What is this?
1808 Pattern Nathan Starr Cutlass
When is it from?
Why is it Important?
In 1808 as hostilities with England escalated, the US Navy increased its gunboat production. The new vessels needed new armaments . The man tasked with letting contracts for the small arms was newly appointed New London, Connecticut Navy Agent Joseph Hull. Joseph’s son, Captain Isaac Hull, had used his considerable political clout to get his father the position and by some accounts did most of the real work. The two Hulls set out to find reputable weapon makers to produce 2,000 cutlasses, 2,000 boarding pikes, and 2,000 pistols.
After casting about for likely candidates, they found Nathan Starr of Middletown, Connecticut to produce the cutlasses and the pikes. Isaac Hull considered Starr to be a competent and honest workman, deserving of the Navy’s support. After a short negotiation, they came to an agreement. On May 18, 1808 Nathan Starr and Joseph Hull signed a contract for 2,000 cutlasses at $2.50 each and 2,000 boarding pikes at $0.75 each, to be delivered within four months. The pistol contract went to Simeon North of Berlin, Connecticut who supplied the weapons at $5.87½ each.
In a time when it was rare for contracts to be delivered on time, Nathan Starr made his deadlines by a significant margin. Starr had approximately 100 working days in the four months allotted to do the work, but he was finished in 76 working days. Upon delivery, Isaac Hull inspected the weapons and immediately distributed them to the waiting ships. In addition to this contract, Starr made many of the same cutlasses for privateers and may have received further Navy contracts for the same weapon.
The straight 30½-inch blade of the Starr cutlass, made of crudely forged steel, could be quickly manufactured, unlike the carefully crafted blades wielded by officers. A fuller (a groove on the side meant to strengthen and lighten the sword) runs most of the length of the blade and there are marks stamped into the ricasso (“N. Starr”, an American eagle, and “US”). The handle is made of wood and the guard of sheet iron.
Today very few of these cutlasses survive (there are only about six or seven marked examples of this cutlass and one that lacks the maker’s stamp) and there are no confirmed examples of Starr’s boarding pike. Underwater photography of the wrecks of USS Scourge and USS Hamilton reveal another 30 or 40 examples of this sword at the bottom of Lake Ontario.
Nathan Starr continued to do work for the Navy. Starr was asked to proof all of the pistols that Simeon North had made under his contract. In 1816 Starr produced 1,000 cutlasses for the Navy, at $3.00 each. These had shorter, heavier blades than the 1808 model but were otherwise the same. Starr’s last Navy contract was let in 1826 for 2,000 cutlasses, again at $3.00 each. These had a pronounced curve to the blade and a much more elaborate handle than Starr’s earlier work. They also include a scabbard, purchased by the Navy for an additional $1.25 each. There are a greater number of the 1826 swords still existing as it was made during peacetime and would not have seen significant use. Though he made other weapons and farming tools, Nathan Starr will always be remembered as the man who made “the cutlass that fought the War of 1812.”
Text © 2010 USS Constitution Museum