Home Rhode Island Christopher Hawkins, Against All Odds, Escapes a Revolutionary Prison

Christopher Hawkins, Against All Odds, Escapes a Revolutionary Prison

A teenaged POW tells his story

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Christopher Hawkins went to sea on a privateer like many young teenagers during the American Revolution. He did it for the cause of liberty, for adventure and for a share of captured prize money. He got adventure, but instead of bounty he got imprisonment, hunger and pain..

The colonies had quite a fleet of privateers — 1,697 ships, with 55,000 seaman serving aboard them. The so-called “pirate navy” had 26 times as many vessels as the continental navy’s 64. Privateering amounted to armed robbery at sea during wartime. Governments issued letters of marque, which gave permission to the holder to attack enemy vessels and to capture them as prizes. They also captured crews and exchanged them for prisoners of war.

The 12-gun privateer brig Independence, on the left and commanded by Thomas Truxton, captures a larger and better armed British merchant ship sailing from the Caribbean, in 1777. Watercolor by Irwin Bevan (1852-1940). (Naval History and Heritage Command).

Privateering was lucrative, but it was also dangerous. The British Royal Navy captured or sunk 78 percent of privateer ships were captured or sunk by the Royal Navy.

Christopher Hawkins signed on to privateers that was not one in five of the lucky ones.

Christopher Hawkins

He was born June 8, 1764, the son of Hesabiah Hawkins. As a boy he worked on the family farm in North Providence. When he turned 12, he was bound out to a tanner, Aaron Mason, and he worked in that trade for 12 months. Then he ran away to New Bedford to join a privateer.

Christopher Hawkins later in life

Skinny, dark-haired and fair-complexioned, he had a sarcastic tongue and the gift of gab. He signed onto the schooner Eagle, an American privateer. As a cabin boy, Hawkins helped the cook, brought food to the crew and officers, carried messages, climbed aloft to stow sails, stood watch and learned how to steer the ship.

The Eagle sailed across the Atlantic and back without capturing a prize. Then she encountered the larger British sloop-of-war Sphynx, which captured the Eagle. Hawkins, taken prisoner with the rest of the officers and crew, was confined in an old transport ship. Then the British took him off to serve the officers of the frigate Maidstone.

HMS Maidstone

He did that for a year, gaining the trust of the ship’s officers. They sent him ashore with a message. Instead, he encountered another boy from the vessel, John Sawyer, and together they escaped. With help from Sawyer’s family on Long Island, Hawkins returned home to Providence.

Hawkins related in his memoir how he went privateering again in 1781 under Capt. Christopher Whipple in a 16-gun brig. They sailed a mere five days before encountering two British frigates, the Amphetrite and Madea. The Madea captured them.

Christopher Hawkins Goes to Sea Again

The war was not going well for the British. Cornwallis would surrender just a few weeks after Hawkins’ capture. The British cause was undermined by the well-known cruelty and arrogance of its officers and enlisted men toward prisoners of war. The mistreatment of prisoners infuriated the colonists and hardened their determination to win at any cost. Christopher Hawkins would see it firsthand on the Jersey.

Nothing symbolized British cruelty more than the floating hell called the  Jersey, a prison ship anchored off Long Island. Jersey had deteriorated from a 74-gun frigate to a decommissioned shell, her sails and rigging dismantled.

Privateer Capt. Thomas Dring, imprisoned in the leaky old hulk, called it unfit for anything other than prisoners destined for speedy annihilation.

The Jersey

“I doubt whether you could find such another set of demons as the officers and men who had charge of the Old Jersey Prison-ship,” wrote Alexander Coffin, a captain who survived his ordeal. The prisoners endured “Foul Air, Tainted Provisions, Bad Water, and Personal Filthiness,” he wrote. Disease was rampant, and men who caught the bloody flux evacuated their bowels while sleeping, adding to the fetid atmosphere.

The British overcrowded the Jersey, sometimes with 1,100 men, many of them homesick teenagers from privateers. They were walking skeletons, overrun with lice, their nakedness barely covered.

Slumber offered little relief. Dring described the groans of the sick and the dying; the exhausted prisoners’ curses  aimed at the inhumane guards; the restlessness caused by the suffocating heat, and the poisonous air, mingled with the sounds of wild and delirious ranting.

If the prisoners could sleep, they sometimes woke to find themselves lying next to a corpse. 11,000 prisoners died on board the Jersey. from 1776 to 1783.

More revolutionaries died in British prisons than on the battlefield.

Christopher Hawkins, Prisoner

The British sent Hawkins to the Jersey aboard a transport ship, so crowded they couldn’t sit down for several days. The British hoped their abuse would convince their prisoners to go over to their side, but they didn’t. On the first day, the prisoners defiantly sang a patriotic song which ended every stanza with, “For America and all her sons forever will shine.”

The transport ship took Hawkins to the Jersey, anchored in Wallabout Bay, Brooklyn. A guard ship anchored near them, along with a hospital ship, and a line of sentinels guarded the shore.

