William Barnes, Lieutenant

William Bell Clark editor of “The Letters of Nicolas Biddle (1771-1777)” in the Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, LXXIV (July 1950) notes “William Barnes, first lieutenant of the Randolph, had been a colonial shipmaster as early as 1764” no doubt referring in part to Barnes’ command of the schooner Sally from 1768 through at least 1770 and the sloop Polly from Antigua as late as November 1775. This roughly corresponds to some unsourced genealogical material which suggests William Barnes was born about 1744. Newspaper records suggest Barnes may have captained Philadelphia vessels for a decade earlier, appearing in command of the snow George in 1754, sloop Fancy between 1756-57, sloop Greenwich between 1758-59, snow Two Brothers in 1760 and snow Recovery in 1761. If these shipping notices refer to the same shipmaster, it is much more likely Barnes was born about 1734.

William Barnes was commissioned Lieutenant in the Continental Navy and assigned to the frigate Randolph under the command of Captain Nicholas Biddle on 17 August 1776. Four days earlier the Marine Committee had recommended him to Congress “for first lieutenant on board one of the frigates built at Philadelphia”. Along with other officers on 1 September 1777, Lieutenant Barnes signed a complaint against Panatiere de la Falconniere, a French-born Lieutenant of Marines “Most Effectually hated and despised by every one on Board”. Barnes himself was highly regarded by Captain Biddle who wrote to Robert Morris on 12 September 1777, immediately following a short cruise that saw action with the True Briton the previous week, “I cannot omit telling You that My Officers have on every Occasion given Me the greatest satisfaction. Two better Officers are not in the Service than Barnes and Mc dougal My first and second Lieuts.” Friends, both Lieutenants would meet eternity together in the explosion of the frigate Randolph during her tragic engagement with HMS Yarmouth on 7 March 1778.

Little is known concerning the personal life of William Barnes aside from what is revealed in his will executed on 9 January 1778 and probated on 9 May 1778. A transcript can be found on page 368 (online page 384) in Wills Volume 19 of the South Carolina Probate Records and is available for viewing at:


After first directing that his “just and lawful debts are paid”, Barnes bequeaths 2,100 pounds to “my loving friend Cap’t William Pickles of Charles Town”. William Pickles received a commission as Captain in the Continental Navy on 10 October 1776. Captain William Pickles’ naval career mostly unfolded subsequent to the death of his dear friend although we know Pickles was in Charleston about the time Barnes penned his will. According to a letter from Continental Navy agent Abraham Livingston to North Carolina Governor Richard Caswell dated 24 September 1778, “In January last Mr. Wm. Pickles arrived here charged with despatches from Congress and with instructions to me to get him forwarded to the Island of New Orleans in the most safe and expeditious manner”. Livingston placed Pickles on board the former Continental packet schooner Lewis renamed Bostonian as a letter of marque under the command of Captain Matthew Roan. “On their passage thither the Crew rose on Capts. Roan & Pickles, and after a bloody scuffle they landed those two Captains on the Matanzas [in Cuba], and run away with the schooner, which they carried to New Providence.” Pickles finally arrived at his intended destination in mid-March 1778 aboard the Spanish naval brigantine Santa Theresa along with dispatches from the Governor of Cuba to the Governor of Louisiana Governor.

At New Orleans, Captain William Pickles took command of the Continental Navy armed schooner Morris, the former prize vessel Rebecca taken on the Mississippi River and fitted out by Continental agent Oliver Pollock. This first Morris, of 20-guns, was destroyed in a hurricane on 18 August 1779 with the loss of eleven of her crew. Shortly thereafter, Spanish Governor of Louisiana Bernardo de Galvez gifted the Continental agent a second schooner named Morris also placed under the command of Pickles. On 10 September 1779, Captain William Pickles captured the more heavily armed British sloop-of-war West Florida under Royal Navy Lieutenant Payne in “a very severe conflict” on Lake Pontchartrain where the enemy vessel had operated unmolested for nearly two years. Just six days later, Pickles landed some of his men and took possession of the lake territory, witnessing eighteen settlers signing oaths of allegiance and declaring themselves subjects of the “United Independent States of North America.” With the assistance of Galvez, Pollock then fitted out the West Florida as a Continental Navy vessel and placed her under Captain Pickles’ command. After operating in Gulf waters for a short time and providing naval support for Governor Galvez’s successful expedition against the British-held port of Mobile, Pickles carried the sloop West Florida to Philadelphia in 1780.

