Haverford Quaker John Humphreys’ Influence Over the Burgeoning U.S. Navy

In addition to militia involvement, this local Quaker had his hand in U.S. war efforts during the Revolution as an accomplished ship builder.

Be careful where your kids hang out. You could end up like Quakers Joshua and 
Sarah Humphreys of Haverford who, in 
1765, signed over their son, Joshua Jr., as an apprentice “to learn the art of ship-building”—merchant ships, that is—at a shipyard on the Delaware.

During the Revolution, Humphreys outfitted privateers. Later, he designed the frigate U.S.S. Constitution and other vessels. He’s been called the “father” of the U.S. Navy. In fact, two Navy ships—
a Word War I destroyer and an oiler—were named for him.

Also cause for his mother’s grief: Humphreys eschewed the family’s faith. “Quakers were losing their dominant
role” even before Humphreys was born, according to historian Richard Eddy. 
“The immigrations of Scotch-Irish Pres-
byterians were gaining in strength. The city’s non-Quaker population was growing. [Philadelphia’s] role as a commercial trade center was eroding the previously dominant Quaker ethic.”
Joshua Humphreys was the grandson of Welsh immigrant Daniel Humphreys, who arrived in Pennsylvania in 1682. Daniel married Hannah Wynne, the daughter of William Penn’s physician, bought a large tract of land and acquired a mill on Cobb’s Creek.

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East of the creek, roughly facing the Old Haverford Meetinghouse on Eagle Road in Havertown, Daniel  built a home local historians still refer to as the “Mansion House.” So prosperous 
was the family that the settlement that grew along nearby Lancaster Turnpike was called Humphreysville until 1869, when a developer chose the sexier “Bryn Mawr.”

But the Quakers’ egalitarianism proved their undoing. Unlike those who settled other colonies, Quakers tended to split their estates among all their children. They didn’t give everything to the males, like the Puritans, or to the eldest son, like the Virginians. Everybody got a piece.

Daniel Humphreys had 13 children. His sixth son, Joshua—who inherited the mill on Cobb’s Creek—had five children. A mill 
can’t be divided, so Joshua Sr. knew some of his boys would need other things to do.

Business and family connections led to James Penrose, who ran a shipyard on the Delaware in Southwark with John Wharton, a Humphreys cousin. In 1758, Joshua Sr. had purchased a nearby timber yard that was one of Penrose’s suppliers. Eventually, as young Joshua grew older, his father and Penrose had a conversation. In 1765, at age 14, Joshua Jr. went to work at the shipyard.

Three years prior, during the French and Indian War, Penrose had built a 24-gun privateer, the Hero, which captured sev-eral prizes. And while it might have been natural to presume that peace would mean a renewed focus on merchant vessels,
that isn’t how everything turned out. Penrose and Wharton were both active in local non-importation groups, which organized Philadelphia merchants to protest the Stamp Act by boycotting the goods on which its tax was placed. Penrose’s brother, 
Thomas, was a leading member of Philadelphia’s Committee of Correspondence, which helped organize intercolonial resistance to Boston. Wharton’s brother, Charles, would become a member of the Continen-tal Congress. Turns out Humphreys had joined a nest of radicals.

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In addition to the influence of his employer, “it appears reasonable that the young Joshua could have been exposed to the talk of coastal trading men complaining about the restrictions and taxes [of] the British government,” wrote Eddy.
Humphreys learned well in all respects. 
After Penrose died in 1771, he “single-handedly” (according to one account) finished the 300-ton ship, Sally. It took two 
years for Wharton—who wasn’t active 
in the day-to-day running of the business
—to make Humphreys a full partner. 
Regardless, Humphreys was effectively in charge of the shipyard at the age of 20.

By 1775 or so, Humphreys had not only joined a company of volunteer militia, he was its captain—indicating that he’d probably recruited the men himself. The unit served at the Battle of Princeton in 1776 and was called up in 1777 to man the river forts.

Humphreys married around this time. His wife, Mary Davids, was a Quaker, but they ignored Friends’ procedures. Married by a justice of the peace, both were dropped from membership. Humphreys’ mother died not long after.
“With the ‘disuniting’ of young Joshua and his wife having already impacted the family,” observed Eddy, “one can wonder whether or not the feeling of the loss of this woman from her husband and son was one of deep pathos. No such word 
is written.”

After the Pennsylvania Assembly ap-
propriated 35,000 pounds for military preparations, Humphreys won a contract to build the first two of 13 row galleys to defend the river approach to Philadelphia. Construction of the Experiment and Washington took 16 days each.