Wallabout Bay today

The first night Hawkins had to sleep 20 feet from the gangway, and prisoners walked over him to get on the upper deck. Men with the bloody flux spattered him with excrement.

Within an hour of their arrival, Hawkins and his friend William Waterman decided to escape, though they knew the guards would murder them if caught.

Dring recalled the cruelty of the British guards.

“One Sam Talman (an Indian fellow belonging to the 17th Regiment) was Stripped and set up as a mark for them to Shoot at for Diversion or Practice, by which he Received two severe wounds, in the neck and arm…[A]fterwards they destroyed him with many hundreds others by starvation in the prisons of New York.

Plotting the Escape

Hawkins and Waterman managed to steal an old axe from the cook’s room and a crowbar from the upper deck. They hid them until an early-autumn thunderstorm broke out in the afternoon.

They believed their best chance of escape lay in breaking through the lower-deck gunports, barred with iron and bolts.

“When a peal of thunder roared we worked with all our might with the axe and crow-bar against the bars and bolts,” Hawkins wrote later in life. “When the peals subsided we ceased, without our blows being heard by the British, until another peal commenced. We then went to work again, and so on, until our work was completed.”

They replaced the bars and bolts and hung a garment over the shattered gun port.


They told their fellow prisoner, Capt. Whipple, of their plan to swim to a point beyond the sentinels on Long Island. “Give it up,” Whipple said.” It is only throwing your lives away, for there is not a man on earth who can swim from this ship to that point as cold as the water is now”. He asked how far they thought it was. Hawkins said a mile and a half.

’It’s all of two and a half miles,”  Whipple said.

On the third day of their confinement, the weather was as good as could be expected for an escape attempt: mild and hazy, the night extremely dark.

Belowdecks on the Jersey

With a rope he found, Hawkins tied his clothes, silver dollars, rum in knapsacks on his back.

They gave the rope to several fellow prisoners who agreed to hold onto one end. They tossed the other end out of the gunport and Waterman shimmied down it. Hawkins waited a minute and then followed.

In the Water

Hawkins swam slowly along the side of the ship until he reached the stern. Then he sank himself deep in the water and swam quietly away from the ship. After he’d gotten far enough away, he hailed Waterman three times. Waterman did not answer.

He took his course from the ships’ lights in the harbor and from the sentinels who cried “All’s well”every half hour.

After he swam for about two hours his knapsack broke loose. He put it under one arm, but that slowed him down and put him off course. By then he was benumbed from cold, but could swim tolerably well. He decided to let the knapsack go, parting with it forever. Twenty-five minutes later he swam within 12 feet of the shore, where he could touch bottom, “I found I could not stand, I was so cold,” he wrote. “But I moved around in shoal water until I found I could stand, then stepped on shore.”

He was completely naked except for a small hat on his head.

“What a situation was this” he wrote, “without covering to hide my naked body, in an enemy’s country, without food or means to obtain any, and among Tories more unrelenting than the devil,—more perils to encounter and nothing to aid me but the interposition of heaven!”

Christopher Hawkins In the Raw

In the darkness, he searched for the barn where he and Waterman agreed to meet. On the way he tripped over a rock, badly bruising himself. Hawkins found the barn, but Waterman wasn’t there. Hawkins slept in the barn until dawn, when a young woman came to milk the cows. He hid himself from her, then stayed in the barn all day. He tried to milk the cows but failed. When night fell, he set out again.

Famished, he tried to eat some watermelons he found in a field, but they were too unripe to eat. It started to rain, and he wandered until he came to another barn and slept in it soundly until late the next day. He set out again and found some old pears in an orchard — rotten, but he ate them anyway. Then he spied a potato patch nearby, so he went toward it hoping to get some. A young woman stooping to pick potatoes stood up. She saw his naked body, screamed and ran toward the house. Hawkins ran in the other direction and hid in the woods.


Weak with hunger, he found another barn and slept in it on a pile of flax that night. At dawn the next day he set out and saw farmers in their field. He determined to ask them for help. He approached two young men who draw away from him. Hawkins said, “Don’t be afraid of me. I am a human being.” They asked him if he was scared. No, he said. “How came you here naked?” they asked. He sat down and told them what happened.

One young man told him to hide, and said he would talk to his mother. He soon returned with two big pieces of buttered bread and a pair of trousers. He told him to hide in the barn and wait for his mother. She soon brought him a shirt and told him her husband had died in prison. She and her sons were Dutch; their house was nine miles from the Brooklyn ferry. That meant he’d left the Jersey 60 hours ago and no farther from her than when he started out.

The old woman told him Hessian soldiers infested the area. She told him to go back into the barn and throw the trousers out. She would then put them and a shirt on a fence, and he should take them. That way, they could both truthfully say if questioned that he’d stolen the clothing hung out to dry.

Hessian soldiers

She advised him to steal a canoe, paddle across the cove to a road that would take him to a house in Oyster Bay. There he’d find a man who could help him.

