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Rare Archive of Correspondence of Revolutionary War Officers, Merchants and Privateers, addressed to Col. Francis Gurney, Merchant of Philadelphia 1775-1789, discussing Business, Smuggling and Privateering

16 items, including correspondence and manuscript documents, most dating from 1775-1783.

      Manuscript archive consisting of correspondence and documents written by Continental Army officers, privateers and merchants during the Revolutionary War, all addressed to Francis Gurney of Philadelphia. The principle correspondents in this collection were well to do merchants before the war who carried on a variety of business ventures, including privateering. The correspondence centers upon Gurney with whom several of the main correspondents had dealings before and during the war. The contents of this archive are both highly interesting and by their very nature extremely scarce and should be of considerable interest to scholars studying the role of Revolutionary War Privateers in winning American Independence which is gaining the increased interest and attention of scholars and historians.

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Upon the commencement of hostilities with England in 1775, most of the colonies, notably Massachusetts and Rhode Island, issued letters of marque and reprisal; and the Continental Congress three months before the Declaration of Independence sanctioned privateering "against the enemies of the United Colonies." The 1151 privateers of the Revolution captured about 600 British vessels, of which 16 were men-of war, the privateers carried the brunt of sea operations. By 1781 there were in commission only three public cruisers, but 449 private-armed cruisers mounting 6735 guns were in service. Although the operations of the privateers had been not only highly profitable financially and an invaluable aid to the navy, the Government after the war soon joined the sentimental movement in Europe for the abolition of privateering, but abandoned it in 1798 in the face of the armed depredations of French vessels.             

The main correspondents in this collection are:

Colonel Francis Gurney was a noted Philadelphia merchant, Gurney served as Lieutenant Colonel of the 11th Pennsylvania as of August 21, 1776, and was wounded at the Battle of Iron Hill on September 3, 1777, he resigned from the Army on October 22, 1777.  His wounds did not interfere with his business affairs or his privateering ventures.

Captain John Steele, was captain of the "Independent Pa. Company" as of January 13, 1777. On December 16, 1778, probably through Gurney's influence with his former regiment, Steele was transferred to the 11th Pennsylvania, remaining with the unit until his resignation on January 17, 1781.

George North (of Massachusetts), Lieutenant Colonel and Deputy Commissary General of Musters, from April 11, 1777, to April 1, 1779, North had a position of considerable importance to the Continental Army.

Robert Patton, was a second lieutenant in the 11th Pennsylvania as of September 30, 1776, and promoted 1st Lieutenant on November 13, 1776. He later transferred to the 10th Pennsylvania, then the 6th Pennsylvania. He served in the ranks to the end of the war eventually attaining the rank of Captain

Chronological description of the archive:

  • 1. Steele, John, Autograph Letter Signed, St. Kitts, May 26, 1775 to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Folio, 1 page, old folds, tissue repairs, few short tears and nicks to edges, paper a trifle browned, else very good.

"I miss no opportunity of writing you as it is all the satisfaction I at present can give you - I wrote you a few days ago from Dominica by a Schooner bound to Norfolk in Virginia as I did not expect to call any where else - I have shipp'd 23 Hhds Rum on Board the Schooner Bonny Jane Stephen Newman master Bound for Cape Fear or Wilmington N. Carolina I go passenger w him ... We should on our Passage this Evening as soon as I arrive in Carolina (provided you have sent me no directions) I shall Bring our Business there to a final settlement on the best footing I can & come to Phil as quick as possible - I am very unhealthy & am in no hopes of getting soon well, without this passage... but depend upon it I shall exert myself to the utmost to make things turn out to advantage - w my respectful complts to Mrs Gurney of service to all friends ...

P.S. If you shoud not hear of me or the Vessel in 6 or 7 weeks You will consider your property tho it may be longer  before I may have it in my Power to write you."

Steele, though currently Captain of a vessel, is going as a passenger in another vessel, indicating that the vessel he currently had was being placed in a Prize Court in St. Kitts, which is reinforced in the postscript wherein he refers to the disposition of the vessel.

