1812 : Sloop Friends Good Will Seized By British

July 17, 2018 all-day


Oliver Williams was born in Roxbury, Massachusetts, a village near Boston, in 1774. Undoubtedly, he grew up aware of, and hearing stories about, the birth of his young nation.

Oliver Williams later saw opportunity in the vast Northwest Territory. He opened a dry goods store in Detroit, Michigan Territory, in 1808. The inventory for his store, like nearly all finished goods, came from the east. He made two trips each year, overland. The trips were slow and the resources he expended were never anything more than a continuing drain against whatever profits early businesses in the cash starved frontier would permit.

In 1810, Oliver Williams took a chance. The gamble was not particularly unusual for men of his nature. Men did not conduct business on the frontier without an entrepreneurial instinct. He decided to build a ship. The vessel would use the only “highway” available – Lake Erie; Buffalo to Detroit, non-stop, direct. His inventory would arrive faster, and in greater quantity, and while the vessel was a substantial capital outlay, she would sail for years and could earn money by shipping goods the length of each shipping season. Other vessels plying the Lakes were finding cargoes and the steady stream of settlers assured volumes of cargo and demand for the ship would only grow with each coming season.

Oliver Williams built his ship at the River Rouge, on the banks of the Detroit River. A private shipyard was laid out adjacent to the Federal yard, where the army transport snow Adams, the only government vessel on the upper Lakes, was built years before. Other ships sailed past while this new vessel took shape, the schooners Salina and Ellen and the sloop Contractor. The sight of each of them only encouraged Oliver Williams. His idea had merit; his gamble would pay.

1812 Map Showing Shipyard on River Rouge Provided the Great Lakes Maritime Institute

The new ship slid down the ways, in early 1811. He christened her Friends Good Will. While no one knows for certain the origin of the name, a coincidence seems too obvious to ignore. The name may well have been in honor of an earlier Friends Good Will, which transported the first wave of Irish immigrants from Larne to Boston in 1717. It is likely Oliver Williams knew her story and borrowed her name. His vessel, he likely hoped, would also bring waves of settlers to a new land of opportunity ­ the Michigan Territory.

At 47 tonnes burthen, the square topsail sloop carried cargo for her owner and others, paying her way in settling the new frontier. Oliver Williams retained an experienced Master, William Lee, formerly Master of Contractor, to operate and protect his new investment and avoid the numerous risks endemic to navigating the Great Lakes. The gamble was paying off. The reported tensions with England and the Royal Navy on the high seas seemed, at most, a distant storm largely irrelevant to their present course.

“Friends Good Will Off Detroit During the War of 1812” by Peter Rindlisbacher, 2005-2006. Watercolor. (Michigan Maritime Museum collection).

On June 19, 1812, the Friends Good Will departed Detroit, bound for Mackinac Island. Oliver Williams had agreed, upon his arrival at the Island, to charter Friends Good Will to the Federal Government for carrying military stores and supplies to Fort Dearborn at Chicago. He decided to ship aboard for this voyage. In Detroit, William Lee loaded 304 separate items into the hold of Friends Good Will, all intended for Mackinac Island. Fortunately, the original manifest of that voyage survives, bearing the signature of her Master, William Lee, the Port of Detroit customs agent, a description of the vessel and a very detailed description of the cargo: tobacco, whiskey, wines, and other goods bound for the upper Lakes.

At Mackinac, Friends Good Will offloaded her cargo, took on military stores, supplies and soldiers to protect from the possibility of hostile natives. The rumors of war were more prevalent and troubling. Still, the issues between Washington and London seemed a long way off. Of more immediate concern was navigating the shoals, avoiding the islands and the mid-summer thunderstorms that could endanger any down-bound vessel on what was then a very remote Lake Michigan; all of course before lighthouses or any hope for assistance from others.

