Today, I am delighted to welcome back Judith Pearson who has previously written a guest post for All Things Georgian about a portrait by George Romney, but today’s story is very different as you will soon find out.
The Truxtun Bowl is a popular U.S. Navy collectible; a memento of The Age of Sail, a piece of memorabilia relating to the formation of the U.S. Navy. It is often given to naval officers as a retirement gift, or as an award to people serving in U.S. naval history organizations.
Truxtun bowls are replicas of two identical Chinese porcelain bowls owned by Commodore Thomas Truxtun, USN. In 1794 he was appointed as the fourth most senior captain in the newly-formed U.S. Navy to oversee the building of the Navy’s first frigates. That year, to illustrate a book he was writing about navigation, Truxtun asked naval architect, Josiah Fox, for a drawing of a 44-gun frigate. He later commissioned two punch bowls featuring Fox’s drawing.
Fox’s drawing can be found on the inside of the bowl: A frigate under full sail and framed by a blue and gold border on the inner rim. Side views show the lovely gold and blue trim around the outer rim. The bottom of the bowl displays the fouled anchor, attesting, in gold lettering:
Naval Historical Foundation, Truxtun Bowl, Fine Porcelain Replica, copyright 2017 DMA, Designmasters.com, Crafted in China, TK-710-001
Many people recognize the bowl and appreciate its beauty and simplicity of style. Few people, even those who own a Truxtun bowl know about the man himself – his daring and skill as a merchant mariner, a privateer, and a naval officer, his reputation as a navigator, his knowledge of ship construction, and his amazing rise to the highest levels of early U.S. society.
Let me tell you something about Truxtun’s life, so that when you see (or own) a Truxtun bowl, you’ll have a deeper appreciation for the man.
Thomas Truxtun was born in 1755 to a prosperous farming family on Long Island, New York. His father was an English barrister, previously living in Jamaica. His mother died before Thomas was six.
From age six to twelve he attended boarding school. His father died when Thomas was ten. At twelve, he went to sea as an apprentice. For the next seven years he worked on British merchant ships.
At 19, ashore in London, Truxtun was pressed into the Royal Navy, aboard the third-rate HMS Prudent (64). Refusing the opportunity to become a midshipman, he returned to New York. At age 20, he married Mary Vandrau, who was 15. Over the next 35 years, they had twelve children, ten of which survived to adulthood.
At age 20 he began commanding his own merchant ships. With the country entering a war for independence from Britain, Truxtun also became a privateer. He sailed the Caribbean, dodging British warships, taking British merchant ships as prizes, and returning with rum, sugar, spices, and much needed supplies for the Continental Army, including something they needed desperately – gun powder. Twice he was forced to surrender his ship and his cargo to the Royal Navy as a prize.
Truxtun took command of Mars in 1777, of 22 carriage guns, 12 swivel guns and 150 men. Destination: The English Channel, where he took six prizes – all British merchant ships. In 1778 he bought the ship, Lydia, on borrowed money. She was badly damaged in a gale, but Truxtun brought her home, supervised her refit, and changed her name to Independence. With Independence, he carried on as a successful trader and privateer for the next two years.
In 1781, Truxtun took command of St. James and sailed from Philadelphia to France. Two days out, he encountered a British privateer. A battle ensued with both ships badly damaged. After the British withdrew, Truxtun made repairs and continued on to France. He returned to Philadelphia in March 1782, where he attended a dinner for General George Washington, who commended Truxtun for his contributions to the war effort. Philadelphia merchants applauded Truxtun for his skill and daring.
With the colonies gaining independence from Britain in 1783, Truxtun formed a partnership with James Collins and opened a dry goods store. Eager to establish trade with Britain, Truxtun made three voyages to England, bringing back rich cargos. By 1784, however, American coastal cities were saturated with imports and many trading houses were collapsing. Truxtun and Collins sold Commerce to pay their creditors. The partnership dissolved, with Collins declaring bankruptcy. Truxtun refused to declare bankruptcy, instead promising to repay his investors. He spent the next few years paying down his debts.
