Stories from the Shipyard: USS Porpoise

By Mike Manning ,Chair – Friends of the Boston Harborwalk

With a somewhat unusual name, USS Porpoise was ordered by the US Navy on June 30, 1834 and built in the Boston Navy Yard (Charlestown).  Named after the aquatic mammal, she was launched on May 31, 1836 and commissioned later that summer.  She was a 224-ton Dolphin-class brigantine: a two-masted vessel with a fully square-rigged foremast and at least two sails on the taller main mast including a square topsail and a gaff-rigged mainsail (behind the mast).   Manned by a crew of 80 officers and enlisted men, Dolphin was armed with a mix of cannon and carronades of varying calibers.

In August 1836, Porpoise set sail from Boston on her first assignment – a year of scientific explorations and surveys followed by a year of anti-piracy duty along the southern coastline of the United States.

Two years later she was assigned to the United States Exploring Expedition Squadron.  The Porpoise explored and surveyed the Antarctic continent, charted immense swaths of the South Pacific Ocean, circumnavigated the globe, and eventually returned to New York in late 1842.

At New York, she underwent a four-month overhaul before sailing for the west coast of Africa in February 1843.  Porpoise was assigned to the African Slave Trade Patrol. Her mission: interdict and suppress the slave trade.  For nearly two years, she and other vessels of the squadron, along with ships of Great Britain’s Royal Navy, hunted for slave-ships. In November 1844, she returned to New York.

Porpoise remained berthed at New York until February of 1845. She set sail for Florida and was assigned to naval operations in the Gulf of Mexico.  She cruised the gulf and participated in multiple bombardment actions against the cities of Tampico, Panuco, and Veracruz during the war with Mexico. Once the war concluded, she set sail for Norfolk, Virginia and was promptly decommissioned.

On January 1, 1848 Porpoise was recommissioned and began a second slave-ship hunting tour. This mission, along the west coast of Africa, lasted three and a half years. At the conclusion of this second tour-of-duty, she returned to New York City in December of 1851.

In August of 1852, she was decommissioned only to be recommissioned in May of 1853 and assigned to the North Pacific Exploring and Surveying Expedition.  Porpoise joined the squadron at Hampton Roads, Virginia in June 1853, and set sail for the Cape of Good Hope.

Once in the expansive Pacific, she and the other vessels explored and mapped many previously uncharted islands and shoals.  In March 1854, Porpoise arrived in China for a goodwill visit.  After this brief port-of-call, she and the squadron put to sea and began an exploration of archipelagoes including the Bonins, Ladrones, and Marianas.

On September 21, 1854, the squadron lost contact with Porpoise somewhere between Formosa (now Taiwan) and China.  Tragically, she was never heard from or seen again and was presumed to have been caught in a fierce typhoon and lost at sea with all hands.  Her exceptional 20-year career of maritime exploration, humanitarian missions, and wartime service came to a mysterious end halfway around the globe from her origins at the Boston Navy Yard.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.