  • 2. Steele, John, Autograph Letter Signed, Wilmington [N.C.] August 16, 1775, to Francis Gurney

Folio, 1 page, of a four page bi-folium, foredge a bit ruffled, else very good.

"Dear Sir,

I am a good deal disappointed in my Expectations of hearing from you, as Mulford, Buck & Jones is all arriv'd here & not a word from you (& Proby likewise) by whom I made no doubt but I had letters -

I wrote you sometime ago of the Sloops arrival and my Intentions w respect to her, which I then Expected would have been partly executed by this time, but agreeable to my former Luck in New River, she lay betwixt three & four weeks there w a Freight on board wind - Bound. She is at present here & just going to Bogue to take in a load for Cape Nichola Mole, & Shall be Addressed to Dupuy w orders to sell her. I promis'd myself the Happiness of seeing you & Mrs Gurney in Phila sometime soon but I find it inconsistent w our interest for me to leave this Country till I have our matters on a Better footing - You undoubtedly expected considerable remittances by this time & I am sorry it has not been in my Power to make them according to my intention for reasons I before assignd to you - had I thot you would be in real necessity I woud have remitted under every disadvantage, but I am sensible this is not the case, therefore will beg your patience till I can brings things to bear in a proper manner which will certainly be much more to your advantage than to tear every thing asunder, to make an Immediate remittance under the present circumstances - Believe me Sir, my only view is to make the best of every thing for your interest as I look upon nothing to be mine till you are satisfied with my best compliments to Mrs. Gurney... I shall write you by the Post when the sloop sails - Negros sells very high here just now."

Steele notes a prize to be sold and after discussion of further disbursements, in his postscript reveals that slaves were undoubtedly part of the merchandise in which Steele and Gurney dealt.

  • 3. Patton, Robert, Autograph Letter Signed, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, August 27, 1775 to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Folio, one page, half of integral address leaf missing, edges ruffled and chipped affecting a few words of text, some light moisture stains, else good.

Patton apparently still a civilian writes to Gurney concerning the transport and sale of materials to the Continental Army:

"Dear Sir,

By Godleap Houghers wagon you will receive £ 100 and 22 Keggs of Butter the invoice of which is enclosed. You will please to make the best market of it you can The last Kegg weighing 85 is ordinary orney you must sell that to the Soap Chandlers or swap it to A box the other you will find good pray don't take it hard my not sending you money before this I assure you I made most of last week expected £ 300 and did not receive but 3 shillings you may depend on more as soon as in my Power the articles ordered you will please to send the Rum have entred for Michal Montgomery but enclose the Parmitt in your letter as this waggnor is a worthless Fellow, ...

1 Hhd West India Rum

1 Hhd Continant

100 Gall oil Lamp

100 Pepper

1 Barrel Coffee

1 Box Good Soap

1 Can of Ginovia

The hogshead of "Continant" refers to an inferior sort of gin presumably manufactured in Britain or on the continent. Gin became extremely popular by the 1740's exceptionally popular among the poor due to its extreme cheapness and potency. Though many of the officers in the Continental Army disapproved of Gin, Patton and Gurney knew that the common soldiers would stand in line for it, hence justifying its smuggling and the necessity of caution in the matter of the "Parmitt" (i.e the permit for selling rum to the Army) not being sent with the "worthless" wagoner" but enclosed in the letter.

  • 4. Patton, Robert, Autograph Letter Signed, Lebanon, September 25, 1775 to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Folio, one page, some chipping to edges, old folds, else good.

Patton writes to Gurney concerning the sale of various essentials to the Continental Army including 160 pair of "Buck Skin Britches." While the average soldier would not have had much use for such apparel they would have been of great value to cavalry:

"As I Entend send the Buck Skin Britches in two weeks to the Camp by John McCowan hopes you will wright to Mr. Mifflin I Imagine the will be about 160 pair or perhaps more plase to send it to Mr. Dundas for fear of being Disapointed at the Camp I shall give Mr. McCowan o[rders] to sell as he Gows along and should it sute Mr. Mifflin to take what he may have the will be no necessity of paying the money there but Giving an order on Philada. Will sute better you will plase to write to Mr. Mifflin as you see cause, I am sorry it was not in my power to send you money at Present but I assure you I cane neigther sell Goods nor Gett in Debt but hopes money will soon come in you will send the letter to Mr. Dundas as soon as Possible ..." [sic]

  • 5. Patton, Robert, Autograph Letter Signed, Lebanon, January 2, 1776 to Francis Gurney

Quarto, one page, trimmed folio sheet, portions of address leaf missing, obscuring addressee, but it notes that the addressee was "near the drawbridge" we can assume it was Gurney as his premises were located there.