In 1785, the Donnaldson and Coxe trading house commissioned a new ship, the London Packet; an elegant passenger/cargo vessel. Truxtun accepted command and took her to Europe. That summer, an infirm, 80-year old Benjamin Franklin took passage on the ship after eight years in France, where he had represented the U.S. at the Court of Versailles. Also on board: the sculptor, Antoine Houdon who was traveling to Mount Vernon to execute a bust of General Washington. Arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin was greeted with a gala reception.
Truxtun next entered into trade with China. With financing, he had the London Packet overhauled, renaming her, Canton, and sailed her to Canton in 1785. Historians credit Truxtun with opening U.S. trade with China, because the Chinese turned away other American traders, regarding their goods as inferior. Canton, however, carried American-grown ginseng, which the Chinese valued as a cure-all.
At Canton, Truxtun spent months navigating a complex labyrinth of Chinese laws and customs that required payments, inspections, negotiations and ceremonies with a hierarchy of officials, merchants and local rulers. He returned to Philadelphia a year and a half later. He completed a second voyage in June 1789. Later that year, several businessmen bought Canton. They hired Truxtun to take her to China, by way of India. He sailed as far as Calcutta, where he was a guest of Governor General, Lord Cornwallis. Noting that his ship was in disrepair and not fit for the voyage, he returned to Philadelphia, arriving in April 1791, with many in his crew suffering from scurvy.
That year, Truxtun commissioned his own ship, Delaware. He had her coppered in England. From there, loaded with British goods, she sailed for India. Arriving at Madras, Truxtun traded for spices and piece goods. He hired a French ship to take some of the cargo to England, while he travelled on to Hamburg. Then he returned to England. He left Delaware in London, under the care of an associate, and booked passage to Philadelphia, arriving in the spring of 1793.
England and France were at war again. The Royal Navy seized the ship he hired in France. In 1793 he booked passage to London, expecting to take command of Delaware and renew trade with India. However, with a war in progress, Truxtun tried to sell Delaware at auction, but the bidding was so low that he bought her for £3,000, paid for extensive repairs, hired a crew, and took her home, stocked with cargo for trading. Truxtun was gaining a reputation as a skilful and prudent mariner, a shrewd entrepreneur, and a man of integrity.
In 1794, Congress authorized the formation of the U.S. Navy. President Washington selected Truxtun as one of six captains to oversee the building of the Navy’s first frigates. Truxtun served for seven years under three presidents. He earned fame in the Quasi War with France as commander of the fifth-rate frigate, USS Constellation (38). Under Truxtun’s command, Constellation won two battles against the French frigates L’Insurgente and La Vengeance, respectively. For his heroism, Congress awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal. He was also made a member of the Society of the Cincinnati.
When the Barbary Wars began, he was assigned to command the Mediterranean Squadron in his flagship, the fifth-rate frigate, USS Chesapeake (38). However, he resigned in 1802 when the Secretary of the Navy did not give him enough officers. He later regretted his decision, and applied for reinstatement, but his request was ignored.
Truxtun retired as a gentleman farmer, but he continued his involvement in politics and public affairs. In a final act of public service, he served as High Sheriff of Philadelphia County. He died in 1822. American naval historians revere Truxtun for his bravery, audacity, and tenacity, for his seamanship, and his loyalty to the country. Five U.S. Navy ships have been named after Truxtun. The latest one is the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer, USS Truxtun, DDG-103.
And what of the Truxtun bowls? Years after his death, Truxtun’s own bowl was donated to the Naval Historical Foundation in Washington, DC, where it is now on display in the Navy Museum in the city’s naval dockyard.
The companion bowl, which he presented to President George Washington, is on display in Washington’s Virginia home, Mount Vernon. Replicas can be purchased at the Navy Museum store in the Washington, DC Navy Yard, and they occasionally turn up on eBay.
When you know the story of Truxtun, you’ll understand why the bowl is a collector’s treasure.
Naval Historical Foundation, Navy Museum Store website
Eugene S. Ferguson, Truxtun of the Constellation (Baltimore, Maryland: John Hopkins Press, 1956).
U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command website.
Judith originally published this story in the Autumn 2021 issue of the Kedge Anchor of the 1805 Club. The Naval Historical Foundation was subsumed by the U.S. Naval Institute, in Annapolis, Maryland in 2023.