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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 4

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.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 6
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p17  Chapter 5

Charming Polly

On the twenty-seventh of February, 1775, just ten days after his twentieth birthday, Tom was married. His bride was Mary Vandrau, fifteen years of age.​1 Probably they were married in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, near the entrance to New York harbor. One searches in vain for the story of this romance. When and where Tom met Mary, and under what circumstances, it is not likely that one will ever know. Nothing beyond the simple fact of their marriage appears to have been recorded.

Perhaps there is reason enough for this void in the story of Tom Truxtun's life. In the American colonies it was normal for a man to marry early and a woman even earlier. Once married, the woman could expect to devote much of her remaining life to the rearing of children. Large families were the rule, and to this the Truxtuns conformed. Over the next thirty years, Tom's wife bore him twelve  p18 children in all, ten of whom survived childhood. While the children were grown up he was a devoted family man. He provided a comfortable home and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he was faithful to his marriage vows as long as he lived. In spite of all this, one can only conclude from a study of his life that his first love was, after all, the sea. It was the sea, stretching to the outermost ends of the earth, that set his imagination afire and enticed him on long and hazardous voyages. The sea had first call on his time and his exertions. In later life it was only the sea that figured in his recollections.

Tom and Mary's first year as man and wife set the pattern for many more to follow. Tom was home for scarcely three months out of the twelve. Six weeks after they were married, he was ready to embark on the first of three voyages to "parts remote beyond the seas," sailing this time as master of his own vessel.

Captain Truxtun! A handsome title for a young man of twenty. His first command was the Charming Polly, named quite naturally for his young bride (Polly was a common diminutive of Mary). Tom went to the King's customhouse in New York early in April, 1775, to have his vessel cleared for departure to the island of Jamaica in the West Indies.​2 The Charming Polly was a small vessel — merely a sloop, carrying a few rags of sail on a single mast.​3 Three or four hands only, besides the captain, would be needed to sail her. Nevertheless, Tom was her master. He was responsible for the safety of his vessel and the welfare of his crew. It was up to him to steer his way across trackless seas and to find a safe harbor at the end of a several-weeks' voyage. Out in the open sea his word was law, but he had to be ready to enforce his law as well; as long as he maintained the respect or fear of his men, he was ruler supreme of a tiny kingdom, a kingdom apart and remote from all the rest of the world.

Tom owned half of the vessel and her cargo, and it may have been Isaac Sears who owned the other half.​4 Usually, a cargo to the West Indies consisted of the products of farm and of forest — Indian corn, flour, salt beef, and salt pork, shingles, staves, and common lumber.​5 From Jamaica, a vessel in normal times would return with sugar, rum, molasses, and with dye woods and mahogany.​6 But these were anything but normal times: sugar, rum and molasses could no longer be brought home in American vessels, because the nonimportation agreements, designed to keep all English goods from entering the colonies, were already in effect. The nonexportation agreements,  p19 which would cut off the export trade to the West Indies as well as to England, were to go into effect in November. But it was not yet November; in spite of some changes in the cargoes carried, trade to the islands was exceptionally brisk.

The Charming Polly departed from New York for Jamaica just a few days before the nineteenth of April, 1775. When Tom returned home in July, he found the whole situation changed. The shots at Concord Bridge were still echoing down the land. The armed rebellion had begun. The Continental Congress, which many people had hoped would smooth over the differences between the colonies and the royal government, was now in the business of raising and supplying an army. General Washington was at Boston, sorely perplexed by a lack of supplies, particularly gunpowder.​a "Our want of powder," he said, "is inconceivable. . . . A daily waste, and no supply, presents a gloomy prospect."​7 General Schuyler, at Fort Ticonderoga, was more specific. "I am extremely apprehensive," he wrote, "that a want of powder will be fatal to our operations."​8 Since almost no powder was being made in the colonies, it was at once clear that the war could not go on unless a supply was found immediately. Some powder might be captured from the British, perhaps; but most of it would have to be brought in ships from other shores. It was to this trade, patriotic as well as profitable, that the merchants turned at once.

Tom's second voyage was to Hispaniola in the West Indies. He returned with a cargo of powder and was soon ready to depart in search of another. On the thirteenth of November, 1775, one might read in a New York newspaper the first paid notice of a Truxtun voyage: "For Antigua, St. Christophers, and St. Eustatia; the Sloop Charming-Polly, Thomas Truxtun, Master; Has good Accommodations for Passengers, and will sail by the fifteenth of November: For Passage only, apply to the Master on board said Vessel, now lying at Hallett's Wharf."​9 For passage only. The nonexportation agreements were in effect; the war was already a reality.
[image ALT: A reproduction of a small advertisement in an 18c newspaper, in an assortment of type styles; the text of it is transcribed in its entirety by the author on this page. The advertisement is decorated with a woodcut sketch of a small sailing boat.]

This voyage, Tom's third in the Charming Polly, ended in virtual disaster when he was caught under the guns of a British warship. The encounter changed his role in the impending Revolution from one of passively supplying the Army with powder and supplies to one of actively seeking revenge for the loss and humiliation he suffered during this voyage.

The Author's Notes:

1 Truxtun Family Bible, in private collection of Truxtun Brodhead, Esq.

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2 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, April 10, 1775; Rivington's New York Gazetteer, April 13, 1775.

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3 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, November 13, 1775.

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

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5 Lowell J. Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763‑1833 (New York, 1928), pp88‑89.

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6 E. B. O'Callaghan, ed., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (Albany, 1853‑61), VIII, 446‑49.

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7 Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D. C., 1837‑53), 4th ser., IV, 458.

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8 Ibid., 4th ser., III, 1036.

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9 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, July 31, September 25, November 13, 1775.

Thayer's Note:

a "The Supply of Gunpowder in 1776", American Historical Review, XXX.271‑281; "St. Eustatius in the American Revolution", American Historical Review, VIII.687‑690;

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