Death Be Not Proud: Part I

Death Be Not Proud: Part I



Stories about Death Be Not Proud: Part I

Isaac Van Dam and the American Revolution

  • St. Eustatius

for Endnotes and Bibliography see: Endnotes and Bibliography

ON September 19, 1774, the Sally set sail with a gift from Jonathan Upshaw, Archibald Ritchie, Jonathan Lee and Robert Beverly of Essex County, Virginia to the sufferers of the closed port of Boston.1 Part of Master James Perkins’ cargo from the Essex County Committee of Safety was one thousand and eighty-seven bushels of corn. But inclement weather and contrary winds drove the schooner south, to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius.

Writing from Boston on March 14, 1775, Samuel Adams would acquaint the Essex County gentlemen with what had become of their “very valuable contribution.” Isaac Van Dam, “a reputable merchant” of St. Eustatius had sold the corn free of charge and on December 30, 1774, sent a bill of exchange drawn by Sampson Mears on Isaac Moses of New York for £171.8 New York Currency with an accompanying letter to John Hancock, Esq. or “The Overseers of the Poor of the Town of Boston.”2 In his letter to Hancock, Van Dam had praised the inhabitants of Boston “as having so virtuously dared to oppose a wicked and corrupt ministry, in their tyrannical acts of despotism,” according to Samuel Adams who had returned “due acknowledgements” to Van Dam on February 28, 1775.3

In March the Second Virginia Convention met. Several members of the Convention brought news of a “reputable merchant,” not only in agreement with their cause but in an exceptional location to be of aid to the Virginia colony. A powder transaction between Van Dam and the Convention would soon follow.4 That transaction began a network that would cause Lord Rodney to write his wife five years later, “This rock [St. Eustatius] of only six miles in length and three in breadth has done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies and alone supported the infamous American rebellion.”5 By April 12, 1776 the English considered Van Dam to be “the principal agent of correspondence” between the rebels and Europe.6 This paper will be a denouement of how this came to be.

Recently, much has been made of the commerce between the Dutch and the Americans during the American Revolution, especially in the Islands of the West Indies. Indeed, the popular presuppositions that if one lived on a Dutch island with a surname beginning with “Van” seem to have confounded many consequential interpretations of historical evidence.7

But Isaac Van Dam was not “Dutch.”8 The family had emigrated to the colonies in the early seventeenth century. Sixth child and fourth son of Isaac Van Dam and his wife Isabelle Pintard, he was baptized April 4, 1736 in Christ Church, Shrewsbury, New Jersey. His father had been a merchant of Manhattan. His grandfather Rip Van Dam, had also been a merchant as well as Governor of New York. His great-grandfather Claase Ripse Van Dam who died about 1693, had been a carpenter of Beverwyck, later known as Albany. Some of his cousins were members of the Continental Congress; others signed The Declaration of Independence; still others as well as in-laws were members of elite society in New York, Philadelphia as well as London. He was dead before he was forty.9 In a letter of 1781 from his wife Sarah to her brother The Reverend George Young “then in England,” Van Dam is mentioned only in relationship to Sarah, “Anthony Van Dam’s brother’s widow.”10

In spite of his small biography, Isaac Van Dam has become a well-used though misinterpreted footnote for American historians.11 Like that of so many heroes, it was Van Dam’s death that would redeem his life in historical literature.

On December 16, 1773, a number of Boston men unloaded a shipload of English tea into Boston Harbor. On May 16, 1774, citizens of New Towne, now Chestertown, Maryland witnessed their compliance by doing the same with the lading of the Geddes. A few days later Virginians did the same. Eight days later the people of Virginia were called to pray and fast. The House of Burgesses had been dissolved. On June 1, it was over for the people of Boston. On October 19, the people of Annapolis set fire to a ton of tea that had arrived on the Peggy Stewart and forced Anthony Stewart to burn his brig as well. The next day, the First Continental Congress agreed to non-importation of all English goods effective December 1 and non-exportation to the British effective September 10, 1775. On December 3, 1774, HMS Scarborough arrived at Boston with an order of the Privy Council prohibiting any nation to export any munitions to the American Colonies. In the evening of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere and others alerted their neighbors of approaching doom. On the next morning Lexington and Concord exploded. Maryland then took over the stored munitions of their colony when they had received the news on April 27.

