Friday, October 06, 2006

The little known history also counts

A researcher can not develop a project for every piece of forgotten history that is found, misplaced and forgotten for decades, that sounds interesting or intriguing. What can be done, however, while conducting the original research project, is to reintroduce the secondary data that was found to the public, so they can be at least aware of that particular moment in time. This, hopefully, will allow the reader to seek more information on the rediscovered material.

I came across such an extended historical topic while conducting a preliminary research project on the early years of Swansboro, North Carolina. I was reviewing a reel of microfilm that I had obtained many years ago from the National Archives in Washington, DC, that dealt with War of 1812 documents. While looking for material associated with southeastern Onslow County and more specifically Swansboro (Swannsborough during that time) that related to the War of 1812, a personal letter written by an American prisoner of war caught my attention.

The first thing about this document that pulled my attention away from my Swansboro research was the length of the letter. The correspondence was not less than twenty pages in length, written in long hand, and in the first person. The letter, in essence, was one man’s personal account of being a prisoner of war in England in the years 1812 & 13.

What intrigued me most was that this individual was not a military person fighting for his country but rather, only a passenger on a vessel from France to the United States. During the War of 1812 nearly any vessel, and her passengers, on the High Seas were subject to capture. This was the case for this man who had been released, prior to boarding the American bound vessel, from being a prisoner in a French prison for a similar turn of events.

The following is an excerpt James Doolittle’s account of his capture:

"On the 12th March 1813 I sailed from L’Orient, passenger on board the Brig Ducornau, of and for New York, Henry Davis Master. On the 14th we were captured after a chase of eight hours, by his Britannic Majesty’s Sloop of War Pheasant, John Palmer, Esquire Commander and carried to Plymouth. Captain Palmer & his officers treated us all with the greatest possible politeness, attention & humanity. We arrived to Plymouth on the 16th, but did not disembark until the 20th. When we landed, Captain Palmer consented that Captain Davis, his mate and myself should remain in the town a few more days until Captain Davis should go through the necessary formalities of making protest &c. before we delivered ourselves up at Mill prison. This is an indulgence which rests with the Commanders of ships of war on their own responsibilities and is generally, thou not always granted to masters, mates, supercargoes & passengers.

On the 27th we delivered ourselves up to Captain Pellowe at Mill prison as a preliminary to being paroled. Here it may be well to observe that not a person can be paroled, or permitted to proceed to Ashburton without passing one or more nights in Mill prison, & when they depart are compelled to take a place in the stage at their own expense."


Mr. Doolittle’s letter goes on to discuss various aspects of his captivity. He writes in great detail on prisoner treatment, manipulation of policy, and his obvious discontent of being labeled a "Prisoner of War" when in fact he was only a civilian passenger on a vessel. Under routine procedures of the day, he, as many others who were in the same predicament, would have been treated with common respect and set free at the earliest opportunity.


Here is part of what Mr. Doolittle reported in regards to his situation on a prison ship (floating prison).

"After rummaging our trunks to satisfy themselves, as they said, that we had no tools, the officers ordered us below; we were shewn to the lower gun deck, where a new and unpleasant scene presented itself. There were on board at this time about 500 prisoners, 300 of whom were on this deck. They had been already counted down for the night & their hammocks being slung, it was not without difficulty that a person could move at all. Here were all ages & colors place indiscriminately together & so thick that they might be said to be literally "stowed in bulk." Every second port has been nailed down & caulked in. The others are secured by gratings composed of iron bars, an inch square, crossing each other at right angles at intervals of 4 inches. These would suppose would be sufficient to secure the prisoners, especially the Americans, who I hope & believe, love their own country too well to wish to desert in so inhospitable as one as Great Britain. Whether their precautions arose from a fear of the prisoners escaping, or from a refinement in barbarity, in which the English will yield the palm to no nation on earth that I know of. I know not but certain it is, that this security content them for every evening at night fall, they shut the ports over these gratings leaving only seven small air ports 7 inches on each side, (which in their turn, were half obscured by the gratings over them) for the admission of air, & these being near the upper deck in the horizontal plane of the hammocks, a circulation of air on this deck was rendered impossible..."


