I have written several blog posts about my early Dickinson family in New London, CT. My 4th great grandparents, Nathaniel Dickinson and Elisabeth Bill Dickinson, had seven children with one having died young. My line comes down through their son, David Bill Dickinson, however I want to digress at bit and tell you about David Bill Dickinson’s younger brother, John.
John Dickinson was born about 1792 and was the youngest son of Nathaniel and Elisabeth. John was about 5 years old when his father died at sea in 1797. Nathaniel had been a seaman, and the family lived close to the wharf/dock area of New London. Times were probably very difficult for Elisabeth, a widow with six small children, and as you might expect the boys began working at a very early age.
Like their father, the Dickinson boys found work on the ships of New London. David Bill Dickinson was documented as working in 1801 in New London in the Seamen’s Protection Certificate Register at 13 years of age. And his brother, John Dickinson is also found in the Register in 1804 working at only 12 years of age.
John Dickinson was noted in the Seamen’s Protection Register as having been born in New London, age 12, with light complexion, height at 4’7”, with a scar on the “left elbow joint of the little finger of left hand” and pock marks. In 1796, Congress passed an act to protect American merchant seamen from impressment. The certificates were used to verify the identity and nationality of American seamen traveling abroad. Seamen were issued a one page Protection Certificate as proof of their American citizenship.
Our John Dickinson was mentioned in letters written in 1835 by his brother, David Bill Dickinson. David wrote that his “youngest Brother, John, was also in the Service of his Country during the Late War, and was on board the United States Ship Constitution with Commodores Hull and Bainbridge, in the Battles and Capture of Guerriere and Java – since the War he was in the United States Service at New Orleans, where he lost his life while on Duty…”
David’s mention of the “Late War” referred to the War of 1812. And of course, I decided to try and find out more about John and his time aboard the USS Constitution. There is a very good website for the Constitution at https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/ where they include a list of the crew, and it includes John Dickinson.
A little bit about the USS Constitution – this ship is a three-masted wooden hulled heavy frigate, and the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy that is still afloat. It is usually berthed in Boston Harbor at the Naval History and Heritage Command. The Constitution occasionally sails in the Boston harbor, down the coast to the Charleston Navy Yard for servicing, and for special celebrations. While docked in Boston, it is also sometimes available for tours.
A couple of the ship’s most famous sea battles came during the War of 1812 when it defeated British war ships and garnered the nickname “Old Ironsides” because the ship’s strong oak hull seemed impenetrable. According to the USS Constitution Museum, our John Dickinson was a crew member during the time of the most famous of battles in the War of 1812 with the British ships, the HMS Guerriere and the HMS Java at a time when he was about 20 years old.
The record of John Dickinson’s service that is provided by the USS Constitution Museum:
Ship’s Crew: John Dickinson
Rank: Able Seaman
Dates of Service: 8/4/1811 – 2/17/1813
Early Life: Dickinson’s place and date of birth are unknown.
Early Experience: Dickinson served as a seaman on board the USS Essex prior to August 1811.
Aboard the USS Constitution: Dickinson joined Constitution’s crew as an able seaman on August 4, 1811. He was discharged at Boston, Massachusetts sometime after February 17, 1813.
Battles and Engagements: During 1811 and early 1812, the ship patrolled the American coast enforcing US trade laws and carried out a diplomatic mission to France and Holland. Dickinson participated in the battle with HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812 and with HMS Java on December 29, 1812. During the battle with HMS Java, Dickinson helped pass empty cartridge boxes to the magazine by way of the steerage hatch. He received $42.62 ½ and $42.30 as his share of the prize money for the two victories.
Other: Ledgers show that Dickinson reported to sick bay aboard the Constitution on May 25, 1812 with a severe pain in the liver. Dr Amos Evans administered several doses of ipecac and castor oil. After three days he returned to duty.
An able seaman was an important member of the crew. Having sailed for years on vessels, he would have worked his way up through the ranks in the navy. Officers relied on able seamen for the smooth operation of the ship. The traditional requirements for a seaman in John Dickinson’s time were that he be able to hand (furl or take in a sail), reef (reduce a sail's area), and steer, but these were in fact the minimum requirements for the seaman rating. In addition, they were expected to be familiar with nearly all aspects of shipboard labor. He had to be able to cast the sounding lead, be able to sew a sail with a palm and needle, understand all parts of the rigging and the stowage of the hold. Furthermore, he had to know how to fight, as part of a gun crew or with small arms. An able seaman made about $12 per month during the War of 1812.
Below is a painting of the battle between the USS Constitution and the HMS Guerriere. The battle took place south of Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1812 and demonstrated that the Americans could stand up to the world’s greatest sea power. The Constitution suffered losses: 7 seamen died and 7 were wounded. And on the Guerriere: 15 men were killed and 78 wounded. The Americans captured 257 prisoners before the Guerriere sank.
USS Constitution also engaged with the HMS Java late in 1812 with John Dickinson still among the crew. The battle took place near Portugal, when the Java started the battle even though the Constitution was a superior vessel. The Constitution suffered losses: 9 seamen died and 47 were wounded. And on the Java: 22 men were killed including the captain, and 102 were wounded. The HMS Java typically had a crew of about 275, but she had about 425 aboard at the time of her engagement with the Constitution.
Other than the information shared in David Bill Dickinson’s letter, and the information gathered from the Museum of the Constitution, I haven’t found much else about John Dickinson. I don’t know if he ever married, but it is doubtful. And I don’t know when he died, only that David’s reference letter indicates that he died after the War of 1812, aboard a United States naval ship that was in service somewhere near New Orleans.
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Nathaniel Dickinson (1749 – 1797)
Elizabeth Bill Dickinson (~1760/1766 – 1819)
Nathaniel Dickinson (1780-1781) died in infancy
Elizabeth Dickinson (1782-1862)
Martha Dickinson (1782-1862)
Jerome (Jereme or Jeremiah) Chapman Dickinson (1785-1817)
David Bill Dickinson (1787 – 1846) my 3rd great grandfather
John Dickinson (~1792-aft 1813)
Sally Brooks Dickinson (bef 1797 - ?)
– Jane Scribner McCrary