We often see books which boast of an “unknown story” or “secret history” of an era, and the American Revolution remains ripe fodder for this claim. A quick look on Amazon shows dozens of recently published books, revealing the “untold” story of King’s Mountain, Saratoga, women, prisoners, African Americans, spies, George Washington’s marriage, and a hurricane, among other subjects. It seems impossible that anything from the Revolution is truly untold. Yet, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia holds a brittle volume detailing a merchant ship, Lusanna, and its twenty year odyssey of capture and redemption, which seems to have escaped notice in standard narratives.
At the start of the Revolution, thousands of Americans had served in militias and thousands more had served on merchant ships. Yet few had served in a European navy, and fewer still had command training. The British Navy was so large and battle-tested the very thought of an American force to counter the King’s Navy was absurd. “It is the maddest idea in the world,” said Samuel Chase, a delegate to the Continental Congress from Maryland, “to think of building an American fleet.”
Yet something had to be done. All manner of ships traveled down the Atlantic coast, starting from Boston, Plymouth, Newport, New York, Philadelphia or Charleston and stopping at whatever Caribbean islands would buy their goods. Saint Eustatius was most valuable, because it was one of the few ports willing to sell gunpowder to Americans. This made American ships a target for pirates. Captains gave muskets to their crew and passengers to defend themselves and their ship from attack. In some cases, once all the cargo was unloaded and the captain was paid, he was authorized to sell the ship itself if he could get a good price. He would then hitch a ride as a passenger on board another ship going home.
One such captain was Elisha Doane of Plymouth, Massachusetts. He started with small ships and sailed to Nantucket Island, where whalers rendered blubber into oil that families and businesses used to light their table lamps. Doane also bought goods made by local craftsmen to be sold elsewhere. In time he saved enough profit to buy vessels large enough to dominate his niche market. He hired sailing masters and crewmen for his small vessels, then sailed two larger ships, the Lusanna and the Industry, on voyages between Massachusetts, the Caribbean and South America. Doane was at sea from January to September, 1774, stopped in Massachusetts a few months, then sailed again in December. He had not taken part in the controversy with Britain: it was bad for business, and he was not home much. The Minutemen fought at Lexington and Concord, and the British captured Bunker Hill, but Doane knew nothing of these events when he sailed Lusanna, carrying 250 barrels of whale oil, into Plymouth in July, 1775.
So many men had joined the American army Doane did not sell his barrels. He started buying instead. He loaded crates of American made silk, wine, shoes, razors, tea pots, jackets, shirts, knives, scissors, buttons, linen and gloves. His other ship, Industry, was sailing to Plymouth with 335 barrels of whale oil and a hundred barrels of tar. A British ship, Halifax, stopped Industry before she came into port, and her captain asked Industry’s captain for the usual certificates and bonds. He had none, so the British seized Industry as a war prize. Now Doane had a dilemma: he would not sell his whale oil to the remaining Americans in Plymouth, and the British would not buy his cargo of American goods. Doane’s daughter had married Shearshajub Bourne, who had made once enough money as a lawyer to support his wife and children, but the war had shut down local courts. Bourne had no income. Doane offered to stay in Massachusetts with his daughter and grandchildren, and try to win back Industry, if Bourne would take Lusanna to Britain and sell her cargo. They agreed to this deal.
Bourne sailed to Boston to get certificates from the British Navy, then set sail again for London. Seven days out at sea, Lusanna met a gale which blew away her topmast, sails and rigging, and created leaks in the hull. Bourne turned around, but when he reached Nova Scotia the British there seized Lusanna. Bourne took passage on another ship to Boston, where he got release papers from British Admiral Samuel Graves. Bourne returned to Nova Scotia and sailed Lusanna again, but by the time he arrived in London winter was over. The price of whale oil had dropped. He sold the crates of utensils and clothing, but waited for a better price on whale oil while hoping the war in America would end.
Congress met in Philadelphia all through 1775. It had authorized an army, named George Washington as commander in chief, negotiated with Indians, appointed a national postmaster, and invited Canadians to join the Revolution, but Congress had not authorized a national navy. Southerners believed a navy would mainly help the northern colonies – which had merchants, sailors, forests and shipyards. These same merchants and sailors were frantic, especially in Rhode Island. While Narragansett Bay was ideal for smugglers who could avoid capture using its many inlets and islands, it was a trap in wartime. The British blockaded the bay entrance and few ships could escape. The Rhode Island legislature petitioned Congress to break blockades and capture enemy merchants, and its delegates introduced a bill to begin a national navy. Washington’s army needed supplies, and the British were so confident they sent unarmed vessels along the American coast. Congress appointed a marine committee with Stephen Hopkins, former governor of Rhode Island, as chairman. He convinced the committee to name his brother, Esek, commander in chief of the navy. Congress bought five ships and ordered them to the Caribbean for gunpowder and supplies.
Congress wrote new laws to support this navy. After the battles at Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill, American merchants bought cannons to protect their ships. When the war progressed, it became easier for ship owners to attack and capture British merchant ships carrying goods than to trade for goods themselves. By December, 1775, one American ship captured a brass cannon, one hundred seventy hogs and two thousand muskets from British ships. Another seized a ship load of cargo worth £1500, and when Congress offered the captain £100 as a reward, he agreed.
