As Hopkinton, New Hampshire native Thomas Bickford sat scribbling a note to his family, his shipmates busily prepared his ship for a voyage to the Mediterranean.  His thoughts naturally turned to home, and it seems his conscience got the better of him.  Here is his letter, with his own idiosyncratic diction and grammar.  We’ve added a few punctuation marks to make it easier to read.


On Board Ship Alert Mon
Oct 28th 1816
Worthy Parents, I write this to inform you of my health and that I have Ship’d in the States Service for two years, and am bound up the Straits [of Gibraltar] with Stores, for the Ships Station’d up there, and Expect to be Drafted on board Some Other Ship on my arrival up there, and Stay up there untill my time is out [.] the wages are low in the Merchant Service, and Dear parents I Should have come home, but my past Actions have been so bad that my Conscience tells me I have Done wrong[.] but depend on it Dear parents I have moments at Sea when I think of my past Conduct that is very uncomfortable and I pay Severely by Reflecting on the past, when I think with what tender Care you watch’d over me in my infancy and try’d to Instill into my mind  Sentiments of becoming Such parents, and how have I abused all your good Intentions, how have I Repaid such Kindness, by Cruel neglect, by turning a Deaf Ear to Such parental Advice, and Running into [sic] headlong to my own Ruin [.] But D[ea]r Parents I See my own folly and am Asham’d of it[.] And I have been in bad Company So long that it Seems like Second nature, and it would be almost Impossible for me to leave it[.] I suppose God knows when I shall See you again[.]  I dont Know as I Ever Shall, and I hope you will forgive my past follies and if Ever I should Return I will Endeavour to Conduct myself with a little more Steadiness and hope you will make yourselfs easy on my account as you have Done all parents Could do for me, therefore it is all my own fault if I meet with misfortunes— Give my love to my Brothers and Sisters and tell them I am well and that I Respect them and always Shall[.] May god Bless them and you and wishing all the happiness which this world affords, I Subscribe myself your

                                                           Affectionate Son

What Thomas forgot to mention, and which probably greatly confused his parents, was that he had been going by the name John Bartlett for several years. In a postscript he elaborated on what he’d recently experienced.


It is of no use to write to me as we Expect to Sail in a few Days.  I have been in an English man-of-war and gave myself up and went to Dartmoor Prison and was oblige’d to Alter my name[.] I heard my Grand-Mother was Dead which I was Sorry to hear[.] if I Never see any of you again I wish you all well and may God Bless you all[.] I Shall write to you again when I Gett up the Straits[.] No more at present
from your
  Affectionate Brother [sic]
                                                        John Bartlett 1


Luckily, his story can be corroborated.   In the fall of 1816, an old acquaintance from New Hampshire met Thomas Bickford at New York: “he then passed among his comrades and was known by the name of John Bartlett….I understood by him that that he was then or had been engaged in the naval service of the United States [and] that he was obliged to change his name in consequence of his having been taken a prisoner by the British and having made his escape or obtained his release, I do not recollect which.”
We know of Bartlett/Bickford’s plight because he never made it home again.  After his cruise to the Mediterranean, he entered on board the frigate Constellation and sailed for the Pacific.  He died on the voyage home in 1822, and his father and brother made repeated attempts to recover the wages due him.  His assumption of an alias complicated the matter.
A man named Thomas Bickford joined Constitution’s crew on 8 July 1813.  He deserted ten days later.  Considering our letter writer’s penchant for bad company and folly, this may well have been the same fellow, but we may never know for sure.


1 Closed Accounts of the Fourth Auditor of the Treasury, Numerical Accounts, No. 3772, John Bartlett, NARA.

The Author(s)

Matthew Brenckle
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.