A Ship Named Connecticut

In the plan to increase the useable size of the new US Navy, beyond the six initial frigates and a number of vessels converted for combat use, Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert sent letter around to recruit agents to represent the Navy who then were to seek out contractors to build additional vessel for use – there was also a “subscription program”, but this is another topic.

The Navy Agent in Middletown, CT, was Nehemiah Hubbard Jr, a RevWar vet and intimately involved in that war with procurement and as a Pay Master.  In Middletown after the war, he became directly involved in banking, and quite the influential local, perfect for the Navy to recruit for the job.  There have been some claims that Hubbard was actually an investor and pretty much bankrolled the vessel; there is no evidence of this and in fact the Navy records instead show that funds were delivered TO Hubbard for the purpose of the ship, with Hubbard being paid for the job.  Mr. Hubbard obtained Seth Overton (Sr) as the contractor later in 1798 and the vessel was built over the winter into the early half of 1799.  The ship was launched on 6 June 1799 with a degree of fanfare, enough that the papers reported on her sliding into the river which shares her name.

There had been multiple changes to her design from what Sec. Stoddert had first suggested; input from Overton (of course) his subcontractors, Capt. Tryon’s wishes, and further suggestions by local ship builders consulted for insight all resulted in a different vessel than what most historical accounts state, all of which refer to the original Stoddert plans.  Three-masted, ship-rigged, she was to be a sloop of war – that is to say, from the Amercian point of view, one deck of guns fewer than 28 in number – essentially a small frigate.  She was named Connecticut by Sec. Stoddert, and she was rated for 24 guns although, as was common in those days, she was pierced for some extra… In this case, the vessel carried 26 guns.  And although historians state that she had all 12 pounders, the ship’s logs make a comment early on that leave me to think that only a few were of that size, and it is likely that the battery was mostly 9-pounders… although this is merely an educated guess.  The ship ultimately had two decks (independant of an orlop), a length of 125 feet, a breadth of 32′ 2″, and a dept of 16′ 1″.  She was actually rated 548 – 36/95 tons, not the 492 tons originally planned for and almost always quoted as being her size.  The crew – seamen, boys, Marines, officers numbered around 180, but this fluctuated given prize crews, a couple of deaths, a couple of people removed from duty, &c.

She sailed down the Connecticut River and found herself blocked at the mouth in Saybrook on account of the substantial sand bar chronic for that location.  It was considered too much to dredge usefully and larger vessels would need to be towed through a drifting gap in bar if one was there at any given point, or more likely, to wait for a tide sufficiently high to take advantage of the moment to sail over the bar.  In time, she made it over and arrived at her home port of New London in August 1799, there to take on her guns, powder, complete recruitment, receive orders.  On Tuesday, 15 October, with pleasant weather and winds WNW, the USS Connecticut sailed for the Windward Islands in the Caribbean with three vessels in convoy.

The USS Connecticut was attached to the convoy headed by Thomas Truxtun in the USS Constellation, but by the time Connecticut had arrived, Truxtun had sailed his ship back home for repairs, leaving Capt. Richard V. Morris in the USS Adams, 22 guns, in charge.  The Connecticut was to cruise largely between Puerto Rico and Guadaloupe, with usual naval charge to “sink, take, or destroy” the enemy.  During her one year tour (enlistments for the Navy were for one year at first), she captured four enemy vessels (the most famous being the privateer brig L’Italie Conquise), recaptured six American vessels in the hands of the enemy, and caused the destruction of two more enemy vessels by running them aground in chase, setting fire to one to prevent her from being used again while the other was so badly damaged that it would never sail again.

The Connecticut was arguably the fastest large vessel in the Navy at this time, drooled over, it seems, by other captains for just that reason.  The port of operations during this tour was Basseterre in St-Kitts, where the prizes (captured enemy vessels) were brought.  By later in 1800, Capt. Truxtun had returned to take command of his squadron, and in September he ordered Capt. Tryon to sail for home, convoying a group of American merchantmen along the way for their safety.

Upon arriving back in New London, Capt. Tryon took a leave of absence and Capt. Richard Derby of Salem, Massachusetts took command, refitting and recruiting for another cruise.  In March 1801, the undeclared war had come to an end and plans to use the Connecticut to cruise off Batavia in company with the USS Ganges to protect American shipping interests there came to a halt when Congress decided to downsize the Navy, selling off roughly 1/3 of the vessels in auctions in NYC.  Capt. Derby sailed the ship into NYC in company with the USS Trumbull to put them up for sale, placing his crew aboard the USS Essex then in harbour.