People petitioned colonial governments for permission to turn their privately owned ships into privateers. There was a difference between pirate ships and privateers: a pirate attacked and captured anything he could find at sea, without government permission or license, while a privateer had official paperwork. The government did not give orders to a captain, and did not know where he was going or what he attacked until weeks or moths afterward. By law and tradition, a ship without paperwork was a pirate and its crew could be hung, while a privateer was licensed by a government and her captured crewmen were prisoners of war.
On December 16, 1775, Congress considered a motion to allow anyone to seize a British ship, wherever found, but it was voted down five colonies to four, with two colony’s delegations abstaining and two more not present. However, members of Congress argued a while more, and reached a compromise: any vessel that helped the British army or navy could be confiscated. This second proposal protected commercial trade ships and passenger ships which did not help the British war effort – and served as a trap. If a trade ship carried even a little war material, everything on board could be confiscated. On February 14, 1776, Samuel Chase proposed a bill urging all colonies to fit out privateers, and that all British ships be seized. Congress debated the bill, and members claimed it should distinguish between friendly and unfriendly British ships. Benjamin Franklin proposed Congress should pass a formal declaration of war. Two days later, Congress passed the privateering bill, but only agreed to let American privateers capture ships in British territory, meaning the waters around Great Britain and Canada.
Meanwhile, Shearshajub Bourne waited in Britain for a year to sell his whale oil at a good price. In spring, 1777, he advertised the Lusanna as a carrier of freight to Halifax, Nova Scotia, and he soon took on 313 barrels of beef, pork, cheese, butter, wine, cider, ale and bread. He was so eager to get home to his wife and children he also accepted two barrels of gunpowder. A convoy of British ships was headed to America. Bourne’s Lusanna joined this fleet, and obeyed its signals. Bourne stayed with the British several weeks, until a fog appeared off the Canadian coast, and the ships separated. Lusanna was alone. Bourne continued, and after three days he saw an American ship. Although he was American, and his ship was American, she carried gunpowder and British certificates. Furthermore, Lusanna had only two small cannons – designed to answer fleet signals – and they would be useless in a fight. The American ship, McClary, gave chase. Bourne ordered his crew to outrun her, and they kept a safe distance for almost an hour, but the McClary boomed cannons while her crew fired muskets. Bourne had only six muskets, and his signal guns. After a token resistance Bourne lowered Lusanna’s flag.
Now Bourne and his father-in-law, Elisha Doane, had a second dilemma. The British had seized their ship Industry for not having British certificates, while the Americans seized Lusanna for having similar papers. The (rebel) government in New Hampshire had authorized McClary to cruise against “enemies of the United States,” which would include ships carrying gunpowder from Britain. The McClary crew sailed Lusanna to Portsmouth, and made their claim to a lawful prize. Doane appeared as the ship’s owner, and Bourne testified as its captain, with each man explaining why they had to accept British certificates. Their defense was logical, but by now the war had been going on so long, and so many people had been killed or captured, logic no longer applied. The jury found for the McClary crew, and awarded them Lusanna and all her cargo.
The Revolution continued, and Elisha Doane himself died, yet the family persisted, waiting until after the United States Constitution was adopted and a federal court system was put in place. Their case was so obscure that, when they appealed through the fledgling federal courts, clerks inadvertently changed the ship’s name to Susanna. It was not until 1795 – eighteen years after she had been captured – that the Supreme Court ruled in the Doane’s favor. Elisha’s descendants were awarded the original ship and the value of her cargo.
/// Featured Image at Top: Although America quickly established a small but effective naval presence in the American Revolution, commemorated by images like this one of an American warship boldly engaging a superior British foe, the impact of the war on merchants who relied on open seas was often devastating. Source: Navy History and Heritage Command
 James L. Nelson, George Washington’s Secret Navy: How the American Revolution went to Sea (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2008), 129.  Receipt, June 4, 1773, and Benjamin French to Samuel Allen, no date, both in Edward Livingston Papers (captains sell their ships) and Jonathan Loring Austin Diary, February – March, 1779, Firestone Library, Princeton University; Daniel St. Jenifer to North Carolina Committee of Safety, no date, Revolutionary War Papers, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (gunpowder).  Testimonies of Shearshajub Bourne, Elisha Doane, Joseph Doane, Samuel Fitch, Samuel Nulling and David Smith, 1775 – 1778, all in Lusanna Prize Court Records, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.  William C. Fowler, “Esek Hopkins: Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy, “ in Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two Centuries of American Naval Leaders, ed. James C.
Bradford (Annapolis: Navel Institute Press, 1997), 3-10. Nathan Hale to Abigail Hale, December 6, 1775 and December 11, 1775, both in Allyn Kellogg Ford Collection, Minnesota Historical Society (muskets and hogs); Richard Smith Diary, December 30, 1775, Library of Congress (reward).  Jack Coggins, Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution (Harrisburg, PA: Courier Dover Publications, 1969), 65-76.  Richard Smith Diary, December 16, 1775 – March 18, 1776, Library of Congress.  Doane et. al. v. Treadwell and Penhallow, Libellants, and the Brig Susannah, 1778, case number 30, Records of the Court of Appeals in Cases of Capture, 1772-1789, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, Record Group 267, United States National Archives.  Penhallow v. Doane’s Administrators 3 U.S [3 Dall.] 54 (1795).