Short URL for this page:

[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]
Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]
Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p6  Chapter 2

Apprentice Sailor

When Thomas Truxtun turned twelve years old, all that he knew about the big world that lay beyond his immediate horizons he had learned from books or by listening to tales of people who had been there; but a day in 1767 changed all that. He found himself suddenly at grips with the reality of learning through hard personal experience.

He journeyed from the quiet remoteness of Long Island into the bustling city of New York. While he was crossing on the Brooklyn ferry he could see the extensive group of buildings that made up the metropolis, huddled together at the lower end of Manhattan Island. The monotony of low roofs was punctuated by spires and steeples and interrupted by streets cutting across the island. The city wore an air of smug complacence, built as it was of brick and stone, its houses lined up in orderly rows. On this day, when Tom approached it, the city was merely the backdrop for a scene that must surely have commanded  p7 his unwavering attention. On the river front were piers and docks, and in the foreground was a forest of masts, spars, and ropes standing on hulls that lay moored well out in the stream. Some of these were vessels that had just come in from beyond remote horizons; others were waiting for a tide and a wind to carry them out to distant ports of call.

Somewhere in that shoal of sailing vessels ahead was the ship named Pitt. Could he pick her out? Three towering masts, crossed by a dozen wooden yards and held in place by hempen shrouds and stays. Bluff bows and a square stern. Less than one hundred feet in length and a third as broad. This was the ship that would carry him across a thousand leagues of open sea and bring him back after many long weeks to the same berth in the East River.1

Once in the city, Tom had to get himself and his belongings to his ship. His ship! What a thought! Soon he would be a sailor, a member of the ship's company of a "regular trader," which took American products to England and brought back the goods of polite living — clothing, cosmetics, books, window glass, teas, wines, and spices — that were produced in England or transferred from the great ships of the East India Company.

The "regular traders" to England, unlike the "transients," whose itineraries were dictated by the destinations of their cargoes, usually carried on a trade between two ports only; but here the regularity ended. They depended upon freight for their chief revenue, and if a cargo did not materialize when the advertised sailing date arrived, a "regular trader" would wait for days, and often for weeks, until her hold was filled.2

Thus Tom, the young sailor, could expect to spend six weeks at sea on the outward passage, another six or eight weeks at sea on the return passage, and an indefinite number of weeks in Bristol, whence the Pitt was bound. It was unlikely that he would hear any word from home during all this time, because news generally traveled no faster than the ship he was in.

A waterman for a few pennies would pull a sailor and his dunnage across to a vessel anchored out in the stream. It was probably thus that Tom completed the last leg of the journey to his new home.

It was a complex and bewildering place, this sailing ship. The captain and his mates constituted the afterguard, which arrogated to itself the cabin space back aft. This they shared with genteel passengers  p8 who had money enough to pay the cabin price. Other passengers, not so well off, were forced to take shelter in the steerage, a bare and dimly‑lit compartment below the cabin. The sailors, similarly less fortunate in their station in life, all swung their hammocks in a single cramped compartment just before the foremast. Because the boy Thomas was neither a foremast hand nor yet a member of the afterguard, he probably slept wherever he would be most handy to the captain's summons.

His duties as cabin boy, for which, since he was an apprentice, he was paid nothing, were subject to the captain's slightest whim. Cabin boys usually carried food from the caboose, where the cook held forth, down to the captain's table. They might be assigned the duties of chambermaid to the cabin passengers as well as sweeper of the captain's cabin, and to insure their proper introduction to the sea service they would be responsible for emptying the cabin chamber pots. If the cook should take a fancy to the boy he could expect the best of the ship's food, and if he found favor with the passengers he might occasionally be invited to enjoy a share of the private stocks of delicacies that experienced sea travelers always carried with them. The life of a cabin boy might be extremely pleasant. On the other hand, a crotchety captain and a malicious mate could make his existence unbearable. Probably Tom's experience during his first voyage lay somewhere between the two extremes.

