Memorial Day 2018: Remembering a Revolutionary War Hero

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Memorial Day is a time to remember those who have served our country, particularly through military service during times of war. We were privileged to research and write a detailed biography of Captain Timothy Parker, a Revolutionary War Captain of the Connecticut Navy and privateer and remarkable American patriot.

Timothy Parker was an excellent example of the quality and character of the ideal Revolutionary hero. His courtesy and compassion were noted by many, his patriotism was unwavering, and his skill and bravery as a sea captain were unquestioned.

We utilized a wide variety of primary sources from the Connecticut State Library, the Connecticut Historical Society, and the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, including letters to and from Timothy Parker, account ledgers, and newspaper articles. We performed in-depth research of the history of Connecticut in the Revolutionary War, the Connecticut Navy, the art of sailing and the facts of sailing ships in the 18th century, and more, to place Timothy Parker in his proper historical context and bring his story to life.

Timothy Parker, the son of John and Elizabeth Parker, was born on 17 May 1735 in Falmouth, Barnstable, Massachusetts. According to one source, John and Elizabeth Parker moved to Norwich, Connecticut, when Timothy was about ten years old. He married Deborah Lester at Norwich, New London, Connecticut on 23 March 1769. They had five children: Ann, John, Elizabeth, Timothy, and Henry, all born in Norwich, Connecticut between December of 1769 and May of 1780.

Like many men of Connecticut, Timothy Parker turned to the ocean for his livelihood, eventually becoming a merchant mariner, captaining ships which took goods to and from the various colonies, or traveling to the nations of the Caribbean Basin and Europe. According to a brief biography written by the New London County Historical Society in 1890, Parker traveled to and from the West Indies until the outbreak of the war in 1776.

The Connecticut Assembly had begun creating its navy in July 1775, resolving to acquire two ships for Connecticut’s naval fleet to protect its 100-mile coastline. On 2 August 1775, Governor Trumbull and the Connecticut Council of Safety resolved to acquire “one vessel of small burden and a fast sailer, of about 20, 25, or 30 tons and fix her with such warlike furniture as may be proper; to be improved chiefly as a spy vessel to run and course from place to place to discover the enemy and carry intelligence.” This ship was to be the Spy, under the command of Captain Robert Niles. Timothy Parker served as Robert Niles’ first lieutenant on the Spy.

British Virgin Islands stamp commemorating the 1976 U.S. Bicentennial featuring the schooner Spy. Image courtesy of ShipStamps.co.uk.

On 26 January 1776, the Spy had received orders to aid in the occupation of New York. The Spy continued to be heavily utilized throughout the spring and summer of 1776, transporting munitions, scouting the enemy, and aiding the Continental Navy. At this point, the British naval fleet was heavily concentrated near New York and the Spy did its best to keep the fleet bottled up there. Captain Niles claimed, “it is almost impossible for any vessel to get in or out without falling into [our] hands.”

On 22 August 1776, the Spy captured the British schooner Hannah & Elizabeth which was bound from Barbados to Halifax, Nova Scotia where the British navy had amassed. Five days later, on 27 August, the Spy captured another British vessel Hope bound from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent to London, England laden with cargo. This treasure denied to the British included a cornucopia of tropical produce: 64 tons of sugar and nearly 2,700 gallons of rum, plus undisclosed amounts of molasses, cocoa, and coffee. Timothy Parker was assigned as the “prize master” for Hope—charged with bringing her back into port in New London, Connecticut for an accounting by the State’s agents and division of a portion of the proceeds of the spoils among the men of the Spy. Unfortunately for Parker and his crew, on 4 September 1776, the frigate H.M. Galatea chased and captured the Hope about 330 miles southeast of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Lieutenant Timothy Parker and his crew were conveyed for imprisonment to the British stronghold of New York.

Parker and the men who accompanied him on the Hope were placed in the British prison ship Whitby, the first of many such ships anchored off the coast between lower Manhattan and Brooklyn in Wallabout Bay. Originally a troop transport ship, the Whitby housed over 250 prisoners, both landsmen and sailors, in a space designed for a much smaller number of men.

Artist rendering of American prisoners aboard the infamous British prison ship. Jersey. Photo courtesy Library of Congress, http://loc.gov.

Parker noted that the prisoners “were Crouded promiscuously together, without Distinction or Respect, to person office or Colour, in the Small Room of a Ship Between Decks, allowed only to walk the main Deck from about Sun Rising till Sun Sett at which time we are Ordered below Deck.” The crowding was a serious problem, with the men so closely packed in the ship that it was hardly possible for them to all lie down at the same time unless hammocks or other similar contrivances were provided. Unfortunately for the prisoners, their captors did not provide them with hammocks, or bedding, or any other useful items beyond some cooking utensils. Parker and the others had to make do with the clothes on their backs and any items they had in their pockets at the time of their capture, assuming the British guards had not relieved the prisoners of their coats and the contents of their pockets upon arriving on the Whitby.

