Commodore Richard Dale: Naval Commander and Philadelphia Leader

Richard Dale (1756 - 1826) fought in the Continental Navy under John Barry and was first lieutenant under John Paul Jones during the Revolutionary War. He captained merchant vessels in the early years of American involvement in the China Trade, prior to his selection by George Washington as one of the six original commodores of the permanent United States Navy. In that role, he commanded a blockade of Tripoli during the conflict with the Barbary cities in 1801. A resident of Philadelphia when not at sea, he lived in Society Hill with his wife and children, and devoted his later years to religious and charitable organizations.


Early Years

Dale was born on November 6, 1756, the son of Winfield and Ann Dale of Norfolk County, Virginia. His father had been a well-regarded shipwright in Virginia, which may have instilled in Richard a love of the sea. His father died when he was ten years old and, two years later, Dale signed on to train with an uncle who took the young boy with him on his first ocean voyage to Liverpool, England.

By 1770, Richard became apprenticed to a ship owner and merchant out of Norfolk who helped to hone the young seaman’s skills during many trips between the American colonies and the West Indies. In five years’ time, he would continue to receive promotions until, by 1775, he became chief mate of a large brig.

Life at sea could be very dangerous. During one of his journeys, Dale was accidentally knocked into the ocean by a loose jib sheet (a line intended to control the corner of a sail). He spent a night in the water before he could be rescued. On another journey, he and a number of his crewmates were knocked unconscious when lightning struck their ship. Fortunately for Dale, his injuries did not prove to be serious and he recovered after a short time.

The Revolutionary War

When the American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain, Dale relinquished his position in the merchant service and signed on as a lieutenant on a light cruiser. Initially, he fought for the Province of Virginia, but only briefly. Captured by a tender of the Loyalist frigate Liverpool, he was induced by a friend to join the Royalist cause, and he entered into the service of the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, on the sloop Lady Susan. Dale received a severe injury during a battle against colonial forces. While he recovered, he determined that he would henceforth fight only with his countrymen against the English.

He returned to the patriot cause at the next opportunity. In a firefight with the Lexington, Dale was captured and swore allegiance to the colonial effort. The patriot captain of the Lexington permitted Dale to re-enlist with the colonial navy, and made him a mid-shipman. The captain of the Lexington was John Barry. Dale not only remained faithful to the American cause for the rest of his life, but he and Barry became lifelong friends.

Barry’s replacement as captain on the Lexington, William Hallock, promoted Dale to master’s mate. Unfortunately, Dale was not long in the position before the ship was captured during a battle with the British. He became a prisoner once again. In fact, during the year 1776, Dale had the misfortune to be captured three times and severely wounded once. He returned to sea as quickly as possible, after he obtained his freedom.

January of 1777 found Dale back on board the Lexington. This reunion lasted only a short time, since Dale was yet again captured by the British in a skirmish off the French coast, near the town of Bordeaux. This time, he was sent to Mill Prison, in Plymouth, England, under charges of treason against the crown. Notoriously harsh conditions forced the American prisoners of war to scavenge for food. Sympathetic British civilians intervened on their behalf, and demanded that they receive better treatment. Although these improvements proved vital for their survival, Dale and his companions were never complacent in captivity.

The Americans dug a tunnel under the wall of the prison, through which they escaped in February of 1778. Their freedom was short-lived. Re-captured, Dale spent another full year in prison. He used his time constructively. He educated himself in mathematics, weights and measures, as well as the commands necessary for a future naval leader. Then, he managed a successful escape dressed as a British officer. He never revealed how he obtained the uniform, but it enabled him to leave England for the important port town of L’Orient, France.

In L'Orient, Dale signed on as a master’s mate with the French-funded privateer John Paul Jones, captain of the Bon Homme Richard. Jones promoted Dale to the rank of first lieutenant shortly before the famous battle of September 19th, 1779 against the HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head, England.

Richard Dale distinguished himself as the first American seaman from the Bon Homme Richard to board the HMS Serapis after her surrender, and personally took possession of the ship as its victor. Only after taking control of the ship did Dale realize that he had been wounded again during the melee. He collapsed and fainted shortly thereafter.

Letter of Marque (1798)»
Signed by President John Adams

Dale continued in Jones’ service through his convalescence and recovery, remaining Jones' first lieutenant on the Alliance and the Ariel, until they arrived in Philadelphia in 1781. Impatient to return to sea, rather than wait with Jones for a new ship, Dale declined the request that he remain Jones’ first lieutenant. Instead, he signed on with the American Continental Navy. He maintained his rank of first lieutenant on the Trumbull, and saw action shortly thereafter. His first battle on his new ship ended in yet another capture, after which he spent a number of months in captivity in New York City, which was the British military headquarters during the war. He received parole a few months later, and gained his freedom in a prisoner exchange.

