The Case Of Christopher Hawkins

“I was, of course,” he continues, “naked, my head excepted. She was, or appeared to be, excessively frightened, and ran towards a house, screeching and screaming at every step.” - A boy named Waterman

Christopher Hawkins was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1764. When he was in his thirteenth year he sailed on board an American privateer as a cabin boy. The privateer was a schooner, called the Eagle, commanded by Captain Potter. Taken prisoner by the British, Hawkins was sent on board the Asia, an old transport ship, but was soon taken off this vessel, then used for the confinement of American prisoners, and sent on board a frigate, the Maidstone, to serve as a waiter to the British officers on board. He remained on board the Maidstone a year. At the end of that time he was allowed a good deal of liberty. He and another boy were sent on shore to New York with a message, managed to elude the sentinels, and escaped first to Long Island, and afterwards returned home to Providence.

About 1781 he again went on board a privateer under Captain Whipple, was again captured, and this time he was sent to the Jersey. He describes the condition of the prisoners on their way in a transport to this fearful prison ship. They were so crowded together that they could scarcely move, yet they all joined in singing a patriotic song every stanza of which ended with the words:

“For America and all her sons forever will shine!”

They were on board this transport three or four days unable to sit or lie down for want of room. When at last they reached the Jersey they found 800 prisoners on board. Many of these poor wretches would become sick in the night and die before day. Hawkins was obliged to lie down to rest only twenty feet from the gangway, and in the path of the prisoners who would run over him to get on the upper deck. He describes the condition of these men as appalling.

“Near us,” he writes, “was a guard ship and hospital ship, and along the shore a line of sentinels at regular intervals.”

Yet he determined to escape. Many did so; and many were murdered in the attempt. A mess of six had just met a dreadful fate. One of them became terrified and exclaimed as soon as he touched the water, “O Lord, I shall be drowned!” The guard turned out, and murdered five of the poor wretches. The sixth managed to hide, and held on by the flukes of the anchor with nothing but his nose above water. Early in the morning he climbed up the anchor over the bow of the ship to the forecastle, and fled below. A boy named Waterman and Hawkins determined to drop through a port-hole, and endeavor to reach Long Island by swimming. He thus describes the adventure:

“The thunder-storm was opportune to our design, for having previously obtained from the cook’s room an old axe and crow-bar from the upper deck for the purpose, we concealed them till an opportunity should offer for their use. We took advantage of the peals of thunder in a storm that came over us in the afternoon to break one of the gun ports on the lower deck, which was strongly barred with iron and bolts. * * * When a peal of thunder roared we worked with all our might with the axe and crow-bar against the bars and bolts. When the peals subsided we ceased, without our blows being heard by the British, until another peal commenced. We then went to work again, and so on, until our work was completed to our liking. The bars and bolts, after we had knocked them loose, were replaced so as not to draw the attention of our British gentry if they should happen to visit the lower deck before our departure. We also hung some old apparel over and around the shattered gunport to conceal any marks.

“Being thus and otherwise prepared for our escape, the ship was visited by our Captain Whipple the next day after we had broken the gun-port. To him we communicated our intention and contemplated means of escape. He strongly remonstrated against the design. We told him we should start the ensuing evening. Captain Whipple answered:

“‘How do you think of escaping?’

“I answered, ‘By swimming to that point,’ at the same time pointing to a place then in our view on Long Island, in a northeasterly direction from the prison ship. We must do this to avoid the sentinels who were stationed in the neighborhood of the ship.

“‘What!’ said Captain Whipple, ‘Do you think of swimming to that point?’

“‘Yes, we must, to avoid the sentinels,’ I answered.

“‘Well,’ said Captain Whipple, ‘Give it up, It is only throwing your lives away, for there is not a man on earth who can swim from this ship to that point as cold as the water is now. Why, how far do you think it is?’

“‘Why,’ I answered, ‘Waterman and myself have estimated the distance at a mile and a half.’

“‘Yes,’ said he, ‘It’s all of two and a half miles. You cannot measure across as well as I can. So you had better give it up, for I have encouragement of getting home next week, and if I do, I will make it my whole business to get you all exchanged immediately.’

“Altho’ Waterman was several years my senior in age, the conversation was carried on between Captain Whipple and myself for the reason that Captain W. was more acquainted with me than with Waterman, but Waterman was present.” (Captain Whipple was captured five times during the Revolution, each time on his own vessel.)

