By Paul Austin - Dallas, Texas - USA

Our Young Navy - Part Three

To Part One

To Part Two

To Part Four

As the big strong frigates inspired by Joshua Humphreys were taking shape, Josiah Fox and William Doughty continued designing ships. Fox had worked with Doughty before while at the Wharton-Humphrey yard. In the years that followed Josiah Fox became a significant designer in the development of our sailing navy. During the conflict with the Barbary Coast pirates, the US thought to give the pirates three of our ships, in the hopes of persuading them to stay away from American ships, naval and commercial. One of these 'tribute vessels' was designed by Fox, built by James Hackett of Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1794. It was a 32 gun frigate, Fox's answer to Humphreys' 44 gun frigates.

The Fox frigate stretched 122 feet on gun deck, 32 feet of molded beam, and 10 feet depth of hold. By comparison, Constitution was 174 feet on the gun deck, 43 feet of molded beam, and 14 feet dept of hold. Launched in 1797, Chapelle says the tribute vessel was, 'a very handsome ship as was usual with Fox's designs.' While this frigate has no famous history, it shows Fox was highly regarded by the Navy for his designs, his draftsmanship, and his capacity to draw to certain requirements.

Between the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 Americans sympathetic to Britain and those sympathetic to France wrestled in a political war over the course of our new country. So the French decided to take what they could. The ruling body of France, the Directory, issued orders that permitted French warships to take any vessel with British goods on board. This was aimed directly at American commercial ships. The Directory also said that any American serving on an enemy ship would be hanged as a pirate. Any American ship without a role d'equipage would be seized. A role d'equipage was a list of crew and passenger names; American ships rarely had such a list. These directives by the French were, according to historian G. Daughan, the same as a declaration of war. And yet, not a declaration, so that this conflict with France is called the Quasi-War with France.

All of this lead the merchants of the important American ports to build their own frigates. Five great ships resulted: the Philadelphia, New York, Essex, Boston, and John Adams. The city of Philadelphia came to Josiah Fox to design their Philadelphia. Now Fox had an opportunity to prove Benjamin Stoddert wrong in choosing Humphreys' designs over his. Fox returned to his contention that ships slightly smaller than Constitution were best.

The merchants of Philadelphia gave Fox freedom in design. One of his innovations was a cutwater which was advanced for its time, resembling the cutwaters of frigates built 20 years later. The spar deck bulwark ran from stem to stern with no lowering amidships. The mizzen spanker had spar extensions, increasing the sail area considerably. This additional sail is sometimes called a ringtail.

By now, Josiah Fox had designed and supervised the construction of John Adams, a 28 gun frigate, the Chesapeake, a 38 gun frigate with a tragic history, and the Philadelphia, launched in 1800.

With the Revolutionary War over, Fox and Doughty were discharged from the Navy. When Thomas Jefferson became President he was more concerned with protecting our coast than our shipping along foreign coasts. The naval officers who had served in the Revolutionary War noticed that Danish and French gunboats had success against the British fleet. They then advised the Jefferson Administration to fund gunboats for our coast. From 1803 till 1811, one hundred sixty eight gunboats were drawn and built, the early ones by Fox. As a whole, these gunboats were an odd collection. They ranged from 45 to 75 feet on deck. Nearly all of them carried one 32 or 24 pound cannon at the bow, with a small carronade on a truck carriage, aft of the mast. A carronade was a short cannon for short range fighting, named after the metal works where they were made.

By 1804 Fox was back as a Navy employee, designing gunboats. Joshua Humphreys was never appointed as a constructor or designer in the gunboat era, possibly because of his thriving shipyard business. He did survey locations for possible navy yards, should another war come to America. Here we have gunboat no. 5, designed by Fox:

Gunboat no. 5, designed by Fox

During the Revolutionary War, privateers were built at their owners' expense for the capturing of enemy merchant ships, which were arming and feeding the British forces. Nearly all the privateers were fast and modestly armed. Privateers were not designed to fight it out with British frigates, but to seize goods on merchant s hips and run to port, selling the goods for a profit. Nearly all the privateers were designed like the Prince de Neufchatel, seen below. When I was a mere lad in 1959 m mother bought me a plastic model of this ship, not knowing what she had brought home from the hobby store.

Prince de Neufchatel

When the War ended, these privateers became the revenue cutters of the 1790s. They were the ships of the United States Revenue Marine, enforcing revenue laws, chasing slave ships, performing life-saving and salvage work, carrying government dispatches and diplomats across the sea. As the United States Revenue Marine was under the authority of the Treasury, in 1797 the Secretary of the Treasury commissioned Josiah Fox to design a new class of cutter. The term 'cutter' came from the British cutters which did similar service against smugglers, however our cutters were schooners, ketches and sloops. The name was retained to confuse all of us retired pirates in Duckland.

