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?

3 Answers 3


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

  • 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. Apr 30, 2014 at 3:47
  • This should be added to the wikipedia! Apr 30, 2014 at 6:56
  • "...the ship was pooped with three heavy seas" Translation: three very large waves came over the flat stern and swamped her. Sailing ships tried to keep their bow into the waves to avoid this.
    – Schwern
    Mar 26, 2017 at 17:40

My 6th great grandfather


Nathan Jacques

We question whether the individual records of Bonaparte's army, would furnish a parallel to the following simple but effecting narrative with which we have been favored in manuscript by a valued friend. It was written some time since; and we are informed that the subject of it died in consequence of a fall. Such narrative brings vividly before the mind, the toils and hardships endured by the men who achieved a Nation's liberty.

Memoirs of the Life and Adventures of Nathan Jacques, of Rhode Island - "He was born in Narangansett, in that State, on the 11th of September, 1739. In 1757, he enlisted in Capt. Green's company in the Rhode Island regiment, commanded by Col. John Whiting. They went by water to New York and Albany, and lay that summer at Fort Edward, and were there when William Henry, on Lake George, distant 16 miles, was taken by the French. At the end of that campaign, they were disbanded, and returned home. In the spring of 1758, he enlisted in Capt. Samuel Rose's company, in the Rhode Island regiment, commanded by Col. Harry Babcock, a very gallant officer. They went by water to New York and Albany, and joined the army assembled at Fort Edward, under General Abercromby of 16,000 men, British and Provincials, to invade Canada. They marched to Fort William Henry, and embarked on Lake George, in the morning in whale boats and batteaux: lay on shore on the west sided of the Lake the first night and landed near Ticonderoga the next morning. Some skirmishing soon took place with a reconnoitering party of the French - in which Lord Howe, the second in command, was killed. The next forenoon, they attacked the French lines - a breast-work of logs, with an abbattis. The action lasted until the middle of the afternoon when they were repulsed with great [missing] and retreated hastily [rest of line missing] couragements. The Rhode Island regiment was in line with the British the whole day; their Colonel was shot thro' the thigh, and was carried off the field by Jacques and two others - and then he resumes his station in the ranks. The army after this defeat returned to their boats, and recrossed the lake that night. About half the regiment were then dispatched to join a body under Col. Bradstreet, on the expedition against Fort Crtaraqui, at the issue of the river of St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario; this detachment was commanded by Major Wall - and Jacques was among them; they took and dismantled the Fort and brought the prisoners, artillery and stores, to Fort Stanwix, and spent the remainder of the summer there. In the fall they were disbanded, and he went home.

In the spring of 1759, he enlisted again in Capt. Roe's company, and he forgets who was their Colonel this year, his company went to Fort Stanwix, and was employed in carrying provisions to Fort Oswego. The regiment was discharged in the fall, and Jacques spent the winter working on the Mohawk. The next spring, 1760, he enlisted in Capt. Christopher Yates' company, in the 3d battalion of N. York Provincials, Colonel Rosecrant's - marched to Oswego, there joined the army under Sir Jeffrey Amherst. Thence by water, and took Oswigotchie - and thence to Montreal, which also surrendered - afterwards his battalion returned to Oswego, and thence to Schenectady, where they were discharged. Jacques remained on the Mohawk that winter working among the farmers - and in the spring of 1761, he enlisted in the same company and battalion, and went and employed the summer in enlarging Fort Oswego, there having been only a small Fort there before. In the fall they were disbanded, and he spent the winter at Coohnawaga, on the Mohawk. In the next spring, 1762, he enlisted in the British 4th regiment, commanded by Major Arthur Hamilton and in the company of Capt. George Coventry, and was drafted into the Grenadier company, commanded by Capt. Bradstreet - went from Albany to New York, there embarked on the expedition against Havanap, was actively employed in its reduction - and afterwards returned to New York.- Soon after which they were ordered to Halifax, whither he went with them, and remained until 1770, when the regiment being reduced to 39 - to a company - and about to embark for England, he in order to get his discharge purchased it at the expense of five guineas, which he had borrowed, and spent a year afterwards working, to raise money to repay the loan; this he thought a hardship, as many of the men were discharged freely; and he attributed the exception of his release, and that of some other able bodied young men, to avarice in the officers, taking advantage of their good condition to extort money. After having paid his debt, he returned to Narragansett, and married; and supported himself and family as a laborer. In January 1775, he entered as a sailor on board a merchant ship from Newport bound to Jamaica; from whence she went to Savannah in Georgia, loaded with timber, to return to Jamaica; - but when on the point of sailing, five British men of war arrived who took them, it being soon after the battle of Lexington and he was put on board the Raven sloop of 14 guns - which went to Cape Fear, in North Carolina, and anchored off the river. At night he left them and swam ashore, near a mile - went to Brunswick and Wilmington - got a pass, and a passage by water to Philadelphia, where Congress was sitting - and finding they were enlisting men of the continental ship Reprisal, Capt. Lambert Weeks, of 16 guns and 132 men he entered and sailed on a cruise. At Cape May, they found a vessel driven on shore by a British cruiser, and endeavoring to protect her, the captain's brother (a lieutenant) being sent on shore with a party, was killed. The Reprisal then returned to Philadelphia, and took on board William Bingham and another gentleman, to carry them to Martinique, where Bingham was to reside as agent for the American armed ships. They took three prizes on the passage - on approaching the harbour of St. Pierre, the British ship Shark, of 16 guns, came out and engaged them; they fought three half-hour glasses, when the Shark sheared off, a great deal damaged; but the Reprisal did not receive a shot in her hull. They went into the harbour of St. Pierre, and landed their passengers - and soon after the Shark came in on a careen. They sailed the next morning for Port Royal, in the same Island, and thence to Philadelphia; and in December, 1876 [sic], sailed to carry Dr. Franklin to France - landed him at Painbeuff, near Nantz - lay there near a fortnight, and sailed on a cruise in the Bay of Biscay; took five prizes, amongst them the Swallow Packet, from Falmouth for Lisbon, of 16 guns, which fought half an hour; lost a man and four slightly wounded, carried her into L'Orient, and lay there several weeks - hove down and repaired the ship, and the Captain went to Paris.- They sailed again, and cruised in the Irish and English Channel - and round the Highlands of Scotland - and having joined near Scilly two American Privateers, they cruised in concert. They took 25 prizes - sunk fifteen of them after taking out the men and stores - and manned and sent into port ten, which all arrived safe. On their return to France, off the Land's End of England, saw a man-of-war, who gave chase - they separated, and all finally escaped; but the Reprisal, being singled out as the chief object, was so closely pursued as to throw her guns overboard, and hardly escaping, reached St. Maloes; where she re-armed, and receiving back all her men from the prize, sailed for Boston.