“His advice had great weight on our minds, but did not shake our purpose. We had not been on board the Old Jersey more than one hour before we began to plot our escape. We had been only three days on board when we left it forever. We had been on board long enough to discover the awful scenes which took place daily in this ‘floating hell.’

“Our preparations for leaving were completed by procuring a piece of rope from an old cable that was stretched under the fo’castle of the ship, * * * and wound around the cable to preserve it. We had each of us packed our wearing apparel in a knapsack for each, made on board the Old Jersey. I gave some of my apparel to the two Smiths. I stowed in my knapsack a thick woolen sailor jacket, well lined, a pair of thick pantaloons, one vest, a pair of heavy silver shoe buckles, two silk handkerchiefs, four silver dollars, not forgetting a junk bottle of rum, which we had purchased on board at a dear rate. Waterman had stowed his apparel and other articles in his knapsack. Mine was very heavy. It was fastened to my back with two very strong garters, passing over my shoulders, and under each arm, and fastened with a string to my breast, bringing my right and left garter in contact near the centre.

“Thus equipt we were ready to commit ourselves to the watery element, and to our graves, as many of our hardy fellow prisoners predicted. The evening was as good an one as we could desire at that season of the year, the weather was mild and hazy, and the night extremely dark.

“It was arranged between Waterman and myself that after leaving the ship we should be governed in our course by the lights on board the ships and the responses of the sentinels on shore, and after arriving on shore to repair near a dwelling house which we could see from the Old Jersey in the day time, and spend the balance of the night in a barn, but a few rods from the dwelling.

“Waterman was the first to leave the ship through the broken-open gun-port, and suspended to the rope by his hands, and at the end behind him (it was held) by several of our fellow prisoners whom we were leaving behind us, and with whom we affectionately parted with reciprocal good wishes. He succeeded in gaining the water and in leaving the ship without discovery from the British. It had been agreed, if detection was about to take place, that he should be received again into the ship. I had agreed to follow him in one minute in the same manner. I left and followed in half that time, and succeeded in leaving the ship without giving the least alarm to those who had held us in captivity.

“I kept along close to the side of the ship until I gained the stern, and then left the ship. This was all done very slowly, sinking my body as deep in the water as possible, without stopping my course, until I was at such a distance from her that my motions in the water would not create attention from those on board. After gaining a suitable distance from the ship, I hailed Waterman three times. He did not answer me. * * * I have never seen him since he left the Old Jersey to this day. His fate and success I have since learned from James Waterman, one of his brothers.

“In the meantime I kept on my course without thinking that any accident would befall him, as I knew him to be an excellent swimmer, and no fainthearted or timid fellow.

“I could take my course very well from the light reflected from the stern lanthorns of the prison, guards, and hospital ships, and also from the responses of the sentinels on shore; in the words, ‘All’s well.’ These responses were repeated every half hour on board the guard ship, and by the sentinels. * * * These repetitions served me to keep the time I was employed in reaching the shore;–no object occupied my mind during this time so much as my friend Waterman, if I may except my own success in getting to land in safety.

“I flattered myself I should find him on shore or at the barn we had agreed to occupy after we might gain it. After I had been swimming nearly or quite two hours my knapsack had broken loose from my back, from the wearing off of the garters under my arms, in consequence of the friction in swimming. * * * This occurrence did not please me much. I endeavored to retain my knapsack by putting it under one arm, * * * but soon found that this impeded my progress, and led me from my true course. * * * By this time I had become much chilled, and benumbed from cold, but could swim tolerably well. * * * I hesitated whether or not to retain my knapsack longer in my possession, or part from it forever, I soon determined on the latter, and sent it adrift. In this balancing state of mind and subsequent decision I was cool and self collected as perhaps at any time in my life. * * * I now soon found I was close in with the shore. * * * I swam within twelve feet of the shore before I could touch bottom, and in so doing I found I could not stand, I was so cold * * * but I moved around in shoal water until I found I could stand, then stept on shore. * * * I had not sent my clothes adrift more than twenty-five minutes or so before striking the shore. I was completely naked except for a small hat on my head which I had brought from the Old Jersey. What a situation was this, without covering to hide my naked body, in an enemy’s country, without food or means to obtain any, and among Tories more unrelenting than the devil,–more perils to encounter and nothing to aid me but the interposition of heaven! Yet I had gained an important portion of my enterprise: I had got on land, after swimming in the water two hours and a half, and a distance of perhaps two miles and a half.”