The Virginia Gazette would not announce the events at Lexington and Concord until April 29, but many in that colony had anticipated such news already. On March 25, The Second Virginia Convention had recommended to the various committees of safety that from every titheable funds be collected sufficient to purchase “half a pound of Gunpowder, one pound of Lead, necessary Flints and Cartridge paper, for every Titheable person in their County.”12 But even with funds, where would the munitions come from? Britain had been a major source. But by a Resolution of the Virginia Convention, as of November 1, 1774 no British Imports had been allowed into the Colony of Virginia. The Convention decided that the “most certain and speedy method” would be for Robert Carter Nicholas, Treasurer of the Colony, Thomas Nelson, Jr. and Thomas Whiting be appointed as “one General Committee” to take care of the matter.13

Virginia had been under martial law for some time. Between three and four A.M. on the Friday, April 21st, Lieutenant Henry Colins and a fifteen man landing party anchored HM schooner Magdalen at Burwell’s Ferry just four miles south of Williamsburg on the James. No one was aware of their secret mission to remove the colony’s powder from the Capital. Under orders from Governor John Murray, Earl of Dunmore, the detachment managed to load onto the Governor’s wagon fifteen half barrels of powder before they were discovered and the alarm was sounded. Colins and his men were no fools. They leapt upon the powder wagon and sped to Collins’s man of war, HMS Fowey anchored in the Elizabeth off Norfolk. They had lit the fuse that would finally cause Virginia to explode with indignation that had been fueled since June. In fear for their lives The Scottish Earl and his family would soon flee to the powder ship themselves.14

But with the raid on the Magazine, Virginians had little ammunition for retaliation. Funds were being collected to purchase munitions, but sources had to be found. At the end of the month, Richard Henry Lee and others sent a pilot boat to the West Indies for powder with which to supply their native land. But the scheme failed.

Writing on May 21 from Philadelphia Lee wrote his brother Francis Lightfoot Lee that he had just received information that the Dutch merchants of Statia15 had imported a large quantity of powder but that two English men of war guarded the road to prevent its exportation to the Colonies. As early as January 26, 1775 the British had been aware of such “very illicit Trade” being carried on between St. Eustatius and other Dutch settlements and His Majesty’s Colonies. The Earl of Rochford made known to Suffolk and York that it was His Majesty’s Pleasure that any ship, British or foreign, found carrying on illicit trade with the Colonies be intercepted and seized.16

Several firms offered Virginia their aid.17 The Alexandrian Virginia firm of Jenifer and Hooe would eventually send twenty-year old Richard Harrison to French Martinique and Baltimore firm of Lux & Bowley would send Abraham Van Bibber to St. Eustatius. Months later, the aggressive Willing, Morris and Company of Philadelphia would form a joint partnership with Norton and Beau of Williamsburg for importation of the gunpowder. Early in 1776 Samuel Beall would go to Europe for powder, but find it impractical to send large amounts to the colonies. In the end, Virginia’s best offer came from the firm of John Norton and Sons of Williamsburg.18 But what of the mechanics? Lee suggested to his brother that

The Treasurer should be prevailed with to employ a Mr. Goodrich in in [sic] Norfolk, a famous Contraband Man, to send immediately some swift sailing Pilot Boats for 20 or 30,000 weight to supply the Counties whose money will no doubt be collected before the powder arrives.19

Luckily the son-in-law of “The Treasurer” of the Colony of Virginia, Robert Carter Nicholas was none other than John Hatley Norton.20 His father John Norton managed John Norton & Sons affairs in London and exported British goods to neutral islands in the West Indies.

Lee’s suggestion to his brother was taken to heart. About June 14, Thomas Newton, Jr. a burgess of Norfolk County and himself a merchant of Norfolk,21 informed William Goodrich of Norfolk’s John Goodrich & Sons, that “the Treasurer of the Colony wished to speak with him on a matter of great importance to the Colony.” “In a day” Newton and Goodrich made their way to Williamsburg and Nicholas informed Goodrich that powder had to be gotten “at any price.” Goodrich agreed to the scheme and immediately returned to Norfolk. On July 1, 1775, John Norton & Sons advanced bills of exchange in the amount of £5,600 Sterling drawn on the firm’s London office payable to Thomas Newton, Jr.22 Newton returned to Norfolk, endorsed the bills and gave them to Goodrich with a letter

from Nicholas had written on Friday, the 16th, in which he wrote that he made no doubt of Goodrich’s “best endeavors” and suggested that he “communicate this scheme to your Brother for fear of any accidents happening to you to prevent your transacting the business.”23 But Nicholas must not have wanted to doubt. For the Bills of Exchange were bonded personally by Nicholas until they were cashed. Since he personally did not know the best course of action in the Islands, to further aid Goodrich Nicholas provided him with letters to merchants John Taylor and Mr. Harvey of Antigua, and letters from Matthew Phripp or Norfolk to Isaac Van Dam and Richard Downing Jennings of Statia in case there were trouble with the Bills of Exchange.24 Van Dam was soon to become the pivot.

