What’s a privateer?

Although we generally focus on conflict on land, the American Revolution also occurred at sea. The British had a powerful Navy. The colonists – not so much. To help supplement their forces, they employed privateers.

A privateer is a privately owned ship, given permission by their government to attack an enemy ship during wartime. The government goal was to disrupt supply routes by capturing incoming supplies. For ship owners, there was the chance to make a profit. They got a portion of profits from the sale of anything they captured.

These sites offer good general definitions:

Continental Congress authorized the use of privateers in April 1776.

United States Continental Congress, and Continental Congress Broadside Collection. In Congress, April 3,: Resolved, that every person intending to set forth and fit out a private ship or vessel of war, and applying for a commission or letters of marque and reprisal for that purpose, shall produce a writing, subscribed by him, containing the name, and tonnage or burthen of the ship or vessel, the number of her guns, with their weight of metal. [Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap, 1776] Online Text. https://www.loc.gov/item/90898009/.

According to John Frayler’s article, “Privateers in the American Revolution,” National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/articles/privateers-in-the-american-revolution.htm: accessed 22 January 2022), there were two types of authorizations issued:

  • Letters of Marque allowed a merchant vessel to try to capture an enemy ship if it happened to cross the path of that merchant vessel.
  • A privateer commission allowed a ship to focus entirely on capturing enemy vessels.

There is some debate over the number of vessels who received authorization. In his American Maritime Documents 1776-1860, published as “Letter of Marque / Privateer Commission,” Mystic Seaport Museum (https://research.mysticseaport.org/item/l006405/l006405-c023/: accessed 22 January 2022), Douglas L. Stein argued that nearly 800 privateer commissions were issued. He makes no mention of letters of marque. No matter the number, the privateer campaigns were apparently successful – the British authorized their own privateers beginning in March 1777. Any remaining American authorizations were revoked in March 1783.

Why do you care about privateers? Privateering would be considered qualifying service for the Daughters of the American Revolution or the Sons of the American Revolution. While privateers had a potential to make a profit, they were also putting their assets on the line in support of the American cause.

Want to learn more about privateers?

Patton, Robert H. Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution. New York: Pantheon Books, 2008.

Published by Bryna O'Sullivan

Proprietor of Charter Oak Genealogy, Bryna O'Sullivan specializes in assisting clients with lineage society applications and with French to English genealogical translations.

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