Captain Gideon Olmsted Fights the American Revolution – For 30 Years

Gideon Olmsted, a Connecticut sea captain, departed Hartford and put to sea in Dec. 1777 with a cargo of horses, onions, tobacco, barrel hoops and bricks. His destination aboard his ship the Seaflower was Guadalupe. There he off-loaded his wares and took on a cargo of molasses, coffee, tea and salt. But on his return trip to Connecticut, in April of 1778, his vessel was intercepted and seized by the British warship Weir.

Olmsted’s crew was held prisoner on board British ships and taken to Haiti. After a short stay in a jail, Olmsted was released at liberty. His captors had taken all his valuables and left him with only the clothes on his back.

In August, 1778 Olmsted was put aboard the British merchant vessel Active, along with three other prisoners brought on to work aboard the ship and sail it to New York under Captain John Underwood. Under the protection of a 20-gun British vessel, Glasgow, and two warships, the Active joined a convoy departing Haiti. Also in the convoy was the Seaflower, sailing for New York under its new British captain.

The Active made its way up the Atlantic Coast, approaching the Virginia shore. A friendly British privateer with 16 guns pulled alongside the Active with a dire warning. The British had left Philadelphia and the waters around the city were teeming with American privateers.

Captain Underwood of the Active adjusted his course to sail well-east of the coast. Working north off New Jersey. Another British ship pulled alongside the Active. Its captain had more bad news. All along New Jersey, the American privateers had control of the waters.

If the Active saw any sail at all, the captain could be certain it was an unfriendly privateer because the British had blocked any vessels from leaving New York harbor. Further, he warned, an encounter with a British warship would prove equally unfriendly. The British were capturing any seamen they found and pressing them into service aboard British vessels.

gideon olmstead

Line engraving depicting the Active hove to with a fishing vessel port side of its bow. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England.

The captain of the Active adjusted course once again. He would try to reach Long Island. On deck, he mounted two small guns that he would use if small boats tried harassing him. Musket shot was brought to the deck to be ready for any fight.

The following night, as the watch changed over at midnight, Olmsted and three of his fellow crew members put a plan in action to capture the Active. They tightly secured the companionway, sealing the captain inside. The men had assumed that there were no usable weapons below deck.  They were wrong.

What followed was a standoff, the captain and remaining crew would fire from below deck attempting to kill Olmsted and his men. They also jammed the vessels rudder, restricting the ship’s movements.

Olmsted and his men, meanwhile, worked to seal off the cabin completely. When the captain kept up his firing, Olmsted’s men fired one of the small guns into the cabin. That brought the fighting to an end. The ship’s captain agreed to cease hostilities and freed up the rudder, with promises from Olmsted that no one would be harmed.

With that, Olmsted set course for Egg Harbor, N.J. But before he could bring the ship in, it was waylaid by an American privateer, the Convention, from Pennsylvania. Olmsted tried to convince the captain of the Convention that he should pursue the Seaflower and her rich cargo, which was bound for New York.

But the Pennsylvania captain had other plans. The Active, he said, was now his prize because Olmsted was acting without commission and thus could not legally seize the vessel. Unswayed by any arguments, the Convention led the Active toward Philadelphia.

As soon as he was off the ship, Olmsted sought out Benedict Arnold, who was in command of the Americans at Pennsylvania, and explained what had happened. Arnold assured Olmsted that he should have the Active as his prize, as he was acting under the orders approved by the Continental Congress.

The Philadelphia Court of Admiralty didn’t agree with Arnold’s interpretation. The court ordered that the proceeds from the sale of the Active should be divided. Olmsted and his fellow crew members would receive one quarter of the money. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the owners of the Convention, and another vessel that was sailing in support of the Convention, would divide the remainder.

Olmsted and his compatriots were due roughly $24,000. A healthy sum. But Olmsted rejected the offer and appealed to the Congress itself for justice. Congress did, in fact, side with Olmsted. But it would take 30 more years before he received his money.

Pennsylvania argued that Congress did not have authority to overrule a state court. Congress, meanwhile, needed Pennsylvania’s support for the Revolutionary War. It was reluctant to press the point.

Olmsted pursued his prize for decades and finally, in 1809, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Olmsted’s favor, in a landmark ruling the established the supremacy of federal courts. The win was somewhat of a pyrrhic victory. By the time Olmsted received payment, the value of the Active was adjudged to be just $27,000 in total. Deducting his legal fees, Olmsted made little for the capture of the Active.

Thanks to: The Journal of Gideon Olmsted.

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