This letter enclosed a bill of goods, no longer present, of three wagon loads of goods to be sold, presumably, to the army.

"Dear Sir,

Enclosed is a bill of the Goods I at present want last week I sent for a load of these articles by Godleap Houghers Waggon such goods as he tooke you will marke off and by this opertunity I have three wagons down which will take them all by Capt. Housagger I sent you a bill thinking it would not hurry you so much I sent for some allspice if you have not bought you need not as I got a bag on the Garatt I knew nothing of ..."

  • 6. Patton, Robert, Autograph Letter Signed, Lebanon, January 26, 1779 to Col. Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Folio, one page, portion of integral address leaf missing, else very good.

In this letter from Patton, favored by "Col. Curtis Grubb," then a Colonel of the Pennsylvania militia, Patton hints of smuggling a quantity of gin amongst a load of legitimate goods into camp, by hiding it in a load of butter, gin as mentioned above was considered unhealthy for soldiers, being often adulterated with turpentine and other substances:

"Dr. Sir,

... Am sorry Galaghers paper could not be Gott as I want that article much. John McGrath is gowing down this week he told me he had 100  butter for you I told him to lay out the Ginne in that article likewise by Col. Grubbs team I shall wright to Mr. John Davison for fifty sadles and fifty bridles I bot when down you will tell John to have them Ready enclosed you have the amount of the Watch sent Robert Luke Betsey sends her love to Mrs. Gurney plase to prevent my complements..."

  • 7. Thomson, Andrew, "Memorandum of Property Beloning to Francis Gurney & John Steele at the town Cald New Town Bogue, North Carolina," July 5th, 1779

Quarto, one page, in very good, clean condition. Docketed on verso "Capt Thomson List of Mr Steele's Property in N. Carolina."

At this point Gurney and Steele were working together both in supplying materials to the Continental Army as well as their apparently successful partnership in privateering. This memorandum gives an inventory of materials required for shipbuilding and maintenance, including large amounts of timber a finished keel of sixty feet in all, and 500 pounds of wrought iron:

"... about two hundred pieces of cedar timber, fifty or sixty pine Loggs & some timber upon Jones's Island purchased from Emanuel Jones a keel of sixty feet in hands of Robert Pie Carpenter five hundred weight of work't iron in ye hands of Doctor Isaac Guion & Thomson. Balance of Cargo of Salt in ye hands of Isaac Guion purchased by Andrew Thomson from Captn John Dickinson not settled John Steele's Attorney at Law is Col. Henry Rhodes New River applyd to William Gibbe or Archibald Gillespie Merchants at this saide Town of Bogue..."

  • 8. Patton, Robert, Manuscript Sight Draft, Lebanon, February 28, 1780

Single sheet, measuring 4 ¼ x 8 ¼ inches, old folds, in good, legible condition. Docketed on  verso: "Received March 4th, 1780 the within sum of Nine Hundred & thirty seven pounds ten shillings from Col. Francis Gurney in pursuance of the within Order. G. North £ 937.10"

"On sight please to Pay Col. George North an Order on Sight Nine Hundred thirty seven Pounds ten shillings and Charge the same to Acct. of your Humble Servt. Robt. Patton, Lebanon Feby. 28th, 1780, to Col. Francis Gurney"

  • 9. Houston, James, Autograph Letter Signed, October 2, 1779, to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Quarto, one page, old folds in good clean condition.

Concerns a load of feathers which accompanied this letter, Houston hopes that they come safely to hand and notes that they cost "four dollars per pound so dear that would not send you a greater quantity..."

  • 10. Taylor, George, Autograph Letter Signed, Cape May, March 24, 1780, to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Folio, one page, small hole due to careless opening, affecting a few words of text, else very good.

