The Birthplace of the Coast Guard

Newburyport:  The Birthplace of the Coast Guard 

The year was 1789, and George Washington, our nation’s first president, was facing several serious dilemmas. The Revolutionary War had left the Constitutional government with no money in the treasury. There was no navy, a very small army and smuggling was rampant.  

In order to raise money, Washington and Congress established the Department of the Treasury. Washington appointed Alexander Hamilton as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton’s first priority was to generate funding by collecting import tariffs on goods coming into the U.S. by sea.  

Hamilton sent a bill to Congress requesting the establishment of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. The bill requested funding for 10 boats to collect import tariffs on goods being shipped to U.S. ports. The bill called for cutters for Massachusetts and New Hampshire, Long Island, New York, Bay of Delaware, two for the Chesapeake Bay, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia.  

The Revenue Cutter Massachusetts was one of the first boats constructed. The two-mast schooner was built in Newburyport by Searle & Tyler in 1791. The schooner was 60 feet in length and weighed 70 tons. The cost of construction was $2,050, a bit over budget.  

The Massachusetts was launched on July 23, 1791, an act that would eventually lead to Newburyport’s recognition as the birthplace of the Coast Guard. Hamilton selected John Foster Williams as the Massachusetts captain. The ship’s tour of duty would be short, as the 10 original cutters were replaced by 13 larger cutters by 1801. The Massachusetts was sold on in late 1792.  

For decades after the Massachusetts was decommissioned, the Revenue Service operated as an independent entity. That changed in 1915, when Congress passed a law creating the U.S. Coast Guard from the merger of two services — life saving and revenue. Some 25 years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt would add another agency to the Coast Guard — the lighthouse service.  

The Coast Guard served under the Department of the Treasury until 1967, at which time it served under the newly formed Department of Transportation.  

The U.S. Coast Guard today operates under the Department of Homeland Security. Newburyport is the home of the U.S. Coast Guard Station Merrimack River. Newburyport has earned the title “Coast Guard City,” supported by rich historical references. The MLB Station Merrimack River is supported by the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, Flotilla 38, based on Plum Island. 

In 1790, the Revenue Cutter Service was created to ensure collection of import tariffs and commissioned the building of 10 vessels. What was the largest ship?  

In 1791, the 55-foot Massachusetts was built in Newburyport. It patrolled the coast for smugglers and escorted merchant ships to the Custom House. The Revenue Cutter Service was one of five federal services that now comprise the U.S. Coast Guard.  

That’s why Newburyport is the official birthplace of the Coast Guard.  

The Coast Guard’s roots lie in the Revenue Cutter Service, which was founded on August 4, 1790 as part of the Department of the Treasury. An act of the U.S. Congress created the Coast Guard in 1915, with the merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the United States Lifesaving Service. The United States Lighthouse Service was merged into the Coast Guard in 1939. The legal basis for the Coast Guard is Title 14 of the United States Code, which states: “The Coast Guard as established January 28, 1915, shall be a military service and a branch of the armed forces of the United States at all times.” Upon the declaration of war or when the President directs, the Coast Guard operates under the authority of the Department of the Navy. The Coast Guard later moved to the Department of Transportation in 1967, and on February 25, 2003 it became part of the Department of Homeland Security. 

A History of the Newburyport Coast Guard Station – Merrimack River

Cutters of the Revenue Marine and Revenue Cutter Service: 1790-1900  

The “system of cutters,” the Revenue Marine, and the Revenue Cutter Service, as it was known variously throughout the nineteenth century, referred to its vessels as cutters.  The term, English in origin, refers to a specific type of sailing vessel, namely, “a small, decked ship with one mast and bowsprit, with a gaff mainsail on a boom, a square yard and topsail, and two jibs or a jib and a staysail.” (Peter Kemp, editor, The Oxford Companion to Ships & the Sea; London: Oxford University Press, 1976; pp. 221-222.)   By general usage, however, that term came to define any vessel of Great Britain’s Royal Customs Service.  The U.S. Treasury Department adopted that term at the creation of its “system of cutters.”  Since that time, no matter what the vessel type, the Coast Guard and its illustrious predecessor have referred to their largest vessels as cutters (today a cutter is any Coast Guard vessel over 65 feet in length).  During the period covered by this gallery, the cutters were named primarily for secretaries of the Treasury Department and other contemporary political personalities. 

