Early Lake Captains, Revenue Cutters, and Politics – Winter 1973

The Great Lakes… 84% of the continent’s fresh water… a different story in every drop.

By Truman R. Strobridge

A unique, fascinating and little known (if not unknown) facet of Great Lakes history is the intertwining of the careers of two early lake captains—Daniel Dobbins and Gilbert Knapp. Both left their mark on the region’s, and even on the nation’s, history, by their bold decisive actions. In many ways they were similar, but their differences in temperament and political leanings were destined to bring them to loggerheads and leave them rivals for the command of the revenue cutter on Lake Erie.

Portrait of Daniel Dobbins. Image from Wikipedia.

Daniel Dobbins, first of the two to breath the fresh, cool breeze off Lake Erie and feast his eyes upon the inland seas, was born on July 5, 1776. Reared in the pioneer environment of Lewiston, Pennsylvania, he visited Erie, then merely a tiny hamlet of four log cabins with all the rest—as he described it—merely “wild, gloomy forest; and these few hardy pioneers of the woods, with the Indians, disputed their right to the soil, with the bear, the wolf and the panther,” in the company of some surveyers on July 1, 1796.1 The lure of the almost primeval Lake must have been overwhelming to the young landlubber. He soon set about learning the skills of a sailor and, for the rest of his life, would use Erie as his home port.

Four short years later, Daniel Dobbins had proved himself to be one of the best navigators upon the Lake. Becoming the master of his own merchant vessel took only three more years. Between the years of 1803 and 1812, he sailed to the far reaches of both Lake Erie and Lake Huron, mostly carrying salt, whiskey, fur, and other home and food products. The merchant ships he commanded during this period were the Harlequin, Good Intent, Ranger, General Wilkinson, and Salina. 

The outbreak of hostilities in the War of 1812 caught Dobbins off guard aboard his fur-laden Salina at Mackinac. Permitted by the victorious British commander to use his ship to transport the paroled American prisoners back to friendly lines, he shortly thereafter found himself a prisoner again, when Detroit fell. The story of his subsequent adventures as an escaped prisoner with a price on his scalp, his perilous flight to freedom, his trip to Washington, his appointment as a sailing master in the U.S. Navy following a special Cabinet meeting, and his successes in becoming the organizer, initial superintendent, and general “troubleshooter” for the construction of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s famous fleet on Lake Erie, as well as his other valuable services during the war, have been told before in both great length and detail.2Having “served under all the Commanders on the upper Lakes until after the close of the war,” he continued in the U.S. Navy until ordered to sea in 1826, at which time, he preferred to resign his commission and, as he later explained, “was afterwards actively engaged in the construction of Harbours on the Lakes.”3

In sharp contrast to the pioneer upbringing of Daniel Dobbins, Gilbert Knapp was born on December 3, 1798, and reared in Chatham on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, an area already long past its own frontier days. Here, he enjoyed an education in the common schools, specializing in navigation.4

In common with the frontiersman Dobbin, however, the pull of the sea and ships proved equally strong upon young Gilbert. He shipped out on a merchant vessel at the age of fifteen. No sooner had the War

Portrait of Gilbert Knapp. Image from Wikipedia.

of 1812 broken out, than he was made a master’s mate on the Leo, a Federal-chartered privateer given the mission of carrying dispatches to France. Several times during the three voyages the Leo made during the war, Knapp experienced the shot and shell of engagements with British men-of-war.

Following the signing of the peace treaty, Knapp, aided considerably through influence of naval officers he had befriended, entered the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, as the U.S. Coast Guard was then known. (Although this naval service was also referred to as the U.S. Revenue Service or U.S. Revenue Marine Service at different times—and sometimes the same time—during the period covered in this article, the name “U.S. Revenue Cutter Service” will be used throughout, primarily for the sake of consistency and ease of comprehension.)

On May 9, 1819, following a two-year training period, Gilbert Knapp was commissioned as the Captain of the Revenue Cutter A. J. Dallas —home port Detroit, Michigan. Ten months later, he and his cutter were transferred to Mackinac Island, Michigan. His orders were “to stop the illicit traffic between British fur-traders and the Indians,” which was giving the famous fur trader, John Jacob Astor, some headaches, primarily in his pocketbook!5

Accordingly, when Henry R. Schoolcraft made his notable trip in 1820, he found Captain Knapp and his cutter on station at Mackinac Island. In fact, on June 8, Captain Knapp gave him and part of his party a lift on the revenue cutter to and from the St. Martin’s Islands, where gypsum was reported to be found.6 And, six years later, Knapp tendered the same hospitality to the Indian agent Thomas McKenney, who had just finished negotiating a treaty with the Chippewas at Fond du Lac on Lake Michigan, giving McKenney an enjoyable trip down Lake Huron and back to Lake Erie aboard the revenue cutter.7

