Where is the birthplace of the American Navy?
Well, to start with, the two Massachusetts towns that have argued with each other for years over this question are Marblehead and Beverly.
Marblehead’s claim: On September 2, 1775, George Washington commissioned a Marblehead man, Captain Nicholas Broughton, a Marblehead ship, the Hannah, and a Marblehead crew into the service of the United Colonies of North America.
Sounds like an open-and-shut case for Marblehead, right?
You see, when Washington’s order came through, the Hannah was tied up in Beverly harbor. She therefore sailed forth from Beverly on her first mission as a U.S. Navy ship.
Back in 1935, the two towns asked the Secretary of the Navy, then a man named Charles Swanson, to come to Massachusetts, investigate the claim of both towns and settle the question once and for all. Secretary Swanson, obviously not experienced in New England ways, naively accepted what he considered to be merely a simple matter of looking up a few historical facts.
Within several days of his arrival from Washington, he found Marblehead’s claim to be true. Then he discovered that Beverly’s was also true.
About this time, word of the Secretary’s investigation began to get around and it wasn’t long before he received a letter from the governors of South Carolina and Georgia, saying that as early as July of 1775, naval forces created by both of those states had jointly captured a British supply ship carrying powder and had then delivered this powder to the Continental Congress for the use of the United Colonies. Both therefore claimed to be the birthplace of the American Navy.
Then he discovered that on August 1, 1775, Commodore James Smith had taken command of the sloop Enterprise at Crown Point, Lake Champlain, “for the service of the United Colonies.” Even today, anyone traveling through Whitehall, New York, has seen the large sign proclaiming that town as the birthplace of the American Navy.
Rhode Island inserted its oar, too. On August 4, 1775, General Washington had requested the governor of that state to send ships to Bermuda to capture British powder stored there. The Rhode Island sloop Katy did just that, the Secretary was told in no uncertain terms by a group of Rhodes Islanders sent to speak to him. In their minds, he should designate Little Rhody as the birthplace of the American Navy.
Finally, the now harried and thoroughly confused Secretary learned that five days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, a Captain Jerry O’Brien had sailed out of Machias, Maine, and with a crew of farmers armed with pitchforks, sabers and axes, had boarded a British naval sloop of four guns, the Margaretta, and forced it to surrender. Machias, Maine, strongly claimed–and still claims–to be the true birthplace of the American Navy.
It was at this point in his investigation that the Secretary was heard to mutter to one of his aides, “Oh, to hell with it!” That evening he boarded a train and returned to Washington.
And so, like many such historical squabbles here in New England, the various claims continue to this very day. Frankly, I don’t think the matter will ever be settled. At least I hope not.
This post was first published in 2012 and has been updated.