The Story of the American Star
condensed by Tori Gilbert from
The Log of Mystic Seaport, 1972
author: John Gardner
Presentation of a Special Gift
In 1824-25, the aging Lafayette visited the United States for the last time. He came as a guest of the nation to make a triumphant tour. Many Americans adored him; they had not forgotten his youthful sacrifices on their behalf in their liberation from British rule. He was showered with so many gifts that the American government provided a new boat to carry them home. The boat was named Brandywine, after the battle where Lafayette had made his name as a soldier.
One of these gifts was the American Star, the Whitehall gig that had beaten the British in a friendly race the year before. The American Star was built in Brooklyn, New York by John and William Chambers shortly before 1820. It was a symbol not only of their victory and national pride, but also of the sophisticated mechanics of the country. The coxswain of the original race, John Magnus, and the rowers were given the privilege of presenting the boat to Lafayette. John was only 14 years old when he had won this race the year before! The American Star was spruced up for her special presentation since the crew was also given the honor of ferrying Lafayette to Jersey City for a special dinner. On the way back from Jersey, John Magnus said to the General: “We hope that you will take the boat back to France where it may remind you of your grateful friends you have left behind, the ingenuity of the mechanics of a country which you assisted to liberate, and also our great naval motto, ‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights’.” Lafayette replied that “no keepsake could be more welcome; the more gratifying indeed, when offered from the hands of the five victors. It shall be carefully and fondly preserved. I beg you gentlemen, will accept, and transmit to your companions, the congratulations, the thanks, and the good wishes of a veteran, heartily devoted to the great naval motto-‘Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights.’ ” True to his word, this boat can still be visited today, almost 200 years later, at Lafayette’s castle, known as La Grange.
The American Star is very narrow and lengthy (27′), painted blue inside, brown with a yellow band on the outside. It is inscribed on both sides with the words “American Star, Victorious, Dec. 9th, 1824”.
As the leading character in one of New York’s best waterfront stories, the American Star was a symbol of all the hustle and bustle that Whitehall gigs dominated in the New York harbor during the late 1700’s and 1800’s. No ship came past the Narrows into port without being approached by dozens of gigs. Before piers were established these gigs would ferry owner’s agents, friends of passengers, reporters eager to get foreign news, and junkmen who scavenged the waterfront looking for salvage. Even thieves and thugs pretending to be junkmen approached boats. Police chased them in their own Whitehalls!
Later on, steamboats excursions even hired Whitehalls to follow behind to pick up passengers that fell overboard. The most important feature of the Whitehall was its speed since harbor competition was brisk and urgent. Survival was a matter of getting ahead and staying ahead. The pace was fast and getting faster! It was only natural that work boats should become race boats, and that competitive rowing should develop. Though rowing races for prizes took place as far back as the French and Indian Wars, organized forms of rowing races emerged from the competitions between Whitehall boatmen after 1830.
The race commemorated today began when in late autumn of 1824 when the British frigate, Hussar, came into New York Harbor reporting the rescue of a NY vessel from free-booters off Cuba. Captain George Harris was welcomed in the cities best clubs, where he was wined and dined. One account describes the original challenge issuing from Captain Harris as he explained that he had a fast race boat on board that had won in the Thames and in the West Indies. Another version says that the pilot that brought the Hussar into the harbor spotted a rakish race boat stowed on the foredeck and ventured to Captain Harris that there were boats in the city that could give her a contest. Captain Harris put up a purse of $1,000 for the winner of the race against his boat. One newspaper, the Gazette quoted that there was “great excitement” in the city and that it was agreed the winner should “treat the losing party to an entertainment”. Though this showed that it was all meant in good fun, a few days later the same Gazette printed a statement from the Captain regretting “that his public offer to try a New York boat should have been construed as a challenge… his only object was to gratify those…fond of aquatic sport.”
On the morning of December 9th the race was rowed with rough water and a strong wind blowing– weather “Captain Harris deemed unfavorable to the best speed of his boat… yet [he was] determined not to disappoint public expectation.” The crowd of 50,000 spectators lined the wharves and the Battery, by far the largest crowd up to that time to view an American sporting event. Flying a small American flag from her bow, the American Star glistened from polishing. Her crew, dressed for the occasion, wore white guernsey shirts, blue handkerchiefs on their heads, and blue pants. The British boat, Dart, whose nickname was Sudden Death, carried her national colors with her crew dressed in their naval uniform. Captain Harris acted as coxswain.
The New York boat pulled out to the frigate to meet her rival, and the race started at the sound of one of the frigate’s guns. The course lay to a stake boat moored off Hoboken Point and back to the finish at the Battery, a distance of four miles. The American Star sprang ahead at the start and held the lead all the way, finishing some 300-400 yards ahead of the Dart which came in all but waterlogged. Time: twenty-two minutes.
Both crews were treated to cheers by the audience and in the days that followed, they each tried to outdo the other in the exchange of compliments and amenities. Some even suggested the American Star be presented to Captain Harris so that England might get an idea of the advanced state of boatbuilding in America. He gracefully declined and presented a purse to the winning crew containing a gold half eagle for each of them. Never did a contest of this sort end more happily.
It was agreed that the two boats were evenly matched and that it was the difference in the styles of rowing that decided the day. The British crew pulled with a long sweeping stroke “by throwing back their whole bodies as if they were towing an man-of-war”, while the Whitehallers sat straight, “moving with quick, short strokes and drawing back with a jerk.” One paper gave the number of strokes per minute for the Star as forty-six as against thirty-nine per minute for the Dart.