Goodrich left Portsmouth for Antigua on July 15. On their own, his brothers left for other West Indian islands for other goods.25 Profits were profits for John Goodrich & Sons. Arriving at Antigua, Goodrich found no powder. Selling £500 of Virginia’s bills “to different people” in anticipation of future purchases, he left for St. Eustacius.26

On arrival Goodrich sold another £2,000 of the bills and sought out Isaac Van Dam. If we can believe Van Dam’s bookkeeper Johan Blair, Van Dam could have been already known to Goodrich. At an inquiry following Van Dam’s death, Blair would depose that Van Dam was not interested in the munitions trafficking, “but had acted as a friend of the aforementioned Goodrich.”27 They were either good friends or Blair was lying, probably the latter, for if the truth were told, Blair would end up in prison, for it was the English Admiral’s court. All along Van Dam had told the British that “he was working for Frenchmen.”28

On September 28, Goodrich left £500 with Van Dam who felt he could get a quantity of powder from Martinique. Then Goodrich left for Martinique himself. He arrived to find its road policed by English officers from English Harbor, Antigua. Since he could not obtain what he wanted, he returned to Van Dam.

But Van Dam who supposedly was not interested in such “traffick,” was ahead of him. Upon his return to St. Eustatius, Goodrich found that Van Dam had already gotten 1,800 pounds of powder “in a French bottom” from his own source, a Mr. Bartrand at St. Pierre, Martinique.29 Perhaps this was the enticement that made Goodrich leave £2,000 with Van Dam for the purchase of more powder from Bordeaux, France, before he left St. Eustatius. By luck, just before he left an “English Guinea Ship” had entered the harbor from Antigua from whom Goodrich purchased another 1,600 pounds as well as another 750 from a French schooner from Martinique. Loaded with 4,150 pounds of gunpowder which had cost him £950 he left Statia on October 1.30 Most likely, this was the same munitions described in the deposition of Van Dam’s bookkeeper Johan Blair: that

Shortly afterwards (leaving funds with Van Dam], when the aforesaid mentioned William Goodrich was still on this Island, eighty barrels of gunpowder arrived here which the aforementioned William Goodrich conveyed with him to North America, along with 30 barrels of gunpowder which this same Goodrich had bought here, three blunderbusses and seventy pounds of musket bullets; all of which was clearly ammunition of war, as is known to him, the witness.31

But Goodrich left a little too soon. Even more gunpowder soon arrived from Martinique. This Van Dam sold to one Mr. Knox of St. Thomas, “but with what purpose he, the witness [Blair did] not know.”32 It is most likely that this was the “New York Sloop that was laying in the rhoad” of which Goodrich wrote later.33

On the 9th Goodrich arrived at Ocracoke Inlet, North Carolina with 4,150 pounds of gunpowder. The entire adventure had taken only fifty six days. Going north through Pamlico Sound to the “Pasquotank” River he continued as far as “the plank bridge,” about ten miles northwest of what would one day be Elizabeth City.34 Leaving his ship for others to unload, Goodrich went immediately to Norfolk, Portsmouth35 to see his family, but saw no one but his brother-in-law Robert Shedden who told him that his family as well as that of his father had moved up to a plantation of his father’s about 25 miles in the Country. Goodrich stayed with his family for two days and then proceeded to Williamsburg. On his way Goodrich met with Thomas Newton, Jr., and after alerting him to the situation finally arrived in the Capital to inform Nicholas that he had brought in “between 4 & 5000 wt of Powder.” Goodrich then produced his bill of £488.3.O for services rendered.36 The Treasurer seemed momentarily satisfied. While Goodrich was meeting with Nicholas, two wagons were rendezvousing with his ship and an escort of a “Number of Armed Men” who would convey it “up the country” just in time for Goodrich to see them on his way back to his plantation in Nansemond County.37 There he met with his wife and planned with his father the return trip to Statia to retrieve the gunpowder Van Dam had promised to procure for their return voyage. But Goodrich was not to return.38

