Rank(s): Ordinary Seaman
Dates of Service: 8/2/1812 - 4/1813
Birth Date: 1772
Jesse Williams, a free African American, was born in Pennsylvania, possibly in 1772 or 1789.
Williams entered the United States Navy on June 26, 1812 in Boston, Massachusetts, where he served for a time on gunboat 81. Williams was a stoutly built, standing 5 feet, 6 inches tall, with a round face, dark brown eyes, and black hair.
Jesse Williams was transferred to Constitution ’s crew on August 2, 1812. As an ordinary seaman, Williams would have been paid $10 a month.
Battles and Engagements
At his battle station as first sponger for the number 3 long gun on the gun deck, Williams’ job was to wipe out the cannon’s bore with a wet sponge after firing to extinguish any remaining sparks or smoldering bits of powder bag. He was aboard for the battles with HMS Guerriere and HMS Java, and received a portion of the prize money.
Williams was transferred to the Great Lakes in April 1813, where he served aboard USS Lawrence. In September 1813, he fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, where he was wounded and received $214.89 in prize money. Later, while serving aboard USS Scorpion, Williams was captured by the British and sent to Dartmoor Prison in England. Released at the end of the war, Williams made able seaman in December 1814 and left the navy the following year. In 1820, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania awarded Williams a silver medal for his service during the Battle of Lake Erie.
Pennsylvania lawyer Peter Sprout wrote the following letter regarding Williams’ medal:
To his Excellency the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania at Harrisburg or the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Phila. July 4th, 1820.
I enclose you the Letter of Attorney of Jesse Williams (a colored man) and one of the crew of the Lawrence in the Squadron commanded by Commodore Oliver H. Perry on Lake Erie at the memorable battle of the September 10th 1813 for to obtain the prize medal designed and ready kept to be presented as one of the brave victors of Lake Erie by the generous and patriotic State of Pennsylvania.
With sentiments of esteem I am your most Obedient ver humble Serv’t
Peter H. Sprout