Joshua Humphreys, "Father of the American Navy"

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Joshua Humphreys, "Father of the American Navy"

2009-10-11 13:07


This week I spent some time working on the Joshua Humphreys papers (Collection 306). Born in Haverford, Pa. in 1751, Humphreys would go on to be the nation’s foremost naval architect in the post-Revolutionary era. In 1776 Humphreys was chosen by the Continental Congress to design the retrofitting of eight merchant vessels into battle-worthy frigates. These eight ships were the first military vessels of the United States. After the war, Humphreys pressed for an expanded fleet of ships that would be capable of not just defending the coastline, but also capable of going on the offensive in the open seas. In 1797, the frigate United States was launched and five more ships soon followed. These ships were the first all new ships designed for the American Navy and formed the backbone of the fleet during the War of 1812. The other ships were the President, Chesapeake, Constellation, Congress, and the Constitution – famously known as “Old Ironsides” and the oldest commissioned U.S. naval vessel still afloat. Several of the innovations Humphreys introduced on these ships, such as a knife-like keel to cut through the water and a bulging hull for added steadiness, were design elements used on ships well into the steam era. Humphreys managed to irritate several Secretaries of War and when Thomas Jefferson, who was opposed to the idea of an offensive Navy, was elected, Humphreys was “asked” to retire in 1803. His son Samuel however was also a naval architect, and Humphreys managed to stay in the business through his son, albeit in a less official capacity.




The collection consists of Humphreys’ daybooks, ledger books, and letter books. Taking a look at these, I suddenly became very grateful for all the computer accounting and financial management software out there (I myself swear by Quicken). In the late 1700’s, managing a business meant one had to be very methodical to keep all these records by hand.




Though most of the collection consists of financial record keeping, there were also some instructions on how to build ships and some hand drawn diagrams too.






Also in this collection was the daybook of Charles Humphreys, Joshua’s brother and a member of the First Continental Congress. When I opened this book, many small scraps of paper literally came bursting out. It seems Charles did a lot of his record keeping on small scraps of paper, sometimes tearing personal letters up and using the backs to do some quick math. Perhaps he was the less organized of the two brothers.

Finally, while doing some background research on the web, I came across this most interesting site, It's an interesting project with lots of fascinating documents. Anyone interested in early American military history must check it out.





Great stuff! The Naval Order, the non-profit historical association of the U.S. Navy will be interested in knowing about this collection. My wife is the assistant to Treasurer General of the organization.

Submitted by Alexander Humphreys (not verified) on

Joshua Humphreys is my one of my great grandfathers, I'm not sure how many generations have passed, but this is what my great grandfather told me. It is really inspiring to see his work because I am studying engineering myself. No one ever believes me when I tell people the U.S.S. Constitution was designed by someone in my family tree, but it is ok. Thank you very much for the pictures and information.

Submitted by tim humphreys (not verified) on


Joshua is my great, great, great, great, great uncle. It is so cool to tell people our story.

Submitted by Cary Majewicz (not verified) on

Your ancestor was, indeed, a very important figure in American naval history. We're very glad to have some of Joshua Humphrey's records, and they are available for anyone to view.

Thanks for reading!

Submitted by USS UNITED STAT... (not verified) on

To Whom It May Concern:

I need to see Humphrey's material, particular to the frigate USS UNITED STATES, and with notes on the poop deck of the frigate.

I already have Work on the frigate United STates (108 pages?).

Please contact me at

I am Ed. Zimmerman, Jr.; Founder, President, and CEO of the USS UNITED STATES Foundation since September 1978

Submitted by Cary Majewicz (not verified) on

Mr. Zimmerman,

Thanks for your interest in the Humphreys papers. The collection is not digitized, but I will email you information on how we might get you the information you seek, if it is contained in the records.


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on

Does anyone know where to find an accurate family tree for Joshua Humphreys....I am a descendant from my mothers side and would like to trace back but I can't seem to find much good information. Thank you!

Submitted by John woodcock (not verified) on

I have just read Six Frigates-great book. My book club is reading it for next meeting, May 20th. Is Humphrey's home open to the public? We would love to invite an informed person to our next meeting as our guest for lunch. We meet at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, PA at 10:30. We have 8-10 members at our meeting. They could be spirited meeting depending on the topic. I grew up 3 blocks from Humphrey's home. My curiosity was no greater than reading the historical marker at the curb. I am so glad my son recommended the book. He was a supply officer on the "Mighty Mo" USS Missouri during the first gulf war in 1991. Loved the book. John Woodcock - 610 688 4259

Submitted by Thank You PHMC (not verified) on

I wish to interject here that I have the largest collection of plans for the USS UNITED STATES under one roof. The U.S. Navy nor the National Archives can make that claim. I also make public that I thank the late George Beyer for all he did to go out of his way for the plaque at Penns Landing for the USS UNITED STATES. And for the help by Mrs. Piaseky (forgive my spelling). It was certainly a glorious day at the plaque dedication with the Philadelphia Police and Firemen's band. We had the reception on board the cruiser USS OLYMPIA, Admiral Dewey's flagship. I seat in Dewey's chair when discussing the plans for the dedication ceremony with Frances Lederer. Thank you again PHMC. A great bunch of people whom I have the honor to meet. Ed. Zimmerman, Jr. USS UNITED STATES Foundation

Submitted by Robert G. Wasalaski (not verified) on

I am a naval architect and naval engineer. More importantly to this site, I was the technical team leader for the Naval Sea Systems Command for OPSAIL 200 in July 1997 for the ship's 200th anniversary and in for the tow trials in May of 1998. I was able walk in this great man's footsteps and marvel at the design and construction of this wonderful ship and assess it material condition, quality and capabilities. He was the Father of US Naval Ship Design.

Submitted by on

Thanks so much for reading and commenting! We're very pleased to be able to make our Joshua Humphrey materials available to the public. His contributions to history cannot be underestimated.

Submitted by Marc Stutzel (not verified) on

I grew up with my father whom name was Humphrey Stutzel and we have the family Humphreys coat of arms. Joshuah was my GGG grand dad and am just looking into our genology. My grandmother is from the Humphreys lineage. I would like to find more about my genology. Funny the irritating character and innovative mind holds true in myself. Enjoyed this paper. Thank you. Marc

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