About the National Archives

Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at theUSS Constitution Museum, Boston (Charlestown), MA

October 13, 2010

Who is the Archivist?

David S. Ferriero

David S. Ferriero The Archivist of the United States is the head of our agency, appointed by the President of the United States.

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The Archivist was introduced by Anne Grimes Rand, president of the USS Constitution Museum

Thank you, Anne, for that kind introduction. And thank you all for coming today, including some of my staff from our regional facility in Waltham and the John F. Kennedy Library.

John F. Kennedy once wrote that “I have been interested in the sea from my earliest boyhood…My earliest recollections of the United States Navy go back to the days when, as a small boy, I used to be taken to the USS Constitution in Charlestown, Massachusetts. The sight of that historic frigate, with its tall spars and black guns, stirred my imagination and made American history come alive for me.”

Well, I’ve been coming to Charlestown to visit the USS Constitution for years, since I was a boy growing up in Beverly. Coming to see the ship was like an on-site history lesson because this ship is such an important part of our nation’s history.

And I remember my mother told me how, as a young girl in the 1920s, she and school children from all around the Boston area collected pennies to help save Old Ironsides, which was then in bad need of repairs.

The USS Constitution was one of my favorite places to come in my youth—and it still is.

My interest in Old Ironsides was stirred again this past April when Commander Tim Cooper and four of his crew came to visit the National Archives in Washington.

It gave me the opportunity to brag about my agency to Commander Cooper and the sailors and explain in greater detail how the National Archives is our nation’s record keeper. We safeguard and preserve the records of the U.S. Government so our citizens can use them and learn from them far into the future.

As Archivist of the United States, I am responsible for 44 facilities across the country with 10 billion pages of paper documents, more than 40 million still photographs, miles and miles of video and audio tape and film, and thousands of artifacts, maps, charts and ship drawings. In fact when we went back to my office, I was able to point out a copy of a sail drawing I have on my wall of the USS Constitution from 1817.

Earlier in the visit, we had the opportunity to look at the ship logs for the Constitution from the War of 1812. My staff also showed the sailors logs and reports relating to the Constitution’s battle with HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. The crew members know quite a bit about their ship’s history and knew instantly the details and battles the logs described. Their love for their ship and her history became readily apparent.

In the ship logs for April 1814, for example, we saw the entry describing when the Constitution was chased by two British frigates, Junon and Tenedos up the coast into Marblehead Harbor, Massachusetts. I remember this story from growing up in the area.

The citizens of Marblehead protected the Constitution by assembling cannons at Fort Sewall. The British called off their pursuit, and the Constitution made it safely to Boston Harbor for repairs to her mainmast.

As ambassadors for the history and tradition of the U.S. Navy, the active-duty sailors assigned to the Constitution share their passion by providing important educational programs to the public throughout the year. Our beloved Old Ironsides is well served by their dedication.

The crew then invited me to visit the USS Constitution  here in Charlestown this past June.

The occasion was an underway commemoration of the Battle of Midway, when the U.S. Navy dealt a mortal blow to the Japanese Navy in World War II. The underway was a memorable experience for me, since it also honored injured service members from our current operations in the Middle East.

So it’s comforting to know that this ship is in good shape now and well cared for by the United States Navy.

Put all that together with the fact that I’m a Navy man myself––having spent a four-year enlistment as a hospital corpsman during the Vietnam War.  And where I now work, the National Archives Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington, is just across the street from the United States Navy Memorial.

So you can now see that I have a keen interest in all things Navy.

Old Ironsides is the oldest commissioned ship in the United States Navy, and even in the world, so it seemed fitting that we have come to the USS Constitution Museum to try to settle an age-old question about the origins of our Navy.

One thing is not in dispute:

On October 13, 1775––235 years ago today––the Continental Congress, meeting in Philadelphia, passed a resolution to acquire two armed vessels. And it is this date that the Navy claims as its official birthday.

And Philadelphia is widely recognized as the birthplace of the Navy.

Now, we have a problem.

When I was a kid, there was a sign at the Beverly-Salem Bridge that welcomed you into town that said that Beverly was the “Birthplace of the American Navy.” Today, the sign claims that Beverly was “Washington’s Naval Base, 1775–1776.” I think we need to take another look at what happened in Beverly and see why I think it has a claim to the “birthplace of the U.S. Navy” title. 

On September 5, 1775, a schooner named Hannah was outfitted at Glover’s Wharf in Beverly and sailed out of Beverly Harbor. It was the first ship of what would become a small fleet of schooners authorized by General George Washington to harass British supply ships and capture much needed materiel––the Continental Navy didn’t yet exist.

It saw action right away—two days later.

On Thursday, September 7, 1775, the Hannah chased and captured the brig Unity sailing off Cape Ann. The Unity actually belonged to John Langdon, one of the New Hampshire delegates to the Continental Congress, and had been captured by the British the day before.

About a month later, on October 10, 1775, the Hannah ducked into Beverly Harbor to avoid the British ship HMS Nautilus. The captain ran Hannah aground on a sandbar near the Beverly shore. The men left the vessel and set up three cannons on shore to fire against the Nautilus. The townspeople soon joined in the fight against the Nautilus and that vessel soon became stuck on a mussel bed. It was unable to free itself until the rising tide, hours later.

Today, many in Beverly still consider it the “birthplace of the U.S. Navy,” and, speaking as a well-informed native of Beverly, I agree that it should. After all, the Hannah is still remembered today. She is honored with an elementary school in her name as well as numerous Beverly businesses. The Beverly Police haven’t forgotten the first ship in George Washington’s Navy… they wear a Hannah patch on their uniforms!

Now, I understand that other cities and towns also believe they are the “birthplace of the U.S. Navy.”

Marblehead, just down the coast from Beverly, believes it is the birthplace. So does Rhode Island.  Even Machias, Maine, is laying claim.

And there are others.

Philadelphia can make a strong case because it was where the Continental Congress created a Continental Navy, more than a month after the Hannah sailed out of Beverly Harbor.

But let’s try to get this settled once and for all.

I’ve brought one of our senior archivists from the National Archives in Washington here to shed some light on this important issue. 

Trevor Plante is a reference archivist at the National Archives who specializes in old military records. 

In May 2007 while helping out a film crew working on a Gettysburg documentary, Trevor discovered in our holdings a previously unseen original letter from Abraham Lincoln to General Henry Halleck.

The note was dated July 7, 1863, right after the Union victory in Gettysburg. Lincoln was pushing Halleck to urge Major General George Meade to capitalize on the victory and pursue Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces. 

The contents of the note had been quoted for years, but the original document remained a mystery as to whether it was still around or if it even existed. Needless to say it was a shock to this seasoned archivist to find this document while conducting his daily work.

Trevor is an author and active lecturer. Please welcome him. . .