As a result of the men being closely crowded and the lack of medical care for the sick, the spread of disease was not only possible but likely, particularly since the captives were:

“Suffered only two at once to come on deck to do what Nature requires and Sometimes we have Been even Denied that, and been obliged to make use of tubbs & Buckets Below deck to the great offence of every Delicate Cleanly person as well as to great prejudice of all our healths.”

Parker concluded the description of his imprisonment by noting: “In Short Sir we have no prospect before our Eyes but a kind of Lingering Inevitable death Unless we obtain a … timely and Seasonable Release – “

Timothy Parker’s appeal to Governor Trumbull was effective, for his name appears on the “Pay Roll of Officers & Men belonging to the Ship Oliver Cromwell” with a start date of 14 April 1777. Parker must have been released from the Whitby by early March, allowing him sufficient time to recuperate from the ordeal of his imprisonment and regain his full health before his next assignment. Captain Seth Harding was soon given command of the Oliver Cromwell and made Timothy Parker his first lieutenant. Harding recruited a total of 150 men for the voyage and by June of 1777, the ship was ready to begin her first cruise.

Oliver Cromwell, by Richard Brooks. Image courtesy https://connecticuthistory.org.

About one month later, on 8 July, the Oliver Cromwell captured her first prize, the brigantine Honour. Eleven days later the Restoration was captured but had the misfortune of being recaptured by the British on its way to Boston, and so the men of the Cromwell were denied that prize. Fortune smiled on them once again and on 28 July the Oliver Cromwell captured the Weymouth.

By December of 1777, it was clear that Captain Harding, who suffered from debilitating episodes of gout, was not able to resume command of the Oliver Cromwell; therefore, the Connecticut Assembly named Timothy Parker her captain on 6 December 1777. In the spring of 1778, the Oliver Cromwell was ready to sail south to Charleston, in the company of the Defence, to collect some indigo for France, when it was discovered that members of both crews suffered from smallpox. The ships were sent out to sea as a form of quarantine while the men were inoculated and the surgeons determined that the crews were no longer contagious and safe to return to harbor.

Cruising off the coast of St. Kitts the Oliver Cromwell and Defence had a most fortunate stroke of luck, falling in with the British ships Admiral Keppel and Cyrus. Parker wrote a brief account of the engagement to Governor Trumbull in a letter dated 20 April 1778, noting that each of the British ships had “18 Excelent 6 pounders Each” [cannons capable of firing six-pound iron balls] and the Kepple “made a very warlike appearance and was the best mand Ship by Some considerable odds.”

The Admiral Keppel began the battle, firing upon the Oliver Cromwell who did not return fire until the two ships were close. Parker may have chosen this strategy because, according to him, his men were raw and undisciplined with many being “unexperienced young boys.” The battle continued for “about three glasses,” or about 90 minutes, with a “glass” being one turn of 30-minute hourglass timer. At the end of the battle the Admiral Keppel and Cyrus had surrendered, the Oliver Cromwell had suffered “one man killed outright Mr James Day my Captain of Marines mortally wounded Since Dead I have two others with their thighs broken which I fear will not Recover – three more wounded one thro the arm one thro the leg the other in the Shoulder like to do well.”

Parker praised the men of his crew whose courage and bravery did “honour to their Country.” His officers, too, were lauded for their ability to maintain control of the young men, noting that the “merit of my Officers must be Conspicuous to Every Deserving man.” As for himself, Parker added, “Should my Conduct hitherto and for the future meet with the approbation of your Excelencey and the publick Tis the only and highest Reward I am Seeking.”

Parker’s humility prevented him from providing a more detailed account of his prowess, but Smedley of the Defence was not similarly constrained. Parker’s tactic was to sail close behind the Admiral Keppel, jumping in front of her to keep the larger and better-manned ship from turning broadside to the Cromwell. Allowing his ship to be caught unprepared and parallel to the Keppel would have meant receiving the full brunt of all 18 of the ships’ guns fully into his ships’ sides, potentially causing great destruction to the ship and considerable loss of life. Parker maintained these maneuvers for nearly 90 minutes, moving the Cromwell from the Keppel’s stern to her prow every time the British ship began to prepare her guns along one side for a potentially fatal blow.

Discovering an opportunity, Parker suddenly and unexpectedly turned the Oliver Cromwell so that she was broadside to the Admiral Keppel, the Connecticut ship’s guns all primed and ready to release a barrage on the undefended British ship and forcing the Keppel to raise the white flag of truce. Captain Smedley’s report of the battle ended by asserting that “Capt Parker Engaged the Warmest Ship Which to his honour be it Spoken Behave’d with that Conduct which Would have Done honour to the Greatest Admiral in Europe.”

