Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy”

This week I spent some time working on the Joshua Humphreys papers (Collection 306). Born in Haverford, Pa. in 1751, Humphreys would go on to be the nation’s foremost naval architect in the post-Revolutionary era. In 1776 Humphreys was chosen by the Continental Congress to design the retrofitting of eight merchant vessels into battle-worthy frigates. These eight ships were the first military vessels of the United States. After the war, Humphreys pressed for an expanded fleet of ships that would be capable of not just defending the coastline, but also capable of going on the offensive in the open seas. In 1797, the frigate United States was launched and five more ships soon followed. These ships were the first all new ships designed for the American Navy and formed the backbone of the fleet during the War of 1812. The other ships were the President, Chesapeake, Constellation, Congress, and the Constitution – famously known as “Old Ironsides” and the oldest commissioned U.S. naval vessel still afloat. Several of the innovations Humphreys introduced on these ships, such as a knife-like keel to cut through the water and a bulging hull for added steadiness, were design elements used on ships well into the steam era. Humphreys managed to irritate several Secretaries of War and when Thomas Jefferson, who was opposed to the idea of an offensive Navy, was elected, Humphreys was “asked” to retire in 1803. His son Samuel however was also a naval architect, and Humphreys managed to stay in the business through his son, albeit in a less official capacity.



The collection consists of Humphreys’ daybooks, ledger books, and letter books. Taking a look at these, I suddenly became very grateful for all the computer accounting and financial management software out there (I myself swear by Quicken). In the late 1700’s, managing a business meant one had to be very methodical to keep all these records by hand.


Though most of the collection consists of financial record keeping, there were also some instructions on how to build ships and some hand drawn diagrams too.



Also in this collection was the daybook of Charles Humphreys, Joshua’s brother and a member of the First Continental Congress. When I opened this book, many small scraps of paper literally came bursting out. It seems Charles did a lot of his record keeping on small scraps of paper, sometimes tearing personal letters up and using the backs to do some quick math. Perhaps he was the less organized of the two brothers.

Finally, while doing some background research on the web, I came across this most interesting site, It’s an interesting project with lots of fascinating documents. Anyone interested in early American military history must check it out.




10 thoughts on “Joshua Humphreys, “Father of the American Navy”

  1. Great stuff! The Naval Order, the non-profit historical association of the U.S. Navy will be interested in knowing about this collection. My wife is the assistant to Treasurer General of the organization.

  2. Joshua Humphreys is my one of my great grandfathers, I’m not sure how many generations have passed, but this is what my great grandfather told me. It is really inspiring to see his work because I am studying engineering myself. No one ever believes me when I tell people the U.S.S. Constitution was designed by someone in my family tree, but it is ok. Thank you very much for the pictures and information.

    • Your ancestor was, indeed, a very important figure in American naval history. We’re very glad to have some of Joshua Humphrey’s records, and they are available for anyone to view.

      Thanks for reading!

  3. To Whom It May Concern:
    I need to see Humphrey’s material, particular to the frigate USS UNITED STATES, and with notes on the poop deck of the frigate.
    I already have Work on the frigate United STates (108 pages?).
    Please contact me at
    I am Ed. Zimmerman, Jr.; Founder, President, and CEO of the USS UNITED STATES Foundation since September 1978

    • Mr. Zimmerman,

      Thanks for your interest in the Humphreys papers. The collection is not digitized, but I will email you information on how we might get you the information you seek, if it is contained in the records.


  4. I am currently looking for a portrait of Joshua Humphreys as well as further information on the Poop Deck, Roundhouse structure Commodore John Barry had installed in the stern of the frigate USS UNITED STATES, First Ship of the United States Navy. I can be reached at: My name is Ed. Zimmerman, Jr.; Founder, President, and CEO of the USS UNITED STATES Foundation. It seems odd that his rival, Josiah Fox, has a portrait but I cannot seem to find one of Joshua Humphreys. I would appreciate any help you might have on these subjects. Your humble servant; I am,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s