In 1815, the entire United States naval force consisted of 18 warships - the USS Independence, a 90-gun ship-of-the-line, 5 frigates, 2 sloops-of-war, 7 brigantines and 3 schooners. The United States needed new ships after the end of the War of 1812 against the British to help protect American sea commerce and whaling fleet efforts that followed the whale migration around the globe. The first USS Yorktown was named for the Revolutionary War's Battle of Yorktown where the British Commander Cornwallis was trapped between the French fleet and General George Washington's American Army. On October 19th, 1781, General Cornwallis and 8,000 British troops surrendered bringing about an end to the war in America. USS Yorktown was a Sloop-of-War sailing vessel, the fifth and last of the USS Dale-class. A sloop-of-war was smaller than a frigate but large enough for "blue water" operations. They were the destroyers of the day, escort vessels that were armed with various types of cannon normally mounted with fewer than 18 guns.
The USS Yorktown was built in the Norfolk Navy Yard and launched in 1839 with her commissioning day set for November 15th, 1840. She had three masts fitted with 18 sails total, her hull painted black with a horizontal white stripe across the gun ports along both sides. On the bow was a white bowsprit with a figurehead of a double dolphin. The gun deck was one deck down from the main, or quarter deck, and housed 16 x 32-pounder cannon aligned with the gun ports, 8 facing portside and 8 facing the starboard.
One lifeboat was positioned at the mid-deck, painted white with black trim, and a second lifeboat hung from davits on the stern made from pre-shaped timbers. Two anchors were mounted at the bow, one port and one starboard. The Dale-class ships were sleek, fast and could navigate in both "blue" (deep) and "brown" (shallower) waters with a draught of 15.5 feet (4.7 meters). With her displacement of 566 long tons (575 tons), USS Yorktown made 13 knots (15 mph; 24 km/h) with her eighteen square-rigged sails across her three towering masts. USS Yorktown measured 117.7 feet (35.9 meters) in total length with a beam (width) of 33.9 feet (10.3 meters). Her total crew complement was 150 officers, sailors and gunners.
Fitted out and stocked with the requisite crew, USS Yorktown was launched from her dock works for the standard "shake down" cruise required of any naval vessel. She undertook a voyage along the East coast of the United States and, after a two week sail, she returned to Hampton Roads for repairs and resupply. She then took on food supplies of flour, salt pork and beef, dried peas and cheese while live chickens were kept in crates for their eggs, these sometimes stored in the life boats. Oxen or cattle were too large for such a ship the size of USS Yorktown so goats were taken in their stead (as was the case with most ships of the period). These animals did not get sea sick and proved useful in eating onboard refuse while, in turn, providing valuable milk and cheese. When the ship came into any new port, fresh food - including fruit and vegetables - were purchased to fight scurvy, a disease common to sailors resulting from a Vitamin C deficiency.
USS Yorktown's first mission was to make for the Pacific Ocean by way of Cape Horn of Southern Chile (the Panama Canal had yet to be built and was only completed in 1914) in an effort to protect the American whaling fleets and sea commerce vessels in the region. Yorktown left Hampton Roads in December of 1840 and, by May 1841, she had visited Brazil and Peru before touching Pacific waters. She followed the whalers to the volcanic islands of French Polynesia, then to the Marquesas Islands before reaching New Zealand. Her next stop proved the Hawaiian Islands still in support of commerce ships and whaling boats. Yorktown lingered with the whaling fleet in Hawaiian waters until November of 1841 to which then the whaling fleet headed to Mexico with Yorktown as escort. She used the city of Valparaiso, Chile, located 69.5 miles (111.8 km) northwest of Santiago - one of the country's most important seaports - as her primary port of call and patrolled the coast of South America until late 1842.
Yorktown's next orders had her sail north up the American western coastline towards San Francisco, arriving there in late October of 1842. The US Navy sent word to the Yorktown to return to active patrol duty south along the coast of South America and to her port of call city, Valparaiso, Chile. In May of 1843, Yorktown's orders were to leave Chile and proceeded south rounding Cape Horn and onto New York harbor which she did and arrived in August of 1843. Yorktown's purser paid off her crew and the ship was placed in reserve for repairs spanning 12 months. Yorktown, being completed, was reactivated in August of 1844 for a purpose - two years before, in August of 1842, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty had been signed between the United States and Great Britain, settling the disputed borders between the United States and Canada. As part of the treaty, British ships would no longer to interfere with American vessels through forced inspections attempting to counter the slave trade. However, it was highly suspected that British warships used suspension without proof of slave trading to confiscate American commerce vessels outright. The treaty required that US warships would be maintained off the coast of Africa and other areas in active search for slave ships flying American colors. The suppression of the slave trade required three American fleets - one off the coast of Africa, a second in Brazilian waters and the third in Cuban waters for Brazil and Cuba were the primary customers of the African slave trade.
The USS Yorktown was assigned to the African slave trade patrol in mid-October of 1844 and she departed New York for the Portuguese archipelago Funchal, Madeira as her first port call for resupply before joining the Africa Squadron in late November. Yorktown's mission was a simple self-policing act, stopping any suspicious American ship for inspection of their cargos. Yorktown covered a large area along the East coast of Africa for 10 months before she boarded the American ship USS Patuxent on September 27th, 1845 off the coast of Cape Mount. The ship's manifest indicated sugarcane was the cargo but, upon inspection, she was found to be carrying slaves. The captain of the Patuxent indicated his ship was built for "Blackbirding" which was seen by many as an alternative to slaving because many of those taken, or "Blackbirded", were supposedly paid a low wage, making them not technically slaves. When slaves were found aboard the Patuxent they were fed and given as much freedom as possible. The ship was then taken to shore with the slaves released, this process often times releasing slaves far from their natural homes and without provisions to survive in the long term.
Yorktown found two more slave ships, the Pons on September 30th, 1845 near Kabenda and the Panther on December 15th, 1845 also by Kabenda. Both ships were confiscated and their human cargo released. Yorktown continued to cruise the African coast until May of 1846 when she was recalled to the United States, sailing into Boston on May 29th. Again she needed repairs and was decommissioned on June 9th, 1846. She remained in reserve for some 29 months before she was recommissioned at Boston Harbor, supplied and crewed for her second mission with the African Squadron. She left Boston waters on November 22nd, 1848. Her mission saw her continuing to inspect ships while on patrol along the east coast of Africa. However, this tour provided no luck in finding slave ships.
On September 6th, 1850, USS Yorktown was sailing in unfamiliar waters of the Cape Verde Island group when she struck a hidden reef about a mile offshore of Maio Island. The keel of the Yorktown broke causing massive damage and as she pivoted on the reef before breaking up and sinking. Luckily all of her hands were able to make it ashore with absolutely no loss of life. Her captain, Commander William Harwar Parker, kept his men together on Maio Island for 32 tranquil days under the sun waiting for rescue when, on October 8th, her sister ship - the USS Dale - arrived at the island. The USS Dale picked up Captain Parker and crew and, within days, all were transferred to the USS Portsmouth who was enlisted to sail them to home port at Norfolk, Virginia. The crew of the stricken USS Yorktown were pleased with their successful mission that freed some 1,000 Africans from a life of bondage. Away from home for two years they arrived in Norfolk in early December of 1850, USS Yorktown crewmembers were paid their earnings and sent home for Christmas before being reassigned to a new ship.
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