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Published On: Tue, Sep 11th, 2012

Brig Independence: Saga of the Ship on the Seal

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Although the image of the Brig Independence graces Kingston’s town seal, the history of the ship and the saga of Simeon Samson, her Captain, remains a bit of a mystery to many in Kingston.

Simeon was born in Kingston in August of 1736. His father was Peleg Samson, one of the principal owners of an iron works at Middlebrow, which had been suppressed by the Crown. Simeon was about as ‘blue blood’ as they came and was a direct descendent of Captain Miles Standish and John Alden (two of the original Pilgrims who had come over on the May Flower.

As a young man, Simeon was in love with the ocean and opted for a sea-faring life. In his early years he was employed as a seaman by many Plymouth merchants. On a voyage in 1760, the French captured young Samson and the ship on which he was serving. After some dickering, the French captain agreed to a ransom plan and allowed the ship to continue on its journey. The deal was that the owners of the ship would pay the French skipper a sum of money and to seal the bargain, the 24-year-old Samson was held as a hostage. After a period of time Simeon dressed himself as a female and managed escaped and make his way back to Plymouth.

Note: Ever wonder what the the Independence might have looked like when she was under sail? Fair Jeanne is the French Canadian brig pictured at the lower left. It likely she appeared much the same.

Samson was a resourceful and skilled sailor and gained a reputation as the kind of man you wanted at your side if trouble broke out. And in the spring of 1776 there was plenty of trouble brewing.

The scent of war was in the air and months before the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia, the leaders of the Massachusetts Colony had already commissioned the building of five armed vessels for use in the coming struggle against the British Crown. One vessel, a Brigantine to be called the Independence, was to be built in Kingston.

The names of the others ships built under the authority of the Commonwealth were equally patriotic and optimistic — Rising Empire, Tyrannicide (Death to Tyrants), Republic, and Freedom.

The Independence, and her sister ships were commissioned as commerce raiders. Their orders were to sink or preferably capture as many enemy British merchant ships as possible while avoiding engagements with enemy war ships. The order to avoid battle was simple prudence on the part of colonial authorities – the ships being built for the Massachusetts navy were small and lightly armed by the standards of the day and were no match for British ships of the line.

The total cost of construction and outfitting the Independence was around £841 – a hefty sum of money back in 1776.

On the 17th day of April, several months before the Brig was to sail, Simeon Sampson was appointed to take charge. In his letter of appointment his new command was described as an, “armed Brigantine called the Independence, of the burden of 120 tons or thereabout, mounting fourteen carriages and twelve swivel guns and navigated by one hundred men.”

Samson was ordered to, “by forced arms… attack, seize and take the ship or other vessels belonging to the inhabitants of Great Britain.”

Orders arrived on July 26th and Captain Samson set sail to patrol an area between Nantucket and Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia. The record of the next four months is fragmented at best and conflicted at worst. Some documents say the ship accomplished little, while other unofficial records suggest Samson and his crew captured as many as five enemy ships.

On the northern leg of her patrol zone, seven leagues south of Sable Cape, the Independence fought her last battle for the American cause. Details of the engagement are sketchy but we can reconstruct what likely happened from the historical record. Note: A league is a unit of length which was common usage in Europe and Latin America back in the 1700′s, but it is no longer in use today. The league originally referred to the distance a person or a horse could walk in an hour. At sea, a league was usually about three nautical miles (about 5.6 km).

Sometime in the morning of November 25, 1776, the lookout aboard the Independence spotted a cloud of sails rising on the distant horizon and shouted, “Sail Ho!” Captain Samson ordered his crew to battle stations and the Brig changed course to intercept its quarry. The hunt was on!

As the two ships closed Samson discovered his target was not a fat merchant ship but a fully armed British warship charging directly at them.

The hunter had become the prey!

Mindful of his orders not to engage the enemy’s navy, Samson ordered his ship to break contact and make a run for it.

Either the British Brig was faster or the winds were not in Samson’s favor, because within a short period of time the Independence was under fire. The HMS Hope, under the command of Captain George Dawson maneuvered to deliver lethal broadsides while the Independence tacked and circled to in an effort to evade the Hope’s cannon.

