by John Williams Haley

Salt in his blood.

This article comes from The Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island, Vol. III, pages 125-127, published by the Providence Institution for Savings, 1939. Transcribed by Beth Hurd for non-commercial use only.

Esek Hopkins.
Engraving from The Providence Plantations for 250 Years by Welcome Arnold Greene (1886).

The Union's smallest state has the distinction of having built and manned the earliest vessels with which to fight against Great Britain; in Rhode Island were equipped more than her proportionate share of vessels during the war; it was Rhode Island that furnished more naval officers than any of the other states; and to Esek Hopkins came the honor of being first Commander of the American Navy. Much has been written about Esek Hopkins, the sailor, and about his brother Stephen, the statesman. The Providence homes of each have been preserved, carefully restored under expert direction, furnished with many family belongings and heirlooms, together with contemporary pieces of furniture and household utensils; and both homesteads are now open to the public. The city has performed a meritorious service by protecting and opening the two Hopkins homes and others of equal importance, and all patriotic citizens sincerely pray that the same can be done for other landmarks that serve as a precious connecting link between the present and the glorious past.

Esek Hopkins was one of nine children. He was born April 26, 1718, in the section now known as Scituate, Rhode Island, but, at the time of his birth, his home was within the town of Providence. His boyhood was spent at the family homestead in the midst of a wild and sparsely settled country, and he went to sea at the age of twenty. Little is known of Hopkins' youth up to the time when he left the farm to begin his career as a sailor, except that he has been described as being "tall, stout and handsome." There was salt in the blood of the Hopkins; two older brothers were already masters of vessels, and Esek was probably influenced in taking to the sea by the tales of travel brought home to the farm by John and Samuel.

Esek's first voyage took him to Surinam and he entered upon his new life with all the enthusiasm of a typical young Rhode Island adventurer. He soon rose to the command of a ship and was ranked among the more prominent master mariners of New England. At the age of twenty-three he was married to Desire Burroughs of Newport, the daughter of a leading merchant and shipmaster. For a while Hopkins maintained a residence in Newport, but later he moved to Providence, where he was made a freeman of the town by subscribing to the required oath of fidelity. It appears that this oath was not taken immediately, very likely because the new Providence citizen was away on one of his extended sea voyages. He displayed a keen interest in education, his first public office being an appointment on the town's first school committee from which grew the splendid free school system later bringing great credit upon the community.

Evidently Esek spent little time ashore for he was soon attracted by the golden opportunities in privateering, Rhode Island's most profitable enterprise during the years previous to the War for Independence. Records exist wherein are described some of the prizes taken by Captain Hopkins, and it is evident that, during this exciting phase of his career, he was associated with the Browns, those master minds of commerce and maritime exploits. Just previous of the year 1757, the most significant period of his privateering experiences, Hopkins acquired and occupied the farm to the north of Providence where the old farmstead stands today. If there are such things as ghosts or hovering spirits, then the quaint and comfortable little Colonial residence on Admiral Street must have a house full. There were six children in the family, and the place was a rendezvous for a great circle of friends and acquaintances who enjoyed the hospitality dispensed by the widely-traveled host. Some one has said that he "delighted in entertaining his friends; there were hunting trips in the wild woods, shooting at marks and other sports to occupy the time on such occasions, but with all these pleasures he found time to devote much attention to carrying on his farm, employing many negroes in this work." These ghosts, if any, must look smilingly upon the hosts of present-day patriots who roam through the cozy low-ceilinged rooms fascinated by the air of homelike peace and comfort created again by those who have expertly restored and refurnished the precious landmark.

Hopkins entered into the political strife and turmoil of the Colony and talked openly on subjects of a controversial nature. During the prolonged "give and take" political battle between Esek's brother Stephen and Samuel Ward, the two leading public figures at the time, he showed his brotherly love and affection by becoming a strong supporter of Stephen's ticket, helping him in a great measure to political success. It might well be observed here that Esek Hopkins, in all of his relations with his fellow men, was frank and always to the point; he made no effort to conceal his opinions on subjects which aroused his interest or appealed to his sympathies. He was extremely aggressive, one of the most prominent traits in his character that later led him to controversies during his early political life, and later during his naval service. Edward Field says: "He was quick to penetrate trickery or deceit and quicker still to expose it, there was a strong individuality to his make-up which sometimes operated to his disadvantage than to right the supposed grievance or to elevate himself in the estimation of his fellow men. With a character strong and positive, coupled with the dictatorial manner of the master mariners of the times, he naturally made enemies and became easily drawn into controversies."

