Dates of Service: -
John Adams was born on Cross Street in the North End of Boston, Massachusetts on November 29, 1796. He was the son of Phebe (Miner) and Elijah Adams, a Boston sea captain. The family moved to Quincy, Massachusetts when Adams was young. He was a distant relation of President John Adams. “One day when I was going to school,” Adams later recounted in an article in the Boston Daily Globe on April 12, 1885, “he stopped me and asked me my name. I said, ‘John Adams.’ ‘I know all about you,’ he said: ‘be a good boy.’ That’s all he ever said to me.”
Adams made his first voyage from Boston to Cadiz, Spain in 1811. He sailed on the schooner Hiram, commanded by his father. He made a safe voyage, and then another one to the same port, but on the third trip the vessel was captured on August 11, 1812 by the British frigate Guerriere. This was eight days before the frigate’s battle with USS Constitution. Adams’ ship was released after his father agreed to pay $2,000, but the British kept the boy as a hostage to make sure the money would be paid. He messed with the master-at-arms on board and was generally well treated.
Adams was taken on board Constitution at sea on August 20, 1812 as a supernumerary (he received only rations, not pay), and left the ship around September 3, 1812.
Battles and Engagements
Adams recounted his experiences as a prisoner on board HMS Guerriere. His story was printed in the Boston Daily Globe on April 12, 1885:
“When the Constitution hove in sight, I was on deck. The captain asked me if I knew what ship it was, and I said ‘no.’ He did not know himself; he only knew it was an American frigate.
I stayed on deck until the first shot was fired, and then went below. There were seven pressed men on board, American seamen, and they went below at the same time. Among them was Captain Reed of Brewster, and a man named Brown, from New York. Captain Orne of Marblehead, and a French boy of his, were also on board. They had captured his vessel, and sent it into Halifax.”
When asked if the noise of the engagement was very great, Adams responded:
“I guess you’d think so when the masts were shot away and came crashing down on the deck. When it was over I was going aboard the Constitution, afraid the Guerriere would sink; but Captain Orne said they would put me in irons if I did, and that I had better stay on the Guerriere over night. I did so, and that night helped heave over one man that was all cut to pieces. I went aboard the Constitution with the Guerriere’s crew the next morning at 10 o’clock. As I stepped on the deck of the Constitution a fellow named Howe [Boy James R. Howe], a schoolmate of mine, said: ‘Hello! Jack Adams, how did you come here?’ Captain Hull spoke up and said: ‘What, do you know him?’ and when he said he did, and I told him how I came on the Guerriere, I was put on a gun and well treated.
We laid a train to the magazine of the Guerriere, and blew her up; and then made sail for Boston, reaching there fifteen days afterward. It was the custom on the Constitution, I remember, to serve grog (New England rum) once a day, at dinner time. They gave very little, though- only about a swallow to each man. When we reached Boston, I left the Constitution down in the harbor and came up to the city in a pilot boat, of which my uncle was captain. The Constitution came into port next day, and the crew marched up State Street and were received with great enthusiasm. There were about 500 of them. I stood by the old Merchants’ Exchange and saw them go by.”
Adam continued his narrative:
“About a month afterwards, I went out on the Rambler, a letter-of-marque, bound for Bordeaux, Captain Snow, of Truro, Cape Cod. I shipped as boy, at $5 per month. She was well supplied with arms and had forty men, all told. We made a safe voyage, and returned to Boston. The Rambler was then sold to the government for a Man-of-War, and I shipped on another Rambler, with the same captain, bound for Bordeaux. On this voyage we captured a small English schooner, the Susan, loaded with fish, and bound for the West Indies. I was one of the prize crew put on board of her. We started for Bordeaux after the Rambler, but she soon ran away from us. She was a fast sailing clipper schooner- there couldn’t anything catch her at that time. We were on the Susan perhaps ten days, and were in French waters, when we were overhauled by an English privateer cutter [November 29, 1813]- the Jane of London- and our captain, Macondray, was foolish enough to give up the Susan without making a protest. They took us to Plymouth, where we spent one night in Mill prison [December 10, 1813], and were then put aboard the prison ship Brave, an old French man-of-war taken in one of Nelson’s engagements. There were about 160 prisoners on her altogether. They gave us each a pound and a half of bread a day and one pound of meat among six. After staying there about three months we were started out one morning, when snow was on the ground, to march to Dartmoor prison, about eighteen miles from there. After making eight or nine miles we stopped for a relief-changing the guard- which gave us a chance to rest. We were six or seven hours on the road, and reached Dartmoor about dark. They marched us down into No. 4 prison, through a double line of prisoners that were there to welcome us. They slapped our backs as we went along, and seemed glad to see us. There were about 150 negro prisoners in No. 4 at the time. It was three stories in height, and had accommodations for about 200 prisoners on each floor. It was cold and damp and full of vermin. Including about 10,000 French prisoners, there were, I think, nearly 16,000 in the prison. We had regular market days in the prison yard. One farmer, I remember, used to come in with his two daughters and sell vegetable; and there were all sorts of trades carried out by the prisoners in the yard. The ladies of quality used to come in to buy straw to make hats of.”
“I worked for a man that kept what was called a chow-chow shop. He cooked and sold articles that he bought of the men that supplied the prisoners. After we had been there about six months, we got an allowance from the United States government for tobacco. It was six shillings eight pence every thirty-two days. By working in the chow-chow shop I saved my money, and had some little when I came out.”
Adams was at Dartmoor during the infamous massacre:
“We used to play ball in the yard, and one day knocked the ball over the wall. We asked the sentry to have it back. He would not do it, and one of the players said: ‘You red-coated —, if you do not do it, we will come after it.’ Then two or three of them commenced digging under the wall, the alarm gun was fired by one of the sentries, and the guard called out. I said to one of my companions: ‘We’d better go inside, or those fellows will be doing some shooting.’ He said he wasn’t afraid, but started a moment afterwards for his quarters, some distance off, and was shot in the leg on the way. I had only a few steps to take, and just as I was entering the door a bullet struck on the sill, where my foot had been a moment before. History will tell you the result of the shooting. The prison was located under a mountain, from the top of which you could see the ships lying at Plymouth. I stayed there about eighteen months, and left Plymouth with a draft of 360 prisoners [about 27 April 1815], on the ship Jane of London, bound for Norfolk, Va., to get freight. We took possession of the ship, and put her in at New London, Conn. I stayed there about a week and then staged it to Boston. Taking the fortunes of war into consideration, I consider that I was treated very fairly at Dartmoor.”
Adams continued to follow the sea, and later commanded a number of ships out of Boston: the New Jersey, the Saldon, the Thomas B. Wales, and others. About 1860 he moved from his house at Distil-House Square to Minot Street in Boston. About 1885, he moved to Allston to live with a married daughter. At that date, his health was still good. It is not known when he died.