Hawkins at last found the barn and slept in it the rest of the night, but not before falling over a rock in the darkness, and bruising his naked body severely. Next morning a black girl came into the barn, apparently hunting for eggs, but he did not dare reveal himself to her. He remained there all day, and endeavored to milk the cows, but they were afraid of a naked stranger. He left the place in the night and travelled east. In a field he found some overripe water melons, but they were neither wholesome nor palatable. After wandering a long time in the rain he came to another barn, and in it he slept soundly until late the next day. Nearly famished he again wandered on and found in an orchard a few half rotten pears. Near by was a potato patch which he entered hoping to get some of them. Here a young woman, who had been stooping down digging potatoes, started up. “I was, of course,” he continues, “naked, my head excepted. She was, or appeared to be, excessively frightened, and ran towards a house, screeching and screaming at every step.” Hawkins ran in the other direction, and got safely away. At last the poor boy found another barn, and lay, that night, upon a heap of flax. After sunrise next morning he concluded to go on his way. “I could see the farmers at their labor in the fields. I then concluded to still keep on my course, and go to some of these people then in sight. I was, by this time, almost worn out with hunger. I slowly approached two tall young men who were gathering garden sauce. They soon discovered me and appeared astonished at my appearance, and began to draw away from me, but I spoke to them in the following words:–’Don’t be afraid of me: I am a human being!’ They then made a halt and inquired of me, ‘Are you scared?’ ‘No,’ said I. They then advanced slowly towards me, and inquired, ‘How came you here naked?’

“I seated myself on the ground and told them the truth.”

One of the young men told him to conceal himself from the sight of the neighbors, and he would go and consult with his mother what had best be done. He soon returned, bringing two large pieces of bread and butter and a decent pair of pantaloons. He then told him to go to the side of the barn and wait there for his mother, but not to allow himself to be seen. The boys’ mother came out to speak to him with a shirt on her arm. As he incautiously moved around the side of the barn to meet her, she exclaimed, “For God’s sake don’t let that black woman see you!” A slave was washing clothes near the back door of the farm house. The poor woman explained to Hawkins that this negress would betray him, “For she is as big a devil as any of the king’s folks, and she will bring me out, and then we should all be put in the provost and die there, for my husband was put there more than two years ago, and rotted and died there not more than two weeks since.”

The poor woman wept as she told her story, and the escaped prisoner wept with her. This woman and her two sons were Dutch, and their house was only nine miles from Brooklyn ferry. She now directed the boy to a house at Oyster Bay where she said there was a man who would assist him to escape.

After running many risks he found the house at last, but the woman who answered his knock told him that her husband was away and when he explained who he was she became very angry, and said that it was her duty to give him up. So he ran away from her, and at last fell into the hands of a party of British, who recaptured him, and declared that they would send him immediately back to the prison ship. They were quartered in a house near Oyster Bay, and here they locked him in a room, and he was told to lie down on some straw to sleep, as it was now night. In the night the fleas troubled him so much that he was very restless. A sentinel had been placed to guard him, and when this wretch heard him moving in the dark he exclaimed, “Lie still, G–d—you,” and pricked him several times with his bayonet, so that the poor boy felt the fresh blood running down his body. He begged the sentinel to spare his life, declaring that it was hard he should be killed merely because the fleas had made him restless. He now did not dare to move, and was obliged to endure the attacks the fleas and the stiffness of his wounds in perfect silence until the sentinel was relieved. The next sentinel was kind and humane and seemed to compassionate his sufferings. He said that some men were natural brutes, and seemed to take an interest in the boy, but could do little for him. At daylight he was sent to the quarters of a Tory colonel a mile from the guard room. The colonel was a tall man of fine appearance, who examined him, and then said he must be sent back to the Jersey. The poor lad was now left in an unlocked room on the ground floor of the colonel’s house. He was given his breakfast, and a mulatto man was set to guard him. Now there was a pantry opening into this room, and a negro girl, who appeared very friendly with the mulatto, called him to eat his breakfast in this pantry. The mulatto, while eating, would look out every few minutes. Just after one of these inspections the boy got up softly, with his shoes in his hands, stepped across the room, out at the back door, and concealed himself in a patch of standing hemp. From thence he made his way into an orchard, and out into a wood lot. Here he hid himself and remained quiet for several hours, and although he heard several persons talking near him, he was not pursued. At last he stole out, walked about six miles, and at night fall entered a barn and slept there. He was in rather better case than before his recapture, for a doctor belonging to the British service had taken pity on him the night before, and had furnished him with warm clothes, shoes, and a little money.