  • I'd edit this wall of text but since it appears to be a quote, I've no idea where the paragraph breaks are in the original. It could also do with some editing to remove the parts that do not address the question. Mar 26, 2017 at 8:44

When 18 days out, off the Western Island, on the 3d of November, 1777, after a terrible gale of wind which had subsided, at 4 o'clock P.M. , a squall struck the ship - she was put before it under the foresail, when they shipped two seas in quick succession, which knocked her down, and she sunk immediately - it being supposed the weather guns broke loose. Jacques soon found himself swimming , and for near an hour without any thing to assist him. At length, one of the gang way ladders, with a man upon one end of it, floated near him; Jacques took hold of the other end, and directly a wave turned the ladder over end for end and threw them both off; on coming up he again took hold, but his companion was lost. In about two hours another man appeared and got on, and they two kept hold all night and the next day; towards evening, his companion said he could hold out no longer and quit his hold and sunk. His name was William Wallace, an Irishman. He had become insane a little before, and said, "Jacques, I see you have got a knife to kill me, but put it up and I won't say any thing about it;" and soon after he fell off and disappeared. - While two of them were on the ladder, a hog came and rested his snout upon it, and remained some time. While they were on the ladder, a vessel passed near them; Jacques called to them, but the wind prevented their hearing, and he was disappointed of that opportunity. Jacques continued on the ladder all that night and all the next day till late in the afternoon - having been in the water forty-eight hours, when a French snow from Cape Francois, bound to Bordeaux, came near, and he called out help! They answered in a lively manner "Oui! Oui!" and hove to, and sent a boat and took him on board. - He was so exhausted that he could not stand; but was treated with kind attention and in a few days was able to lend a hand, which he did. In about three weeks, they arrived at Bordeaux. The Governor soon heard of his extraordinary story and sent for him; and on learning the particulars was much affected and recommended his getting a brief to collect money, and offered to assist him; but Jacques declined: reflecting that he was a free-born American - was young and hearty, and able to get an independent living; and would not consent to beg in a foreign land. He wrote to Dr. Franklin, acquainting him of the fate of the Reprisal, and soon received an answer with the needful supply - and in a short time got a passage home in a Baltimore schooner, which arrived at Edenton, in North Carolina. - From there he traveled to Yorktown in Pennsylvania, where Congress was then sitting, (the British troops having possession of Philadelphia.) He arrived late in the afternoon, after they had adjourned for the day. He however went to the President, and said, "he had come to give an account of the unhappy end of the ship Reprisal." The President looked at him and asked "are you that remarkable man?" - (for Congress had received the account from Dr. Franklin.) He said he was; and related his narrative, and was told to come again in the morning. He did so; and the President told him to go to the Board of War, - "and if they won't right you, come to me and we will." He went to the Board of War, where he was well received; they reckoned up his wages (for two years and more,) amounting to between two or three hundred dollars, continental money - and gave him an order on their Paymaster, Joseph Read, then at Bordentown, in New Jersey. He went there and received payment, and went to his family in Narragansett. After remaining there ten days, he heard that the ship Providence, Com. Whipple, of thirty guns and 270 men, was fitting out at Providence, bound to France. He went and entered on board of her on the 13th day of April, 1778. They went out through the Narragansett passage, in which lay a 50 gun ship and a frigate, as guard ship. It was a dark night; the frigate got under way; both vessels fired at the Providence, and she at them. The frigate was so much damaged that she could not follow them, and they got clear. They went to Painbeuff, in France, and thence to Brest; and then sailed for Boston, where he was discharged; and went to Narragansett and remained with his family one year. He then enlisted in Col. Green's R.I. regiment, of which Col. Onley was Lieutenant Colonel, and marched to join the regiment lying at Cromproud, in York State. An officer and 24 men, were drafted from it to form a select corps of Light Infantry, formed under Col. Scammel. Jacques was in this detachment, they embarked at Peekskill, and passed