The two ships had been pounding each other with cannon fire for over an hour when a second British warship arrived. It was the HMS Nancy carrying 16 guns and a crew of 60. Samson and his men were now out numbered and out gunned by better than two to one.

The Nancy closed with the Independence on her port side and began to rake Samson’s ship with deadly cannon fire. Meanwhile the Hope continued to deliver broadsides on Samson’s starboard.

Despite the odds, Captain Samson continued to engage the enemy. Usually a warship of the period would carry only enough men to fight one side of the ship at a time. When it became necessary to fight both sides at once, as was the case with the Independence, the crew would split up into a firing party and a reloading party. While the firing party was training and firing guns on one side of the ship, the other party would be reloading the weapons on the opposite side.

The Independence’s gun deck was becoming a hell on earth. The gunpowder used in a fighting ship’s cannons produced vast amounts of thick smoke that quickly blanketed everything in sight. Amid the fog of war was the thunderous roar of incoming and out going cannon rounds that all but drowned out the screams of wounded and dying men. As if the carnage and chaos were not enough there was the incredibly difficult work of manning the cannons themselves.

Even in the best of times, crewing a gun was not easy work. To prepare a cannon for firing, a charge of gunpowder in a cloth bag needed to be pushed down the barrel by a ram-rod. The charge was followed by whatever shot was being used (round iron cannon balls were employed to smash a ship’s hull, grape shot was used to kill or maim enemy personnel).

Next, the gunner would break open the bag of gun powder by pushing a spike down the “touch-hole” near the top rear end of the barrel. Then a pinch or two of fine powder was poured down the hole. The gun was now primed and ready to fire. Finally, the crew would run the snout of the gun out through the gun ports by hauling on ropes attached to the gun’s carriage. Gun and carriage weighed 2,000 to 3,000 lbs.

The weapon fired when the gunner ignited the powder in the touch hole with a “slow match”.

When a ship’s gun discharged, it recoiled backwards from the gun port, and was stopped by heavy “Breeching Ropes.” The ropes held the gun and carriage in place. If they snapped, the gun would careen across the deck like a runaway freight train.

As the guns heated up, the force of the recoil intensified. Sometimes it became so strong, two thousand pounds of gun and carriage would leap off the deck and crush its crew.

A well-trained ship’s team could load and fire about once every five minutes. In battle, fire rates slackened as fatigue and causalities took their toll on crews.

For three long hours the uneven battle raged. For a time, it even appeared Samson might prevail. However, at a critical moment in the fight, one or more of his gun crews broke under the weight of the British assault and abandoned their stations. They had had enough.

Samson drew his sword and tried his best to restore order. Papers of the day report that he, “was driven to the necessity of running through the body two or three of his men… one of these was his third lieutenant…”

By 4 o’clock in the afternoon it was over. With his crew near revolt and his rigging and sails in a shattered condition, Samson had no choice but to strike the colors and surrender.

Even the enemy applauded the remarkable gallantry and skill exhibited by the Independence during the battle. When Captain Simeon presented his sword to the Hope’s Captain as a sign of surrender, Captain George Dawson refused and instructed Samson to keep it with his complements. The sword still survives today and is currently on display at the Pilgrim Museum in Plymouth.

The gallantry and courtesy afforded to Capt. Simeon Samson at the time of his surrender on November 25, 1776 was quickly replaced by the reality of being a British prisoner of war. The fate awaiting captured Americans at the hands of the King’s forces was anything but pleasant. For the next eight weeks Samson and his crew were transferred from one British warship to another before arriving in Halifax Harbor on January 20, 1777.

For the next eight weeks Samson and his crew were transferred from one British warship to another before arriving in Halifax Harbor on January 20, 1777. In Halifax they were imprisoned aboard the Guard Ship Boulongua.

British prisons on land were notorious for deplorable conditions but were no comparison with the miserable life in store for captured Americans aboard a British prison ship. Records are murky, but the best estimate is as many as 13,000 Patriot prisoners died aboard the floating death camps — triple the 4,400 Americans who died in all the battles of the entire revolution.

It was the dead of winter when Samson and his crew were put aboard the “Boulongua” with little more than the clothing on their backs. In fact, Samson reports that he and his crew had been robbed of most of their clothing during transport to Halifax harbor.

