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Home | Looking Back with Aurore Eaton

Looking Back with Aurore Eaton: NH's Langdon oversaw building of Revolutionary War ships

June 18. 2017 10:13PM
The Great Seal of the State of New Hampshire, which features the 1776 USS Raleigh, the first warship built in Portsmouth Harbor. 

In early 1776, Portsmouth’s John Langdon was appointed by the Second Continental Congress as the Marine Agent for New Hampshire. In 1775, as a member of the Congress, he had served on the committee that oversaw the creation of the Continental Navy, the precursor of the U.S. Navy. In his role as Marine Agent, Langdon became involved in privateering (a quasi-legal form of pirating) against British merchant ships, and he oversaw arms imports from France. He also became the chief superintendent for local military shipbuilding projects.

Three warships were built in Portsmouth Harbor while Langdon was in charge — the Raleigh, the Ranger and the America. The master shipbuilder for these projects was Col. James Hackett of Exeter. Hackett was a member of a family of skilled shipwrights who worked in Portsmouth Harbor, in the Great Bay area and in what is now Amesbury, Mass., near Newburyport, Mass.

The first warship built in Portsmouth Harbor was the Raleigh, a 32-gun frigate (a fast, medium-sized vessel). It was built on a Portsmouth pier, and named in honor of British explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618). A life-sized carved wooden figurehead of Raleigh was attached to the ship’s prow. The Raleigh was launched in May 1776, but its fitting out was delayed, and it didn’t go to sea until August 1777. The first commander was Capt. Thomas Thompson of Portsmouth. In September 1778 the USS (United States Ship) Raleigh, then commanded by Irish immigrant Capt. John Barry, was beached in battle in Penobscot Bay off the southern coast of Maine. The ship was taken by the British and after being refloated it became the HBMS (His Britannic Majesty’s Ship) Raleigh.

A depiction of the Raleigh under construction forms the centerpiece of the Great Seal of the State of New Hampshire. The seal’s design originated in 1784, the year the state’s constitution went into effect. The current design was approved by the New Hampshire legislature in 1931.

The Ranger and the America were constructed in John Langdon’s shipyard on Rising Castle Island (now Badger’s Island) in Kittery, Maine. Today, the island, situated in the Piscataqua River, is connected to Portsmouth by the Memorial Bridge, and to mainland Kittery by the Badger’s Island Bridge.

The USS Ranger was an 18-gun sloop-of-war (a small frigate). It was completed in May 1777 and was put under the command of John Paul Jones. A seasoned naval officer from Scotland, Jones had immigrated to America, where he had volunteered his services to the Continental Navy. Jones’ exploits commanding the Ranger in battle in 1777-1778 became legend. In 1780, the Ranger, then captained by Thomas Simpson, was captured by the British in Charleston, S.C. It was used by the Royal Navy for several months before being converted into a merchant vessel.

The America was a 74-gun ship-of-the-line. This large, heavily-armed vessel was the first major warship built for the U.S. Navy, and the largest shipbuilding project undertaken by the Americans up to this time. John Langdon took a more direct supervisory role in this project than he had with the building of the Raleigh and the Ranger. The keel of the America was laid in May 1777, but its completion was delayed until 1782 due to lack of resources.

John Paul Jones was appointed as commander of the America while it was still under construction. Unfortunately for him, before its launch on Nov. 5, 1782, the Continental Congress presented the ship to France, in compensation for the loss of the Magnifique, a French warship that had run aground in Boston Harbor.

The Revolutionary War naval history of Portsmouth Harbor lives on today. Although the 1782 America never served the United States, the U.S. Navy would later christen three of its ships USS America. One of these is a currently-serving amphibious assault ship based in San Diego. It was commissioned in 2014. There have been eight ships named USS Ranger, including the famous aircraft carrier that served from 1957 to 1993. Four ships have been commissioned as USS Raleigh (the ones built after the Revolution were named in honor of Raleigh, N.C.). The last of these was an amphibious transport dock that saw service from 1962 to 1991.

Next week: John Langdon, citizen-soldier.

Aurore Eaton is a historian and writer in Manchester, contact her at or at

Aurore Eaton

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