Pirates and Privateers on Long Island Sound
By Dan Shine
This week’s column has been contributed by notable local historian and author Peter Malia:
As the record shows, West Haveners gave as good as they got. Patriotism aside, men needed to feed their families and privateering became an alluring profession for those in search of some excitement, profit and, in some cases, revenge. Denied the ability to pursue their trade as merchants and seamen due to the war, several of West Haveners took to privateering. Some carried letters of marque issued by the state. Others were simply smugglers and thieves.
One of those suspected smugglers was Solomon Phipps. While sailing contraband into New Haven, Phipps’s vessel was fired on by a shore battery. The shot was meant to cross over the bow of Phipps’s vessel. Instead, the ball carried off his jaw.
Thomas Painter was only a bit luckier as a hapless privateer. He was captured by a British warship after boldly commandeering a commercial sloop from Long Island and attempting to sail it back to New Haven as a prize. Instead, Painter was placed aboard a British prison ship in New York’s Wallabout Bay. He was one of only a handful of prisoners to ever escape. A year later he was again captured and imprisoned. His ship’s owners ended up buying his freedom. In his private diary, Painter admitted that privateering “was nothing better than highway robbery,” he wrote.
Another local named Ebenezer Dayton was considered a hero for his privateering exploits until it was discovered that he was playing both sides for his own profit. In retaliation, a New Haven mob marched to Long Wharf and burned Dayton’s boat at its mooring.
Dayton was not the only double-dealer. During the course of the war, some 38 merchant vessels were brought into New Haven and condemned as prizes of war. Profits from the sale of these ships and their contents were split between the privateers and Connecticut itself. Some historians now believe that collusion and blurred loyalties were commonplace, with some suspecting that even Connecticut’s Governor Trumbull nay have benefited financially.
So yes, West Haven did indeed have its fair share of privateers – or pirates, if you happened to support the British side of the story. Even Thomas Painter came to admit that it was a practice more driven by profits than patriotism. Still, the need to provide for one’s family, especially during a long and vicious war, cannot be ignored. West Haveners suffered immense losses during the American Revolution, and it is hard to fathom what it must be like to live in constant fear, often hungry, and not really knowing what would happen to you and your family Then, as now, the importance of family, loyalty, and patriotism began at home. That is the true treasure we all too often overlook in our past and our present.
For more information on West Haven in the American Revolution, you can obtain a copy of Visible Saints: The Colonial History of West Haven from the public library, Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com.