Samuel Johnson, Master’s Mate

Samuel Johnson. According to his pension application S.32,908, Samuel Johnson was born in Providence, RI in 1753. Based on a letter written to the Providence Gazette during the American Revolution that he signed as Samuel Johnson, Jr. we can assume his father bore the same name. The pension record indicates that Johnson entered service as Midshipman on the 28-gun frigate Queen of France under the command of Captain Joseph Olney in the middle of October 1778. Named in honor of Marie Antoinette, the Queen of France was on old French ship purchased by Silas Deane in 1777 for Continental Navy use. Queen of France departed Boston on her first cruise on 13 March 1779 in company with the Continental ships Warren and Ranger, all under the command of Captain John B. Hopkins. Cruising down the Atlantic seaboard, the squadron took their first prize, the 10-gun privateer schooner Hibernia on 6 April 1779. The following day, the Continental Navy ships fell into an enemy fleet and captured seven more prizes: the 20-gun ship Jason; 16-gun ship Melish (aka Maria); brigs Patriot, Prince Ferdinand, John, Batchelor and the schooner Chance. Johnson and the Queen of France returned to Boston with Maria, Hibernia and three brigs on 20 April 1779. Samuel Johnson continued on board the vessel for her second cruise in company with the Providence and Ranger under Olney’s successor Captain John Peck Rathbun. Sailing again from Boston on 18 June 1779, the American squadron now under the command of Abraham Whipple encountered the Jamaican merchant fleet near the Grand Banks in mid-July. Sailing in dense fog amongst British warships protecting the fleet, the Americans took eleven prizes in secret before escaping at nightfall, eight making Boston with the three Continental ships in late August and selling for more than a million dollars. Samuel Johnson did not depart on 23 November 1779 with the Queen of France on her third and last cruise in company with frigates Providence and Boston and sloop Ranger. After cruising east of Bermuda, Queen of France arrived at Charleston, SC where she was sunk in defense of the city which was also lost on 11 May 1780.
According to Johnson’s testimony he was promoted to 2nd Mate soon after entering on board the Queen of France and eventually to Chief Mate. In these capacities he was under the direct supervision of Sailing Masters Henry Skinner and subsequently Samuel Makins. Other officers under Rathbone’s command included 1st Lieutenant Adam Wallace Thaxter, 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Vesey and 3rd Lieutenant Samuel Cardell. According to his own testimony, Master’s Mate Samuel Johnson served on the Queen of France until the middle of September 1779 when he was honorably discharged and advised by Captain Rathbun to take command of a privateer. Johnson’s former superior on the Queen of France, Henry Skinner and Boston merchant George Stewart Johonnot signed a petition dated 18 October 1779 requesting the twenty-six year old Samuel Johnson be commissioned to command the 6-gun Massachusetts schooner Hazard and her compliment of thirty men. The following day, Council ordered the commission be issued and on 20 October 1779 the vessel was bonded by Samuel Johnson, Mariner and principal owners Johonnot and Joseph Head. The amount of Continental bond was not stated with the state bond amounting to L 4,000. Witnesses to the transaction were John Frazier and Thomas Hunt. Within the week, Captain Samuel Johnson fell into the poor luck which characterized his life at sea and caused him to write reflectively and honestly in the pension application, “I have been a very unfortunate man.”
A letter dated 28 October 1779 at Aoxet Harbor and published in the Providence Gazette reads, “Mr. Carter: Please to insert the following in your Gazette and you will obligue your humble servant S. J.” The letter continues, “Being Commander of the Privateer Schooner of War called the Hazard from Boston, cruizing off this coast on the 27th instant, the wind being N. N. E., I was beating in for Seaconnett River, but espying a small Schooner steering out of the Vineyard Sound I gave chase and the Schooner steering away from us I continued the chase and came up with her. I hailed the Schooner, it being night, and asked from whence they came. The master answered from Boston, but I being conscious there was no such vessel from Boston I did not believe him. He answered again from the Vineyard bound to Rhode Island. I desired him to shorten sail, as I wanted to talk with him if a friend, or if an Enemy to fight him. He asked me where I was from, I told him from Boston, and moreover informed him who I was and that if he did not haul down his sails I would fire upon him, which he refused to do. I ordered one of my men to fire a musket. My Men and Officers urged me to give him a broadside. I told them not to fire but ordered them to lay him alongside and then running our bow alongside his larboard quarter, seven or eight of my men went on board him; my Officers and myself calling out not to fire because we discovered them to be leaving their quarters. I was so far from wishing to injure any of them when I discovered them going below, that I went on board with my speaking trumpet and silenced my men, after shutting his cabin door. I then looked at his papers and found him to belong to the State of Rhode Island. Some of my men fired two or three pistols against my express orders, and wounded two of his men. This being a true and faithful narrative of the unhappy transaction I submit my conduct and that of my Officers to the judgment of the public. Samuel Johnson, Jun.”