Captain William Pickles was next placed in command of the Continental Navy brigantine packet Mercury on 11 August 1780 with orders to sail for Amsterdam with Henry Laurens on board carrying a draft treaty of alliance with the Dutch. Laurens embarked on 13 August and the Mercury soon made sail in company with the 16-gun Continental sloop-of-war Saratoga under the command of Captain John Young. Ironically, Young and Pickles were soon separated and the Saratoga would sail to her doom seven months later with at least one of West Florida’s men Stephen Thompson in the only other catastrophic naval loss of life during the War for Independence. The packet Mercury was captured by the British off the Newfoundland Banks on 3 September 1780 by the frigate Vestal and sloop Fairy. Although the sensitive official documents were thrown overboard, they were recovered by the British. Both Laurens and Captain Pickles were first sent to St. John’s in Newfoundland, with Pickles following the statesman to England, arriving in mid-November 1780 on the frigate Vestal. After his release from captivity, Captain William Pickles returned to Philadelphia where he was mortally wounded in a mob attack shortly thereafter on Sunday evening 7 September 1783. Newspaper accounts report Pickles was attacked by at least a dozen men who confronted him at the home of a friend where he resided. Leaving the safety of the dwelling, the captain spoke to the men in a foreign tongue in hopes of pacifying their anger. However, Pickles was immediately accosted by the gang who beat and stabbed him. While chasing his attackers down the street, cutlass drawn, some turned again on Pickles with knives and bludgeons. Mortally wounded, Captain William Pickles died about 10 o’clock Tuesday evening 9 September 1783 and was buried with military honors in St. Peter’s churchyard the following day. Three of the four Genoese sailors tried for his murder were convicted on 8 October, one of which was reprieved. Two were hung on 18 October 1783 for his death. Interestingly, no mention is made in history if his bloody murder at the hands of Italian sailors is somehow associated with the unhappy former crew of the West Florida, who had written to Continental agent Oliver Pollock one year earlier on 2 November 1782 before Captain Pickles’ return from England, holding Pollock responsible for money due them for their service with the vessel.

William Barnes next does “give and bequeath unto Lieutenant John McDougall of the navy of the thirteen united States of America the sum of one thousand four hundred Pounds Current money.” Nephew of General Alexander McDougall of New York, John McDougall was given a Lieutenant’s commission in the Continental Navy on 22 December 1775. He first served under Captain Nicholas Biddle as Third Lieutenant on the Andrew Doria and was promoted and transferred to the frigate Randolph at Captain Biddle’s request. McDougall would not live to enjoy his inheritance as both friends would perish on the same day. Barnes bequeathed the identical sum to John Johnston, further identified as the son of William Johnston, Esquire of Charles Town. It is clear from the details of William Barnes’ will that John Johnston has not yet attained the age of twenty-one at the time of drafting his will on 9 January 1778. It is speculated that the young man may have also been among the Randolph’s doomed men. The elder Johnston is named as executor along with Peter Bouneatheau, former Deputy Secretary to Colonel Henry Laurens during his tenure as President of the South Carolina Council of Safety between 1775 and 1776 and at the time of Barnes death- Postmaster of Charleston, having been appointed to that post by Benjamin Franklin in May 1777.

William Barnes next names his friend Elizabeth Dewees, wife of Phillip Dewees of Charles Town, as beneficiary of 1,400 pounds, “which said sum of money to be at her own disposal.” It is speculated by one genealogical researcher that Mrs. Dewees was Barnes’ sister but this writer believes she is exactly as William Barnes describes her- a friend. Philip Dewees was born in Philadelphia in 1724 and his death in December 1778 would follow Barnes’ by only nine months. It can be speculated that he may have been seriously ill when Barnes penned his will and that the couple had been friends of Barnes’ for many years as Dewees had moved to South Carolina from Pennsylvania about 1764, apparently to escape legal difficulties. Finally, William Barnes left “all the rest and remainder” of his estate to Prissilla Walker of Great Valley in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County. The genealogical speculation that Priscilla Walker may also be Barnes’ sister is more plausible, however identifying a familiar or geographic relationship with her has proved elusive. Although a William Barnes is listed as a landowner in Tredyffrin in 1774, it has not been established if that Barnes was the same as served as Lieutenant in the Continental Navy. It is known that a mariner by the name of William Barnes resided in the Upper Delaware Ward of Philadelphia in 1769. No marriage record has been located for Priscilla Barnes and a husband named Walker in this area for this time period. Of course, the other logical hypotheses is that she also was a dear friend or daughter of a friend to Barnes. The only candidate yet identified is Priscilla Walker, daughter of Joseph Walker (1731-1818) and Sarah Thomas (1734-1792) and cousin to General Anthony Wayne. Much younger than Barnes, this Priscilla Walker was born between 1753 and 1756 and was married to Quaker seer Eli Yarnall on 26 November 1783 at Great Valley, with whom she had five children. The witnesses to William Barnes’ execution of his will included Charleston District Militia Regimental Captains William Livingston and Peter Bocquet, Jr. , a wealthy planter, in addition to Continental Navy 3rd Lieutenant Joshua Fanning who would also perish in the frigate Randolph’s tragic explosion.

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