The second week in October, Dunmore had positioned his ship in the mouth of the Southern Branch of the Elizabeth River to keep lookout on rebel actions. From there his ships could “see and hear all that is going forward.”39 Indeed they could, and did. Early Sunday morning, October 15, the whole powder plot had been revealed to the Governor by way of an intercepted letter from Shedden to his father-in-law John Goodrich, Sr. According to William Goodrich’s Letter of Sept. 7, 1776, by two o’clock in the morning Shedden and John Goodrich, Jr. were prisoners on board Dunmore’s Sloop of War Otter having been arrested by eight men and one officer.40

Perhaps because Shedden was also a Scot and related to the Goodriches only by marriage,41 The Governor interrogated him first. Pleading he was only trying to prevent the ruin of his friends, Shedden satisfied the Dunmore enough to get himself released with instructions to tell his father-in-law of the Governor’s frustration and that his John Goodrich, Jr. would be kept as Dunmore’s hostage. This he did. On October 31, John Goodrich, Sr. arrived at the Otter to plead his “sincere repentance of what was past and his earnest desire of returning to his duty.”42 As a sign of loyalty, John Goodrich exchanged son William for John, Jr. and a pledge that he himself would return to St. Eustatius and retrieve the £2,000 William left with Isaac Van Dam. That same day, Dunmore gave John Goodrich, Sr. a letter of passage to pursue the endeavor. Now an hostage, William remained on board and that very day deposed before Dunmore his own dealings.

In a day or two, with the orders for Van Dam, John Goodrich, Sr. left for the head of the Paspotank to the ship which was waiting for William and his return voyage for the powder. But Dunmore’s officers were diligent in keeping the Governor’s orders. Almost immediately upon his departure the senior Goodrich was captured by two “croosers” who knew nothing of the plan or of any pass that was to be honored. Goodrich was again captured and returned to the Otter.

Knowing that the patriots would be suspicious if he were to immediately release the elder Goodrich to continue his endeavor, Dunmore decided to dispatch William Goodrich on what would appear to most colonists his return trip to the Indies. In a letter to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety written from the Philadelphia Jail on September 7 of the following year, William swore that upon his arrival in Statia he related the whole tale to Van Dam “telling him at the same time, that we must fall upon some plan to keep Lord Dunmore from Geting [sic] of this money.”43 Van Dam made sure this would be the case by telling Goodrich that the money was still in France. But Van Dam had to do something to placate not only the Governor but Goodrich also. Giving Goodrich two notes totaling £400,44 and a letter dated December 7, 1775 Van Dam explained to Goodrich that the £2,000 has been sent to France and that he then had his agent in Holland send out the money in dry goods on Van Dam’s account. Van Dam would stand accountable for the remaining £1,600, “as there is no other way to get the money here.”45 All they could do was await coming of the powder. Goodrich returned to the Governor and apparently Dunmore accepted the story. To make matters worse, sometime after the dating of this letter but before March 7, 1776, Van Dam died and he died having given Goodrich a note that neither the money nor the powder would be given to anyone but William Goodrich himself or his personal agent.

By November 11, the Virginia Committee of Safety knew William Goodrich had been arrested, and by the end of the month Nicholas realized that for the most part, the scheme was over and the Convention’s money as well as his personal bond for it, lost.46 Perhaps worst of all, what even Dunmore called the “spirited, active industrious Family” and its “genius” was lost by the patriot cause. By the end of December Goodrich and his six sons were not only Tories but in command of several of the King’s ships.47 They had had no other choice.

By December the Virginia Convention had named an investigation committee to “inquire into the conduct of John Goodrich, William Goodrich, and John Goodrich, Jr. relating to the importation of gunpowder, and other articles, for the use of this colony.”48 Neighbors in Isle of Wight watched as ships of the Goodrich family continued their business under the eyes of the Governor’s lookouts.

And then on New Year’s Day, 1776, “The detested town of Norfolk [was] no more.” Dunmore began bombing and patriots torching the Tory city at about 4 o’clock in the afternoon. The destruction lasted about nine hours.49 The Virginia Patriots were furious and out for revenge. The Goodrich family were excellent targets, but legally there were as yet no laws to arrest, much less hang, traitors to a traitorous cause. Besides, there were no courts in which to try them. By December, the colonial appellate courts had ceased to function, and the county courts dealt only with local civil matters. It would take time.

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