John Rodgers papers  1796-1908 (bulk 1801-1836)
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The John Rodgers papers contain Rodger's professional correspondence and documents from shortly before his first Naval Commission through the end of his career. The collection holds 719 letters, 39 legal documents, and 2 genealogical items. These provide a wealth of information on nearly every aspect of Rodgers' career, from his blockading and diplomatic activities during the Barbary Wars through his brief tenure as Secretary of the Navy. In addition to documenting Rodger's career, the papers are also a source of information on the administration and political workings of the United States Navy in the early 19th century.

The Correspondence series (719 items) contains letters about Rodger's naval career, including his role in the Barbary War, his part in the War of 1812, his return to the Mediterranean after the war, and his tenure as administrator of the Navy Commissioner's Office.

The Barbary War materials contain important information on the activities of the United States' fleet off Tripoli and on the attitudes of the United States officers toward the Barbary States. These include intelligence documents used during naval operations and Barbary treaty negotiations. Many of the items are from the Navy Department, including letters from the highest rank of naval officers in Washington and the officers stationed at the Philadelphia and New York navy yards. Of note are:

  • Several navy circulars from 1808, which discuss the embargo laws
  • A letter from New York Congressman, Killian Van Rensselaer (1763-1845) about a deserter from the John Adams (July 1808)
  • A 60-page diatribe from Rodgers addressed to William Eaton, the acting Navy agent for the Barbary Regencies, which berated Eaton for impugning Rodger's name in a report to the secretary of the navy on the negotiations with Tripoli (1806). This document includes copies of letters from Samuel Barron (May 18, 1805), and Tobias Lear (May 19, 1805), used to support Rodger's viewpoint.

Letters from the War of 1812 period concern Rodgers' command of the naval forces in the northern Atlantic, which attempted to blockade the British shipping efforts in North America. The collection contains a few important accounts of engagements with British warships; approximately 30 reports of ships boarded by United States gunboats in the Atlantic; and intelligence on British naval activity around New York, Washington, and Baltimore. Of particular interest is a letter from a low-ranking navy member named Amos Brown, who was impressed by the British in Halifax, and wrote to Rodgers to request clearance to return to New York (June 9, 1812). Brown had served with Rodgers, but described his physical appearance to help jog Rodgers memory, in the hopes of obtaining his freedom. Also of note are a report from Paul Hamilton on the consequences of the Little Belt Affair (May 23, 1811), and a letter from his brother George Washington Rodgers, who wrote of family and navy matters (February 23, 1814).

The post-War of 1812 portion of the collection provides documentation for the peace-time operations of the United States Navy, including: ship building, harbor maintenance, regulations, and military discipline. From 1815-1824, Rodgers was the president of the Navy Commission in Washington D.C. He received frequent letters, marked "private," from Howes Goldsborough (1816-1824), and in 1823 received several letters from New York Congress Member Cadwallader David Colden.

Rodgers was stationed in the Mediterranean from 1824-1826, and served on the Navy Board of Commissioners from 1827-1837. Most of the letters from these years are administrative in natures. Of note are:

  • Nine letters from Rodgers to the fleet captain of his Mediterranean Squadron, Daniel Todd Patterson, of the USS North Carolina and the USS Brandywine (1825-1826). These include instructions on protocol, qualifications for officers, and general orders for ship maneuvering.
  • A 16-page report from the Navy Commissioners on the restructuring of the navy (November 23, 1829).
  • A private letter from Matthew Calbraith Perry with news of his son and the mission in the Mediterranean (February 11, 1831).
  • Eight letters from Rodgers addressed to James Barron, commander of the Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Though the collection is largely made up of official naval materials, it also contains content related to Rodgers’ family life. Frederick Rodgers, who was also in the navy, wrote two letters to his father (March 9 and April 5, 1828). Rodgers received a letter dated April 6, 1828, from one of the crew of the USS North Carolina , informing him that Frederick had died while heroically trying to save one of his shipmates after their boat sunk. Minerva Rodgers' sister Eliza wrote to her on August 17, 1828, to console her on the loss of her son).

The bulk of John Rodgers' family letters, written after his death, are dated between 1840 and 1908. These include letters between Minerva and her sons John and Henry, as well as an item to eldest son Robert Smith Rodgers, a civil engineer, and a few unsigned items. An unsigned letter from March 14, 1877, relates tensions between the North and South and news about the Hayes administration. Another item of interest is a January 9, 1872, incomplete and unsigned letter from Wusong, China, addressed to "Brother," likely from Rodger's grandson, John Rodgers, who served in the navy until his death in 1882. The writer described his time in Japan and commented on Japanese cultural practices. He wrote of his experiences in a bath house:

"the people of Japan are kind and amiable, but they are strangely careless of modesty -- they have no idea of it. Girls said to be proper and good girls and very pretty ones, came into the room where I was Bathing and wanted to scrub my shoulders with soap -- As I had no bathing dress on, you can guess how much I was horrified."

He mentioned his audience with the Mikado, and also provided information about the landscape and architecture. He admired their paper screens, which "have some advantages over our windows."

The collection also contains several letters from Rodgers’ grandson, Colonel Robert S. Rodgers, to friends, family, and colleagues.

The Documents series (39 items) consists of general orders, circulars, courts martial opinions, reports, and lists of ships stores. The earliest item is a list of 44 guidelines, written by Rodgers, to be followed on board the U.S. Maryland , including instructions for exercising cannons (August 29, 1799). The series contains a number of materials related to sickness, dating from 1825-1828, including doctor's letters excusing service members from their posts, as well as reports relating to illnesses onboard navy vessels. Of particular interest is a report on the causes of yellow fever on board the frigate Macedonian , which the two investigators attribute to sudden changes in climate during the voyage, poor diet and clothes, the "offensive state of the hold," and an error in treatment methods by the ship's doctor (August 23, 1823). Other notable material includes:

  • A court of inquiry document concerning the Chesapeake - Leopard Affair (1807).
  • A formal petition to Secretary of State James Monroe from 15 prisoners of war in the Melville Prison in Halifax requesting relief, (August 30, 1812).
  • An article of agreement with Charles Washington Goldsborough in a Washington-based lumber and brick-making business (October 30, 1815).
  • 30 reports documenting vessels boarded by US Naval squadrons and gunboats while enforcing the Embargo Act of 1807. These records contain the date of the boarding, the name of the vessel, the ships’ master and owner, its origin and destination, the cargo, and additional remarks.

The Genealogy series (3 items) contains two pages (followed by 11 blank pages) of notes, written by Rodgers, relating to his early life at school and as a young sailor. The series also holds a four-page document from the Sons of the American Revolution tracing Rodgers' family lineage to Captain George Denison's and a five-page photocopy of genealogical information on Rodger's family. Both items are undated.

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