Captain Knapp’s first ten years commanding a revenue cutter on the Great Lakes passed smoothly. There was only one revenue cutter on the inland seas, and he commanded it. Since no uncomplimentary remarks about his performance have survived, he must have performed his assigned tasks in a satisfactory fashion, for he did earn a “commendation from John Jacob Astor for the efficient service rendered” in breaking up the illegal traffic in furs between the Indians and the British.8

The Presidential Election of 1828, unfortunately, would bring about his downfall and initiate a bitter rivalry with Captain Dobbins. The prospects of having the “rough-hewed” frontiersman, General Andrew Jackson, at the helm in Washington, where his seemingly radical views would enjoy great power, apparently enraged Captain Knapp. In any event, once in office, the new Jacksonian administration accused Captain Knapp of having said in the presence of a large assembly of Erie citizens on election day, “I consider General Jackson a cut-throat and murderer, and his wife a strumpet, and if he would be elected I never will hold an appointment under him. ”9 One eyewitness remembered the words “d-d whore” instead of “strumpet” and insisted in later years that his “recollection of the words is distinct and perfect.” 10 This language and conduct, if true, certainly was unbecoming of a gentleman and officer, even more so in those days than now.

Offended supporters of General Jackson reacted quickly. The Democratic Corresponding Committee of Erie County drew up a detailed statement of the facts surrounding Knapp’s indiscretion, affixed their signatures, and dispatched it posthaste to the Hermitage home of their candidate. Despite this speed, the newly elected President had already taken his inaugural oath, before his private secretary, a Major Donnelson, discovered the existence of this hastily drawn document.

Retribution, nevertheless, was as swift as bureaucratic machinery could move. When the matter was brought to his attention, Secretary of the Treasury Samuel D. Ingham “Immediately dismissed Captain Knapp from the Service”11 and appointed Daniel Dobbins a “Captain of a Cutter in the service of the United States, for the protection of the revenue,” on April 4, 1829.12 Thus, the paths and careers of these two early lake captains intersected in a most dramatic fashion. And they were destined to remain intertwined and embittered for many more years.

Captain Dobbins’ next dozen years were no doubt pleasant ones. Once again, he wore the naval uniform, commanded his own ship, and even possessed the prestige of being the senior officer of his Service on the Great Lakes. As always, he performed his assigned duties faithfully and competently. He even stepped back into the history books again through the participation of his cutter and crew during the Canadian Insurrection of 1838.13

During these same years, ex-Captain Gilbert Knapp, late of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, would also carve a niche for himself in the history books. First, however, he had to strip off his nice uniform and pursue some kind of civilian livelihood until his ship came in.

His ship in reality was wilderness land ideally suited for residential land use. Because of the many years spent aboard revenue cutters cruising the Great Lakes, Knapp

. . had become familiar with all their ports and, noting the rapidity with which the northwest was being settled, he decided to attempt to profit by developing a town site and studied various locations which appeared to possess natural advantages for this purpose. In 1828 he put ashore at the point where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan and being much impressed with the possibility of a harbor there as well as with the excellence of the soil of the region, formed the decision to locate there.14

Accordingly, upon his departure from the Service, he “settled in one of the lake ports of western New York, where he entered the commission and forwarding business.”15 Here, he was content to bide his time until the Federal Government threw open to settlement the land he had selected.

Finally, in 1833, an Indian Treaty was signed. It opened up the unsettled land north of the Illinois state line for surveying, and provided for the evacuation of the Indians by 1836. This was the go-ahead signal. Selling his business and property, Knapp immediately headed west. Following another quick trip—this time overland and facilitated by Indian guides-to where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan to confirm his earlier findings, he returned to Chicago to form a partnership for developing the townsite.

In November 1834, Knapp again was back at the Root River mouth. Here he built a log cabin, thus establishing his preemptor’s claim. The following year he plotted the land into lots for a townsite that was named Port Gilbert in his honor. 16 The city he founded, however, bore his name only until the establish ment of a post office there a few years later. Today it is called Racine, Wisconsin. Gilbert Knapp even served as a legislator for the new Territory of Wisconsin, starting with the Rump Council of 1836 and lasting two years.

