Not many local historical chronicles even mention Mattapoisett sea captain Oliver Allen, one of the Nantucket Allen clan who had settled in that part of what was then Old Rochester with his wife, Jeanne, by 1760. His brother, Thomas Allen, another master mariner, was also living in the busy port town with his family at the time.
The sons of Nathaniel Allen of Nantucket were a branch of the Allen family that had moved off the islands and settled in Newport, Rhode Island, just before the American Revolution (1775-1783) began. The men were sailors, coopers, carpenters, businessmen, and craftsmen associated with the maritime trades; Newport was the commercial hub of the South Coast in colonial times, so a number of Allens naturally washed up there.
Captain Oliver Allen would have his brief spotlight in Revolutionary War history last just 12 months – between October 1776 and the fall of 1777 – becoming perhaps the most successful privateer commander who sailed our near-coastal waters during that critical time in the war.
Before the war, both Captain Allen and his brother were involved in the coastal trade, shipping merchandise and freight of all kinds up and down the Northeast coastline. The small, fast sloops and schooners that the traders helmed were the freightliners of the day, and their masters and crews of these commercial vessels came to know these waters like the backs of their hands.
Both captains were successful skippers, and both owned substantial property in Mattapoisett for a time. When the War for Independence started, much of that everyday commerce was stifled by the Royal Navy’s tight blockade of the American coastline, putting many sailors and captains out of work.
Many of those mariners found work on state-licensed privateer ships (former merchant vessels) equipped with cannons, swivel guns, and usually an extra-large crew of heavily-armed men whose job was to intercept the growing flow of military supplies, victuals, and reinforcements that the British were sending to the colonies to support their armies trying to subdue the rebels.
The privateers greatly aided a tiny Continental Navy and a handful of state navy ships, capturing or sinking hundreds of British merchantmen, supply ships, and military transports during the war. Much of the weaponry, gunpowder, and other military supplies needed by the Continental Army and Continental Navy in the early days were taken from captured British convoy vessels and warships.
Many successful privateer owners, captains, and crew members became wealthy men from their shares of the sales of captured ships and cargo during the war years – including Captain Allen and his brothers.
The less successful privateers faced death or mutilation in combat, capture and slow starvation in a British prison, or forced impressment into the Royal Navy. The owners of the American ships lost their investments when their vessels were captured, burned, or sunk, but there is no record of that happening to True Blue.
For a brief time, Oliver Allen was the best of privateer commanders. In late October of 1776, state officials authorized his commission as captain of the True Blue, a 55-ton, armed sloop fitted out with six cannons, eight swivel guns, and a hefty crew of 40 men … mostly, Old Rochester and Wareham sailors and officers.
The surety bond listed Captain Allen, Edward Hammond, Israel Fearing, Joshua Briggs, and Wareham’s David Nye as owners of the sloop; Allen, Ebenezer White of Rochester, and Middleborough merchant Abiel Pierce put up the $5,000 bond. The agreement was one-third of all profits went to the shipowners, one-third to captain and crew, and one-third to the state treasury.
Captain Allen had local militia veterans John Wallis (first lieutenant) of Rochester and Barnebas Bates of Wareham (second lieutenant) as his officers; John Carver was the sailing master.
An experienced leader, Allen was a captain of the fourth company of the Second Regiment of the Plymouth County militia when not at sea; Wallis was a militia veteran, too, along with Bates, who had marched off with Captain Israel Fearing and other local Minutemen to surround a Loyalist stronghold in Marshfield on April 19, 1775, the day the war started.
Besides the cost of the True Blue, its armaments, and the bond deposit, the owners also invested in 35 barrels of beef and pork and 3,000 pounds of bread to feed the crew for an extended period at sea, starting October 28, 1776.
The first few short cruises of the True Blue were fruitless. But on December 15, Captain Allen and True Blue were sailing near the Nantucket Shoals with the Rhode Island privateer schooner Eagle when a large ship was spotted, pursued, and captured after a short fight. The 500-ton chartered transport Addellgunte Loewise and its cargo became shared prizes to be sold at auction in February.
On another cruise in March of 1777, True Blue’s crew captured Felicity, a 120-ton British brigantine. The ship and unspecified cargo were to be sold by the Mass. Maritime Court in April, according to a report in The Boston Gazette & Country Journal on April 7, 1777.
A few months later, in August, an American brig carrying dried fish was recaptured from the British prize crew, adding to the ship’s profits. Two other British merchantmen were added to the prize tally that month; their names and cargoes remain obscured by history.
There are no further records for True Blue after that fall. Perhaps it was captured, sold, or renamed, perhaps signed over to one of the partners when the prize money had to be divided up. As a shipowner and commander, Captain Allen would have gotten a double share of the tens of thousands of dollars in prize money that his five captures had earned – half of the third shared by the captain and officers and 20 percent of the third that the five partners would divide.
Maybe Captain Allen had seen enough fighting and enough of the sea after that intense year of pursuing and capturing British ships. For whatever reason, sometime in 1777, he sold all his Mattapoisett property and relocated his family more than halfway across Massachusetts to Hardwick.
He bought a farm and managed its production; during the rest of the war, he served on the town’s Committee of Correspondence and likely signed up with the local militia unit. In 1784, Allen sold his Hardwick holdings and bought a farm in Shutesbury, another small western Massachusetts town even farther away from the sea. Within two years, he was respected enough to be elected a selectman in that town.
Oliver Allen’s nephew Robert Allen also settled there and raised a big family. Eventually, Oliver’s brother, cooper Joseph Allen of Newport, Rhode Island, moved there to stay with his son in his final years. The wartime adventures of his brothers, Thomas Allen and Benjamin Allen, another mariner, are stories for another day.
These days, Captain Oliver Allen’s wartime legacy is probably known only by students of naval warfare in the American Revolution. But Mattapoisett can be proud knowing that one of its short-term residents helped our nation win its freedom almost 250 years ago.
Robert Barboza is author of the 2014 history book, “Patriots of Old Dartmouth: Local Heroes of the American Revolution,” published by Vineyard Sound Books.
By Robert Barboza