Thomas Jefferson Papers

From Thomas Jefferson to Père Chauvier, 27 December 1788

To Père Chauvier

Paris Dec. 27. 1788.


I will now, according to your kind permission, take the liberty of troubling you with the details relative to the American captives now at Algiers. They were taken on board two vessels, to wit, the Maria schooner, Isaac Stephens master, bound from Boston to Cadiz, taken July 24. 1785. and the Dolphin, Richard Obrian master, bound from Portugal to Philadelphia, taken July 30. 1785. There were twenty one persons at the time of the capture. No compleat list of their names can now be obtained. A petition, dated Algiers July1 28, 17[85] is signed with the following names.

James L. Cathcart
George Smith
Thomas Billings
James Harnet
  5   of the Maria, Isaac Stephens master.
William Patterson
Peleg Lorain
Philip Sloan
John Robertson
James Hull
Charles Colvill
Edward O’Riley
  8   of the Dolphin, Richard Obrian master.

There were others there at the same time, who not having signed this paper, their names are not known: it is only known that of the 21. originally taken, 6. were dead and 15 living on the 22d. of September 1788. Either of their captains can give a list of them which may be depended on: but especially Capt. Obrian who has principally corresponded with me on behalf of these captives. They all belong to the state, or regency. The Captains have sometimes been with the Spanish consul, sometimes with the English consul. Captain Obrian was, in Sep. 1788. with Monsieur Faure, watchm[aker] to the Dey. My present prayer to you, Sir, is that you will find means to have these unfortunate men subsisted as comfortably as their condition will admit. You were so thoughtful as to suggest that it would not be prudent to supply them so lib[er]ally as to let it be suspected by the captors that our government interests itself for them. I leave this entirely to your discretion, and will replace at a moment’s warning whatever you may be so good as to have furnished for their subsistence2 and cloathing. I cannot conclude my letter, Sir, without expressing with what sincere pleasure I have observed the truly fraternal spirit with which you have undertaken to aid us in the relief of these our unfortunate brethren. A conduct so conformable with the genuine character of that religion, whose basis is charity and benevolence, proves that it’s concerns could not have been deposited in more worthy hands, and is a title the more to those sentiments of gratitude, veneration, and esteem with which I have the honour to be, Sir, your most obedient and most humble servant.

PrC (DLC); unsigned, whether intentionally or merely by omission when PrC was executed cannot be determined in absence of RC, but probably the former; right margins frayed, affecting some words of text.

Although TJ had been in touch with the Order of the Mathurins for almost two years, this appears to be the first communication with the priest of the Order who held the title of “Général et Grand Ministre.” It clearly was the result of a conference held between TJ and Chauvier shortly after TJ received Jay’s letter of 23 Sep. 1788. On this subject see TJ to Adams, 11 Jan. 1787; TJ to Jay, 1 Feb. and 19 Sep. 1787, 11 Aug. 1788; TJ to Commissioners of the Treasury, 6 Sep. 1788; Chauvier to TJ, 30 Dec. 1788. TJ’s reference to the information he had about known living and dead among the Algerine captives on the 22d. of September 1788 determines a part of the nature of Richard O’Bryen’s missing letter to him of that date, whence he had obviously obtained this information. The prisoners’ “6th Petition to Congress,” dated only a few days earlier, 16 Sep. 1788, proves also that O’Bryen’s missing letter did not cover a copy of the petition, for that appeal listed the names of those who had died and of those who were still living. This list shows that, of the crew of the Dauphin (not Dolphin), nine were still alive, including James Patterson (not William Patterson) and two persons not mentioned by TJ, Andrew Montgomery, mate, and Jacobus Tessanier, mariner; and that, of the crew of the Maria, six were still alive, including (with one exception) those mentioned by TJ, together with Alexander Forsyth, mate, and John Gregory, mariner; the exception was Thomas Billings who is not mentioned among the living or the dead. The petition records the six deceased prisoners as belonging to the Dauphin: “Robert McGinnis died of the pest the 25th June 1787. John Dorin Died of the pest the 1st July Do. Peter Smyth Died the 18th of January Do. Passenger Capt. Zacharias Coffin of Nantucket Died the 2d November 1787. Edward O’Reilly Died with the pest the 6th June 1788 William Healing Died with the pest the 8th May 1788.” The petition expressed gratitude for “the Comfortable provision, that has been allowed us, and we are much indebted to your Ambassadors in Europe for their particular attention towards us which has helped to alleviate somewhat out sufferings”; it also acknowledged that Congress had been “Employed on affairs of more Importance, to the Future happiness, and welfare of the Rising Empire,” but hoped that, now that “the new Constitution of a future Government is formed and Ratified by the United States,” attention could be turned to matters abroad and particularly to their redemption (Tr in DNA: PCC, No. 59, III, 181–4, accompanied by Tr of an undated letter from O’Bryen to his principals, Messrs. Matthew & Thomas Irwin of Philadelphia, stating that he had addressed upwards of thirty letters to them without receiving a single reply and urging them to respond “under Cover to Mr. Carmichael the American Ambassador at Madrid or to Mr. Jefferson Esqr. American Ambassador at Paris”; Tr of the petition to Congress was sent to O’Bryen’s principals under cover of a letter from “Algiers the City of Bondage December the 20th. 1788,” also present in Tr—all of which were enclosed in Matthew Irwin’s letter to Washington, 9 July 1789; same). The petition is also confirmatory evidence that the efforts made by TJ to furnish subsistence and cloathing had succeeded, a fact which must have altered O’Bryen’s earlier opinion and must also have been acknowledged in the missing letter to TJ of 22 Sep. 1788.

1TJ refers here by erroneous date to the petition of the prisoners to Congress of 28 Aug. 1785 (JCC description begins Worthington C. Ford and others, eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789, Washington, D.C., 1904–37, 34 vols. description ends , xxix, 844, 906, 909; xxx, 11–12; see O’Bryen to TJ, 24 Aug. 1785, and TJ’s response, 29 Sep. 1785).

2This word interlined in substitution for “board,” deleted.

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