoghaire. Retrieved 12 June 2013.


  • Daughan, George (013) The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812 (Basic Books). ASIN B00C4GRUMO
  • Porter, David (1822). Journal of a Cruise made to the PACIFIC OCEAN by Captain David Porter in the United States Frigate ESSEX in the years 1812, 1813, and 1814. Vol 1 of 2, 2nd Printing. Wiley & Halsted, 3 Wall Street, New York. Available freely at this Google eBook link
  • Winfield, Rif (2008). British Warships in the Age of Sail 17931817: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth. ISBN 1861762461.
  • This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. The entry can be found here.

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