No. 519.
Mr. Birney to Mr. Blaine.

No. 179.]

Sir: Until a recent date, it had been accepted as historically true that the first salute to the flag of the stars and stripes of the Republic of the United States of America was given by the French. This opinion was sustained by the authority of Rear-Admiral Preble, of the United States Navy, and his belief was founded upon an entry in the diary of a surgeon on board of a United States ship, who stated that on the 14th February, 1788, the ship saluted a French ship, which returned the salute by nine guns.

A prospectus has been sent me of a new book just published by Rear-Admiral Preble, entitled “A history of the flag of the United’ States of America,” but not having seen the work itself I have not learned whether he has recognized the facts herein to be recited. A member of the Historical Society of New York, in a magazine article, about three years ago, called attention to my letter to Governor Prescott, and alluded to the conflict between the facts related by me as to priority, and the one given by Admiral Preble, but the attention of the admiral may not have been called to it. If his recent book avows no alteration of opinion as to when the first salute was given, it is so far defective.

As the fact as to when, where, and by whom the flag of the United States was first saluted by an official of a foreign government is regarded by many of historical importance, and as I have been able to find, in the royal library of the Netherlands, at the Hague, material which clearly shows that the flag of the Republic of the United States was formally saluted by the guns of the forts upon an island of the West Indies, by an order deliberately given by the Dutch governor thereof, on the 16th of November, 1776, I deem it proper to place on record the proofs of the fact that they may be preserved for the convenient reference of any who may be interested.

Soon after taking charge of this legation a letter was sent to me, written by Mr. B. F. Prescott, then secretary of state, since governor of New Hampshire, in which he says:

Dear Sir: I inclose an article which I prepared for a newspaper in this city. I made a statement in the October number, 1874, of the Historical and Genealogical Register, published in Boston, that John de Graef was the first foreign magistrate to salute the stars and stripes. Commodore Preble, United States Navy, subsequently quotes from the diary of Dr. Ezra Green in proof that the French admiral referred to in the article above was the first person to salute the stars and stripes.

It is a matter of some historic importance, and I write this note to ask you to aid me, if you can, in ascertaining the precise date of De Graef’s salute. He was recalled by the home government, as appears in the correspondence, on complaint of the English Government.

A transaction of that importance is no doubt recorded in the archives of the Dutch Government soon after the Declaration of Independence, and possibly the very day of the salute, evidence of which I greatly desire.

The facts disclosed in the article to which Governor Prescott refers are these:

In the representatives hall of the State of New Hampshire, is a portrait somewhat peculiar in its appearance, not only in the style of the painting, but in the dress and position. This portrait represents Hon. John de Graef, governor of Saint Eustatius, one of the Dutch West India Islands, from about 1770 to 1780. It is said that he was the first foreign magistrate who saluted the stars and stripes after independence was declared in 1776, and as such it makes him a very important personage in our history as a nation.

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Dr. Ezra Green, in his diary, while he was surgeon on the Continential skip-of-war Ranger, from November 1, 1777, to September 28, 1778, on Friday, February 13, 1788, says: “Set sail for Quiberon Bay, Mr. Williams and brother on board; in company with us, brig Independence; anchored in the bay about six in the evening; four ships of the line, besides frigates in the bay. Saturday, February 14, very squally weather; came to sail at 4 o’clock p.m.; saluted the French admiral and received nine guns in return. This is the first salute paid the American flag.

It was upon this entry of the surgeon that Rear-Admiral Preble gave the credit of the first salute to the French admiral.

On the 9th of June, 1837, Governor Isaac Hill, of New Hampshire, sent the following message to the legislature of that State:

To the senate and house of representatives:

From Mr. F. W. Cragin, a native of this State, and now a resident of Surinam, in South America, I have received the portrait of John de Graef, esq., formerly governor of one of the Dutch West India Islands, called St. Eustatius, intended as a present to the State. This gentleman is said to have been the first foreign magistrate who officially acknowledged American independence, after it was declared in 1776, returning the salute of the national ship which bore the official dispatches announcing that fact. The painting represents de Graef in his official dress and as holding the American dispatches in his hand. The letter herewith communicated from Paul Cragin, jr., esq., brother of the donor, presents a more full description. The portrait is at the disposal of the legislature.