Meanwhile, events in Washington, such as a fire in the Treasury Buildings that destroyed many priceless records—including Captain Knapp’s personal records containing the damaging allegations against him—and a recent election bringing a new president and party to power, resulted in his return to the Revenue Cutter Service. As a friend of Captain Dobbins would later complain, the following sequence of events ensued:

Immediately after the inauguration of Pres. Harrison, Knapp, taking advantage of the loss of the evidence on which he had been dismissed (and the death of the principal witnesses) succeeded in impressing the administration with a belief that he was a victim of persecution for his political opinions merely, and by this means procured the removal of Dobbins, without any charge of misconduct or opportunity for a hearing—and his own reappointment. 17

In any event, President William Henry Harrison signed the commission of Gilbert Knapp as a “Captain of a Cutter in the service of the United States, for the protection of the revenue,” on March 15, 1841.18 The next day Captain Dobbins received a brief note from Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing, stating that the “President has this day revoked your commission as Captain in the Revenue Cutter Service. Your relation to the public as such will, therefore, cease and be dissolved.”19

Despite Dobbins’ protests at such cavalier treatment—merely being eased out of the Service to make room for Captain Knapp—no receptive ears in high places could be found until the political party in the White House had changed once again. When this happened, President James K. Polk revoked Captain Knapp’s commission and reinstated Dobbins as a captain on May 13, 1845. In the end, Dobbins’ career in the Service terminated upon General Zachary Taylor’s ascendancy to the Presidency, his dismissal once again, and the commissioning of Gilbert Knapp as a captain on May 9, 1849.20

As late as March 7, 1853, political friends of Dobbins were still pushing in Washington for his reinstatement. Despite the Captain’s advanced years, they argued, “his naturally strong physical energy is unimpaired, and much more vigorous than that of most young persons. “21

These pleas fell upon deaf ears, however. Daniel Dobbins, who had worn the uniform of America’s naval services for thirty-seven years, was destined to remain a civilian. He passed away in his beloved Erie on February 29, 1856. Today, only the Dobbins Islands off Green Bay, Wisconsin—named after him for sailing the first vessel other than a canoe into that port—remain a physical memory to his name.22

Captain Knapp’s career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, meanwhile, had also been terminated. On April 14, 1853, his commission was revoked, when the Service had to reduce its number of officers.23 He returned to the town he had founded, Racine. Seven years later, its grateful citizens elected him to represent them in the State Assembly.

No sooner had the Civil War broken out, however, than he resigned his elective position in the Wisconsin legislature—just three days prior to its adjournment— and offered his nautical skills and combat experiences to the hard-pressed Union cause. His services were instantly accepted, and he was commissioned a captain in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service on May 3, 1861.24

At first he was assigned to coast and blockade duty. His first command, ironically enough, was the revenue cutter Dobbin —named after a former Secretary of the Treasury, but what memories it must have brought back. Home port of the Dobbin was Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Captain Knapp’s return to Great Lakes duty came on June 21, 1862, when he assumed command of the revenue cutter Floyd, based at Detroit. On January 7, 1863, he was again transferred, this time to the command of the revenue cutter Morris, stationed in Boston, Massachusetts.

The FESSENDEN on its maiden voyage. Image from the Alpena Public Library.

His next and last Civil War assignment brought him back to more familiar waters—the Great Lakes. On March 28, 1865, he was ordered to supervise the construction of two side-wheel steamers, Fessenden and Sherman, at Cleve land, Ohio. Following their completion, he assumed command of the new revenue steamer Sherman at Detroit, Michigan, on November 16, 1865.

Apparently, the name of this cutter was changed to Fessenden within the next year or so. In any case, Captain Knapp temporarily lost command of this revenue steamer on December 6, 1870, when he was placed ashore on “Waiting Orders” status. The next spring, on May 2, 1871, he was again given command of the Fessenden. His active career in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service terminated abruptly on April 1, 1872. Not only was he removed from command of the cutter, but he was placed on “Permanent Waiting Orders” status.

At this time, the Service did not have military pensions. Therefore, superannuated officers were customarily placed on “Permanent Waiting Orders” instead of being removed from the rolls by dismissal, so that they could still draw a certain percentage of their former salary.

Following his relief from command of the side-wheel steamer Fessenden, Gilbert Knapp returned once again to Racine. Here he spent the remaining days of his life. When he died on July 31, 1887, the “flags on all public buildings in his city were lowered to half-mast on the occasion of” his funeral.25

The passing of these two early lake captains ended a period of Great Lakes history. The ones who followed them could no longer routinely sail into uncharted waters bordered only by wilderness and Indians. Whatever the merits of the respective captains in their rivalry over commanding revenue cutters, the fact remains that both men, by their own unique actions and personalities, have made significant imprints upon the early history of the Great Lakes.