Dale received his first full command in 1782 on the American privateer, the Queen of France. Granted a letter of marque signed by the Continental Congress that authorized him to attack and capture enemy vessels, his luck finally changed for the better. He recorded a number of captures during his brief tenure as captain, prior to the signing of the Treaty of Paris that officially ended the Revolutionary War. The Continental Navy disbanded in 1783, and all its former officers received honorable discharges, including Richard Dale.

The China Trade
The frigate <i>Alliance</i> was captained during the Revolutionary War by both John Paul Jones and John Barry, and was modified by financier Robert Morris after the Treaty of Paris ended the war, for use in the China Trade.  Richard Dale served on her both during and after the war.

Dale served on the Alliance»
during the war and as a merchant

With the declaration of peace, international trade opportunities opened up for American merchants that had not been possible under the limitations of the British Acts of Trade. Robert Morris, one of Philadelphia’s most successful entrepreneurs of the late 18th century, initiated the American China trade shortly after the war had ended. He commissioned merchant vessels to sail to Canton and, in 1785, Dale became first lieutenant on the second American journey ever to China, on the Canton. Dale returned to the United States two years later on a ship loaded with exotic merchandise that would be sold to America’s elite. Highly coveted and very expensive, Chinese porcelain, furniture, fabrics and accessories were considered exclusive items that only the wealthiest Philadelphians could afford, and showed the high status of a family at the time.

Dale made several more trips to the Far East between 1785 and 1799 for Morris and other merchants, including one on the Alliance, the warship on which he served during the war under John Paul Jones, now modified into a trading vessel and owned by Robert Morris. He also captained the Pigou during the last few years of the eighteenth century. These voyages made Dale a wealthy man. John Barry, Dale’s former captain, also worked in the China trade after the Revolutionary War ended, and the two men maintained their friendship through the years. They visited each other when both were home in Philadelphia. During one visit to Barry’s home, Dale met the cousin of Barry’s wife, Sarah. Dorethea Crathorne, described as a very attractive young woman, was eleven years Dale’s junior.


Dorethea and Richard Dale were married on September 15, 1791, at Christ Church in Philadelphia. Their first home together was at 49 Pine Street. Although they moved into a number of different houses in the Society Hill neighborhood during their lives together, Philadelphia remained home for the Dales for the remainder of their lives. They had eight children together, five of whom survived into adulthood. All five were baptized at Christ Church.

This delicate set of four nesting teapoy tables was both decorative and utilitarian.

Teapoy Nesting Tables»
(Late 18th Century)

These Chinese-made items in the museum's collection, by family tradition, were acquired by Dale during his many voyages to China. During the early years of the China trade, Dale was able to obtain valuable pieces despite his own limited funds because he could avoid the middle man and buy directly from Chinese merchants while he was in Canton. He would have brought these items back from the Far East for Dorethea and their children. One of the pieces, an intricately decorated lacquered sewing table, would have been an important piece of furniture required by upper class women whose lives at the time revolved around domestic fineries.

Another exemplary piece of Asian furniture that Dale acquired during one of his voyages to China is this set of four nesting teapoy tables, which was made using different inlaid exotic woods.

Porcelain dishware was another highly desirable export from China. Dale, serving as a first lieutenant during his first voyage to Canton aboard the Alliance, would not have been affluent enough to afford this punch bowl had he attempted to purchase it in the United States. While this would have been a rare possession for the average first mate, Dale was in a unique position that enabled him to purchase such exotic treasures directly from the manufacturers without the markups of a middleman.

Items such as ornamental fans, page turners (used to gently tear open the pages of sealed books), card cases, and chess sets, were carved out of elephant ivory or wood in China and sold at high prices in the United States as status symbols, to reveal the wealth of their owners. To further impress the admirers of these rare and precious items, consumers would have initials engraved on their wares. Dale had some items engraved with both his wife's and his daughter's initials.

United States Navy

President George Washington established the United States Navy in 1794. His intention was for the Navy to protect merchant vessels that were expanding American trade across the world, most notably in the Mediterranean Sea, against privateers from the Barbary Nations. Six of the new country’s most experienced and well-regarded seamen were selected by the federal government as the leaders of the new branch of the American military. Richard Dale was one of the men who Secretary of War Henry Knox solicited to institute this new Navy, along with his friend John Barry. [18] Both men accepted their appointments.

Quasi-War with France

Dale traveled to Portsmouth, Virginia, to supervise the construction of the USS Chesapeake, slated to become one of the first ships in the new Navy. Dale ultimately would not be commissioned to captain the USS Chesapeake. Rather, he received an assignment on the USS Ganges, a merchant vessel that had been modified from its original purpose to become a man-of-war. In this capacity, Dale went to sea in anticipation of confrontation with the Republic of France, in what is known today as the Quasi-War. With no formal declaration of war between the two countries, the Quasi-War was a conflict between the United States and France inspired by diplomatic tensions and French seizures of American merchant vessels. Although the USS Ganges never saw battle, this was the first time that a ship went to sea under the banner of the new United States Navy.

