Before Joining USS Constitution
David Debias was born in Boston on August 9, 1806 where he lived with his parents in Belknap St., on Beacon Hill—a predominantly African-American community.
While we don’t know the real story of David’s early life, we can guess that life was hard for a poor African-American family in early nineteenth-century Boston. His father may have worked as a laborer along the waterfront or in one of the many factories beginning to spring up around town. With few prospects, it is not surprising that David would go to sea.
Life Aboard USS Constitution
On December 17, 1814, Debias’ father entered him on board Constitution. Scarcely eight years old, David was rated a boy and assigned as servant to Master’s Mate Nathaniel G. Leighton. He was discharged and paid off on July 16, 1815. His father collected his pay from the purser: for 7 months service he received $31.98.
Boys were the lowest ranking sailors on a ship, employed at the ship’s most boring and dirty work. Many boys acted as officers’ servants, serving them at dinner and keeping their uniforms and cabins neat and shipshape. Older boys often carried powder to the guns in battle. When not engaged in those duties, boys were expected to learn all they could about seamanship and other shipboard tasks.
Battles and Engagements
David served on Constitution during her battle with HMS Cyane and Levant on the night of February 20, 1815. Placed on board Levant (along with Master’s Mate Leighton) as part of the prize crew, he was captured by a British squadron on the way back to the United States. Imprisoned in Barbados until May, he returned home, where he was finally reunited with his family.
With several years of sailing experience under his belt, Debias joined the merchant fleet for adventure and fortune. In 1821, he joined the navy again, sailing on Constitution to the Mediterranean Sea. He returned to the U.S. in 1824 and once again sailed in the merchant service. In 1838, he left his ship in Mobile, Alabama and started walking north. Picked up as a runaway slave in Winchester, Mississippi, David’s plight caught the attention of a local lawyer named Thomas Falconer. Convinced that David was a free man, Falconer wrote to the Secretary of the Navy, seeking proof that David was who he said he was.
Mr. Falconer’s letter pleads Debias’ case, describing the service to his country and requesting Debias’ naval records. Unfortunately, we have no records of Debias’ fate.