His Brother's Keeper: Commodore John Barry, Father of the American Navy


The war slowed Irish immigration to America down to a trickle, and Barry’s homeward contributions became fewer, for while Barry served his country admirably (and was severely wounded), he went largely unpaid for his services. His new in-laws, however, more than made up for any slack in family intrigue.

In July 1777, Barry remarried. His bride, Sarah Austin, was nine years his junior, beautiful according to contemporary descriptions, and a stitch-sister of Betsy Ross; one of her flags flew atop John Paul Jones’ ship Ranger on her voyage to France. The year before, Sarah’s brother Isaac marched with Barry and other Philadelphians, following Washington’s Continentals to Trenton and Princeton, while William, the eldest of Sarah’s siblings, was more than willing to demonstrate his loyalty to the crown.  Upon capture of Philadelphia after the Battle of Brandywine, General Howe charged William to save the city from being burned by departing rebels. William became an officer in a Loyalist regiment, departing Philadelphia with the British Army for New York in 1778. He was immediately accused of treason by the Pennsylvania Assembly. The Austin family business and homes were seized, forcing Barry and Isaac into years of political maneuvering to recover the family fortune.

And William wasn’t through yet. In 1781, he commanded an eighteen-gun ship, participating in Benedict Arnold’s raids along the Chesapeake in 1781. From there, William sailed to Yorktown, where he was captured and placed in a prison ship bound for New York.

News of William’s misfortune reached Barry in Connecticut, where he was refitting his frigate, the Alliance. Knowing full well Washington’s hatred of Arnold, Barry wrote and later visited the general, asking him to intercede on William’s behalf – calling William his friend while tactfully omitting his involvement with the traitor of West Point. Washington, one of Barry’s staunch admirers, promised to look into the matter.

William spent the rest of his life in exile, living in Nova Scotia, London, and South Carolina over the next thirty years. Throughout that time, Sarah and Isaac had nothing to do with him, but Barry began a correspondence with him that lasted until Barry’s death. His letters began, “My Dear Brother,” while William’s equally cordial letters were addressed “My Dear Barry.” From London, William sent him an “Axminster Carpet” and other furnishings; in one letter, Barry requested the latest books, including Tom Jones. Ever frugal, he instructed William to give them to the ship’s captain for delivery, sparing Barry any customs duties.

War’s end found Barry so broke that he was forced to write General Anthony Wayne, his partner in a cattle roundup that helped feed Washington’s army during the Valley Forge winter, to loan him $200. Wayne didn’t have the money either. Sad news arrived from home, from his brother-in-law Thomas Hayes; his wife Eleanor – Barry’s sister – was dead, and he was gravely ill. Barry’s other sister, Margaret Howlin, was also widowed, living in poverty. Hayes called Barry’s contributions their “only relief” and “praised God for having such a friend” in his later days; Barry assured him that he would “prove a real father” to Hayes’ children when the time came. Another letter soon followed, from Uncle Nicholas. The time had come.

Nicholas’ missive was delivered by “Mathew Doyle a lad of good repute” whom Nicholas was sure Barry would assist in finding proper employ, being “brought up to husbandry.” His arrival signaled the beginning of a steady stream of immigrants who made their way to Barry’s doorstep, seeking lodging, employment, and counsel. Barry always had an ample supply of each.

Over the next three years Barry joined other naval officers with memorials to Congress and the Pennsylvania Assembly, chasing down agents in France and Cuba for the money due him from captured prizes. The money came his way very slowly. But luck began turning his way in 1787, with an offer to command a merchantman bound for China. Barry was overseeing construction of the Asia when John Rossiter brought his nephews to Philadelphia. Both boys wanted to go to sea. Michael began a long association under Rossiter’s employ, while Patrick accompanied his uncle, sailing around the world with him to China.

Few journals of the time match Patrick’s wide-eyed recounting of the long, fascinating, and dangerous voyage to Canton. He captured everything with a boy’s vividness: storms, lightning strikes, the suicide of the despondent third mate, and their layover in Cape Town, where his marvel at the exotic animals of Africa is mixed with dread at innate racism, even in the dispensing of justice. Patrick found “3 gibbets one fore the sailors one for the soldiers and one fore the Slaves” – after all, one wouldn’t hang a white criminal on a black man’s gallows.