The Connecticut was sold for 19,300$ to private hands and into the merchant service, exchanging hands periodically and home ports, until her being declared in 1808 as unseaworthy and subsequently broken up in NYC.


11 thoughts on “A Ship Named Connecticut

  1. Really interesting topic! I basically stumbled upon your weblog and wanted to say that I have genuinely loved searching your weblog posts.

  2. Great to see you back in action with the USS Connecticut. I think my three greats grandfather, Philip Gildersleeve should be given credit as being her Master Carpenter.

  3. I also just realized it doesn’t say where the Connecticut was built, which was at Stevenson’s Wharf at the end of what is now Indian Hill Ave. in Portland. Portland back then was called Chatham, and was a part of Middletown.

  4. Good morning Rick!
    Yes, I’ve a great deal of evidence on all of that. Most of it will wait to come out when the book is finally ready, but the contractor for the building of the ship was Seth Overton, who in turn hired as subcontractors both Philip Gildersleeve and John Button. Philip was the primary man – the job foreman, if you will. The design of the vessel seems to have been mostly the brain child of Seth but there was direct input by all the parties involved, including Navy Agent Nehemiah Hubbard, Capt. Moses Tryon, both subcontractors, sundry others who were consulted for this point or that…
    Stevenson’s wharf seems to have been on the north side of the end of Shipyard Lane – now Indian Hill Ave. This is across from Stevenson’s house which still stands. The shipyard is currently open space rolling down to the Connecticut River and is privately owned with more than a few “No Trespassing” signs. And at the time of the ship being built (1798-1799), Chatham was no longer a part of Middletown but a township in its own right (1767).

    Please stay in touch! We should meet for lunch sometime soon and hash over the project!


  5. My apologies. I think that information was already there and I missed it. Sorry. Yes, lunch would be great. Do you know how the “Connecticut” was rigged? Brig, Bark, Ship-rigged? A frigate would imply three masts, but I’m not sure if that’s always the case. Some of there definitions were loose in those days.

    • No apologies necessary! Ship rigged, rated for 24 guns but carried 26, and considered a “sloop-of-war” which by American standards meant only one deck of guns, usually the top-most deck (or spar deck), and less than 28 guns. By appearances she was essentially an undersized frigate. The Navy record for how she was to have appeared is based on the original letter from Sec. of the Navy Stoddart to Navy agent in Middletown Nehemiah Hubbard… But the design changed during the building process as Hubbard was told to make changes as was to be found necessary by the appointed captain, the contractor and subcontractors, and any local experts found worthy to be consulted. I have the records of how she finally appeared and it is surely different than the original expectations, she finally being made somewhat sleeker and for speed than the lumbersome floating fortress I think Stoddart had envisioned. The believe also is that she carried 12-pdrs but I have a theory that she may have had mostly 9-pdrs with a few 12 pdrs also on deck… But that is more due to educated guessing from what can be inferred from the record than anything concrete. I haven’t decided how I will express that when the BIG book is ever completed.


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  7. My interest in the USS Connecticut stems from records concerning my 4th great-grandfather, Jonas Wright, born in Middletown CT in 1745 and died in Chatham CT before 1810. You’ve probably seen the passage in “Genealogy of the Estabrook Family” (1891) or elsewhere that includes Jonas. “(William) Estabrook and Richards were ship carpenters or sawyers and were both employed by Jonas Wright, who about that time commenced building for the United States Navy, the 24-­gun war frigate Connecticut, which was launched Thursday afternoon, June 6, 1799, and when ready for sea was placed in command of Captain Moses Tryon.…” Do you think that Capt. Seth Overton might have been the man who capitalized and provided leverage (“contractor” as you say) for the endeavor of building this frigate while Jonas Wright might have been one of the chief boatwrights who hired and directed the workers? (Coincidental to Jonas’ USS Connecticut, my grandfather Charles Bikel was a sailor aboard the battleship USS Connecticut when it was the flagship of the Great White Fleet.) Thank you.

    • Hello Ron,

      Thank you, warmly, for reaching out! This is a conversation we could have over a few beers!

      I have far, far more on the Connecticut and her crew than I show on this website. In early years of this project I used to leave a bound set of pages at the various historical societies that I had visited of some of my data in hopes of enticing others to contact me, but I began to hold my cards much closer after a few people had taken my work, claimed it as their own, and then mis-cited my information. I am become wary, the more as I do have an eventual book in mind. However, I am happy to help where I can and I am always pleased to have someone reach out, especially when there are possible family connections involved!

