Robert Spencer and the Theft of the “Katy”

Have you ever heard of the sloop Katy?  I hadn’t, either. Unless you’re something of a military history fan, or particularly knowledgeable about the American Revolution, you might not have. So this is a cautionary tale, if you will, a reminder about the need for careful evaluation of historical evidence as we search for our ancestors.

As mentioned previously, one of my 6x-great-grandfathers was Robert Spencer, United Empire Loyalist. I’ve been having a grand old time lately, digging up documents for him from the website of the Library and Archives Canada, since they have so many great collections for those of us with Loyalist ancestors. Land petitions? Check. Haldimand Papers? Check. So I came to this database, Carlton Papers: Loyalists and British Soldiers, 1772-1784, and did a search for “Spencer” to see if they had anything for Robert Spencer. Sure enough, they did!

Figure 1: Search result for Robert Spencer in Carlton Papers database.Robert Spencer in index

I knew that Robert Spencer had served with Butler’s Rangers, a British military regiment best known for their participation in battles in central New York and Pennsylvania. Since the document referenced here was created in New York and was dated 1783, prior to the disbandment of the Rangers in 1784, it seemed likely to pertain to my ancestor. Intrigued, I requested a copy from the archive, which is shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Letter from Wm. (?) Thomas Buchanan, Compiler, to Major Upham, regarding the theft of the sloop Katty (sic) and of naval stores from Eagle.1

robert-spencer-katy-theft.jpg

The transcription of the text is as follows:

“Wm. (?) Thomas Buchanan, Compiler, to Major Upham, and agreeable to his request, sends him the names of those persons, who carried off on the night of the 3rd March, from along side the ship Eagle then laying ashore upon the Battery Rocks, the sloop Katty having on board 115 puncheons & 5 small casks Jamaican Rum, also the Sails, Guns, Water Casks, and other materials belonging to the Eagle, which were by them landed at Elizabeth Town in New Jersey.

New York 22 September 1783

William Crain

Thomas Quigby

William Williamson

Meline Miller

Moses Hetfield

Robert Spencer

Samuel Heryman

John Hanyon”1

Since this document was indexed in a database of Loyalists and British soldiers, my initial interpretation was that the these must have been British soldiers who captured an American ship. I began to search the internet, as any good historian does in the 21st century, to see what I could find that might help me understand this. The first reference to the sloop Katy that I found seemed to confirm this suspicion:  she was a sloop in the Continental Navy, originally chartered by the Rhode Island general assembly.  But wait, what’s this about being “destroyed by her own crew in 1779”? That doesn’t fit with a capture by Robert Spencer et al. in 1783.

Further internet searching produced more interesting results. In the book, Elizabeth: First Capital of New Jersey, by Jean-Rae Turner and Richard T. Koles, the incident with the Katy is mentioned:

“On March 3, 1783, Major William Crane, later a general, captured the armed ship Eagle and the sloop Katy within pistol shot of the Battery in New York City. The Eagle had to be left because she was grounded. The Katy was brought to Elizabethtown where the cargo and vessel were sold at auction. Crane was elevated to brigadier general for this action.” 2

The book Cyclopedia of New Jersey Biography, Memorial and Biographical further clarifies the parties on each side in this conflict. General Crane is described as a “Patriot Soldier, Useful Citizen”3 and the events of 3 March 1783 are also described:

“General William Crane was born in 1748 in Elizabethtown, New Jersey….He had been advanced to the rank of major, and in 1783, led an enterprise of which he left the following report:

‘I have the pleasure to inform you of the capture of the sloop, Katy, of twelve double-fortified twelve-pounders, containing one hundred and seventeen puncheons of Jamaica spirits, lying at the time of capture within pistol shot of the grand battery of New York and alongside of the ship Eagle of twenty-four guns, which we also took but were obliged to leave, as she lay aground. The captains and crews of both the vessels were brought up to us in the sloop to this place, where we have them secure. This was performed on the night of the third of March by six townsmen under the command of Captain Quigley and myself, without the firing of a musket by any of our party.'” 4

This makes it clear that the sloop Katy and the Eagle were both British ships, having been captured by a party of Americans, including one Robert Spencer, who was clearly not my ancestor. A little more digging finished the job: both the Katy and the Eagle are named in a list of Loyalist ships, and and there is evidence for the New Jersey Robert Spencer in Ancestry’s database, New Jersey, Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index, 1643-1890, living in Trenton township, Hunterdon County, New Jersey in 1741.5

So why was this Robert Spencer named in a Canadian database of Loyalists and Britsh soldiers? In defense of the Library and Archives of Canada site, they did specify in their description of the records,

“The series includes a variety of documents about loyalist soldiers and civilian refugees (both white and black people) but also about people who were on Manhattan Island or the adjacent mainland dominated by the British during the American Revolution, as well as many British and German soldiers who settled in Canada later and also some rebels (emphasis mine).”

What amazes me about this particular story is not that there were two Robert Spencers — I’ve come to expect that — but that there were also two sloops called Katy, one American and one British. It nicely illustrates the importance of digging deeper to understand documents in their proper historical context, and not be lured into the trap of seeing only what we expect to find.

Sources

“Carlton Papers — Loyalists and British Soldiers, 1772-1784”, Government of Canada, Library and Archives of Canada (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/Pages/home.aspx), New York, 1783, citing Robert Spencer, document page number 9183, MG 23 B1, Microfilm M-365, item number 206.

Turner, Jean-Rae, and Richard T. Koles. Elizabeth: First Capital of New Jersey, Charleston, South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2003, p. 47. Google Books, https://books.google.com, accessed 29 June 2017.

Cyclopedia of New Jersey Biography, Memorial and Biographical: With the Assistance of the Following Advisory Committee : Joseph Fulford Folsom, Chairman ; Hiram Edmund Deats ; Charles Tiebout Cowenhoven ; Alfred M. Heston ; David Demarest Zabriskie ; John Stillwell Applegate ; Frank John Urquhart ; John Albert Blair ; George Mason La Monte ; Carlton P. Hoagland, Volume 1. New York: American Historical Society, Inc., 1921, p. 116. Google Books, https://books.google.com,  accessed 29 June 2017.

4 Ibid.

Ancestry.com. New Jersey, Compiled Census and Census Substitutes Index, 1643-1890 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 1999, citing Robert Spencer in New Jersey Early Census Index, Trenton, Hunterdon, New Jersey, 1741, p. 50, accessed 29 June 2017.

Featured Image:  Continental Sloop Providence (1775-1779), (originally the sloop Katy before she was renamed), U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Painting in oils by W. Nowland Van Powell, licensed under CC0 1.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

© Julie Roberts Szczepankiewicz 2017

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