Freeport’s Famous Privateer
The early years of the nineteenth century were difficult for New England shipbuilders and merchants. President Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807, British impressment of American seamen, British and French restrictions on American shipping entering Continental ports, and marauding British and French privateers and naval vessels had cost the shipping industry dearly. Eventually the United States declared war against Great Britain in 1812.
One of the peculiar aspects of the War of 1812 was government licensing of private armed vessels. Commonly known as privateers, each vessel received a “Letter of Marque and Reprisal” signed by the President. These privateers, although not part of the fledgling United States Navy, were nevertheless authorized “to subdue, seize and take” enemy vessels as prizes and to keep or sell the “apparel, guns and appurtenances.” They were essentially licensed pirates.
Dash was built at Porters Landing, Freeport, Maine in 1813 by master builder James Brewer for Seward, Samuel, and William Porter, all born and raised at Porters Landing and part of a family which included twelve brothers. Most were involved with the sea in some fashion. Dash, a fast topsail schooner, was designed to evade the Embargo keeping American shipping bottled up in harbors all along the East Coast and the Canadian border. She was successful in breaking the Portland blockade and made several quick runs to the West Indies, where she exchanged lumber and other local crops for profitable cargoes such as coffee and sugar cane.
Unusually Dash was built from a half model, one of the oldest known to exist. Construction of the model ensured that modifications could be made easily. This type of half model is called a “Hawk nest” model. Because of the War Dash was pierced for sixteen guns, although ten were wooden “Quaker” guns built to fool the enemy.
During 1813 and early 1814 she made three voyages, successfully evading the Royal Navy and United States port restrictions. At some point during this period she was re-rigged as a hermaphrodite brig with a special “ringtail sail” to increase her already impressive spread of canvas. She was fast!
On September 13, 1814, Dash was commissioned as a privateer by President Madison and was re-armed with two 18 lb. guns and a 32 lb. pivot gun. Her crew size was thirty-five men, although it was later increased to sixty. Her first commander as a privateer was George Bacon, and at least part of her crew was from Freeport. Her speed allowed her to evade several British cruisers before returning to Portland with a very valuable mixed cargo.
During her second voyage Dash recaptured an American sloop taken by the British as well as a British ship. The British cargo was transferred to Dash, and as it was rum, was exceedingly profitable. Near Portland on the return voyage Dash had to fight an enemy schooner which fled.
Dash, under the command of John Porter, continued to take other prizes on subsequent voyages during the fall of 1814. A total of fifteen prize vessels were taken without a single injury to any of her crew.
After a short layover in Portland in January, 1815 Porter took Dash to sea. With her was the new privateer Champlain, a schooner from Portsmouth, waiting to test her own speed against that of Dash. Dash gradually pulled ahead over the next day. When a heavy winter gale came on, Champlain changed her course, but Dash kept on. She was never heard from again. It is assumed that Capt. Porter underestimated his speed and lost his vessel on the treacherous shoals of Georges Bank. Sixty men, including John, Jeremiah, and Ebenezer Porter, and thirteen others from Freeport, were among those lost.
Dash was known as a lucky ship. She never let a chase escape, and she was never injured by a hostile shot. With seven voyages under four captains taking fifteen prizes, she was one of the most successful privateers of the War of 1812. Her record was never equaled.