Keeping Privateers Afloat

In the young American nation, privateering kept U.S. port cities humming with activity. Shipyards built the vessels. Banks and insurance agencies financed and insured them. Sailmakers made and maintained acres of sails. Armorers and gunsmiths supplied cannon, firearms, powder, and shot. Blacksmiths and chandlers made ship hardware of all sorts. Farmers and grocers supplied ships’ provisions, and coopers made storage barrels and kegs.

Fells Point, early 1800s

The War of 1812 kept Baltimore shipyards busy. Since the early 1800s, the city had been building small, fast schooners such as pilot boats, which carried pilots familiar with local waters out to guide larger vessels in Chesapeake Bay. When war broke out, an area of Baltimore’s waterfront known as Fells Point began building slightly bigger schooners that could raid enemy shipping and outrun enemy blockades.

Courtesy of The Maryland Historical Society


Pilot Boat/Privateer Snap Dragon

Built in Maryland, early 1800s

Length: 85-1/2 feet

Lent by the U.S. Navy

Original Builder’s Model, 1808

Half-hull models like this were the first step in shipbuilding in the early 1800s. The shipbuilder made the model for only one side of the hull, since ships are symmetrical. To build a ship, the model’s shape was measured and drawn full scale on a wooden floor. Then the ship’s frames were cut to fit the floor lines. The finished frames were hoisted and set along the keel in the shipyard. The privateer Snap Dragon was built from this model. In the War of 1812, it captured 19 prizes.


Square Topsail Schooner Lynx

Built in 1812

Length: 97 feet

View object record

Letter of Marque Schooner Lynx

Built at Baltimore by Peter Kemp, the Lynx carried six guns and a 40-man crew. In 1812, the owners received a letter of marque—the official authorization for a merchant vessel to take prizes as a privateer. The Lynx served less than a year before being captured. It was renamed the Mosquidobit, and joined the British blockade of Chesapeake Bay.


Brig Prince de Neufchatel

Built in 1813

Length: 117 feet

Armament: 18 guns

Crew: 129

Privateer Prince de Neufchatel

The Prince de Neufchatel was one of the most successful American privateers of the War of 1812. Its mostly American crew was augmented by 18 sailors from 11 different countries. In early 1814, the brig captured nine British vessels in the English Channel. In October, it survived a battle off New England with a much larger British frigate. Three British frigates finally captured the Prince in December 1814 and promptly sailed it back to England to have shipwrights copy the lines of the speedy vessel.


Gift of Mr. and Mrs. E. A. Kohl

Articles of Agreement, 1814

This manuscript laid out terms between the owners and crew for a cruise of the privateer Prince de Neufchatel. The owners paid for all the initial armaments and provisions. The privateer was expected to replenish its needs from captured vessels. The owners received half of the proceeds from any vessels taken. The crew divided the other half by rank. The first two men to board an enemy ship earned six extra shares, while the loss of an arm or leg earned double the money.


Gift of the CIGNA Museum & Art Collection

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The Warrior Captures the Hope, 1814

About 1814, Philadelphia artist Thomas Birch painted this action between the American privateer brig Warrior, right, and the British armed schooner Hope. The Hope was transporting a cargo of manufactured goods from Glasgow, Scotland, to Buenos Aires, Argentina.


Catalog of Prize Goods, 1814

Goods from captured ships—called “prizes”—were auctioned off by the local U.S. Marshal’s office. A one-page handbill was usually enough to list a ship’s goods. A printed catalog of auction items like this was rare.

Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society


Catch Me Who Can

In this watercolor, an American privateer has mistaken the British warship Pylades as a potential prize. After the British sloop fired a shot, the American schooner fled, taunting the enemy with a flag that says, “Catch me who can.”

Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich