The Last Voyage of Andrew Sterett

By Terrence S. McCormack

Ex-Navy: Like Captain, Like Ship

The 396-ton, three-masted Warren , with copper sheathing and a carved figurehead, had been built in 1799 as a Navy sloop-of-war for the Quasi-War. She was acquired in 1801 by a group of three merchant firms, “men of the highest commercial standing in Baltimore” with big plans for their acquisition. The most powerful investor in the venture was S. Smith & Buchanan, the successful partnership headed by U.S. Senator Samuel Smith of Maryland. “General” Smith had been a Cabinet secretary and remained an adviser to the Jefferson administration. He also was older brother to Navy Secretary Robert Smith.

The Warren ’s principal owner was Lemuel Taylor, a merchant who had been active in Baltimore maritime affairs for at least ten years. Taylor’s ships traded in a world at war, and he lost vessels to English, French, and Spanish privateers. Earlier in 1806 he had joined other local merchants and traders, signing a lengthy memorial to President Jefferson and Congress protesting Britain’s “ Essex Decision,” which had legalized expanded attacks on American shipping. Taylor was appointed by the other Warren owners to act for them as the ship’s managing owner, or “husband.” To him fell the day-to-day task of outfitting the vessel to realize the owners’ global-trade vision. Their plan, as generally understood, would send the Warren first to the Pacific Northwest to trade its cargo with the Indians for furs, and then to bargain those furs at Canton, China, for exotic commodities (tea, porcelain, etc.) to bring home. Potentially the exchange of goods at each successive market (Northwest—Orient—Baltimore) could compound profits and bring the investors an enormous return.

The Warren had been purchased as ready to “put to sea at small expense.” 4 Still, about two months of activity was required before she could weigh anchor. So Taylor, the “husband,” and Andrew Sterett, employed by him as shipmaster, labored together to prepare the ship for her projected 18-month cruise.

Sterett apparently advised Taylor in hiring the Warren ’s officers. All four were furloughed from Navy service (perhaps with help from Samuel and Robert Smith) and known to Sterett either personally or by reputation. They recently had arrived from Barbary War duty in the Mediterranean. One of them, Master-Commandant Samuel Evans, was hired at 40 dollars per month as the Warren ’s first mate and Sterett’s next-in-command.

Sterett and Taylor certainly visited the Baltimore’s Merchants Coffee-House, a short walk from the Custom House (itself a few doors from Taylor’s office), to plan and discuss Warren business. The Coffee-House, supplied with letter bags for departing ships and stocked with useful periodicals, was the local source for maritime news and business gatherings, sought out by merchants and sea captains alike. The proprietor cultivated his patrons for information and communicated directly with correspondents in Europe. He published the Baltimore Weekly Price-Current (quoted by area newspapers and reprinted all over the country), which included within its pages a comprehensive tally of America’s ships at sea.

A waterfront visitor observing the Warren and aware of her owners’ influence might wonder whether a military operation was being planned: Captain Sterett hired a gunner, a gunner’s mate, and an armorer, as well as a drummer and a fifer for the crew. The Aurora , a Philadelphia newspaper, reported that “a large ship [with numerous crew] is fitting out in Baltimore for an expedition” and surmised that it was destined for the West Indies with military stores to aid the rebellions of either Francisco de Miranda in Venezuela or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti. The Aurora expressed hope that local customs officers would detain the ship without deference to the owners (obviously alluding to Senator Smith).

In response, a Baltimore paper, the American , claimed to have made its own inquiry about the Warren and decided that the Aurora ’s report could not be justified. 5 However, one prominent Baltimore merchant considered a different angle and wrote to a Boston colleague opining that as the Warren “will be strongly armed, we presume the object is smuggling.” 6

A Suspicious Supercargo

Taylor and Sterett provisioned their ship for six months, bringing livestock aboard for fresh meat, and stowing casks of drinking water below the cargo hold.They procured shot and powder for 20 guns, and a selection of small arms to fill the ship’s magazine.

Among Lemuel Taylor’s responsibilities was the hiring of the ship’s supercargo, an agent of the owners who traveled with the cargo, selling it to best advantage at destination, and buying for return. This individual managed the cargo but had no power to interfere with governing the ship or the crew—that was strictly Captain Sterett’s domain.

Taylor soon met up in town with an experienced supercargo named Procopio Jacinto Pollock, who had recently returned from work in Mexico. Pollock was 35 years old, a native of Spanish New Orleans, and the oldest son of a major financier of the American Revolution, Oliver Pollock. The elder Pollock had been the United States’ commercial agent in New Orleans during the Revolution, and had raised Procopio among Spanish Louisiana’s merchant elite. Though residing in Pennsylvania by 1796, Procopio remained interested in Spain’s American colonies and even sought an official introduction to the governor of Havana. 7 In March 1797, President George Washington appointed him as consul general to the port of New Orleans, but young Pollock probably never took office and resigned nonetheless in May 1799.

In the year prior to meeting Taylor, Pollock had traveled twice to Veracruz, Mexico, while employed as Baltimore merchant Robert Oliver’s supercargo. There he joined the branch of a leading international firm to act as Oliver’s agent. Oliver was less than impressed with Pollock’s work, feeling he had cheated him “out of a large sum of money.” He replaced him in April 1806. After his dismissal, Pollock returned to Baltimore, where his father resided, and was hired by Taylor as the Warren ’s supercargo. Oliver’s opinion of Pollock was not solicited by Taylor, but privately he “regret[ted] exceedingly having anything to do with him.” 8 Pollock was described as “shrewd,” extremely guarded, and capable of the most refined deception, and he was “well-acquainted with the Spanish character and language.” 9

The owners relied heavily on Captain Sterett and supercargo Pollock for the success of the voyage. At age 28, Sterett was several years younger than Pollock, but like him was the scion of a well-to-do patriot who had fought in the Revolution. Both sons were well-travelled. And each had been nominated by the nation for important commissions: Sterett the warrior as Navy officer, Pollock the businessman as consul general. Set in motion by ambitious fathers, they had pursued glory, gain, and adventure. The bold undertaking on board the Warren was emblematic of their careers and aspirations.

By August’s end, Sterett’s crew numbered 90, including officers and apprentices. The men gladly came prepared with warm clothing for the extreme climes they would encounter. At the Custom House on Saturday, 6 September 1806, Taylor completed the Warren ’s registry and obtained her clearance certificate. The big ship was about to sail. The latest Price-Current warned of destructive weather in the Atlantic, and reported on the damaged ships returning home.

Lastly, Taylor drew up the owners’ customary “Letter of Instructions”—binding orders to guide the captain at sea, with directions and advice on financial contacts, markets and destinations, and the permissible discretion allowed. Before the ship left the wharf, Taylor delivered Letters of Instructions both to Sterett and Pollock. Back at Taylor’s counting house, a clerk made a copy and filed it. On Monday, newspapers reported that the Warren had cleared for the “North West Coast of America,” and then she was at sea.

Mission to Trade—or to Smuggle?

The Warren sailed “remarkably fast,” served by a crew “faithful, zealous, and disciplined.” 10 No sooner had she stood down the Patapsco River, rounded the new observatory at Bodkin Point, and entered Chesapeake Bay, than skeptics back in town again questioned the advertised purpose of the journey. A concerned Spanish consul in Baltimore, Juan Bautista Bernabeu, wrote to the viceroy in Lima, Peru, warning that the ship was fitted out to conduct illicit commerce on South America’s Pacific Coast—a colonial trade notoriously forbidden by Spanish law. And Robert Oliver, Pollock’s former boss, wrote to a colleague in Veracruz that “Mr. Pollock had sailed lately, supercargo of an armed ship . . . for the purpose we presume of smuggling near Lima.” 11

The Warren escaped the gale’s aftermath. In fact, weather conditions of the whole voyage were recalled as “uncommonly fine and fair.” 12 The first leg of the journey would take the ship around Cape Horn, a challenge to even the most experienced mariner. In October a sea-captain arrived in Baltimore from Bremen and reported at the Coffee-House that on 22 September he had spoken the Warren in the North Atlantic. He specified a location corresponding roughly to the latitude of the Capes of Virginia (at the mouth of the Chesapeake), but at a longitude pushing toward mid-ocean. Sterett was apparently sailing “the old conventional track south, crossing the Atlantic eastward to the Cape Verde Islands to pick up trade winds that would carry the [ Warren ] toward Brazil. . . .” 13

For several months no more was heard in Baltimore of the Warren ’s progress. But on 15 December, a ship-to-ship contact occurred that eventually would be relayed back to the Coffee-House. An unnamed vessel spoke the Warren in the South Atlantic at latitude 34 south, just below Brazil near the Rio de la Plata. Nothing was reported of conditions on the Warren , leaving the world to assume the best.

However, a major upheaval had occurred on that ship about a week before. One of the seamen, “a mere youth” named Peter Roe, was on the quarterdeck, immediately over the captain’s cabin. Peter heard a great disturbance below: a quarrel pitting Captain Sterett and the officers against Procopio Pollock. Roe listened to the officers protest that Pollock wanted to change the voyage. The supercargo produced a sealed Letter of Instructions from Lemuel Taylor. He broke it open and showed it to the officers. The instructions—radically different from those given to Sterett—ordered Pollock to take exclusive control of the voyage (upon reaching a specified latitude) and directed that instead of going to the Northwest Coast, the Warren was to engage in smuggling along the coast of Chile. The captain’s body servant (and second cook), Murray Gibson, also was present at the encounter. He remembered that when shown the letter by Pollock, Sterett stated that “he’d be damned if he would serve under any such orders; before he would do so, he would either blow out the supercargo’s brains, or his own.” 14

Word spread, quickly sending the ship into an uproar. According to Roe, the tension continued over several days, and Captain Sterett showed that his mind was “deranged” but then, at intervals, he would seem in control of his senses. Pollock’s sealed instructions—negating Sterett’s own—also effectively revoked the Shipping Articles the crew had signed and placed them in danger of capture by Spanish authorities in Chile. A few days after being shown the instructions, Sterett—during one of his unstable periods—attempted to shoot Pollock, but without success.

The captain’s disturbed state continued into another week, and the officers decided to take his pistols. Young Roe would sit up at night with Sterett, who frequently complained that he had “been taken in by the owners.” The Warren continued to sail southward. And then Sterett’s demeanor appeared to improve; he seemed to “get better.”

“One very fine day,” Captain Sterett shaved and dressed as if he were going ashore. At his request Gibson brought him his writing desk. Sterett wrote a letter, sealed it, locked it in his desk, and gave the key to Gibson. Possessing his pistols again, Captain Sterett then emerged on deck and shot at some birds. Going below, he took a ball from the ship’s arms chest and slipped it into his pocket. Then he retired to his cabin and locked the door.

Two hours later, he put a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. Gibson, who was in steerage, heard the gun’s report and ran to Sterett’s room. He found the captain lying on a trunk with the pistol in his hand, still pointed to his head. The ball had entered one temple and passed through and exited the opposite eye. Remarkably, Andrew Sterett lived for another 13 or 14 days “in great pain.” He died on 9 January 1807, a few weeks from his 29th birthday, and before the Warren rounded Cape Horn.

Unpleasant Reception at Concepción

As soon as Sterett died, Pollock called all hands aft and asked them to choose a new captain. First Mate Samuel Evans was selected. But the Warren ’s troubles were not over. Under Pollock’s direction, the new captain steered the Warren around Cape Horn to the Chilean coast and arrived at Concepción Bay on 19 January. Despite the crew’s objections, the supercargo ordered the ship to enter the bay, and the next day they landed at Talcahuano. Pollock went ashore and, after preliminaries, soon lodged at the commandant’s house. The crew was taken captive and imprisoned within a Spanish fort. Pollock arranged with the governor of Concepción to smuggle most of the cargo. It was unloaded from the Warren and stored in a warehouse to which only Pollock and the Spanish authorities had keys. The cargo—silks, lace, and other finery—obviously was not intended for the Pacific Northwest Indians, but would bring a fine price in Chile. Sterett had indeed “been taken in.” The seized Warren , absent most of her cargo, was sent to Valparaiso and condemned by authorities in Peru. In time, Samuel Smith and the owners would petition the king of Spain for restitution. The Warren was absorbed into the Spanish navy and several years later fought actions against Chilean rebels. 15

Sterett’s crew remained imprisoned at Talcahuano for about eight weeks and over the next year transferred to two other prisons. Ultimately they were sent to a cell at Guayaquil, Equador, and confined under wretched conditions. Some were released after a few months, and some remained captive there for nearly four years. Treated poorly, still others became sick and died at Guayaquil.

Slowly groups of survivors made their way back to the United States. The first 14 arrivals reported Sterett’s death after landing in Newport, Rhode Island, on 11 February 1808. Later returnees included mariners who brought suit for their wages in the U.S. District Court for Maryland against the Warren ’s owners. Their case continued through lengthy and complex proceedings, delayed by bankruptcies and assignments of all the owners (including Lemuel Taylor, who began a new life in Cuba), and international negotiation and treaty.

Eventually the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court as Sheppard v. Taylor. The court finally ruled unanimously for the seamen, awarding them wages from the time of their departure from Baltimore in September 1806 until their various returns to the United States, with interest from a specified date. The decision came in 1831—25 years after they had agreed with Andrew Sterett to sail in the Warren. Sterett had chosen them well: The Navy midshipmen employed as the Warren’s officers returned to duty after coming home and provided distinguished service to America in the War of 1812.

Procopio Pollock had made important connections while at Concepción, befriending an early leader in the Chilean struggle for independence, Juan Martinez de Rojas, then secretary to the governor of Concepción. (Indeed, the governor himself was observed dressed in “cassimeres” from the Warren ’s cargo.) In October 1807 Pollock requested permission to move to Santiago, where he worked secretly for Chilean independence. Expelled from Chile in 1808 for his revolutionary activities, he relocated to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and there continued to expound propaganda favoring independence from Spain in his handwritten Gacetas de Procopio. The Gacetas were drawn largely from American and English periodicals and are credited as an early influence arousing public opinion against Spanish rule. Years later, Pollock ended up owning a large coffee plantation in Puerto Rico and died there at an unknown date.

Postmortem for a Doomed Voyage

Baltimore newspapers first reported Sterett’s death on 22 February 1808, describing it as occurring during “his passage to Lima, Peru, on January 9, 1807, after an illness of 28 days [emphasis added].” 16 That duration apparently included both the deranged “illness” he experienced before pulling the trigger and the 13 to 14 days he suffered afterward.

What happened to Sterett’s body is unknown. Despite detailed accounts of the Warren and her crew’s activities from the moment they touched land in Chile, nothing is said of Sterett’s burial, supporting the probability that he already had been buried at sea. Land burial is further unlikely as it would have required shipboard preservation of the body for an uncertain destination. Andrew Sterett left behind a wife and a young daughter in Baltimore and an unfinished record. Today, his naval service and spirit are commemorated by the USS Sterett (DDG-104), a guided-missile destroyer launched in 2007 and now stationed at Naval Base San Diego.

It is difficult to judge motive and guilt from incomplete documentation 200 years after the fact. Questions remain concerning Sterett’s role in the Warren plot. How could he have been unaware of the rumors impugning the Warren in Baltimore, and remained ignorant of his ship’s true destination and mission? Was he simply the upright Navy hero used to front a shady operation who did not realize that his cargo was unsuitable to trade with the Pacific Northwest Indians? What other factors influenced his suicide? Was Sterett’s mortification less about honor and more about not getting a bigger piece of the pie? And, one wonders, why was he unable to kill Pollock? Did Pollock double-cross even the owners who illegally conspired with him and implement his own private smuggling scheme? The record allows us only to conclude that the owners had planned a smuggling venture all along—with Sterett the odd man out.

Notwithstanding our uncertainty, the Supreme Court justices—contemporaries of Sterett and the Warren and intimate with the arguments, discussions, and every word put forth in Sheppard v. Taylor—concluded that Sterett’s motives were pure. The court’s opinion provides him this noble epitaph: “Captain Sterett, from disappointed and wounded feelings, disdaining himself to engage in an illicit trade and unwilling to expose his officers and men to its perils and consequences, became partially deranged and shot himself.” 17



1.“Record in the Case of Sheppard and others versus Taylor and others,” U.S. Supreme Court, January Term, 1830, 2, Case File #1583, Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, Record Group 267, National Archives, Washington, DC. [hereinafter cited as “Record in the Case.”]

2. Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Sterett, 1 December 1801, Thomas Jefferson Papers, series 1, General Correspondence, 1651–1827, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/mtjser1.html .

3. Dudley W. Knox, ed., Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers: Naval Operations 1785–1807 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1939–1944), vol. 6, p. 164.

4. Federal Gazette and Baltimore Daily Advertiser , 30 May 1806.

5. Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser, 4 August 1806.

6. Robert Oliver to David Parrish, 11 August 1806, Oliver Letterbook, 1806–1809, Box 13, Maryland Historical Society Library, Baltimore, MD.

7. Executive Minutes of Governor Thomas Mifflin, 13 July 1796, Pennsylvania Archives, series 9, vol. 2, part I (1794–96). Senate Executive Journal, 2 March 1797.

8. Robert Oliver to Matthew L. Murphy, 15 October 1806, Oliver Letterbook.

9. “Record in the Case,” 126; 119.

10. “Record in the Case”, 126.

11. Robert Oliver to Matthew L. Murphy, 15 October 1806, Oliver Letterbook.

12. “Record in the Case,” 125–26.

13. Chester G..Hearn, Tracks In the Sea: Matthew Fontaine Maury and the Mapping of the Oceans (Camden, ME: International Marine/McGraw-Hill, 2002), p. 20.

14. “Record in the Case,” 77, Murray Gibson deposition of 18 December 1826.

15. John J. Johnson, “Early Relations of the United States with Chile,” The Pacific Historical Review , vol. 13, no. 3 (September 1944), p. 267.

16. Baltimore American and Commercial Daily Advertiser , 22 February 1808.

17. Sheppard v. Taylor , 30 U.S. 675, 677 (1831).

 

 
 

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