Fox created the plans for Pickering, and several cutters were probably built from the same plans, with builders changes effected during construction. Fox had shown the way to a new generation of ship. The Pickering and its imitations were shaped the same as the privateers, with more guns and more crew. Speed was everything in a revenue cutter, so the model cutter had to establish speed, then create room and structure for sails, crew, and arms. American cutters were well known for being overcanvassed, according to captains on both sides of the Atlantic. The Pickering was a schooner, 58 feet on the keel, 20 foot beam, and 9 foot depth of hold. Now Fox had been trained at the Plymouth Royal Dockyard in 1786, the largest and best dockyard in the world, according to historian James Dodds. Fox had learned the British genius for volume at a speed, for size and weight and arms. So when the Secretary of the Treasury commissioned Fox to draw plans for revenue cutters, he turned from bulging frigate hulls to slender deadrise hulls. This would have been quite a change for lesser men.

It is possible Fox saw the American schooner Sultana, built for the Royal Navy in America, the same year Fox was at Portsmouth, 1786. Royal Navy surveyors had been taking lines off captured American schooners since 1757, according to British historian David MacGregor. Here you can see the deadrise of the Sultana and a later revenue cutter, designed to follow the lines and directions Fox established:

Sultana and a later revenue cutter.

Fox's plans set the standard and the direction for the many cutters built later. We don't have plans for Pickering, although we do have drawings for the cutters designed along the lines Fox first laid down. Unfortunately, as is the case with other Fox designs, tragedy followed Pickering. She was lost as sea near the end of 1800.

But Josiah Fox had set a new direction. In 1804 Congress authorized two more 16 gun ships. They gave Fox complete freedom in design. He said that he designed these ships 'on the principle of an English cutter.' Chapelle says the only evidence of an English cutter was the greater deadrise than before and the long deep keel. Fox had set a direction toward deadrise and speed, so these brigs were actually halfway from his frigate hull to the revenue cutters. One ship was called, Wasp, built at the Washington Navy Yard, under the scrutiny of Fox himself.


Wasp was 105 feet between stem and stern, 30 feet of beam, 13' 9" depth of hold which was later enhanced by raising the deck to gain a foot of hold. The sail rig of Wasp was changed to a ship sloop, square sails with a spanker on the mizzen mast. Another ship built to these plans was called, Hornet, built in Baltimore and rigged as a brig.

Fox lavished much time and energy on these two ships. He made extensive deck measurements, drawing detailed plans of spars and rigging tackle. Many alterations were made during construction, which might indicate Fox believed these two ships would make his reputation. He had always insisted he should have the credit for Constitution and Constellation, not Humphreys. He never received the praise for the big frigates built by Humphreys, so with complete freedom in design and construction maybe he thought Wasp and Hornet would be his calling card to fame.

Wasp was launched in 1806, her rig changed to a ship sloop the next year. Hornet was actually launched in 1805, but the builder had made mistakes in placing the channels. The curved knees of the cathead were changed to vertical knees, and the bridle port was 2 feet aft of the designed position. The masts of Hornet were placed forward of the masts on Wasp. All of these changes had to be dealt with, so Hornet was not ready for action until 1811. This may have happened because builders were given great freedom in certain areas of the design and the Hornet was not built under Fox's eyes.

Channel, Cathead of Constitution.

Both vessels were known to be as fast as Fox had hoped they'd be. Chapelle says this deep V design 'made it possible to stow the inside ballast low, that it gave sail-carrying power without spoiling the lines for speed, and that it added to the capacity of the vessels. These two sloops were looked upon as superior vessels of their class, and though their designs were never repeated (exactly), they influenced the characteristics of the big ship sloops built in the War of 1812.'

However, the life of Josiah Fox changed in that year. Having been involved in the political debates of the times, he was not appointed naval constructor of the Washington Navy Yard. That went to William Doughty. Fox went into business, with some success. In 1827 his feud with Joshua Humphreys became public again. Fox claimed he drew the lines for the first frigates of the country. Humphreys denies this, so according to historian Ian Toll, letters are written in newspapers and submitted to the Department of Navy by relatives of Humphreys and Fox making their respective claims.

By the way, the first frigate built on the plans in dispute was the United States. This is the same ship on which Herman Melville served, providing him with the material for the novels White Jacket and Billy Budd.

Josiah Fox set the standard for draftsmanship and proportions in frigates, cutters, and gunboats. He died in Ohio in 1846. He is deserving of more respect and fame than he'll ever receive.


To comment on Duckworks articles, please visit our forum