Voyage Of the Rattletrap, 1778

By Olin L. Hupp


Fort Pitt

James Willing was a member of a prominent Philadelphia family and brother to a member of the first Continental Congress. Beginning in 1774, he lived and worked in Natchez along the Mississippi River. Willing was considered an average merchant, slowly frittering away his fortune and growing in debt. He was also an agitator for the Revolution.

Willing returned to Pennsylvania in 1777, and early in the fall had several conferences with the Commerce Committee of the Continental Congress. Reportedly, Willing drew a vivid picture of the probability of Loyalist activity in the Natchez district, warned that the Mississippi River would be closed to American traffic and suggested an expedition to the lower Mississippi to enlist or compel the support of West Florida. The Commerce Committee, without the general knowledge of Congress, commissioned Willing a captain in the navy and assigned him the expedition.

Willing's instructions were to deliver some dispatches for New Orleans, to bring up the Mississippi and Ohio part of the stores Spain had agreed to deliver at New Orleans for the use of the United States, and to "capture whatever British property he might meet with".

After receiving these instructions, Willing proceeded to Fort Pitt. The armed boat Rattletrap was assigned to his command. On January 10, 1778, with a crew of about thirty men, he set out on the westward voyage, down the Ohio River. Members of the volunteer crew were:

Crew of the Rattletrap
Capt. Thomas Love; Sgt. John Marney; Levin Spriggs; John Walker; Richard Murray; Mark Foley; John Ash; Daniel Whittaker;Lazarus Ryan; Philip Hupp; John Gouldin; Lawrence Kanan; Samuel Taylor; John Hanwood, and James Taylor from Capt. Harrison's company of the 13th Virginia regiment.

Greenberry Shores, Nathan Henderson, Richard Rody, Henry Haut and Tobrar Haut of Capt. Sullivan's company.

Sgt. Thomas Beard; Nathaniel Down; James King; Alexander Chambers; William White; and John Rowland of Capt. O'Hara's company.

James Ryan, Reuben Hamilton and James Cordonis of Capt. Heth's company.

(Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778; by Louise Kellogg; p.302-303)
Down th Ohio

Down the Mississippi
to Natchez

Destruction and Plunder

New Orleans

Returning North

The Frenchman Rocheblave, commander for the English at Kaskaskia, upon hearing of the expedition believed that Illinois was to be attacked. Traveling down the Ohio, Willing did seize the Becquet brothers and their peltries and Mr. La Chance and a cargo of brandy. Rocheblave interpreted these seizures as a sign of what he might expect should the Americans come to Illinois in greater numbers. Willing, at any rate, achieved enough notoriety along the Ohio that when Hamilton heard of Clark's capture of Kaskaskia be believed the captors to be from Willing's flotilla assisted, perhaps, by the Spaniards.

By February 16th or 17th the expedition reached the plantation of Anthony Hutchins, a short distance above Natchez. Hutchins was made prisoner, his slaves and some other property seized. Afterwards, they proceeded on to Natchez.

On the afternoon of Friday, February 19th, Captain Willling and his command disembarked at Natchez. Orders were sent to all parts that the residents should convene the following morning to be made prisoners of war and that he would take possession of the jurisdiction. Mindful of their remoteness from protection, the residents proposed that they would not take arms against the United States, nor help to supply or give assistance to it's enemies if their persons, slaves and other property would be left secure.

On February 21, Willing signified that, with the exception of every public official of the crown of Great Britain who holds property, he was in agreement. The property of all British subjects not resident in this district was likewise excepted.

Most accounts of Willing's expedition say that his force embarked on a "career of confiscation and cruelty" as they moved south beyond Natchez. At Manchac, on February 23, an advance party captured the Rebecca, "mounted with sixteen guns, four pounders, beside swivels". The Rebecca and the Hinchenbrook had been sent to scour the inland passage and frustrate rebel attacks.

The American's went on to seize other boats, raid plantations on the Mississippi, Thompson's Creek and Amite, and even followed some settlers into Spanish territory taking their property. Excesses and wanton destruction accompanied the seizures. Hogs were shot, cattle killed, bottled wine broken and dwellings burned. Along the lower Mississippi, Oliver Pollock organized volunteers from New Orleans that cooperated with Willing's men in plundering the British.

Willing foster the impression that a large army under General Clark was advancing on the colony. Instead of the thirty men who had started out on the Rattletrap, instead of the hundred or more of plunder-seeking adventurers that had joined along the way, the West Floridians estimated the American forces at five to eight thousand.

By March, Willing had reached New Orleans. Estimates of the plunder vary considerably, ranging from $15,000 to $1,500,000. Pollock reported that Willing had got 100 slaves worth 140 pesos each and that proceeds from these and other plunder amounted to $25,000. Another $37,500 was assigned for the Rebecca, which was armed as a war vessel, not sold. The damage done by the forces was much greater than the meager profits secured.

The Americans presence in the Spanish owned New Orleans became a problem for Governor Gálvez. The British protested Willing's plundering on the lower Mississippi claiming it was Spanish territory. British war ships were sent to New Orleans to reclaim their property and defend British subjects. As a result, of British reinforcement of West Florida and the establishment of a virtual blockade of the river, Willing was stopped from sending supplies upstream to the revolution and the English bank of the Mississippi was lost back to England.

With his avenues north endangered and having overstayed his welcome with Gálvez and Pollock, Willing became an annoyance to the Spanish government. Willing's stay stretched into months. Pollock wrote the Congress expressing concerns about Willing's judgment and began developing ways for Willing and his men to return north, part by land and part by water through the Spanish Territories.

On July 14, Governor Gálvez issued a letter to the Spanish commanders along the Mississippi to allow Willing and twenty-five American to pass. But with the settlers so angry, the journey north was too hazardous and no one took advantage of the opportunity. A month later Lieut. Robert George requested permission to lead the men north through Spanish territory. Gálvez, upon receiving an oath that they would follow his route and not offend any English subjects along the way, gave his permission. They traveled north by way of Opelousas, Natchitoches, and the Arkansas. Then to St. Louis where they were placed under the command of Gen. George Rogers Clark.

Willing finally got away by sloop for Philadelphia. His journey home was an unfortunate one. The sloop was captured and Willing was taken prisoner to New York. Toward the end of 1779 he was exchanged for British Colonel Henry Hamilton.

Willing's actions succeeded in temporarily crippling the British naval forces on the Mississippi and interrupted the flow of supplies, mainly lumber, from Natchez to Pensacola and Jamaica. However, because of the massive plundering, West Florida was lost to the patriot cause.

(Except as noted, the information in this article is based upon research presented in The Louisiana Historical Quarterly entitled Willing's Expedition Down The Mississippi, 1778; by John Caughey in January, 1932)