A photo of a Revenue cutter. USRC Massachusetts [In service 1791-1792.]  This painting purports to illustrate the first cutter named Massachusetts but it incorrectly shows the cutter flying the Revenue ensign and commission pennant, which were not adopted until 1799, well after the first Massachusetts had left service.  Nevertheless, the illustration does show those characteristics typical of most of the first few generations of Revenue cutters: a small sailing vessel steered by a tiller, with low freeboard, light draft, lightly armed, and usually rigged as a topsail schooner. The first Massachusetts was a 60-foot schooner that displaced 70 43/95 tons.  She was launched on 23 July 1791 and sold out of service on 9 October 1792.  . 


A contemporary description, provided by the Collector of Customs at Boston, Mr. Benjamin Lincoln to the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, noted: 

Agreeably to your orders I here send you a description of the Cutter Massachusetts built at Newbury port in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in the year 1791. She has on [sic: one] deck, two masts her length is sixty feet above her upper deck her depth is seven feet Eight inches, breadth seventeen feet eight inches she measures seventy tons 43/95. She is a square-stern schooner, has quarter badges, an Indian’s head for figurehead. She has a long quarter deck and a deep waist.”  

Dr. John Tilley noted that “the Massachusetts was a two-masted schooner of 70 43/95 tons burden, 60 ‘ in length, with a beam of 17′ 8″ and depth of hold of 7’ 8″. The ship had a long quarterdeck, deep bulwarks, and an armament of either four or six swivel guns. The contract signed by Searle and Tyler called for two boats and seven sails: mainsail, foresail, jib, flying jib, fore topsail, main topsail, and square sail.” The cutter ended up being larger than originally authorized as her first master, John Foster Williams, ordered an increase in her size without first seeking departmental approval. Her cost was therefore considerably over the original estimate. Nevertheless, the government accepted her as built. 

Operational service 

Although she was launched later than a number of other cutters, by tradition she is considered to be the first to actually enter active service. 

There are a number of surviving documents regarding her history. A journal, kept by second mate Nathaniel Nichols, has turned up and gives a glimpse of what life was like on this cutter. He faithfully recorded his thoughts and actions from 31 October 1791 through 16 June 1793. 

“No Revenue Cutter in Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton’s ‘system of cutters’ saw shorter Federal service than the first [cutter named] Massachusetts, a 70 ton schooner built in Newburyport, Massachusetts in 1791. One of the first ten armed vessels of the United States ordered to patrol the Atlantic Coast to protect the revenue, she was too costly to please Alexander Hamilton, too expensive to operate to please General Benjamin Lincoln, and too slow to please her Master, Captain John Foster Williams. They sold her in October 1792 and replaced her the following spring with a smaller, livelier cutter, the sloop Massachusetts II.” 

A Revenue Marine cutter,  Massachusetts 
Career United States 
Name: Massachusetts 
Operator: Revenue Cutter Service 
Launched: 15 July 1791 
Commissioned: 1791 
Decommissioned: 1792 
Fate: Sold 9 Oct 1792 
General characteristics 
Class and type: Schooner 
Displacement: 73 & 43/95 tons 
Length: 60 ft 9 in 
Beam: 17 ft 8 in 
Draft: 7 ft 8 in 
Propulsion: Sail 
Complement: 4 officers 
Crew: 4 crewmen, 2 boys 
Armament: 4-6 swivel guns 

Commanding officers 

Captain John Foster Williams, Master; 1791-1792. 

Original Crew: 

First Mate Hezekiah Welch of Charlestown, MA. 
Second Mate Nathaniel Nichols of Cohasset, MA. 
Third Mate Sylvanus Coleman of Nantucket, MA. 


  • Massachusetts, 1791, US Coast Guard website.  
  • Canney, Donald, 1995: U.S. Coast Guard and Revenue Cutters, 1790-1935. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press.  
  • Chapelle, Howard I. (1935): The History of American Sailing Ships, New York: Bonanza Books.  
  • Dixon, Robert Jr. (1966): Captain Gross’s Arms and Stores. Coast Guard Academy Alumni Association The Bulletin (April-May 1966), pp. 95-100.  
  • Stephen H. Evans, 1949: The United States Coast Guard, 1790-1915: A Definitive History (With a Postscript: 1915-1950). Annapolis: The United States Naval Institute, 1949.  
  • Kern, Florence, 1976: John Foster Williams’ U.S. Revenue Cutter Massachusetts, 1791-1792 “To Stand the Trials.” Washington, D.C.: Alised Enterprises.  
  • U.S. Coast Guard, 1934: Record of Movements: Vessels of the United States Coast Guard: 1790 – December 31, 1933, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (reprinted 1989).