The Marblehead Schooners – The First Five Ships in the Continental Navy

George Washington wanted ships to capture British merchant ships carrying supplies to the Royal Army. What he wanted most was powder, muskets and musket balls, all of which were in short supply.

Rather than wait for the Continental Congress to act, Washington commissioned Hannah, a two-masted, gaff-rigged schooner built in Marblehead, Massachusetts. It was the first of what became known as the Marblehead Schooners.

For landlubbers, the main sail on gaff-rig is trapezoidal in shape with the top being the narrowest part. At the top of the sail, there a small boom called a gaff and the configuration provides about twenty-five percent more sail area than a conventional, triangular sail..

Fully loaded, Hannah weighed 78 tons and carried four, four-pounder cannon. As offensive or defensive weapons, its guns were tiny. She set sail on September 5th, 1775 and captured the Continental Navy’s first prize, H.M.S. Unity, a small sailing barge. On October 10th, she was deliberately run aground in front of a fort near Beverly, MA to avoid being captured by H.M.S. Nautilus, a 16-gun sloop.

         Eventually, Hannah was towed back to Manchester, New Hampshire, converted back to a cargo vessel and renamed Lynch. She sailed to France to deliver correspondence to the American delegation. On the way home, Hannah was captured by H.M.S Foudroyant, an 80-gun ship-of-the-line.

         Four more fishing schooners – Franklin (60 tons and 6 guns), Warren (60 tons and 4 guns), Hancock (70 tons and 6 guns) and Lee (74 tons and 6 guns)were fitted out. They were known for their speed, maneuverability and shallow draft. When they encountered a more heavily armed Royal Navy ship, they ran for shallow water close to the shore where they knew the Royal Navy captain would not risk running aground and having his ship captured.

All five had relatively brief careers. Franklin and Lee were returned to their original owners in 1777. Hancock managed to capture H.M.S. Fox, a 28gun British frigate only to be taken by H.M.S. Rainbow, 44 guns several days later. Like Hannah, Warren was captured by the British and ran aground near Portsmouth, NH.

These ships were a start. The Continental Congress realized bigger ships were needed to effectively fight the Royal Navy. Congress faced a three-fold problem – not enough money; lack of experienced crews; and time.

Time was the biggest issue because the Navy Committee couldn’t go to the warship store, pick a ship and hand the clerk a credit card. Back then, as it does today, building ships takes months, even years.

The compromise was to convert larger merchant ships into warships while it ordered new frigates built. The first conversions were the frigates Alfred (30 guns) and Columbus (28 guns), the brigs, Andrea Doria (14 guns), Cabot (14 guns), and the sloops Hornet (10 guns), Providence (12 guns), and the Wasp (8 guns).

         These ships had two missions – harass British shipping until the thirteen new frigates ordered by the Continental Congress were built. Two, enable a cadre of officers and crews to gain valuable experience in maritime warfare.


  1. Carrie on May 11, 2019 at 7:22 am

    I’m perplexed by the idea that the Hannah was towed back to “Manchester, New Hampshire.” Are you sure this is correct? I just can’t imagine how this was possible, given the topography of the area.

    • mliebman on May 11, 2019 at 7:04 pm

      Thanx for your note. You are correct. It should have been Manchester-by-the-sea, MA. My bad. But, thanx for reading.

  2. Randy Biddle on June 8, 2019 at 11:13 am

    With all due respect, may I offer some corrections to your story? Coincidentally, I’m near to completing an article for the Nautical Research Journal about Hannah and have been spending a lot of time in research using primary source documents. To save space (and not give away the scoops in my article) I won’t cite my sources here…

    Hannah was not built at Marblehead, nor were most of the vessels hailing from that port at that time

    She definitely was not the first “Marblehead schooner”

    She did not “weigh” 78 tons. The term “tons” is a reference to internal carrying capacity as “tons burthen” and not weight [much longer story]. The figure of 78 is incorrect. She was much smaller.

    UNITY was not a British (HMS) naval vessel, rather a private American vessel owned by a John Langdon of Portsmouth.

    Hannah was not captured by the British, but after the action with HMS Nautilus, she saw no further naval service. Her future seems lost to history.

    I have seen the claim that she was renamed the Lynch, but only in an unpublished manuscript. The author of that work presented no compelling evidence that the story was true. If you can, please tell me where you heard that story. Perhaps it was in a Beverly newspaper article which spoke about the unpublished work?

    Practically every secondary source (book, journal, blog, etc.) contains and repeats misinformation about Hannah. The same can be said of the 15 or so models of her displayed in prominent institutions. Each model differs from the other.

    Honestly, no one living knows exactly what she looked like. Nor do we know for sure about her armament. But, the research for this article led to some “better informed speculations” about her appearance.

    We discovered where and when she was built, but not yet her original owner, or her original name. We know a little about her voyages prior to being leased (not really a commission as we understand that term today) to fight, and from that data are skeptical that she was built to be, or was ever employed as a fishing schooner.

    There’s a lot more to the story, which we hope will go to print before the end of this year.

    My article was prompted by one about Hannah in the Spring 2019 issue, itself repeating all the old fables about the vessel.

    Thanks for the opportunity to comment.
    I built a model “of Hannah” in 1970. Mine is inaccurate as well, even though it spent many years in a California museum.