The boats were not universally praised. Privateer captain John MacPherson said they were unfit to carry guns and proposed changes to make them easier to handle in the strong river currents. Humphreys himself admitted that his first efforts 
had been—as the name of one implied—an experiment.

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When Congress decided to create a national navy, it also turned to Humphreys, who converted a small fleet of merchant vessels: Alfred, Columbus, Andrea Doria, Cabot and Providence. Strengthening decks 
and cutting additional gun ports for the 30-gun, 400-ton Alfred took 42 days. Overhauling the 10-gun Providence took six days. In December 1775, Congress authorized construction of three cruisers. One contract went to Humphreys, who produced a 32-gun frigate, the Randolph.

For Humphreys, the brief career of the 
Randolph turned out to be a lesson on the 
importance of heavy-duty warship con-struction. In March 1778, Capt. Nicholas 
Biddle chose to take on the much larger British ship-of-the-line Yarmouth and its 64 guns. But when a cannonball pierced the hull and the interior powder magazine, the Randolph exploded, killing all but four of its 315-man crew.

Continued on page 2 …

Little information exists on Humphreys’ post-war activities. Among his papers, there is nothing between 1779 and 1794, when he corresponded with Sen. Robert Morris regarding large frigates. However, it has been estimated that Humphreys had designed, built or repaired perhaps 300 merchant ships by the early 1790s.

Ironically, he never went to sea. That was true of many shipbuilders. Humphreys also admitted that he’d never even seen one of the great European battleships. Yet, with 30 years of experience on the Delaware, the kid from Haverford knew far more about naval architecture than most of the captains who took his ships to sea. Humphreys remained among the busiest shipbuilders in the city.

The navy that Humphreys helped to build was liquidated after the war. Its last ship, the Alliance, was sold in 1785. After that, the nation’s merchant ships were vulnerable to predators like the Barbary pirates, who seized their first U.S. ship in 1784. In 1793 alone, 11 American ships were captured and held for ransom. To deal with the problem, Congress in 1794 authorized construction of six frigates.

According to historian Ian Toll, building this type of ship represented a compromise between the new nation’s limited resources 
and the demands of naval warfare. 
Frigates of the period were considered intermediate warships—smaller and faster than heavy battleships, but carrying more firepower than smaller sloops and brigs.

Humphreys apparently began lobbying officials before Congress acted. (His 1794 letter to Morris referenced earlier letters.) His proposal for extra-large frigates—175 
feet long with 30 guns—was the first to 
hit Secretary of War Henry Knox’s desk. “They are superior to any European 
frigate,” Humphreys claimed. “And if others should be in [the enemy’s] company, they can always lead ahead and never be obliged to go into action, but on their own terms.”

Under the right circumstances, he insisted, the ships’ extra size and weight would allow them to rival battleships while still dominating smaller ships.

Critics said Humphreys’ ships would be too long and narrow, and therefore structurally weak. Regardless, officials appreciated how his proposal spent tax-payers’ dollars wisely. Humphreys’ design was adopted and he was awarded a contract to build one of the ships—the United States, launched in 1797. The Constitution was built in Boston. The remaining four ships were built at other East Coast cities.

Humphreys was exacting in his specifications, both in design and materials. The beams and decks must be of Carolina pine, and the decks of red cedar. Most  important, the ships’ main structural pieces must be made of live oak. Then found only in a 20-mile-wide coastal zone stretching from Virginia to East Texas, live oak is dense and heavy. “Properly seasoned, it was said to have a lifespan five times that of white oak,” wrote Toll. “But shipyard workers also dreaded the extra work it took to cut, shape and manipulate.”

Harvesting live oak was no picnic, either. Sent to St. Simons Island, Ga., on a timber-cutting expedition, one supervisor found workers living in lean-tos on the edge of a swamp, working in constant rain and mud, and tormented by mosquitoes. Nor was Humphreys overly appreciative. After receiving one lumber shipment, he wrote back, “The most ignorant Negro
you have employed would have had 
sufficient understanding to know it 
would not do.”
Apparently, Humphreys could be a bit of an S.O.B.

The Barbary pirates were whipped. The Constitution is still afloat at Boston. Humphreys’ United States was captured in 1861 when the Confederacy seized the naval base at Norfolk, Va. A year later, the rebels sank it in the Elizabeth River to obstruct Union vessels. According to an account of the scuttling, the men trying to sink it ruined “a whole box of axes” on the tough, well-preserved hull. Ultimately, they bored through the hull from the inside.

Most of Humphreys’ children seem to have joined the Episcopalians.

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