Of course, the most interesting portion of Hopkins' life centers around the events leading up to the establishment of the first American navy and the appointment of Esek to be its first Commander-in-Chief. During the summer months of 1775 Rhode Islanders were kept constantly on edge because of the feared invasion of Narragansett Bay by the enemy's fleet. The British fleet lurked somewhere outside of Brenton's Reef, according to rumors, and definite steps were finally taken to protect the inland waters of the Colony. Captain Hopkins, considered the most able shipmaster in Rhode Island, was eagerly requested to assume command of the tiny but gallant fleet which had been assembled to protect the shores of the Colony. At this time Hopkins was nearly sixty years of age but he had willingly assumed responsibility for directing both the naval and military operations in this section. When the British fleet directed its attack upon Newport, Hopkins rushed to that point with reinforcements and proved to be of great assistance in repulsing the enemy.

Because of his local reputation for ability as a leader of men, an expert navigator, and a successful organizer, he was picked by Congress by unanimous vote to take command of the American Navy which was being built and assembled at Philadelphia. His selection was also probably due to the fact that his brother Stephen then headed a committee on naval affairs and was prominently identified with those who urged naval protection. Incidentally most of this pressure which was brought to bear upon Congress urging quick and definite steps to be taken for American sea protection came from loyal Rhode Islanders. Immediately following his appointment as Commodore, Esek Hopkins resigned all of his local commands and journeyed to Philadelphia accompanied by a picked group of local volunteers who had impressed their willingness to sail and fight on American vessels under the command of the most distinguished Rhode Island sailor. Shortly after his arrival in Philadelphia, and when he had inspected the first squadron of United States fighting ships, Hopkins requested that Congress give him additional ships of war to increase the strength of his fleet, and Congress complied with this wish by allowing him eight additional armed merchantmen.

Lord Dunmore, with a squadron of British ships, was meeting with no resistance in his raids up and down the Atlantic coast and Hopkins was soon ordered to move his command from Philadelphia and put a stop to this annoyance. The first American naval fleet set sail on January 9, 1775, with a Rhode Islander in command and the scene must have been an inspiring one for those gathered on the shores and along the wharves to witness the ceremonies attending the hoisting of sails and the hauling of anchors. What amounted to disaster beset the fleet almost at the very beginning. The river was filled with ice at the time and it was nearly a month before the proud armada squared its sails off the Delaware Capes and headed south in search of the enemy. When he was located, the British ships were all safely harbored beneath a formidable array of frowning fort guns, therefore the careful commander dared not to push at attack and risk defeat at the hands of a combined land and sea force. Seasickness among many of the unseasoned sailors also had some influence upon Hopkins' decision to delay the attack, and so the fleet was ordered to proceed south to the Bahama Islands, where it had been rumored that the enemy had stored a valuable supply of arms, ammunition and supplies.

The story of this expedition, which was successful in many respects; the misunderstandings which resulted from the actions taken by Hopkins when the fleet returned to the Colonies; and the facts concerning the censure received by the fleet's commander during the weeks which followed make a long, interesting story which every Rhode Islander should read with an open mind. Historians have dealt rather harshly with Hopkins because of his decisions in times of combat emergency, but there are always two sides to every story. Jealousy was keenly evident at the time of the navy's birth; others secretly and some openly desired the post of honor held by the Rhode Islander. No one has ever questioned his patriotism and loyalty, and the passing of time, together with the intelligent research of fair-minded historical narrators, will probably emphasize the undermining influences of his political enemies rather than exploit the shortcomings of the one who was given the post because of his unquestioned ability to lead fighting men on fighting ships.

John Williams Haley (1897-1963), former vice president of the Narragansett Brewing Company, was best known for his weekly radio program, "The Rhode Island Historian," which ran from 1927 to about 1953 on WJAR. Several hundred of his radio scripts were published in pamphlet form by the Providence Institute for Savings ("The Old Stone Bank"), and many were later reprinted in the four-volume Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island.

Editor's Notes

Edward Field, quoted above, was a noted historian and editor of the three-volume The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History (1902).

Return to Old Stone Bank History of Rhode Island index.

This article last edited July 9, 2006

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