Captain William Marriner And The Whaleboat War

On July 4, 2026, The United States will commemorate and celebrate the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence across all 50 States. It has been said that “To go forward, we must learn from our past.” The truth is that to go forward, we must learn our past. Not only the survey courses taught in history class but also our local past, the past that defines us and where we live.

“All Revolutionary sailors ran risks. But the risks of whaleboat privateersmen who plied their trade close to shore, with the safety of tricky inland channels a relatively short distance away, were more limited than those of the skippers who took full-sized ships to sea and prowled the ocean lanes that for years had been the almost exclusive preserve of the Royal Navy.

Many a privateering cruise ended almost before it started in the hold of a British prison ship.” –What Manner of Men-Fred Cook 1959

The waters between New York Harbor and Sandy Hook, NJ were teeming with British merchant ships. Gigantic convoys, guided by British Ships of the Line ( 18th-century battleships with 75-125 cannons ranging from 32 to 48-pounders arrayed on 3 decks.) went back and forth, daily, swift rum- and salt- and sugar-laden schooners arrived from the West Indies. More than one hundred fifty small sloops and schooners carried the produce of Loyalist arms in New Jersey, Staten Island, and Long Island to Manhattan, the source of the Kings gold.

The Continental Navy was the navy of the Thirteen Colonies (later the United States) during the American Revolutionary War. Founded on October 13, 1775, it consisted of several converted merchantmen as a consequence of the lack of funds available for use by the navy, which was seen as of secondary importance by early American leaders during the land war with Britain.

In a bill signed by John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress, and dated April 3, 1776, the Continental Congress issued: INSTRUCTIONS to the COMMANDERS of Private Ships or vessels of War, which shall have Commissions of Letters of Marque and Reprisal, authorizing them to make Captures of British Vessels and Cargoes. That single act would deal a significant blow to the British Military’s supply lines, especially in the waters around Sandy Hook.

Captain William Marriner

Throughout the Revolutionary War, the western and southern shores of New York Harbor were held by the Patriots, while Sandy Hook was controlled for the duration by the British. Patriot Privateers took advantage of the numerous shoals, shallows, inlets, and rivers, using whaleboats to raid shipping lanes close to their hideaways.

William Marriner was a tall, large-framed man who was possessed of great physical strength. He presented a formidable figure leaping onto the deck of a British ship, cutlass in hand. Yet, he seemed to be an easygoing man, quick to make a joke. Marriner’s personality was an asset in his vocation as a Tavern keeper. However, he had one serious personality flaw. Marriner had an almost pathological hatred for people in positions of Authority.

Before the Revolutionary War, William Marriner owned an Inn and Tavern on William Street in New York City. Among his clientele was George Washington, who described Marriner as a “Jovial Host”. As tensions between the Colonies and Britain escalated, most patriots fled New York City, especially when the British set up their main headquarters. Marriner stayed. He even agreed to billet captured American Officers in rooms at the Inn which he usually rented out. From these captives and their guards, Marriner kept abreast of the war, and British plans.

Taverns of the Revolutionary War

One of the “authority figures” with whom Marriner had a falling out was New York City Mayor David Matthews. Mathews was pro-British to such an extreme that he persecuted those citizens who were sympathetic to the Revolution. The Patriots called him the “Tormentor General”. While it isn’t known what caused the argument, when it was over, in 1777, Marriner was incarcerated at the notorious New York Provost Jail. It was commanded by the cruel and sadistic Major Moncrief. Marriner was paroled in 1778 to the Long Island town of New Utrecht and was put up in a private home for the duration of his parole.

Given a degree of freedom to move about the town, he frequented a Flatbush tavern. One night, at the tavern, Marriner ran into Mayor David Matthews. By all accounts, a violent fight ensued, after which Marriner broke parole. He fled to New Brunswick on the Raritan River and opened a new tavern. In a short time, the place became a hotbed of Patriot spies, militia, and whaleboat crews. Marriner Joined Lord Sterling’s Patriot Militia. However, being a private in the army was unsuitable for a fiercely independent man with a palpable dislike for authority, and there was no opportunity for vengeance against Mayor Mattews and Major Moncrief.

It was then that Marriner became a pirate. Unlike most privateers, he did not immediately seek Letters of Marque, nor capture prizes at sea. He embarked on a highly specialized sub-vocation. He chose to operate as a freelance kidnapper. His first targets would be his obsessions: Matthews and Moncrief.

The Raids

A regular at Marriner’s Tavern was a local Militia Captain named John Schenk. Schenk had family and friends living in New Utrecht and Flatbush. Schenck would be an asset to Marriner’s plan. Together they rounded up 25 whaleboat men, and the owner of a local shipping company, a Sea Captain, named Adam Hyler, for the raid. In the early evening of June 11, 1778, the Privateers loaded into 2 whaleboats and began the 25-mile, hand rowing, trek from New Brunswick to New Utrecht.

By 11 PM, they hauled their boats ashore, camouflaging them and leaving two men to stand guard, and split into 4 groups. Marriner’s team headed for Matthews’s home. But his squad and those assigned to kidnap a high- ranking British officer discovered that their intended victims were attending a party with Major Moncrief. Schenck succeeded in robbing and kidnapping his target and freed 2 patriot officers.