Fort Dearborn (Chicago) was in many ways the far edge of the Northwest Territorial Frontier. Friends Good Will brought “news,” now months old ­ but received none. By the time the northbound sloop was hull up, with the Fort Mackinaw ramparts visible from the cross-trees, it had been out of contact with interests in Detroit for some weeks. Still, the lookout clearly made out the Stars-and-Stripes flying over the Fort. A brief stop, then on to Detroit.

Oliver Williams, William Lee and the crew could not have been more surprised when on July 17, 1812, upon their return to Mackinac Island they were informed, at gunpoint, that they were now on English soil. The American flag had been a ruse to lure American shipping into the harbor. War had been declared, unbeknownst to Friends Good Will or the Fort Mackinac garrison. The island had fallen without a shot and Friends Good Will, in no position to resist, was confiscated as a prize-of-war, along with all of its furs and skins loaded in Chicago. Oliver Williams likely protested, as his was a private vessel. But her business in Lake Michigan, from which she was just returning, was military in nature, ­ a strong enough argument for capture given the distance from the Admiralty prize courts.

Oliver Williams, William Lee, and all passengers and crew were taken prisoners of war. They were paroled and transported back to Detroit aboard the schooner, Salina, with Daniel Dobbins, Owner and Master. Worse yet, from the perspective of Oliver Williams and William Lee, Friends Good Will was taken into the service, renamed Little Belt, and became a part of the Royal Naval Squadron on the upper Lakes. She was armed with a pair of six-pounders and a nine-pounder on a pivot; serious business for a mere sloop.

Suddenly, the gamble had gone terribly wrong. Politics and the balance of power formulated half-a-world away had swept in like a Great Lakes mid-summer cold front. With the loss of his ship and its cargo, and with himself a prisoner, even an optimist like Oliver Williams had to admit his grand business plan was in tatters, like so much storm ravaged canvas hanging from the yard.

“Mr. Madison’s War” had opened disastrously for the Americans on the Great Lakes. Despite the obvious advantage of Americans being able to prepare themselves before they declared war, such foresight was inexplicably lacking in the Northwest Territory. The fall of Fort Mackinaw in July 1812, a strategic choke point of transportation and commerce, followed the declaration of war by less then one month. By August 1812, the British, together with native allies, attacked and burned Fort Dearborn, Chicago and marched survivors into the woods of Illinois never to be heard from again. Indeed, Friends Good Will may very well have been the last ship to put into Chicago before the bloodshed and she brought no news of any declared war. Lake Michigan was, once again, in the firm control of the English Crown. Lake Huron was likewise undisputed. Worse still, General Hull surrendered Detroit without a shot and to a dramatically smaller force, also in August 1812. With Forts Detroit, Mackinaw and Dearborn flying the Union Jack, all within 60 days after war was declared, the United States had little credible claim to the vast Northwest Territory.

The Rest of the Story courtesy of the Michigan Maritime Museum

The British, having taken the island just days before, were flying false colors above the fort ramparts. The British confiscated the vessel, cargo, and crew, renaming her Little Belt. She was armed with three cannon, taken into service, and fought with the Royal Navy until September of 1813, when she was recaptured by United States Commodore Oliver Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie. Within an hour after the great guns fell silent, Commodore Perry mentioned her in his now famous dispatch, “We have met the enemy and they are ours: Two Ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” That sloop was Friends Good Will.

Friends Good Will then served in the United States Navy, helping to transport General William Henry Harrison’s troops across Lake Erie in the successful invasion of Southern Ontario. Later in December of the same year she was driven ashore in a storm south of Buffalo.  Despite efforts to refloat the ship, it was still stranded on the beach when the British subsequently raided Buffalo and unceremoniously burned the once-proud vessel to deprive the Americans of any possibility of putting her back into service.


This reproduction of  the Friends Good Will was launched in Albany, NY on August 29, 2004.  The Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan offers summer sailing on the Friends Good Will for interested tourists and vacationers.  Join the ship’s crew or go for a ride.

Source: The Story of the Friends Good Will shared by the Michigan Maritime Museum.

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