down on the west side of the Hudson, and landed in the evening at Phillip's house 5 miles above Kings' Bridge; marched that night to a position [rest of line missing] day break were attacked by the Yagers and other Hessian troops. After a smart skirmish their enemies fled. The battalion remained drawn up on the edge of a marsh, on the further side of which to the west, there were bushed two hundred yards in front. Jacques observed a smoke rise from a bush, and at that instant he received a ball in his breast, which went through his body and was afterwards cut out under the shoulder blade. An officer, seeing he was wounded, directed him to retire; he placed his musket against a fence, at their backs, got over and walked up the road, and in a short time met General Washington with some officers. The General asked him if he was wounded, he said he was he then told him to walk on slowly, and he would soon meet wagons coming down for the wounded." He got into one, and was finally carried to the hospital at Robinson's farm, in the Highlands, and thence removed in the fall to New Windsor. He was wounded on the 3d July, 1784, and was not fit for duty till Christmas following, when he joined the regiment at Philadelphia, after the fall of Lord Cornwallis. They lay there that winter, and in the spring marched to Verplank's Point, where they continued that summer and went into winter quarters at Saratoga. In June following, 1783, those enlisted for the duration of the war, were discharged - those for three years remained till Christmas, and were then discharged. In February 1782, while lying at Saratoga, a detachment of the R.I. regiment under Capt. Holden, joined an expedition under Capt Willet, of New York, against Fort Oswego. Jacques was among them; - they assembled at Fort Herkimer, on the Mohawk, to the number of 500 men - marched thro' a wilderness, and proceeded in sleighs the length of the Oneida Lake, 36 miles. At 8 miles from the Fort they made scaling ladders, intending at day break to storm the Fort; but their guide, an Oneida Indian, called Capt. John, either by mistake or design, conducted them wrong. They wandered in the woods, and were discovered. The garrison was alarmed and on their guard, - and being too numerous to be overcome, except by surprise, which was now frustrated the party was obliged to retire. They were pursued, and many of the sleigh drivers having deserted with their sleighs, they were reduced to great straights, and suffered extremely from the weather, many being frozen, and some lost their toes, feet, &c. They however all reached the inhabited country. At the close of the war, Jacques rejoined his family, and remained in Narragansett till the year 1800, when he removed to Ferrisburgh, in Vermont, where he is now living. He has a pension from the United States of $8 per month. His wife is industrious and prudent; and they have a daughter living who is also industrious, and contributes to their comfort. They live in a house which he built on a farm belonging to one of his sons-in-law, a thriving farmer - and they appear to live comfortably. Jacques has become blind within two or three years, and is a good deal bent with age, but in other respects healthy; is quick of apprehension, intelligent, and his memory good. It does not appear that his habits were ever intemperate. - He was a hard worker - but rather a loose and careless manager of his affairs, and therefore never made much advance in acquiring property. He was tall, very athletic, and has undoubtedly been a first rate man in hardihood, both of mind and body. He carried with him to Vermont two sons, now rather past middle age, but still stout laborers, and have been distinguished boxers."

The writer, is a resident of Ferrisburgh, in 1827 and '28, made several visits to this remarkable man, and drew from him this narrative of his life and adventures. He was interested and gratified in these interviews - by conversing with a man who had lived so long, and suffered so much in the service of his country; and though always in a humble station, from which he never appeared to aim at rising, yet it was obvious there was a latent sentiment of warm feeling for his country always at hand, and ready to be roused into action, on every occasion. And he was well qualified to render service, in the humble stations of a soldier and sailor - faithful to those engagements - and seemed never to have been troubled with any doubts of their propriety. The P A L L A D I U M Weekly Advertiser, Wednesday, January 13, 1836 Vol. I No. 29.

  • This is the second part of an interview done with Nathan Jaquays when in his late 80s The first half is beow Mar 26, 2017 at 1:06
  • 3
    Needs editing into the other answer. Mar 26, 2017 at 8:44

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