Pulling whaleboats

Marriner attacked the home where their last victim, Miles Sherbrook, was staying. After battering down the door, they “confiscated” his possessions and dragged him, in his night clothes, through the streets of Flatbush to the whaleboats. 2 hours later, Marriner and his crew were back at Marriner’s Tavern in New Brunswick toasting their good fortune. They had freed patriot prisoners, captured several Loyalists and Military Officers to exchange for imprisoned patriots (at a later date), and then there was the loot.

The raid had been so successful that Marriner repeated the process several times over the next few months. On one raid, he captured Lieutenant Forrest and Major Moncrieff. On another, he landed again at New Utrecht, seized the noted Loyalists, Simon and Jacques Cortelyou, and made off with specie and property valued at five thousand dollars. All of the prisoners taken in these raids were brought back to New Jersey and subsequently exchanged for patriot leaders or officers of the Continental Army.


When William Marriner was not carrying out guerilla operations on land, he and his fleet of whaleboats attacked British merchant shipping on Sandy Hook and Raritan bays. On one occasion he attacked and captured 3 merchant sloops and an armed schooner as they lay at anchor in Horseshoe Cove for protection from the weather. The wind and tide had forced the sloops ashore where Marriner and his man looted and stripped them. When all of the cargo and goods were transferred onto the schooner, he set them on fire and sailed off in the schooner. Each member of his crew made $1000 that night. Marriner’s versatility, striking on land or the sea made it impossible for the British to anticipate where he would appear next.

One of his most audacious attacks is best described in the book “What Manner of Men” By Fred Cook (1959):
“On the night of April 18, 1780 he dropped down the Raritan from New Brunswick in a single whaleboat. He had with him just nine men. They crossed the bay to Sandy Hook. Inside the tip of the hook, protecting the anchorage in the cove, lay a powerful British guardship, a three-decker named the Volcano. Nearby was a saucy little brig, the Black- snake. She had been fitted out as a privateer by Rhode Islanders and mounted a sizable battery of eight-pounders, but she had been overtaken by the British frigate Galatea and sent in as a prize. She lay at anchor now, supposedly untouchable under the mighty broadsides of the Volcano. She drew and held Marriner’s covetous eye.

Three decker

Approaching through the night with the utmost stealth, the oars of his whaleboat muffled in the oarlocks, Marriner glided undetected under the stern of the Blacksnake. The brig was manned by a prize crew of twenty men under Capt. Cornelius French, but the disparity in numbers was more than offset by a difference in alertness. French and his crew were asleep; Marriner and his men definitely were not. They swarmed in a rush over the counter of the prize, seized and disarmed the lone and sleepy lookout, battened down the hatches, imprisoning the crew in the forecastle, and stationed a guard at the entrance of the after cabin. All had been accomplished in seconds, without resistance, without a sound.

Having captured the privateer, Marriner determined to bring her off. Quickly he cut her anchor cable and quietly shook out some sail. The Blacksnake began to move through the water, ghosting out of the anchorage. Nearby the powerful watchdog of the British fleet slept on; the volcano did not erupt.

Daylight found Marriner and his nine whaleboat men well out to sea, almost out of sight of land, a stout little warship under their feet and the shipping lanes leading into New York wide-open for their hunting. Almost at once a plump pullet of the sea fell into their seeking hands. About six A.M., up from the south, scudded the schooner Morning Star, lightly armed with swivels and cohorts, but packed with a crew of thirty- three men commanded by Capt. Richard Campbell.

Marriner, bold as the captain of a seventy-four, brought the Blackmake ranging alongside. With his nine followers manning the eight-pounders in the little brigs broadside, there was nobody left to work the sails, but Campbell and the crew of the Morning Star did not know that. The Blacksnake looked formidable to them, and they surrendered. Once the two ships had crunched together, however, and Marriners men started to board, the British captain saw how few they were and called on his crew to fight. He and several of his followers were promptly cut down, and the rest, cowed by their fate, ratified the original surrender.”

Nothing Lasts Forever

Shortly after the taking of the Blacksnake, Marriner once again attacked Flatbush to capture Mayor Matthews. This time the plan came apart and he was captured His case was heard by General Henry Clinton. The charges were Piracy and Kidnapping. During the trial, Colonel Simcoe, whom Marriner probably did not recognize, told the story about how he and Marriner met in battle. Simcoe was knocked senseless. He was awakened to find a patriot soldier about to bayonet him. Marriner stopped the soldier. Simcoe argued that Marriner may be a pirate and a kidnapper, but he was an honorable man. General Clinton, instead of giving Marriner the noose, paroled him. And Marriner never went raiding again.

A New Hope Emerges

In the vacuum left by William Marriner’s departure, Adam Hyler took command of the whaleboat men. In a short time, Hyler proved himself to be more daring, more cunning, and more deadly to the British, than his former boss. His harassment of British forces at Sandy Hook took on a mythological perspective. He drove them mad.

Privateer Memorial – Port Republic
Close up of plaque

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