Letter discussing the distribution of very large sums of money apparently the fruits of a privateering venture.

"I received your letter dated the 11 of this instant march which informed me that you received a bundle of money marked 4933 ⅓ of Nathaniel Holms and I paid to John Holms 5453 ⅓ and took his receipt for the same and saw him mark the number on a paper witch he did the same up in so there is a mistake of 520 dollars and it was all large money and easey to be counted and likewise a receit of paying of Joseph Ball Eight thousand six hundred dollars more the whole dollars amountain to 5270 pounds and that order you rought to me conserning Allester and Ginn is 980 pounds makes me six thousand too hundred and fifty pounds which is the sixteenth of a hundred thousand pounds and what ever protence they have against the order I cannot tell they had 35 bushels of salt of me at 28 pounds a bushel which comes to 980 pounds which I am abel to prove by sufficient evidence anuf and constant Hughes engaged to fetch me that sum of money or a sufficient ... from you for that sum of money and called evidence on the same as to these Protences I do not understand them however I have sent anorder by John Holms to Philadelphia to receive sum money for me and if that he gits the money to pay you that order of if that you will set upon me the same order and I shall be at Philadelphia in a short time and settle the same..."

  • 11. Beach, John, Autograph Letter Signed, Gloucester, Cape Ann, July 10, 1783 to Francis Gurney, Philadelphia

Quarto, two pages, very good, clean and legible condition.

John Beach addresses Francis Gurney on his fortunes at sea and the amount and nature of prizes he has taken. At length he discusses his new ship the Two Friends, a known privateer.

"Dear Friend,

I hope this will find you and Mrs. Gurney injoying a good state of health for my part I cant say but what I have had a good share of helth and as Good a share of misfortune as aney Lad you would whish to heare from; since I left you at Philadelphia I have been sailing out of Cape Ann and at the first of it for som time I was wherey luckey and mad several good voyages to Bilbao & Cadiz and Naver whent a Voyage but what I took one or two prises but within this fourteen months past I have lost two fine ships which I owned a Quarter of each which as been a greate loss to me at the conclution of the warr - I have got marred and have one son - I am now jest ready to saile for the Cape in a Large Brig that formeley Belonged to Philadelphia she was called the two Friends - I own a part of her with my father in Law - at my Retourn I think of coming with my famley to Philada to Live - by the first Pertunity I shall send you a Quantity of good dum eating Fish - and I shall be Gald is Captn Conyngham is in Philadelphia if you will be so good as to ask him for me if he knows what become of his and my trunk of cloaths that whe left at Dunkirk and if ever the trunks was sent from Dunkirk, and if he as eaver got his trunk he left at Dunkirk I shall be Glad if an opportunity offers for Boston you will send my coat and som other things I left at your house plese to give my compliments to Mrs. Gurney & to all Friends..."

  • 12. Manuscript Document detailing the division of spoils from a successful American privateer: Account of Disbursements & Charges made for the Prizes of Schooner Enterprise

Folio, two pages, old folds in very good clean legible condition.

This document concerns the division of proceeds from a successful privateering voyage by the Enterprise. It details the proceeds of three captured English vessels, including the brig Sea Horse, the schooner Hope, and the sloop William are disbursed.

In addition to the monies obtained from the sale of these prizes, the manuscript provides a great deal of information concerning the complex legal process by which a prize was made legitimate. Due to the huge amounts of money at stake, a hearing was held to determine if the ship and cargo did indeed belong to the enemy. Apparently the capture of the Sea Horse was contested, the attorney of the privateers was former Continental Congressman, John Dickenson Sergeant. Sergeant's fess for "Pleading the Cause" and then "Pleading at the Court of Appeal," amounted to 1100 pounds an enormous amount at this time. Another unusual entry was a fee for: "Taking Up Prisoners," it is unclear whether these were combatants or merely commercial seamen.

The section for the schooner Hope shows that its case was brought before Continental Congressman George Reid.  

The archive concludes with two business letters to Francis Gurney dated 1785 and 1789.

Collections of correspondence discussing privateering during the Revolution are extremely scarce and virtually non-existent in the market.