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USS Reprisal was the first ship of what was to become the United States Navy. Wikipedia says:

On September 14, 1777, Reprisal left France, for the United States. About October 1, Reprisal was lost off the banks of Newfoundland and all 129 on board, except the cook, went down with her.

Numerous other sources mention the same thing, but with no other details or references. One forum post claims that it sank in a storm. What do we know about how the ship sank?

  • Did it sink due to a storm?
  • Were the other ships in the squadron (Dolphin and Lexington) sailing with it when it sank?
  • If the other vessels were present, are there any written accounts from the crew of those ships?
  • Are there any written accounts from the cook who survived?
  • Has the shipwreck ever been found?
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up vote 10 down vote accepted

Reprisal indeed sank in a storm, but there seems to be some dispute as to whether it was on October 1st or November 1st. This is one of the surviving contemporary reports from an "Extract of a letter from the gentleman of this place, dated at Bourdeaux, November 20, 1777".1

It is with the utmost concern that I inform you the fate of the gallant Captain Weeks - A French vessel arrived here the other day, brought in the only man who was saved out of the whole crew of the Reprisal. - In a gale of wind which happened the 1st of Novembery at which time they were three days past the Banks of Newfoundland) the ship was pooped with three heavy seas, which carried her down - This man and one more floated on the gangway ladder until the 3d, when his commrade through weakness dropped from it - He was that day picked up by the Frenchman who brought him in here - And he now goes for America with Capt. Moore.

A footnote in the document collections observes:

Pennsylvania Packet (Lancaster), 11 Feb. 1778, quotes the same letter, but gives 1 October as the date of the sinking.

The Lexington had been taken prize by the British on September 19th, and was put up for repairs in Dover shortly before the loss of Reprisal, as noted in The Public Advertiser (London), 3 October 17772:

The Lexington arrived off Dover on Thursday, September the 25th, and proceeded to the Downs to send the wounded prisoners to the royal hospital of Deal; and on the 26th she returned safe into Dover Pier, amidst the joyous acclamations of all the worthy inhabitants of the town, of which Lieut. Bazely is a native. The privateer is in a shattered condition; the head of the main-mast, with the main-top-mast, top-gallant-mast, fore-top-gallant-mast, and main-boom gone, fore-mast deeply wounded and obliged to be fished at sea, bowsprit much damaged, sails full of shot holes, and her hull shot through and through.

As for the Dolphin, she had been laid up in Nantes for quite a while awaiting repair or sale. In fact, the captain writes the following in a letter to the American Commissioners in France on Nov 19th, relaying the news of the loss of the Reprisal:3

...this Capt Ashburn tells me, that the Tuesday before he sailed which must be 18th a man arrived in a french Vessell from the Banks who called himself the Steward of the Reprisal, and said that when the Ship foundered he saved himself by the gang Ladder which supported him, 'till the french Vessell took him up; Capt Ashburn does not remember the name of this man; The Name of the Reprisal's Steward is Thomas Glenn, if therefore you have the name of the Reporter of this News thro' any other Chanel you may ascertain its truth, for my own part I must repeat my disbelief of it, tho' I think it my duty to communicate it to you. I every day see the necessity of some proper place to keep my men as they begin to grow very discontent with their Situation. I do not pretend to say what is proper to be done, but I am sure if the Raleigh was here we should keep them with less Expence, less noise, & more satisfaction on allsides. The weather growing cold makes the Dolphin a very uncomfortable Habitation, & many are obliged to stay on shore at expence for want of sufficient room on board.

I don't find any mention of any ships sailing with her when she sank, either companion or prize, nor any first hand accounts of the cook. I also can't find any reference to the shipwreck being located. If it was, it might be hard to identify, because there is plenty of company for it at the bottom of the Grand Banks.

1American Naval Records Society, Naval Documents of The American Revolution, Volume 10, p 1009
2Ibid, p 855-7
3Ibid, p 1050-1051

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Great find! The footnote in the Naval Documents names the cook as "Nathan Jaquays". Searching for his name provides a few more links, but not much more info. – Javid Jamae Apr 30 '14 at 3:47
This should be added to the wikipedia! – J. C. Leitão Apr 30 '14 at 6:56

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