Returning to the sea in April of 1779 the Oliver Cromwell immediately began capturing British prize ships including the schooner Hazard with ten guns and 40 men on board; the schooner St. George, with a valuable cargo of mahogany and other tropical hardwoods; the schooner Dove; and the York, the tender from the frigate Renown. The York, Parker noted was “an Exceeding fine Sloop and a fast Sailor – I know this is small work but hope to Do better by and by.”

Disaster struck a few weeks later as the Oliver Cromwell sailed south from New England. On 6 June 1779 at about six o’clock in the morning, in the company of the Hancock and after passing Stonington, Connecticut and going around the easterly tip of Long Island the Cromwell saw a sail behind her to the north. The Cromwell immediately turned and gave chase “with all the Other Sail we could make” and after chasing the ship for about 30 minutes they discovered several other ships arriving from their SSW, apparently also chasing the ship they had initially discovered. By 7:30 that morning the Oliver Cromwell had drawn close to the ship it was chasing (the Daphne) and then discovered that the other ships were not attempting to steal the prize from the Cromwell, but rather they were British ships in search of American vessels.

Cannon fire was exchanged for about an hour during which two of the Cromwell’s men were killed, a third mortally wounded, and two others only slightly wounded. One consequence of the maneuvers was that the other ships were able to close in on the Cromwell. As the British ship continued to give chase, the Cromwell had to shorten her sails in order to use her guns and “The Action begun again about 3 PM and Continued till a little after 4 [PM] in this last action we had two men wounded one had his Right arm and Collar bone broke by a splinter, the other a flesh wound in the thigh by a nine pound shot.” Although the Cromwell’s hull remained intact, her masts and sails had been severely damaged. The British privateers Delaware, Forgate, and Union were closing on the Oliver Cromwell and Captain Parker and his officers made the decision to surrender.

Two years after being released from the prison ship Whitby, Timothy Parker was once again a prisoner of the Royal Navy and once again taken to a prison ship in New York, this time onboard the infamous Jersey. Fortunately, his value to the State of Connecticut assisted in hastening a prisoner exchange, and on 16 August 1779, the final terms and officers involved in the prisoner exchange were agreed upon by the various parties.

By 25 August 1779, the Oliver Cromwell had been refitted by the British and re-christened the Restoration, in a historical reference to the return of the British Monarchy after the death of Oliver Cromwell. Timothy Parker was paroled, having given his word as a gentleman to cease his employment as a captain of the Connecticut State Navy. However, he apparently made no promises regarding his continued efforts as a privateer on behalf of the fledgling United States.

Timothy Parker, Privateer and Private Citizen

By 26 October 1779, Timothy Parker was back on the seas hunting down and capturing prize ships. In August of 1780 Parker was captured a third time by the British. It is unclear how long Parker was held prisoner this time, but he was released by May of the following year when he received a letter to use in case of a fourth capture. Parker continued his privateering until the end of the Revolutionary War. Privateers associated with Parker include the sloops Prudence and Hancock, which he apparently captained in the fall of 1779, as well as the Scourge, a brig that carried 20 guns and 150 men. This ship was captured by the British in 1782 and it is possible this was the fourth and final time that Timothy Parker was held prisoner by the British.

With the war for independence finally won and the resulting cessation of hostilities in September 1783, sailing posed fewer difficulties and many Americans were eager to return to more normal trade relations with England. Between July of 1786 and July of 1788, Timothy Parker continued his journeys to and from Ireland on the brig Catherine (sometimes spelled Katherine).

Beginning in August of 1789 Timothy was closely associated with the packet Royal Oak, sailing from Connecticut to New York City with at least one proposed foray south to New Bern, North Carolina in October of 1790. In the advertisement for the cruise to North Carolina Timothy Parker was listed as “master” of the Royal Oak, indicating that he was both owner and captain of the ship. The fate of the Royal Oak is unknown, but Parker continued his profitable southern runs as master of the sloop Harmony which sailed for South Carolina in November of 1792, returning to Hartford, Connecticut in February of the following year. A 1793 New York City advertisement announced that the “New Sloop Harmony” was available for freight or passenger charter to the West Indies or any southern state although Charleston was a definite stop along the way.

The 1793 advertisement for the Harmony’s journey to Charleston was the last record of the maritime career of Captain Timothy Parker. He died on 27 May 1797 at the age of 62. In 1804 his estate was divided between his wife, Deborah, and their three surviving children: 35-year-old Ann, 32-year-old John, and 26-year-old Timothy. The total value of Captain Timothy Parker’s estate was the equivalent of about $1.7 million and included many fine specimens of Parker’s wealth and varied interests.

Let us know in the comments below which war heroes you will be honoring this Memorial Day.

We’d like to thank Legacy Tree Genealogists for contributing this post. Legacy Tree Genealogists are the world’s highest client-rated genealogy research firm, and recommended research partner of MyHeritage. Founded in 2004, the company provides full-service genealogical research for clients worldwide, helping them discover their roots and personal history through records, narratives, and DNA. For more information on Legacy Tree and their services, visit: www.legacytree.com/myheritage

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