Odd Accounts : Ship Sketches and More in the Smith Family Papers

By Daniel Tobias Hinchen, Reader Services

As many of my colleagues have pointed out in the past here on the Beehive, one of the joys of working with the manuscript collections at the MHS is finding something unexcpected when going through a box of material.

Recently, I tried to answer a reference question from a remote researcher that deal with a ship captain from the early 19th century. As it turned out, I made a bit of a mistake and provided information on the wrong person. However, it turned out to be a happy accident because of what I ended up finding, and which may have otherwise escaped my notice.

The Smith family papers are a single-box collection of manuscripts that contains several volumes of Capt. William Smith of Boston. Each of these volumes is tucked inside its own folder with a brief title that indicates what the volume contains: “Account book,” “Letterbook,” “Log of Mary.” However, within these volumes there are some surprises. For example, in a letterbook dated 1812, not only are there manuscript copies of several pieces of correspondence, but also several pages of accounts and ship inventories, and even a couple of poems.

Still, it is not so unusual to find something like poetry in a letterbook maintained by a man who would have been at sea for weeks or months at a time.

A standard account book page detailing a ship’s inventory.

To me, the real treasure is inside a thin volume simply labeled “Accounts, 1812-17.” While there are many pages of ship inventories, accounts, and invoices, as the title so faithfully indicates, much less expected are the myriad hand-drawn images of various ships done with wonderful detail.

“The Spanish Letter of Marque la Catalina, of 10 guns, Lorenze Joze Gonzales. Formerly the Brig Erin of Norfolk Virg. William Smith Master.”


Elsewhere in the account book is another picture of the above ship where it is simply identified as the Brig Erin of Norfolk, mastered by William Smith.

Another drawing shows the Brig Mary, the log of which is also housed in the Smith family papers.

Mary of Boston.”


Independence, 74 Guns [Commodore] William Bainbridge.”

In addition to these standalone images there is a series of three drawings that detail the encounter between the United States Frigate Constitution and H. M. S. Guerriere on 19 August 1812.

“The United States Frigate Constitution, Isaac Hull, Esq, Commander, bearing down upon and preparing to engage the British Frigate Le Gurriere, Capt. Dacres, August 19, 1812.”

The story of this naval battle early in the War of 1812 is well-known and well-documented with many tributes in text and in image available, so I will not attempt to rehash that here, except to say that this battle is where the U. S. ship received its nickname, “Old Ironsides.” [See below for some websites that recount the battle.]

But the drawings themselves are worth a look.

“In 15 minutes the Constitution cuts away the Gurriere’s mizen mast.”

“In 43 minutes the Gurriere totally dismasted, when she fires her Lee gun and surrenders.”


Finally, the account-keeper even included a couple of rebuses in this volume. Longtime visitors to the Beehive may remember a post here a few years ago about rebuses, written by MHS alum Kittle Evenson. [“Cryptic Communique…“] After you re-read Kittle’s entry, you can come back here and see if you can figure out one of the word puzzles. As of publication, I have yet to crack it!


As always, if you see something here of interest and want to view it in person, consider Visiting the Library!

Further Reading

– “USS Constitution in the War of 1812.” Naval History and Heritage Command. Accessed 22 May 2018 at https://www.history.navy.mil/browse-by-topic/ships/uss-constitution-americas-ship-of-state/history.html.

– USS Constitution Museum, “Sea Dog: Guerriere the Terrier,” USS Constitution Museum website. Accessed 23 May 2018 at https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2012/08/01/sea-dog-guerriere-terrier/