A newspaper article of 30 October 1779 sheds additional light on the tragic encounter. The vessel Johnson’s men boarded was the Rhode Island privateer Black Snake and one of the two men severely wounded, George Brown of Providence, died as a result of the accidental shooting. Apparently, Johnson and his ship continued on the balance of a short two month cruise which brought some successes before “The remarkable fast sailing Privateer Schooner Hazard” was advertised for sale in the Independent Ledger of Boston on Monday 20 December 1779. The ship was to go on the auction block “as she came from sea” on the following Thursday at noon even before her two recent prizes which were lying in Rhode Island. One might guess the haste to sell the vessel might be associated with potential claims due to her Black Snake mishap. The 23 December 1779 edition of the American Journal of Providence, advertised the sale of Hazard’s prizes, a small sloop of about 25 tons lying at Jackson and Updike’s Wharf at Providence to be sold on the 28th and a schooner of about 40 tons docked at Roome’s Wharf at Newport to be sold two days later. It is not known if Samuel Johnson was offered command of another vessel during the war.
Queen of France veteran and Massachusetts privateer Captain Samuel Johnson has been incorrectly identified by some historians as the commander of the Connecticut privateer brigantine Delight, Samuel Johnson or Johnston, a resident of Middletown, CT. After the war, census records indicate a Samuel Johnson continued to reside in Providence between 1782 and 1790, although it has not been determined with certainty this one is the Continental Navy veteran. The 1790 Census indicates this Johnson’s household of seven included two young men under the age of sixteen along with two older men and three females. The pension application of our “very unfortunate man” Samuel Johnson, describes his post-Revolutionary War maritime career as largely spent in British naval service or prisons. Johnson’s testimony indicates he was impressed in the British Navy from 1807 until commencement of the War of 1812, when he was imprisoned as prisoner-of-war in three different locations. His freedom was finally achieved in June 1815 when he arrived at New London from Dartmoor Prison at the age of sixty-two, after enduring eight years of British confinement.
A 6 February 1808 article published in the Providence Gazette sheds additional light on his misfortune. “Mr. Samuel Johnson, of this town, late mate of the Zeviah, entered on board a British ship of war at Copenhagen; and the Zeviah’s cook, a black man; being a native of Curacao, now under the dominion of Great Britain, was detained by the Danish government.” The Gazette article continues, “on Sunday last the brig Zerviah of this port arrived here from Elsineur (which it left on the 20th of October) under Capt. Leidberg, a native of Sweden. Capt. Smith, her former commander having been left at Elsineur ‘too much indisposed’.” The vessel touched at Lisbon on the voyage home, leaving on 30 November, just prior to the French army occupying the city. Under the command of Captain Smith the brig Zerviah, owned by the mercantile firm of Butler & Wheaton, left Providence on Johnson’s ill-fated voyage Saturday 6 June 1807 bound for Copenhagen. It is presumed her hold was filled with textiles as Butler & Wheaton were active in the fledgling cotton trade which carried cargoes to Scandinavia and ultimately to St. Petersburg, returning with Russian products bound for New England. Just two years before, this same trade revolved around tobacco exports. It is not known if Samuel Johnson served as mate on previous voyages of the brig Zerviah formerly under the command of Captain Holden of Providence; however his unfortunate luck suggests the possibility. Holden had returned from the Copenhagen and Elsineur run in October 1805 to sail the curcuit again from Providence to Richmond in May 1806. Unfortunately on this transit to Virginia, Providence native Isaiah Bacon was drowned on 26 May. Later in the same unhappy cruise of the Zerviah, William Meharry of Providence also fell overboard and was drowned during December 1806 on her return passage from Rotterdam.
Samuel Johnson first qualified for a pension of eight dollars per month beginning 3 April 1818. Two years later in May 1820, the sixty-seven year old resident of Walpole, located between Boston and Providence, testified that he has no occupation except as laborer and no family except his unnamed wife, about fifty-four years old. Acquaintances offering testimony on behalf of Johnson’s pension request include Warren Clap and Daniel Ellis of Walpole; Providence resident George Olney, brother of Queen of France’s captain; disgraced Providence merchant Cyprian Sterry (1752-1824), former prize agent for the Queen of France and William James, the frigate’s Captain of Marines. Neither Samuel Johnson nor his wife’s date of death has yet been firmly established; however one pension record suggests Johnson died on 19 July 1827.

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