When at last the moment of sailing approached, when the hatch covers had been battened down, when the mail bags had been stowed in the cabin, and when the crew and passengers and finally the captain had come on board, Tom could begin to observe what this sea life consisted of.3

He added his inconsiderable weight to the all‑hands evolution at the capstan and helped to inch the bars around as the anchor was weighed and catted. He watched the rest of the activity that accompanied the maneuver of getting under way. He might see the mate sending the hands aloft to unfurl the sails, urging them with a rope‑end to step lively; and he might marvel as the experienced hands, making sense of the babel of shouted commands, trotted about the deck heaving on a line here, making one fast there, and again slacking off on another.

No doubt he had an opportunity to watch the city recede astern as the Pitt worked her way down the Bay toward the open sea. The  p9 Battery of Fort George, with its cannon in a hundred‑odd embrasures, kept watch over the seaward approach to the city. On the skyline were the church steeples, Trinity's towering above them all. Over on the larboard quarter of the ship as it sailed down the Bay were the wooded bluffs of Brooklyn. Somewhere not far beyond those peaceful green hills, Tom was leaving his childhood forever behind.4

After the Pitt crossed the bar and sailed out into the wide and rough Atlantic, Tom probably found that his stomach would no longer behave. He, like many men who follow the sea, was never entirely free of the threat of turning quite green when he went to sea after spending too long a time on shore. After his viscera settled down, he was able to take notice of his new surroundings and to begin to store up the bits and pieces of sea‑knowledge that all together made him a distinguished mariner when he reached the zenith of his career.

Often a ship's boy might be popular with some of the foremast hands, if not with the captain or mate. Since nearly all men enjoy displaying their knowledge to an appreciative audience, what more satisfactory way was there to spend the long hours of watches below than to introduce a bright lad to the intricacies of a vessel under sail and to the endless mysteries of the sea? During this voyage and the voyages that followed, Tom learned the names of the masts of a ship: fore, main, and mizzen; the difference between a sloop, with one mast, and a brig or snow, with two. He learned the names of the sails belonging to each mast: courses, topsails, topgallant sails, and royals; he learned to recognize and tie knots and hitches and bends; he learned the names of ropes, stays, and shrouds. He soon knew which lines were sheets and which were braces, which were clew-lines and which bow‑lines and bridles; he boxed the compass; after a while he found courage to scramble aloft and lie out on a swaying, plunging yard; and in good time he came to understand the multiplicity of details that had to be mastered before a man was capable of standing a watch at sea.

Tom survived his first voyage to Bristol and return. What he saw he liked well enough to make him stay with his new‑found way of life. When he embraced the sea he accepted, whether he realized it or not, the prospect of sailing with an autocratic captain, a bullying mate, and a recalcitrant crew; of pitching through the wild North Atlantic with wind and wave providing the only motive power; and  p10 of living on pickled meat — often spoiled — and ship's bread from which the weevil worms had to be driven before it was fit to be eaten. For seven years, however, until he was over nineteen years old, he stayed with British merchant ships. After one or two voyages in the Pitt, he shifted — at his own request, according to his first biographer — to another "regular trader." Most of the seven years he probably spent in the ship London, Captain James Chambers commanding.5

Only one incident, which nearly changed the course of his whole career, broke the pattern of his life in the merchant service. Early in 1771, when Tom was just sixteen, he found himself suddenly and unceremoniously impressed on board His Majesty's ship Prudent, a 64‑gun ship of the Royal Navy.

The Author's Notes:

1 No description of the Pitt survives. This description is based on fairly intimate knowledge of sailing vessels of this period. For some general statistical evidence, laboriously assembled, see Murray G. Lawson, "The Boston Merchant Fleet of 1753," American Neptune, IX (July, 1949), 207‑15.

[decorative delimiter]

2 Robert G. Albion, Square Riggers on Schedule (Princeton, 1938), pp15‑16.

[decorative delimiter]

3 I have found no satisfactory single account of sea life in eighteenth-century merchant vessels. This account is compounded of many clues derived from a wide variety of source material. A few references are listed in the bibliography. Under Biography, see Andrews, Bullen, Dana, and Roberts; under Naval and Maritime History, see Lever.

[decorative delimiter]

4 E. B. O'Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1853‑61), VIII, 451; HSPa: Ratzer Map of 1767, "Plan of the City of New York."

[decorative delimiter]

5 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 31.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 13 Jun 13