Once tensions with France subsided, disagreements over organizational details within the Navy created different tensions among the six men who had been selected to lead the new Navy. Some of the new captains, including Dale, requested furloughs while Congress looked into the matter. Dale took advantage of this time to resume his business in the China trade. When he finally returned to his military post in 1801, the newly entitled commodore led a fleet of ships into the Mediterranean Sea, again with the intention of protecting American merchant interests.

Barbary Coast

Barbary privateers from the African cities of Tripoli, Algiers and Tunis continued to threaten American merchant ships. Their reputation for stealing goods and enslaving the crews of American ships created a great fear amongst sailors. Dale was sent to ensure their safety. Among the ships under his command was the President, his flagship and one of the largest frigates in the world at that time. Following President Thomas Jefferson’s orders to avoid direct confrontation with the privateers, Dale effectively blockaded Tripoli yet he did not attack. Rather, he maintained his post until a shortage of supplies and pervasive illness among his fleet's crews compelled him to return to the United States.

The next year, Dale left the United States Navy. He had been ordered to return to the Mediterranean and resume his duty to protect American merchant vessels and crews; however, he took offense when he learned that he would have no captain on his flagship and that he would perform the duties both of captain and commodore. He regarded this as a demotion and, rather than accept what he perceived to be a lesser position, Dale resigned his commission in the Navy. At the time, he was the third highest ranking commodore in the United States Navy. After spending the majority of his life at sea, Dale settled permanently in Philadelphia with his family.


No longer at sea, Dale became involved in Philadelphia's maritime insurance business. He distinguished himself in 1803 as the director of the Insurance Company of North America, before he left to establish the Union Insurance Company one year later. He sat on the Union’s board and served as one of the company’s directors for the remainder of his life, while he and Dorethea lived a comfortable existence in Society Hill. Although no longer directly involved in the China trade, Dale continued to adorn his house with fine furniture, such as this mahogany bowfront chest of drawers and square-back side chairs, all likely made in Philadelphia.

He also continued to acquire expensive accessories for his wife Dorethea, including this silver mug, designed by Philadelphia silversmith John McMullin and engraved with her initials, "DD."

Dale also became involved in a number of charitable and service-based organizations in Philadelphia, including the Society of the Cincinnati of Pennsylvania, the Society for the Relief of Poor and Distressed Masters of Ships, and the Washington Benevolent Society of Pennsylvania. A devout Protestant Episcopalian, he was involved in the development of the Mariner’s Church of Philadelphia and maintained an active interest in the building of St. Stephens’ Church on 10th Street in Philadelphia during its formative years.

Two of Dale’s sons followed their father into the United States Navy. Richard Sutherland Dale, a midshipman, died during the War of 1812 in a sea battle off the coast of Bermuda. He had been fatally wounded while manning a gun on his father’s former flagship, the President. The ship was overwhelmed by a British squadron out of St. Georges, Bermuda, in 1815, and the entire crew taken prisoner. He was twenty years old when he died, a prisoner on Bermuda. Richard’s brother John Montgomery Dale earned the rank of commander during his tenure in the Navy, and had the honor of christening a sloop-of-war named after his father.

On February 24, 1826, Richard Dale, Sr. passed away peacefully in his home at 231 Pine Street, and was laid to rest at Christ Church Burial Ground. His widow, Dorethea, moved into a house at 296 Walnut Street so that she could live near Sarah Barry, her cousin and the widow of her husband’s former captain and friend, John Barry. When Dorethea passed away in 1832, she was laid to rest next to her husband. Their remains were re-interred in Laurel Hill Cemetery in 1888, along with those of other family members.

Despite the relatively brief tenure of Dale’s command in the United States Navy, he was held in high esteem as one of the original members of this branch of the military. A number of ships have been named in honor of Richard Dale. The first, the sixteen-gun sloop of war that his son christened, was built in Philadelphia in 1839. Used to suppress illegal slave trafficking, this USS Dale also served during the Mexican-American war.

Three different destroyers would also receive the name Dale, including Destroyer Number 4 (1898), Number 290 during World War 1, and Number 353, completed in the 1930s. Most recently, a guided missile frigate, completed in 1962, that was named after Dale remained active until 2000. Although Richard Dale’s personal feats have been largely forgotten now, his is a memorable legacy filled with adventures on the high seas and noble deeds in the city he made his own. His contributions to the birth of our nation are significant, from his years fighting in the Revolutionary War, to the establishment of American trade with the Far East, the formation of the United States Navy, and through his years of semi-retirement living in Philadelphia's Society Hill neighborhood.

Richard Dale profile written by Ross Brakman, Summer 2010.