Christopher Hawkins, Captured Again

He encountered sentinels on the road near the village of Jamaica and hid in some bushes. Then a man driving cattle approached, so he found a stick and helped him drive the cattle. He passed the sentinels without incident.

As night fell he came to a tavern, and decided to sleep in the stable.  It had no straw, so he lay down in a manger. But a carriage pulled up, and two men brought horses into the barn. By the light of their lanterns they discovered him pretending to be asleep. They roused him, and he convinced them he was drunk. The men thought he might steal their horses. So they tried to march him into the tavern, but he bolted and ran away.

Hawkins crossed a plain, and the rain began to bucket down in torrents. He found another barn, made a bed of straw and slept soundly. The next day he found the house the old woman had told him about. But a woman answered the door and said her husband was away. She declared herself loyal to the king and threatened to give him up.

So he ran away from her, only to be captured by a British patrol. They were staying in a house in Oyster Bay and locked him in a room. He was told to lie down on some straw to sleep but the fleas made him toss and turn. A sentinel heard him thrashing and shouted, “Lie still, God Damn you,” and stabbed him with his bayonet. He then had to lie still as the fleas tormented him and his wounds stiffened.

Another Escape, and Some Luck

At dawn he was sent to a Tory colonel a mile away. The colonel questioned him and said he must go back to the Jersey. Then he left Hawkins with a guard in an unlocked room on the ground floor. The guard left him to eat his breakfast in an adjoining pantry. So Hawkins stood up, sneaked out the back door and hid himself in a wood lot. He stayed quiet for several hours. Finally when no one was around he began walking. After about six miles he found still another barn at nightfall and slept in it.

The next morning a woman who lived in a small house gave him some bread and milk. Then, shortly after he set out again, he had a stroke of luck. He recognized a man on horseback coming toward him: Capt. Daniel Havens. He was uncle to John Sawyer, Hawkins partner in his escape from the Maidstone.

Havens didn’t recognize Hawkins, but stopped when he hailed him. Hawkins told him his story, and Havens told him to stay at his house while he traveled west and he would get him home when he returned.

Howard’s Tavern on Long Island, 1776

The house was 20 miles away. Hawkins walked seven miles and stopped at a tavern where Havens said a Mr. Snow would feed him. He did, and Snow gave him dinner.

He then reached Havens’ house. No men were present, and the women seemed suspicious of him. He left, and on the street he recognized John Sawyer’s sister. She told him his friend had died at sea three weeks earlier.  She suggested he get a berth aboard a sloop that smuggled goods to Connecticut.

He walked down to the sloop and checked with the captain, who welcomed him aboard. Hawkins slept on the boat. The next night they left, landing in Stonington, Conn., where a tavernkeeper gave him a bed and a meal. Neither the captain nor the tavernkeeper charged him. He then set out the 40 miles to Providence, reaching it in two days.

The Rest of the Story

After the war, Hawkins went to work for a farmer, Obadiah Olney of Smithfield.  At the age of about 20 he married Dorcas Whipple of Smithfield, a farmer’s daughter. He then went to work for William Whipple of Fairfield, N.Y.. In 1786 he and his family moved to Norway, N.Y., then Fairfield, then Newport. He worked as a farmer and a carpenter. In his spare time he educated himself, having had little opportunity as a boy. He prospered and served as Commissioner of Roads and the first Supervisor of Newport.

In religion, he was a Methodist, in politics, a Federalist. Described as an affectionate husband and kind parent, he had six daughters and a son.

At the age of 70, he wrote his war experiences in a journal. Thirty years later, it was published as The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins.

He died on Feb. 25, 1837.

A descendant discovered the manuscript in a Kansas City linen closet. Her son donated it to the Museum of the American Revolution.

The Prison Ship Martyrs Monument in Brooklyn

Another Discovery

When the new U.S. Navy occupied Wallabout Bay and began expanding the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the mud flats near the shore, they found the remains of thousands who had perished aboard the British prison ships.

In 1808, the remains of more than 11,000 prisoners of war were interred in a tomb on Hudson Avenue. Later they were moved to their current site in Fort Greene Park. In 1908, President-elect William Howard Taft attended the dedication of the monument to the prison ship martyrs.

Historians now recognize that the privateers, so many of whom died in prison, gave America a real naval advantage over the British. “The battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, and independence was won at sea,” noted John Lehman, former secretary of the navy.

The historian Edward G. Burrows reminds us to acknowledge the sacrifice of those who died. The United States wasn’t just made by “those gentlemen in powdered wigs and knee britches we have heard so much about in recent years,” he wrote. The country was also made by “thousands upon thousands of mostly ordinary people who believed in something they considered worth dying for.”

Images: Prison Ship Martyrs Monument By Adolph Alexander Weinman – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21825033. American flag By DevinCook – https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Betsy_Ross_flag.svg#mw-jump-to-license, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128445800



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