Next morning a woman who lived in a small house near the road gave him some bread and milk. The time of the year was autumn, it was a day or two before Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. He now very fortunately met an acquaintance named Captain Daniel Havens. He was an uncle of a boy named John Sawyer, with whom young Hawkins had run away from New York some years before. Through the agency of this old friend Hawkins got on board a smuggler in the night and finally reached home in safety.

Christopher Hawkins’s account of the Old Jersey is not so reliable as that of some others who were among her inmates. He was only on board that vessel three days, but in that time he saw enough to decide him to risk death in the attempt to escape rather than remain any longer on board of her. He declares that: “The cruel and unjustifiable treatment of the prisoners by the British soon produced the most demoralizing effects upon them. Boxing was tolerated without stint…. After I left the ship an American vessel came into the port of New York as a cartel for the exchange of prisoners…. A ship’s mate was so fortunate as to be one of the exchanged. He had a large chest on board, and, as privately as he could, he put the cabin boy into the chest, locked him in, and carried him on board the cartel. A prisoner named Spicer had seen the boy put into the chest, and after he had been conveyed on board the cartel, Spicer communicated the affair to the commanding officer on board the Jersey. The cartel was immediately boarded, as she had not yet left the port, and the boy was found and brought back. Spicer paid for his treachery with his life. The prisoners knocked him down the hatchway, when they were going down for the night; they then fell upon him, cut off his ears, and mangled him in a shocking manner, so that he died in a day or two.”

This event occured after he left the ship, according to his own narrative. The same story is told in a different way by an eye witness of undoubted veracity. He says that the prisoners were so incensed against Spicer that they determined to kill him. For this purpose some of them held him, while another was about to cut his throat, when the guards, hearing the uproar, rushed down the hatchway, and rescued him.

Hawkins also says: “I one day observed a prisoner on the forecastle of the ship, with his shirt in his hands, having stripped it from his body, deliberately picking the vermin from the pleats and putting them in his mouth. * * * I stepped very near the man and commenced a conversation with him. He said he had been on board two years and a half, or eighteen months. He had completely lost count of time, was a skeleton and nearly naked. This was only one case from perhaps a hundred similar. This man appeared in tolerable health as to body, his emaciation excepted. * * * The discipline of the prisoners by the British was in many respects of the most shocking and appalling character. The roll of the prisoners, as I was informed, was called every three months, unless a large acquisiton of prisoners should render it necessary more often. The next day after our crew were put on board the roll was called, and the police regulations of the ship were read. I heard this. One of the new regulations was to the effect that every captive trying to get away should suffer instant death, and should not even be taken on board alive.”

It appears that David Laird commanded the Old Jersey from 1778 until early in the year 1781. He was then relieved of the command, and this office was given to a man named John Sporne, or Spohn, until the 9th of April, 1783, when all the prisoners remaining in her were released, and she was abandoned. The dread of contagion kept visitors aloof. She was still moored in the mud of the Wallabout by chain cables, and gradually sank lower and lower. There is a beam of her preserved as a curiosity at the Naval Museum at Brooklyn.

David Laird, the Scotchman who commanded her until the early part of 1781, returned to New York after the peace of 1783 as captain of a merchant ship, and moored his vessel at or near Peck’s Slip. A number of persons who had been prisoners on board the Jersey, and had suffered by his cruelty, assembled on the wharf to receive him, but he deemed it prudent to remain on ship-board during the short time his vessel was there.

It is in the recollections of Ebenezer Fox that we have the only mention ever made of a woman on board that dreadful place, the Old Jersey, and although she may have been and probably was an abandoned character, yet she seems to have been merciful, and unwilling to see the prisoners who were attempting to escape, butchered before her eyes. It is indeed to be hoped that no other woman ever set foot in that terrible place to suffer with the prisoners, and yet there are a few women’s names in the list of these wretched creatures given in the appendix to this book. It is most likely, however, that these were men, and that their feminine appellations were nicknames. [Footnote: One is named Nancy and one Bella, etc.]



MLA Source Citation:

Dandridge, Danske American Prisoners of the Revolution, Genealogical Publishing Company, Baltimore, 1911, 1967. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 1 September 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/america/the-case-of-christopher-hawkins.htm - Last updated on Jul 15th, 2011


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