Ship America of Salem

For this evolving-memorial day of sorts, a thoroughly patriotic post on one of Salem’s illustrious ships from days gone by, the aptly-named America, which one source describes as “the largest, the fastest, the most fortunate and the most famous of all the privateers which at any time sailed out of Salem Harbor” (Old-Time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1922). This is saying a lot, as Salem sent out 40 privateers during the War of 1812 alone. Built as an East Indiaman by famed Salem shipbuilder Retire Becket for Crowninshield & Sons in 1803-4, the America had an illustrious commercial career even before it (she) was transformed into a private-armed corvette for the War of 1812. Its entire voyaging history reads like a novel by C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian.

America of Salem Old Time Ships

America Model Addison Gallery of American Art

Anton Roux, The Ship America at anchor in Marseilles, 1806, Peabody Essex Museum; Model of the America by Captain H. Percy Ashley, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.

The conversion of the America from merchant to naval vessel involved removing her top deck and lengthening her masts and spars to support an enormous spread of sail–she was fast before by all accounts, but after she was “razeed”, she became even faster, a ship of prey. To me, she looks like she’s very low in the water, but obviously also very light in the water. The America was armed with 20 guns and a crew of 150 sailors for her five war-time “cruises”, during which she captured 27 British vessels, valued at more than a million dollars with their cargoes. After the war, the America languished in Salem and was finally dismantled in 1831, outlasting the famous luxury yacht modeled after her, George Crowninshield’s Cleopatra’s Barge, by several years.

America EIHC

America EIHC2

America Princess Elizabeth 1815 Ropes

The America under full sail, in a series of illustrations from B.B. Crowninshield’s “Account of the Private Armed Ship ‘America’ of Salem”, Historical Collections of the Essex Institute, January 1901): the first is from a painting by Edward J. Russell, and the last is from a painting by George Ropes of the America chasing down the British Ship ‘Princess Elizabeth’ in 1815, both are in the collection of the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem.

I’ve been looking, looking, looking, but I can’t find an America plate or jug (though many Friendship and Grand Turk ones are out there), though I did find the hooked rug below, a lot in Northeast Auctions’ recent Annual Marine, China Trade & Historical Americana auction.

America of Salem

9 responses to “Ship America of Salem

  • markd60

    Glad my ship had AC!

  • Elise faris

    I have a few prints or engravings from this time period with these subject matter. They are if ships from Salem going to various locations. All are color. All are of ships. One is headed to Manilla . Date on one is 1836. How would I know their value?

    • daseger

      Well, their value would depend on whether they were prints from 1836 or modern reprints–because many were made in the 20th century. I would bring them to an appraisal day at a local auctioneer or museum if I were you.

  • Henry Jensen

    Hello, just picked up an early soft Paste plate, Ship America Salem. Can’t find info on this early plate. Is it rare???

    • daseger

      Umm. Can’t say–no mark at all?

      • Henry Jensen

        Thanks for writing back!! Out of local estate(today), c-1820 ish. Same age as the early Maritime cider jugs. I haven’t had a soft paste this early with local historical significance.No markings, but many early pottery pieces are not marked. When I went to search online, your article popped up. Since nothing else of this age came up, must be a somewhat rare piece. No cracks!!!

      • daseger

        I would tend to agree with you Henry. I searched all the auction archives for America of Salem pieces and nothing came up–if you want to email me a picture I’ll check with friends who are pottery experts.

      • Henry Jensen

        Well I am not smart enough to add the pics through here. Can i send my email address to you? Do you work from the PEM??

      • daseger

        No, I’m not an art historian, just an historian! Email address is in “About”.

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