  1. Buffalo Historical Society Publications, Volume VIII, The Dobbins Papers (Buffalo, N. Y.: Buffalo Historical Society, 1905), p. 258.
  2. Ibid., passim; Max Rosenberg, The Building of Perry’s Fleet on Lake Erie, 1812-1813  (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: State Historical and Museum Commission, 1968); Captain W. W. Dobbins, The Battle of Lake Erie and Reminiscences of the Flag Ships Lawrence and Niagara, with Preface and Biographical Sketch of the Life of Oliver Hazard Perry by John Elmer Reed (Erie, Pennsylvania: Ashby Printing Company, 1929); Benson J. Lossing, Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1868), pp. 509-10; Fletcher Pratt, The Navy: A History: The Story of a Service in Action (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1938), pp. 178-9.
  3. Letter, Captain Daniel Dobbins, U.S.R. Marine, to President Zachary Taylor, 12 March 1849, in Daniel Dobbins Folder, Applications for Positions in the Revenue-Cutter Service, Records of the U.S. Coast Guard, Record Group 26, National Archives Building (hereafter cited as RG 26, NAB), hereafter cited as Dobbins Application Folder. 
  4. Unless otherwise cited, biographical data concerning Gilbert Knapp has been derived from the two WPA biographical sketches of Gilbert Knapp written circa 1940 and now in the manuscript holdings of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, hereafter cited as WPA Knapp Biog.; Dictionary of Wisconsin Biography (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1960), pp. 208-9; State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Proceedings of the Society at its Sixty-Eighth Annual Meeting Held October 21, 1920 (Madison, Wisconsin: State Historical Society Publications, 1921), p. 152.
  5. WPA Knapp Biog. 
  6. Henry R. Schoolcraft, Narrative Journal of Travels Through the Northwestern Regions of the United States Extending from Detroit through the Great Chain of American Lakes to the Sources of the Mississippi River in the Year 1820, edited by Mentor L. Williams (East Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan State College Press, 1953), pp. 83, 368.
  7. William Ratigan, Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivals (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1969), p. 169.
  8. WPA Knapp Biog. 
  9. Letter, Doctor F. W. Miller to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 4 January 1842, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  10. Letter, Robert Cochran to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 13 February 1844, in ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. Commissions Revenue Cutters 1812-1844, RG 26, NAB.
  13. U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, p. 70, RG 26, NAB; U.S. Coast Guard, Records of Movements, Vessels of the United States Coast Guard, 1790-December 31,1933, 2 volumes (Washington: Office of Assistant Commandant, U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, undated (1935?), pp. 463, 412-14, hereafter cited as USCG, Record of Movements, with appropriate page(s).
  14. WPA Knapp Biog.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ray Hughes Whitbeck, The Geography and Economic Development of Southeastern Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin: Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, 1921), pp. 143-5.
  17. Letter, Henry S. Harvey to President James K. Polk, 7 May 1845, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  18. Commissions Revenue Cutters 1812-1844, RG 26, NAB.
  19. Letter, Secretary of the Treasury Thomas Ewing to Capt. Daniel Dobbins, 16 March 1841, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  20. Various letters, ibid.; Commissions Revenue Marine April 20, 1839-December 14,1852, RG 26, NAB; U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, pp. 70, 173.
  21. Letter, Gideon J. Ball and five other residents of Erie, to President of the United States of America, 7 March 1853, in Dobbins Application Folder. 
  22. USCG, Record of Movements, pp. 509-10; James Grant Wilson and John Fishe, Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume II (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), p. 189,
  23. U.S. Revenue Marine Record of Officers 1797-1870, p. 173.
  24. Unless otherwise cited, the following information concerning Captain Knapp’s service in the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service has been derived from: ibid,; Revenue Cutter Service Register of Officers 1870-1883, RG 26, NAB; Revenue Cutter Service Register of Officers 1882-1894, RG 26, NAB; USCG, Record of Movements, passim; and published annual Registers of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Officers from 1873 to 1887.
  25. WPA Knapp Biog, 

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About the Author: Mr. Truman R. Strobridge is Coast Guard Historian, Public Information Office, Washington, D. C., and author of the article “Early Coast Guard Lightships on the Great Lakes,” published in the Spring 1973 issue of INLAND SEAS. Capt. T. McDonald, U.S. Coast Guard Reserve, Chief, Public Affairs Division, in submitting this article states that the author compiled it from special research he had undertaken for articles in two official Coast Guard publications. 

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