The legislature accepted the present, and by a public resolution thanked the donor. Governor Prescott adds: “The portrait is authentic and historic, and we think no other State in the Union possesses it.”

In the letter of Paul Cragin, jr., there is the following statement to the governor, dated at Nashua, June 2, 1837:

Sir: I transmit to you a portrait which my brother F. W. Cragin, residing in Surinam, South America, ordered to be taken for the purpose of presenting it to his native State. It is the portrait of John de Graef, who was, between the years 1770 and 1780, commander of one of the Dutch West India Islands, called St. Eustatius; his office was the same as governor, but his title commander. The painting was taken from one in possession of his grandson then in Surinam, since removed to Barbadoes.

My brother writes: “The history given by this gentleman, and what made it interesting to me, was briefly this: On declaring their independence the Americans sent dispatches to the several countries and governments; many were interrupted by the English, and the vessel that carried the dispatches to Holland was taken and carried into Liverpool; but the Andromeda that sailed for St. Eustatius arrived safely, making a short voyage. She came to, and made the island with the star-spangled banner waving at mast-head, a sight entirely new and strange to St. Eustatius. The commander of the island, Hon. John de Graef, on learning the object of this visit and the determination of the Americans, ordered a national salute to be fired from his guns in answer to the one fired by the Andromeda, and he was said to be the first foreigner who saluted the nation’s flag. The commander of the British forces, then in the West Indies (I think General Ross), sent a complaint to the King of England who again complained to the King of Holland, then styled Prince of Orange, that the Dutch as neighbors and in good faith ought not to salute the rebel flag.”

After receiving the request of Mr. Prescott, I made examination at the Royal Library at the Hague, with the aid of its accomplished librarian. I searched the books published soon after the period referred to. In an old book entitled “Netherlandsche Jaerboken,” or Dutch annals, containing cotemporaneous accounts of “remarkable histories that occurred in the United Provinces, or in the countries of the States General,” the style by which the Republic of the Netherlands was then known, I found the information I sought in complete and satisfactory shape. It is undisputably shown that on or about the 16th of November, 1776, Johannes de Graef, governor by appointment of the Staats General of the Netherlands, of the Dutch Island of St. Eustatius of the West Indies, did, after due consideration and consultation, order to be fired from the guns of the forts a full salute to the new flag of thirteen stripes of the American colonies.

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This history sets forth on account of rumors reaching the neighboring English Island of St. Christopher that ammunition and goods were furnished to the rebels of the American colonies by the inhabitants of St. Eustatius, and that a salute had been given to a vessel bearing the flag of the Continental Congress, by direction of the authorities of that island. Christer Greathead, the governor of the English island addressed a letter of remonstrance to Johannes de Graef, complaining especially that a vessel bearing a flag with thirteen stripes, belonging as he said to the rebels of the American colonies, had been saluted with honor shots. This letter of remonstrance was written on the 17th of December, 1776.

Johannes de Graef, on the 23d December, 1776, replied to the English governor, as the historian says, in a “sedate and manly manner.” As to the salute he wrote:

In regard to the reception, given by the forts of the island, under my commandment, I flatter myself that if my masters exact it, I shall be able to give such an account as will be satisfactory.

To this letter the governor of the English island made a reply on the 26th of December, same year, and when referring to the salute of the American flag, he uses the following language:

The impartial world will judge between us, whether those honor shots, answered on purpose by a Dutch fort to a rebellions brigantine called the Andrew Doria, with a flag known to the commander of that fort as the flag of His Majesty’s rebellious subjects, is or is not a partiality in favor of these rebels and a public offense done to His Majesty’s flag.