Samson wrote that the prison-ship was, “cold, open and Leaky… [and] short of Provisions and Necessity of Life.” The “Boulongua” had been stripped of most of its fittings and was wide open to the winter elements. Anyone who has experienced a New England winter can well imagine what conditions must have been like for the prisoners. Winter gales blew through every crack of unheated ship. The chill factor reached better than forty below and the days were as cold as the nights. The men had few if any blankets and their only source of heat were their own bodies. In the dark freezing cold, Samson and 100 fellow prisoners huddle together just to stay alive.

During the bitter winter at least one of his men froze to death and forty others were sent to hospital with severe frostbite. One man was so badly frozen that it is likely that he lost both legs. Food was scarce or nonexistent. When it did arrive it was more often than not cold and infested with maggots and vermin. Samson and his men resorted to eating drowned rats to augment their meager rations.

The reports of the poor treatment of colonial POWs eventually came to the attention of Gen. George Washington. On January 13, 1777 an indignant Washington wrote a letter to his counter-part in the war, chief of the British forces, Gen. Lord William Howe.

“You may call us rebels, and say that we deserve no better treatment,” Washington wrote. “But, remember, my Lord, that supposing us rebels, we still have feelings as keen and sensible as loyalists, and will, if forced to it, most assuredly retaliate upon those upon whom we look as the unjust invaders of our rights, liberties and properties.”

Spring brought warmer weather and a bit of luck. Sampson and a group of his comrades were exchanged for a like number of British POWs.

After a brief convalesce, Samson was again ready for action. He was appointed commander of the Massachusetts Brig “Hazard”. In this vessel he captured several prizes, including the ship “Live Oak”. In 1779 he was moved up the ranks and assigned to the command of the warship “Mercury”, built at Plymouth, by Mr. John Peck. The “Mercury” had been commissioned by Congress to carry dispatches to American ministers in France and was Sampson’s first command of a United States vessel.

Communication with American diplomats in France was critical to the American war effort. The war for Independence was going badly for rebel forces and American units were outnumbered and outgunned by the British Empire. America desperately needed the intervention of another European power to turn the tide of battle.

Within a year he was promoted to the command of the Mars, one of the largest and best-armed ships in the Massachusetts navy. Samson was again assigned the important task of carrying dispatches and emissaries to Europe.

The orders issued to Captain Samson in 1780 by the Provincial Congress when he assumed the command of Mars, directed Samson to, “proceed to Nantz, in the kingdom of France, and on your passage you are to take, sink, burn, or destroy such of the enemies vessels that might-fall in your way… You have herewith a packet directed to those gentlemen, which you are to forward or to carry yourself, as circumstances may make necessary, with the utmost dispatch. In case you are so unfortunate as to be taken, you are directed to sink said packet that it may not fall into the hands of the enemy.”

By any definition, Samson was a true patriot and a faithful servant of America’s struggle to achieve independence. He retired from command of the Mars on March 12, 1781. As far as the record indicates, this was the close of his naval career. His commitment to the cause was further demonstrated a year later when in 1782 he named his newborn son ‘George Washington Samson.’ George was one of five children and the only boy born to the Samson family.

At the beginning of the war Samson had been a wealthy man. By war’s end most of his fortune was gone — it had been expended for the patriot cause. It is most likely he purchased much of the ship’s supplies and provisions with money from his own pocket. Especially when the cash strapped revolutionary government was unable to provide.

In 1788 Samson sold his mansion-house on Middle Street in Plymouth and purchases a farm in the neighboring town of Plympton. Within a year of moving to Plympton, Simon Samson dies of apoplexy (heart attack) on June 22, 1789 at the age 53. A few years later his remains were removed to the Burying-Hill in Plymouth, where an appropriate monument was erected to mark his grave.

At the time of Captain Sampson’s death his family discovered he still had all or most of the continental money he had been paid by the government during the war — it was a fortune and amounted to $22,059 ($549,000.00 in today’s dollars). Upon the envelope containing the money Captain Samson had handwritten the following instructions:

“This paper money is to be kept sacred to the latest posterity, and remembrance of the good it has done towards freeing a brave people from a tyrant king and a ruined nation.”

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