The Schooner Fame
At the outbreak of the War of 1812, Salem was one of the first ports to send out privateers. A privateer was a privately owned ship with credentials giving it permission to attack and plunder the enemies' ships without meriting the title of pirate in the eyes of its government. Captain Charles Vanderford (2015) owned 1/25 of the Salem privateer Fame. The Fame was the second privateer to put to sea and was credited with taking the first British prize. She was a pinky stern Chebacco boat of thirty tons with thirty men and armed with two six-pounders. She was little but extremely fast; so fast, in fact, that nothing in the British Navy could catch her. She was a very successful ship, returning 4 prizes in her first month. The sale of just one of her prizes, the Concord, provided a 300% return on the investment.
From the booklet FAME: The Salem Privateer
Their country was at war. Their livelihoods were at stake. Their families needed to be fed. So 25 men of Salem banded together, bought a fast schooner, fitted her out as their own private man of war, and set sail for the Gulf of Maine. As FAME rounded Cape Ann and headed northeast for Canadian waters, those on board knew full well that in two week's a time they could be rich -- or they could be prisoners.
When war broke out in the summer of 1812, Salem was one of the busiest ports in the young United States, but for decades her prosperity had been precarious. The interminable wars between Great Britain and France had led to Salem vessels being seized by both sides. American seamen were continually being impressed -- kidnapped -- by a Royal Navy desperate for men. Worst of all, America's foreign trade had been shut down for over a year by President Jefferson's disastrous Embargo.
In a war against the world's most powerful nation -- and most powerful navy -- the mariners of Salem had few options open to them. They could carry on with business as usual, bringing back cargoes of tea, silks, and pepper from the rich East -- but they ran the risk of being captured by British cruisers or privateers and losing everything. They could go privateering themselves, playing cat-and-mouse with fat British merchant ships and dangerous British men of war. Or they could `swallow the anchor' -- sit at home and watch their savings dwindle, praying for peace.
Many Salem mariners chose privateering as being the least of the three evils -- or at least the one in which they had most control over their destinies. The 25 men who joined together to man FAME were typical. These men were not wealthy. They were captains, merchants and shipowners in a modest way. They couldn't afford not to be working, and they weren't rich enough to invest in privateers while remaining safely at home. Their plan was to pool their resources, purchase a suitable vessel and man it themselves.
As soon as war was declared, they purchased a fast little schooner that had recently been built by Captain Epes Davis of Annisquam. FAME, as Davis called her, was about 50 feet on deck, with a broad bow and a pointed `pink' stern. She could carry two small cannon and a crew of up to 30. FAME had originally been designed to go fishing with a small crew, so her new owners brought her to Salem and fitted her out to carry the armament and larger crew of a privateer.
The next order of business was to choose a captain from their crew of captains. They settled on William Webb, one of their older members at 47 and a veteran merchant skipper. For his lieutenant they chose John Becket Jr., another experienced shipmaster. They applied for a privateering commission, and soon as the commissions arrived from Washington, DC -- on July 1, 1812 -- they set sail for the eastward.
OFF GRAND MANAN
Nobody knows the ways of merchant ships better than merchant captains, and FAME had many of them on board. Their plan was to run up the Maine coast to New Brunswick, where British vessels loaded lumber and other raw materials for the insatiable Royal Navy.
It didn't take long for FAME to hit the jackpot. In a few days she was off Grand Manan, on the border between the United States and Canada, and fell in with the ship CONCORD out of Plymouth, England, and the Scottish brig ELBE. Both vessels surrendered without firing a shot.
FAME was back in port by July 9th, just eight days after setting out, and her prizes arrived a few days later. CONCORD, with her cargo of masts, spars, staves, and lumber, and ELBE with tar, staves and spars, were condemned as legitimate prizes and sold at auction. The net proceeds were $4,690.67 - nearly ten times what FAME had cost!
FAME would make eleven more cruises before being wrecked in the Bay of Fundy in 1814. But her maiden cruise was the only time she set sail with her owners as crew. As the war wound on, shares in FAME were bought and sold, and she sailed under eight different captains, with crewmen from Salem, Marblehead, and Downeast Maine.
It cannot honestly be said that the United States won the War of 1812. But there is no doubt that the activities of its privateers helped obtain an honorable peace. And while many of the most successful privateers were corporate projects, backed by some of the nation's wealthiest families, it would be a shame to overlook middle-class mariners such as Salem's Band of Brothers, for whom patriotism and necessity went hand in hand.
This FAME is a full-scale replica of the original, built in Essex, MA by H. A. Burnham, an eighth-generation shipwright. She is of 30 tons burden, framed and planked with white oak, trunnel-fastened in the traditional manner. Her spars are spruce from Hog Island.
FAME sails every day -- weather permitting -- from Memorial Day through the end of September, and then on weekends and the Columbus Day holiday in October. FAME is also available for private charters, group outings, parties, and special events. www.schoonerfame.com
This document maintained by