The English governor in order to have a solid foundation for his complaint and the report he intended to make to the home government then had depositions taken of witnesses who were present at the time of the salute. They gave the date and the circumstances. One of the affidavits is made by a young man who was born on the island of Barbadoes, was the son of a merchant there, and was sent by his father to be educated at Princeton, N. J. He was first sent to Philadelphia and placed under the care of Messrs. James & Dunker, merchants in that city. These guardians soon confided him to the care of Rec. Dr. John Witherspoon, who was president of the college, and not long after chosen as a member of the Continental Congress from the province of New Jersey.

When he had been at Princeton for three years, having been sent from Barbadoes in the year 1773, he was allowed by his guardians to come to Philadelphia to spend there the vacation of the fall of 1776. While he was there and when taking a walk one evening with his schoolfellow, George West, of Carolina, they were suddenly impressed by sailors and compelled to go on board a brigantine, equipped by Continentals, called the Andrew Doria, and put into service. The vessel was commanded by Captain Robinson, was mounted with fourteen double fortified four-pounders, with fourteen or sixteen swivel guns, manned by a hundred men or thereabouts, and was then lying in the Delaware River at Gloucester, about four miles from Philadelphia. He states that the vessel reached St. Eustatius about the middle of November, that she saluted the fort of Orange with thirteen shots, and that after a small pause the salute was answered from the fort, the brigantine during the time of the salute and the answer to it having the flag of the Continental Congress flying.

The name of this witness was John Trottman. He is confirmed by James Eraser, who deposed that he learned when on shore that the captain of the fort at first hesitated to return the salute, and went to [Page 854]the governor to receive his orders, and then answered the salute. These witnesses were sustained by the affidavits of John Dean and John Spicer.

Christer Greathead, governor of the English island, having obtained these affidavits sent the entire correspondence with the papers containing the proofs to Lord George Germain, secretary of the King at London, with a letter of explanation. Then Sir Knight York, ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary of His Majesty the King, February 21, 1777, addressed a complaining and menacing communication to the Staats General of the Netherlands demanding satisfaction.

The Dutch Republic referred this letter to its minister of foreign affairs. On the 26th March, 1777, Count von Welderen, envoy extraordinary and plenipotentiary of the Dutch Republic, replied, in an address to the King of England, saying that while his government felt obliged to complain of the reproachful and menacing tone of the memoir sent them, the facts would be inquired into, and for that purpose orders had been issued to Johannes de Graef, governor of St. Eustatius, requiring him to return home and render an account of his conduct.

On the 11th of May, 1777, the King replied through his secretary of state, the Duke of Suffolk, and expressed his satisfaction that prompt measures had been taken for adjusting the difficulty.

The further examination of the correspondence and the doings of the Staats General show that when the summons reached Johannes de Graef requiring him to come to Holland, he pleaded to be excused on account of the distance and the inevitable sea-sickness that always afflicted him severely. He was, however, required to obey the summons and come. But, as it consumed then many weeks to make the trip, so much time had been spent before he reached Holland in 1778, before matters were in readiness to arraign him before the authorities of the republic, the independence of the colonies was being so generally recognized by the governments of Europe that all necessity for pressing the case had vanished. It may be surmised that the apparent pressure was only to avoid a breach with England. De Graef soon after asked for promotion by title, which it was intended to bestow, but before it was conferred he died.

It is to be noticed that both Mr. Prescott in his article, and Paul Cragin in his letter to Governor Hill, speak of Holland as having a king. At the time referred to, viz, 1776, Holland was a republic, had been for some years previous, and was for some years afterwards.

It is also to be observed that the name of the ship is erroneously spoken of as “Andromeda.” It was “Andrew Doria.” This was a name well known at that time.

I will append hereto the translations from the “Nederlandsehe Jacrbooken,” which consist of remarks by the historian, letters between the Dutch and English governor, the affidavits of witnesses, and the correspondence between the officials of the governments of England and of the Staats-General, as printed from the manuscript I sent to Governor Prescott, all of which are to be regarded as incorporated in and as a part of this communication.

I am, &c.,

JAMES BIRNEY.