Chippewa was one of three sleek-hulled brigs constructed by the United States Navy at the close of the War of 1812. These vessels were originally intended to join two squadrons of small, fast cruisers charged with breaking a British naval blockade then in place off the East Coast of the United States. In terms of design, speed and firepower, the brigs and schooners that comprised the raiding squadrons rivaled the best American privateers then in service. Unlike privateers, however, they were capable of engaging armed British naval vessels such as convoy guards and light cruisers. They could also attack and destroy British merchantmen without the necessity of profiting from prizes, as was the case with privateers.
Profile view of the US Brig Chippewa
Chippewa was built at a shipyard in Warren, Rhode Island in 1815. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry personally directed the brig’s construction. Chippewa’s hull was based on a design by shipwright William Doughty (Chief Naval Constructor at the Washington Navy Yard), who was also responsible for the design and development of its sister brigs Boxer and Saranac. According to Chapelle, Doughty’s plans for these vessels cannot be positively identified; however, one set of surviving draughts from the National Archives may represent the design upon which Chippewa and Saranac were based. The plans describe an 18-gun clipper brig with a length between perpendiculars of 108 feet; moulded beam of 29 feet, 9 inches; and a depth of hold of 13 feet, 9 inches. Although not specifically stated in Doughty’s plans, Chippewa reportedly had a maximum draught of 16 feet, 6 inches, and displaced between 390 and 410 tons. According to contemporary accounts, all three brigs were hastily constructed of green timber—an error that would precipitate their rapid decay in a relatively short period of time.
Outfitting and Completion
Its hull completed, Chippewa was sent to the New York Navy Yard to be manned and outfitted. Although most secondary historical sources identify Chippewa’s armament as consisting of 16 guns, there is some disagreement in official naval correspondence regarding its actual compliment of artillery. Originally, all of the Doughty-designed brigs were to be armed with two long 18-pounders, two long 12-pounders, and a complement of 32-pounder carronades that would comprise the remainder of each vessel’s armament.
Saranac and Chippewa were both armed with fourteen carronades apiece, which would have increased their actual total complement of artillery from sixteen to eighteen guns. Correspondence between members of the Navy’s command structure may explain the discrepancy. According to Howard Chapelle, a recognized ship expert, one officer stated in a letter that the Navy expected “each brig to carry two more guns than her rating.” This, Chapelle suggests, is the reason why the official rating for each brig was smaller than its actual battery size and design parameters indicated.
By the time Chippewa’s outfitting was completed, the War of 1812 was over. However, the British threat was quickly replaced by the depredations of North Africa’s Barbary pirates, who preyed upon American merchantmen operating in the Mediterranean Sea.
In May 1815, a U.S. Navy squadron under the command of Commodore Stephen Decatur sailed to the Mediterranean to negotiate a peace treaty with the Barbary States of Algiers, Tunis and Tripoli. A second American squadron led by Commodore William Bainbridge embarked for North Africa in July. Chippewa, under the command of Lieutenant George C. Read, sailed from Boston with the latter group. Decatur negotiated a peace treaty with the Bey of Algiers prior to the arrival of Bainbridge’s flotilla; consequently, Chippewa’s crew spent most of their Mediterranean cruise making goodwill stops in various coastal ports. On 6 October 1815, Chippewa departed for Boston. It was placed in ordinary upon its arrival at the Charlestown (Massachusetts) Navy Yard.
Chippewa returned to active duty the following year, and departed Boston for the Gulf of Mexico on 27 November 1816. George Read, recently promoted to the rank of Captain, resumed command of the brig. Captain Read’s orders were to proceed to the waters off southern Louisiana, rendezvous with the United States Navy frigate Congress, and participate in anti-piracy patrols in the Caribbean Sea. On the evening of 12 December 1816, while en route to the Gulf of Mexico, Chippewa grounded on a coral reef approximately two miles off the Northwest Point of the “Providence or Blue Caycos” (present-day Providenciales) in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Chippewa’s crew made several attempts to warp the vessel off the reef, and tried to lighten the brig by throwing all of its shot overboard. Despite these efforts, Chippewa remained stuck on the reef and within a few hours of grounding, its hull bilged. Shortly thereafter, the brig heeled over on its starboard side and Captain Read gave the order to abandon ship. All crewmembers were safely transported to land, and no loss of life resulted from the wreck.
According to contemporary accounts, very little—with the exception of provisions, water and clothing—was recovered from Chippewa by its crew. However, local wreckers arrived at the reef within a day of the vessel’s loss, and almost certainly salvaged material from the wreck during subsequent visits. Chippewa’s officers visited the wreck site one last time while en route to the United States and reported that the hull was “on top of the Reef with not more than Eighteen inches water at Low Water.” There are no U.S. Navy records that discuss the wreck’s disposition after 1816.