Hopley Yeaton still inspires U.S. Coast Guard Academy cadets more than two centuries years after his appointment as the first commissioned officer of the service.
Or rather, his peripatetic remains encourage the future Coasties.
The early U.S. government had limited funds and wartime debts, so it used tariffs to support itself. But how to collect these monies? Honest traders would go to the Customs Houses to pay. But someone had to track down the cheats. That’s where New Hampshire’s Hopley Yeaton came in.
In 1790, Congress approved the construction of 10
the Revenue Marine, later the Revenue Cutter Service, to interdict smugglers. In 1791, President George Washington named Hopley Yeaton as the first commissioned officer of what would become the U.S. Coast Guard.
Yeaton was born around 1739 in New Hampshire, either in Somersworth or New Castle. He became a ship captain and ship master of the Olive and John. Yeaton married Comfort Marshall, and they had seven children, all born in Portsmouth.
In the run-up to the American Revolution, he played an active role in the Sons of Liberty. When war broke out, he served on the Raleigh and the Deane in the Continental Navy. After the war, he served as harbor pilot on the Jack, which he owned.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton persuaded Congress to pay for the construction of 10 cutters. Lawmakers approved the appropriation on Aug. 4, 1790, now celebrated as the birthday of the Coast Guard.
The 10 cutters belonged to the Revenue-Marine, which Yeaton headed. He had to sail a cutter, the USRC Scammel, from Nantucket to Passamaquoddy Bay looking for ocean-going ships attempting to smuggle goods into the country. The Scammel. one of 10 was named for Col. Alexander Scammell, the New Englander who died at the Siege of Yorktown. Originally from Massachusetts, Scammell settled in New Hampshire.
The smuggling ships would typically wait offshore while smaller vessels would ferry the illegal imports to land.
The Scammel, like all the original cutters, was built for speed to be able to run down ships that might attempt to flee. Yeaton spent nearly 20 years policing the coast.
Among his achievements: He helped convince the service to establish the West Quoddy Lighthouse in Lubec, Maine. In 1809 when he retired, Yeaton settled in Lubec, where he was active in the town’s effort to incorporate. Following his death in 1812, he was buried on private land in what would become the backyard of a house.
Yeaton would stay there until 1974. The Coast Guard rediscovered his whereabouts and decided the ‘Father of the Coast Guard’ deserved a more celebrated resting place. His remains were dug up and relocated temporarily to the grounds of the West Quoddy Lighthouse.
Once a suitable monument could be erected on the grounds of the Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., he was relocated there.
Hopley Yeaton, Muse
Today, Yeaton serves as a muse to struggling students at the academy, figuring in two superstitions.
Students who join the so-called Square Root Club – any student with a grade point average below 1.0 so named because their actual GPA is lower than the square root of their GPA – historically have spent a night sleeping on Yeaton’s tomb. The legend holds that Yeaton will grant them the knowledge they need to improve their grades.
Cadets struggling to master their nautical sciences lessons will also visit Yeaton’s tomb to sharpen their dividers on it for the same reason.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Cutter By Uwe Kils also owner http://www.uwekils.com – German Wikipedia, original upload 5. Jun 2003 by Kils, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16544. West Quoddy Light By Michael Theberge, Maine Maritime Academy – http://www.photolib.noaa.gov/htmls/line2821.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7947301.