Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Erie, Erie County
Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won the Battle of Lake Erie aboard the Brig Niagara in 1813.
Oliver Hazard Perry was born August 23, 1785, in South Kingston, Rhode Island, to Captain Christopher Perry and Sarah Alexander Perry. Perry entered the U.S. Navy in 1799 as a midshipman and fought under his father in the Quasi-War with France and in the Mediterranean Sea during the Barbary Wars. In 1813 he was given command of the gunboat flotilla on Lake Erie. On September 10, 1813, Perry defended against an attacking British fleet and gained a decisive victory. After the war, Perry was made captain of a new 44-gun frigate, the Java, which he would eventually sail to the Mediterranean Sea. After a campaign in the Mediterranean Sea, Perry was given a diplomatic mission in South America where he fell mortally ill from yellow fever.
Oliver Hazard Perry was born August 23, 1785, in South Kingston, Rhode Island. His father, Christopher Perry, was a naval captain of the General Greene, a 30-gun ship built for the naval expansion during the Quasi-War with France from 1798 to 1800. At age 13, the young Oliver became a midshipman on his father’s ship where he learned the day-to-day duties of a sailor for the next year. The ship sailed the Caribbean Sea for a year, where Oliver was deeply impressed by his father’s actions which showed strong courage, patriotism, and honor. These values would become deeply rooted in Oliver throughout his naval career. In 1800, the U.S. began to reduce the size of its navy. Captain Christopher Perry was discharged from the Navy and the General Greene was burned to prevent its capture by the British.
After the destruction of the General Greene, Oliver Perry spent two years as an unemployed naval midshipman. During his two years without a naval assignment, Perry spent time with his family in Newport, Rhode Island. In 1802, Perry was given orders to serve on the Adams, a small frigate docked in New York. These orders came as a response to the naval build up due to the possibility of war with the Barbary States, the nations of North Africa. The Adams would soon sail to the Mediterranean Sea to prevent Barbary pirates from disrupting American commerce in the region. During this assignment, Perry was promoted to Lieutenant at age 17, the youngest midshipman to be promoted to lieutenant in U.S. Navy history to that time. After spending four years in and out of the Mediterranean Sea, Lt. Perry was assigned to Newport, Rhode Island to supervise the construction of 17 new gunboats. Upon completion of the gunboats, Lt. Perry was ordered to sail them to New York where they were responsible for securing the New York harbor.
Following an attack on an American ship by a British ship in the Chesapeake Bay, Lt. Perry was ordered back to Rhode Island to supervise the construction of more gunboats in preparation for a possible war with Britain. This lasted until 1809 when Lt. Perry received his first command of the schooner Revenge, a small ship not suited for sailing far from shore. Lt. Perry’s primary responsibility as the ship’s commander was patrolling the East Coast. He commanded the Revenge for almost two years before it ran ashore in a thick fog and sank. Lt. Perry was not found to be at fault for the accident, but it still served as a blemish on his career as a naval officer and may have held him back from a open seas command during the War of 1812. Perry was, however, promoted to master commandant.
In 1813, Mstr. Cmdt. Perry was reassigned to command the buildup of the gunboat flotilla on Lake Erie. On September 10, 1813, at daybreak, a British fleet was discovered by a small ship in Mstr. Cmdt. Perry’s fleet. Mstr. Cmdt. Perry’s fleet prepared for battle with the British fleet. Perry began the battle aboard his flagship, the Lawrence. The Lawrence, however, was sunk by the British Detroit. Mstr. Cmdt. Perry boarded a lifeboat and rowed with a few remaining sailors to the Niagara. From aboard the Niagara, Mstr. Cmdt. Perry continued the engagement and sunk the British Detroit. This decisive victory would serve to secure the entire Ohio Valley and open up a possible invasion of Canada. Perry’s message to his commander of victory would become famous: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”
After the war, Perry was given command of a new 44-gun frigate being built in Baltimore, the Java. He once again supervised its construction as he had done with many ships in the past. He also aided in the defense of Baltimore and Washington while the Java was being built. Ultimately, peace was declared before the Java set sail. The Java sailed to the Mediterranean Sea to once again protect American commerce ships from Barbary pirates where Perry found himself in trouble for slapping the marine commander aboard the Java. Mstr. Cmdt. Perry and the marine commander were both found guilty and given mild punishments.
Following his service in the Mediterranean Sea, Mstr. Cmdt. Perry was promoted to Commodore and given a diplomatic and anti-piracy mission in the Caribbean Sea. Commodore Perry sailed to the Caribbean aboard the John Adams in 1819. He would later transfer to another ship upon arrival in the Caribbean, the Nonesuch. While aboard the Nonesuch, Commodore Perry contracted yellow fever, a common disease in the Caribbean. Commodore Perry would soon fall to yellow fever aboard the Nonesuch only a few miles from the Port of Spain on his 34th birthday, August 23, 1819.
Mstr. Cmdt. Perry’s biggest contribution to this country was the defeat of the British fleet on Lake Erie. This defeat kept the United States in control of the Great Lakes and prevented Britain from seizing some of our freshwater ports. It also gave the United States the opportunity to invade British Canada if the action was needed. Oliver Hazard Perry is an extremely important historical figure to this day in Erie, Pennsylvania. In 1926, a large monument was erected for him at Presque Isle State Park. The state of Pennsylvania has also built an exact replica of the USS Brig Niagara, which is docked at the Pennsylvania Maritime Museum in Erie. This ship, which served as Perry’s flagship during his defeat of the British, is now hailed as the Flagship of Pennsylvania.