KEYS HISTORY: ‘ALLIGATOR’ LIBERATES SHIPS FROM PIRATES

The U.S. Schooner Alligator cultivated a rich story over its short life. It begins in the Charlestown Navy Yard near Boston, where the 86-foot long ship-of-war was constructed. 

The Alligator was one of five swift 12-gun schooners built to fight pirates and combat the slave trade. It also left a significant mark on the history of the Florida Keys.

The U.S. Schooner Alligator was commissioned in March 1821 and assigned to the West Indies Squadron under the command of Commodore James Biddle. The Alligator’s inaugural mission was not just a military one, but largely one of a humanitarian nature. The schooner escorted representatives of the American Colonizing Society to the west coast of Africa. The objective of the society, founded in 1817, was to repatriate freed slaves. The purpose of the journey was to find land on which to create a colony. 

In 1821, the colony was established at Cape Mersurado. Its largest settlement was named Monrovia and, in 1822, the territory was named Liberia. In 1847, it declared its independence and was recognized as the Republic of Liberia. By 1867, 13,000 freed slaves had arrived on Liberia’s shores.

The Alligator sailed back across the Atlantic Ocean, and, in June 1822, command of the schooner was assigned to Lieutenant William H. Allen. Allen was given orders to sail for the West Indies. Including Allen and Lieutenant Dale, Allen’s second in command, the ship was armed with a crew of nine officers and 45 seamen and marines. By November, the Alligator was patrolling off the north coast of Cuba. 

It was November 8 when the ship sailed into the harbor at Matanzas. The events that followed the Alligator’s arrival in the port were accounted for in a letter penned by Lt. Dale and reprinted in the Philadelphia Gazette on Nov. 28, 1822. Dale wrote: “…informed that two American vessels were captured by the pirates, in a bay round Point Hicacos, about forty miles to the windward of this place. We immediately stood out, taking with us the captain of one, and the mate of the other vessel, who had been sent here to ransom them; as also a small American schooner, which the captain and merchants were fitting out.” 

When the Alligator sailed out of the harbor, the small schooner Ploughshares followed. They came upon the captured ships the following morning. Dade wrote, “Early on the morning of the 9th, we discovered several to an anchor among the Stone Keys, near the cape, and a schooner getting under way; the water being shoal, we came to an anchor and manned the boats.”

The crew of the Alligator split up among the auxiliary ships and readied for battle. Lt. Allen, Captain Freeman, the master of the captured merchant vessel, and 13 men boarded the launch.

Dale, the mate of the other ship being held for ransom, and 10 additional men boarded the cutter.

Five men boarded the Alligator’s small gig. In the small American schooner Ploughshare, Lt. Cunningham, the master of the schooner, and 22 men joined the rest and set off to engage the pirates.

“Revenge” was carved into the side of one of the pirate schooners. Approximately 30 cutthroats crowded the decks. A broadside of round and grapeshot was fired at the approaching marines, but the pirates’ aim proved wild. None of the Alligator’s auxiliary ships suffered damage. On the contrary, as the marines drew closer, accurate musket fire began to cripple the pirates who were forced to attempt escape. 

During the skirmish, the pirates wounded several marines, three mortally. Among those killed was Lt. Allen. Command of the Alligator shifted to his second in command, Lt. Dale. Nine days after the fight, Dale and the Alligator were escorting the liberated American ships and the captured pirate schooner Revenge to Norfolk, Virginia. One of the American ships, the Ann Maria, was a merchant vessel carrying a load of molasses. Like most in the convoy, the Ann Maria was built for capacity and not for speed, and it did not take long for the convoy, including the Ann Maria, to fall behind. 

Before leaving Matanzas, Lt. Dale learned that pirates were planning to attack the convoy’s stragglers. Dale’s concern only increased as the ships fell increasingly behind. To slow the Alligator, Dale ordered the schooner to begin tacking maneuvers. Because the lieutenant understood the treacherous nature of these waters, he ordered soundings to gauge the depth of the water taken every 30 minutes. At 9:00 p.m., November 20, the water showed 270 feet. Approximately 30 minutes later, the Alligator came to a sudden halt as it ground against the shallow corals of the Matecumbe Reef.

In 1873, Alligator Reef Lighthouse was erected to warn passing sailors of the proximity of the dangerous corals. The reef was several miles offshore of the Matecumbe keys. Today, that reef is known as Alligator Reef. Both the reef and the light acknowledge the swift 12-gun schooner built to fight pirates and combat the slave trade that struck the reef in 1822.

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Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, and Florida Keys historian. His latest book, “The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files,” is a fun blend of two of his favorite subjects — Florida Keys history and the Skunk Ape.