So goes the story of an American War of 1812 Prisoner of War, not of a combatant but, a civilian caught up in an international crisis. Who, in our modern society, knows of this one alienated prisoner? What ever happened to him? He is but one of an endless list of people and events within our bonded histories that were pushed aside, misplaced, or forgotten.

Captain Otway Burns, a War of 1812 Privateer who hailed from Swansboro and New Bern, North Carolina faced similar faintness from the general public. The book I wrote on his life,Captain Otway Burns And His Ship Snap Dragon, explores this nearly forgotten man’s exciting and adventurous life.

Think for a few minutes about things that you can recall about the "old days." What part of the local and American segment of history do you remember that is not reflected upon in today’s society. Local history is part of American heritage. When you come across information dealing with our local history try to pass that knowledge on to your family, friends, and fellow neighbor. You may find that they have a piece of that same history that can be shared with others.

Data used for this article comes from author’s personal research notes and material obtained through National Archives, Washington, DC.

Contact and learn more about the author at his
personal web site.


Hephaestos said...

Found your site while looking for a ship in the War of 1812, Ducornau (which I now find was a brig). Wonderful to find another shipmate of someone I'm very interested in.

(Source: History of Ruland Family by Ella Ruland, daughter of Charles Ruland. This copy made by Densie Nason Manross 5 August 1933)
Very early in the 19th century, Densie Brown, a young lady residing
near the shore of Long Island, New York, was married to a manly and
courageous seaman, named Nathan Vaughn. Not long after they were married he
started on a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean confidently expecting to
return to his fair bride in a few months at the farthest. But fate willed
otherwise. His ship was stopped by a British Man of War and he was carried
off with other free born American seamen to serve in the British Navy. This
he steadfastly refused to do. Finding that Nathan Vaughn could not be
compelled either by threats or punishment to seve the King of England, the
British carried him and his comrades to England and put them in the famous
or rather infamous prision Dartmoor, where he and many others, loyal
American seamen perished because of hardships they were most unnecessarily
forced to undergo. So it came about that Nathan Vaughn never saw his little
daughter Eliza who was born on November 30, 1809, sometime after he sailed
away on what proved to be his last voyage. The young widow Densie Vaughn
managed to care for herself and child for a number of years, when time
having softened her grief for the loss of her husband, she bacame the wife
of Jesse Ruland. Eliza accompanied her mother to her new home and though but
a child so willing was she to help with the work of the household that she
soon became indispensable to her mother, particularly so when her half
sister Nancy was born, her mother having no other help at that time,
although Eliza was but nine years of age. When Eliza was 16 years old, she
and Silas Ruland, a brother of her step-father were united in marriage. By
this marriage Silas Ruland became the son-in-law of his own brother and
sister-in-law and Eliza became the sister-in-law of her step father, while
the resulting entanglements of relationship between the families of Jesse
and Silas Ruland are not to be unraveled by any but clear heads.)

Nancy Ruland was my great-great grandmother, by Densie's second marriage, so ironically I more or less owe my existence to the War of 1812. Nathaniel Vaughan was buried at Dartmoor in 1814.

Ella (or Ellen) Ruland was born in 1865, and likely wrote around the turn of the 20th century, thus explaining the flowery language and inattention to detail. I would assume her account was based on oral family traditons. Nathaniel's final voyage would in fact have been when his daughter Eliza was already four years old.

Haven't been able to dredge much information about the Ducornau (in fact yours is the only reference I find if its being a brig, and whether military or civilian I have no idea). I did however discover that the Pheasant had participated in the capture of an American privateer, the William Baynard, two days prior to the above action.

Looking forward to reading more of your blog, it's fantastic.

-John G. Robinson

Jack Robinson said...


Thank you for posting such a detailed account of your family's connection to the War of 1812.

I wrote a book about a North Carolina, USA, Privateer and I obtained a roll of Microfilm from the National Archives. The letter dealing with Ducornau was within the roll of official letters.

I read your data with great interest. Then, I had to smile when I reached the end and saw your name.

I had to smile because of how our names were nearly the same. I am J.M.Robinson, from Upper New York State. I now live in S.E. North Carolina.

I wish you well on your adventure in researching the Ducornau. I have had a few museums contact me about my post. As you stated, They too said that there were few examples of official data on her and her escapades during the War of 1812.

God Bless,