      When Nehemiah Hubbard Jr was appointed Navy Agent in Middletown for the building of a “sloop of war” that was to become the Connecticut, there were two contractors in the running for the job. Arthur Magill in Middletown was probably the choice but he wrote of his desire in a letter handed to Hubbard to be forwarded on to Philadelphia and the new Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert in hopes of snagging the contract. However, t’other was Seth Overton of Chatham who allegedly jumped a horse and raced to Philadelphia and directly to Stoddert to plead his own case, and thus secured the contract. The contracts were two – one for the building of the ship and one for providing all of the iron work necessary for the job. Seth Overton’s own letter book provides the two subcontractors he hired to do the actual work: Philip Gildersleeve and John Button… Of these two, Gildersleeve was considered to be the “senior subcontractor”. Both of these gents were well known to Overton and they lived on the very side road that the shipyard to be used was located; Shipyard Lane, now Indian Hill Avenue. The location of that yard is currently an open lot and is across from the house of the then property owner Mr. Stevenson who also ran a forge and so provided iron. By the end of 1798, Moses Tryon of Wethersfield was given his commission as a Captain in the new US Navy and he was put directly in oversight of the building of “his” ship, making suggestions that sometimes were at odds with Seth Overton’s vision, who in turn had a reputation of being both difficult and contrary… Sometimes telling one person one thing and another person something else. So he was cited by several contemporaries as being “fond of creating disputes”, more for his sense of humour than just being a jerk.

      I once saw a more modern reference to a Mr. Wright having been involved somehow in the building of the Connecticut but I had never seen any further evidence; Seth Overton was involved in a later, smaller ship also named the Connecticut built in Middle Haddam in the shipyard of Jesse Hurd (1802) and I suspect that it was in conjunction with that vessel. Amongst the papers of Overton, Hubbard, and what I have collected regarding Moses Tryon, there is no mention of a Jonas Wright. In a local advertisement dated 15 March 1799, Seth Overton posted << WANTED IMMEDIATELY: Ten or fifteen Carpenters, to be employed on the Ship Connecticut, for which generous wages will be given. One day allowed for every thirty miles distance, and in that proportion for those who engage. >> Most ship carpenters in those years did not simply work for one shipwright and so would go where the work was. Private ship building often paid a bit more than government contract work, so here the contractor would appeal to the patriotism of potential craftsmen. Sometimes another shipwright might “rent” his workers out to a larger or more pressing project, especially in regards to a government vessel; this may very well be the case with your Jonas Wright and the two craftsmen in question: William Estabrook and Mr. Richards, both being ship carpenters and sawyers. I did not see your referenced book on the Estabrook Family until I searched for it on your mentioning it. I am not saying that this book is incorrect, but considering all the first hand data I’ve collected over the years, I think it more likely that they worked on the project and possibly exaggerated their experience for the ears of family and friends later on… Or perhaps Jonas Wright provided the sawed lumber? A son of Gildersleeve – Silvester – later bought two or three private boat yards very near and established the Gildersleeve Ship Building Company which provided vessels during the War of 1812 and beyond. In their surviving records we know generally where they obtained the trees for the ships which allegedly is where the trees came for the building of the Connecticut. It would be informative to know where your Jonas Wright was operating from… Was in he in the part of Chatham that was to become Portland, or was he further away from the river in, say, Middle Haddam, Cobalt, or East Hampton? So, I’m not saying that he wasn’t involved, but I would LOVE to know more and see where the puzzle pieces fit in! In the ship’s muster book, on 25 July 1799 a James Richards joins the crew but he was the ship’s sailmaker – a warrant officer in the new US Navy. He was supposed to be a son of Samuel Jr and Love Richards of Chatham, but I have no confirmation of this. So this is a possible connection? There is an Abner Richards – Carpenter’s Mate who joins the crew after 12 Nov 1800 but I have nothing on where he came from nor how long he stayed in the Navy. Of the names of craftsmen who remained on board to finish work from the time of launching to the sailing of her into New London, none fit the names you suggest.

      So, I’m open to any new information! I am interested in pursuing this line and see what might be had from it… Jonas Wright, William Estabrook, and a Mr. Richards! Let’s stay in touch! My email is JosMorn@aol.com

      I am very pleased to make the connection with you!


  8. Very interesting reading, thank you. I am a descendant of Seth Overton. Such a fascinating character! I’m looking forward to your book.

    • Hello Elaine! Please do reach out; I would love to meet you sometime when I come into Portland again. I plan to write up more of a bio for Seth to publish on my website soon.


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