The Search for the Jefferson Davis in the National Archives
The search for the Jefferson Davis began in the National Archives in Washington, DC, with a research trip conducted by LAMP's Director of Archaeology Dr. Sam Turner in March 2006. The National Archives holds most records of the Union and Confederate Navies as well as Registries and Enrollment documents for American vessels from this time period. In addition, these archives contain the original deck logs of Union warships involved in the search for the Jeff Davis and the recapture and destruction of some of the prizes seized by this privateer. Some 42 naval documents, including letters and telegrams, have been found which contain a great deal of information regarding the cruise of the Jeff Davis and the Union's efforts to track her down.
The history of this vessel prior to her becoming a privateer however, is considerably more difficult to ascertain. Dr. Turner's research into ship registries in the National Archives has shed considerable light on the early working life of the Jeff Davis and has permitted, to a degree, a retracing of her geographic whereabouts during her sixteen-year career.
The Jefferson Davis, christened Putnam at her launching in 1845 was built in Baltimore the same year Florida first became a state of the Union. The Putnam was a brig of 187 tons, ninety-two feet and two inches in length and twenty-two feet eight inches in breadth. She had a square stern with no galleries and a billet head and a ten-foot depth of hold. She was built for interests in Philadelphia and sailed under a Philadelphia shipmaster with a temporary registry on her very first voyage from Baltimore to Philadelphia in June 1845. Future research may reveal whether or not Putnam ever made Baltimore a regular port of call.
The Putnam operated from Philadelphia for five years from 1845 and thereafter was sold to new owners in Providence, Rhode Island in June 1850. Providence was not long to remain the homeport of Putnam. A little more than a year later, in August 1851, she was registered in Boston. Boston, like Providence, was only briefly her homeport for in December 1852, Putnam was registered in the port of New York.
New York was to be her homeport until October 1857. It was in the records of New York we fist found mention of the Putnam permitting the tracing of her documentation and ownership. On October 9 1857, the Putnam was registered in the port of New Orleans where she likely underwent yard work and was rigged in a New Orleans "French" style that was later to prove so confusing to crews of some of the Jefferson Davis's prizes.
While based in New Orleans, the Putnam was given the alias Echo and fitted out for the illegal African slave trade. It is unknown at this point how many voyages to Africa Echo made but it could not have been many given the short period of time between her registration in New Orleans and her capture. This dark episode in her career ended on August 21 1858, when the USS Dolphin took Echo with 318 slaves off the coast of Cuba following a long chase. The Dolphin, a sloop of war, was under the command of Lt. John Newland Maffit, a resident of Charleston, South Carolina who went on to earn fame and notoriety as the first and very successful commander of the CSS Florida, and later as a blockade runner.
The Echo was condemned and sold in 1859 in the city of Charleston where she was registered and reverted to her original name. During the next two years, Putnam engaged in international trade until the outbreak of the war in 1861 at which time she was commissioned a privateer operating against Union shipping on behalf of the Confederate government.
The career of the Jefferson Davis was short but quite successful. She took a total of nine prizes on a cruise into northern waters off New England in what has been described by the Naval Historical Center as "the last truly classic cruise in the history of private-armed sea power". The Union Navy expended considerable time and resources hunting the Jefferson Davis but succeeded only in the destruction of one of her prizes and the re-capture of another.
Continuing research will focus on entrance and clearance records for the ports of Baltimore, Philadelphia, Providence, Boston, New York, and New Orleans for the years during which the Putnam was based in these ports. These records may contain information regarding the cargoes and merchants involved in shipping goods on the Putnam as well as the various ports and nations she visited abroad. This will help us more fully understand the economic role played by the Putnam and the nature of the global maritime economy in which she operated.
Further research will also examine the nature of the Atlantic slave trade in the mid-nineteenth century paying particular attention to African geography. Other issues under investigation include, British and American anti-slave trade naval squadrons, the repatriation to Africa of slaves taken on slave ships, and the Cuban involvement and economic dependency on the Atlantic slave trade. Archival research will be followed by marine remote sensing survey in the vicinity of St. Augustine's nineteenth-century shipping channel in an effort to locate the archaeological remains of this fascinating and historically important shipwreck.
Text by Sam Turner, 2007
Please explore the following links to learn more about historical research at LAMP:
- Historical Research
- A Brief Historical Overview of St. Augustine, America’s Oldest Port
- First Spanish Period Research (excerpt from the 2007-2009 First Coast Maritime Archaeology Report)
- Maritime Insights from St. Augustine's British Period (El Escribano, Volume 47, 2010, courtesy of the St. Augustine Historical Society)
- Coastal Changes in St. Johns County through the Centuries (an online exhibit of historic maps presented by the St. Augustine Historical Society)
All text and images, unless otherwise noted, are copyright Lighthouse Archaeological Maritime Program, Inc. We extend permission to scholars, students, and other interested members of the public to use images and to quote from text for non-commercial educational or research purposes, provided LAMP is acknowledged and credited. If there are any questions regarding the use of LAMP’s work, please inquire at LAMP@staugustinelighthouse.org.