    Be Blessed

    • mliebman on June 9, 2019 at 6:16 am

      First, thanx for your comment and reading my blog. I am not a historian, but i do a lot a research for my novels. What I have found reading stuff about 18th Century Navies, primarily the Continental and early U.S. (up to the War of 1812) and the Royal Navy is that there are a lot of inconsistencies, contradictions, gaps, etc. Again, if I was a historian, I would spend hours trying to resolve them. However, before, I am not. I try to get as close to the truth as I can, take it and run with it. This is a long way to saying you’re are probably right.

      The blog topics so far are based on material I have come across as I write an Age of Sail novel which, compared to the others I’ve written has been far more difficult than I would have ever imagined. Any, keep reading my blog and your comments are welcomed!

    • Joyce Kippin on October 13, 2019 at 6:25 pm

      Could you shed some light on the
      John Manly (Manley) Russell or John Russell Manly who was Commodore of the Lee, the Boston and he captured the Nancy. He was George Washington’s first Commodore and distanced John Paul Jones.
      The Daughters of the American Revolution have accepted aforementioned; however, Sons of the American Revolution will not. Manly used his middle name whilst
      in service and and his given name while serving his country. Have you any information regarding this?

      • mliebman on October 20, 2019 at 9:16 am

        First, I apologize that I didn’t see this note earlier.

        Second, I cannot help you. My research about that time was part of researching a novel that will come out in the next few months that takes place in the in 1775 – 1778. I found a set of documents called the Navy’s Documents of the American Revolution (NDAR) and can be accessed through the Navy’s Military Heritage and History Command. The archives are on line and they are fascinating reading. They include letters, logs, reports and all sorts of other material. It is organized chronologically by theater. You can use the search features to look for specific names and topics, but I will tell you that it is tedious!!!

        Third, every document I’ve ever seen shows Eseks Hopkins of Massachusetts as the first Commodore in the Continental Navy. He is the “fleet commander” who led Alfred, Cabot, Andrea Doria, Columbus and Providence to Nassau in 1776. There are letters and doumnents in the NDAR about this campaign and also the fact that the First Lieutenant on the Alfred – John Paul Jones – raised the first Continental Navy ensign in Philadelphia just before the small squadron set sail from Philadelphia. Given the times and lack of a formal rank structure until later in the American Revolution, I am sure there others who claim the title.

        Third, the U.S. had had two “official” navies. First, there was the Continental Navy authorized by the Second Continental Congress. This navy was disbanded in 1783 by the Second Continental Congress because under the Articles of Confederation, it could not levy much less taxes to pay for an Army and a Navy. The Army reverted back to state militias.

        In 1794, under Article 1, Section 8, Paragraph 13 of our new Constitution, the Congress passed the Navy Act and the Navy, as we know it today, was reborn.

        Last, I am not a professional historian, I am a novelist. However, I take pride in ensuring that the historical and operational context of my books are accurate.

        BTW, I am giving a speech called the Naval Lessons of the American REvolution to the Naval Order 2020 World Congress in Boston on Friday, October 25th at the Constitution Inn in Boston. If you are interested in attending, please let me know.

        Thanx for your note

  3. Randy Biddle on June 9, 2019 at 6:37 am


    Thank you for so graciously considering and publishing my comments. There’s nothing wrong with putting up material as you did. It sparks conversation, and every participant learns something. In 1997 I was asked to further investigate the history of the brig Pilgrim, made famous by Richard Henry Dana, Jr in his sea classic, Two Years Before The Mast. Dana sailed in her from Boston (1834) to what was then called Alta California, working in the “hide and tallow” trade. I presented my findings two years later at a conference and in print. We were trying–as with Hannah today–to get a better sense of her appearance (built 1825-lost 1841) and had pretty good luck (confirmed in an 1830 watercolor). Pilgrim popped up occasionally since, and in 2016-2017 I was invited to make five other presentations (museums etc). At every one of them I was led to learn something new about her and her life. Most all of it came from old newspapers, which until recently could not be easily located or searched on line as they can now. I had no choice but to revise my thinking. As a “vessel historian” I have found it essential to Google vessel names periodically to see what has been posted about them. Almost every time I get something additive, or corrective. Point being…keep doing what you do. At the very least, you are keeping our maritime and aviation heritage alive. If you wish to communicate off line, shoot me a note. I have a large library and an international network of colleagues. Happy to help you if I am able. Age of Sail novels are indeed a challenge. Read as many as you can while you are writing yours. And, do your best to use correct terminology (“sea language” ) for the period. Otherwise, the readers you want to stay with you until your next work will tune out, often with your first error.

    In addition to research and writing, I build and repair ship models. With 75th birthday coming up in December, the sand in my glass is less, and still so many projects in mind!
    I flew privately for a short while (Single Engine Land & Sea) but stopped in 1994.


  4. RANDY BIDDLE on August 27, 2019 at 10:37 am


    All the foregoing aside, I am greatly remiss in not acknowledging your selfless service to our Country, Thank you Sir, very much indeed!

    I wish you continued success in your writing and publishing.
    And, I am happy to list you among my generous contributors for this article on George Washington’s HANNAH which will be published sometime in 2020 by the Nautical Research Guild. I’ll make certain you get a color PDF copy.

    Be Blessed

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.