Captain Daniel Dobbins Historical Marker

At the foot of State Street overlooking Lake Erie
Erie, Pennsylvania

Captain Dobbins is the reason why, in 2017, every post office in Detroit will have a large picture of a smiling President Trump rather than an attractive picture of an austere Queen Elizabeth II.

Daniel Dobbins was born near Lewiston, Pennsylvania in the year of the American Revolution.  He first came to Erie in about 1796 as a member of surveying crew.  Apparently, he found sailing more rewarding than measuring land so he became a seaman.  By 1803, he was captain of a commercial ship on Lake Erie.  At that time, there were only about a dozen vessels transporting cargo and passengers on Lake Erie and to point north and west including the remote village of Detroit.  By 1809, he was master and part owner of his own ship, the Salina.

The United States declared war on England on June 12, 1812.  By July, the news of the declaration reached British military forces near present-day Michigan, but not the United States commanders.  Captain Dobbins had his commercial sloop at Fort Michilimackinac on July 17, 1812 when a British attack overwhelmed the United States forces there who did not know that their country was at war with England.   I believe the United States fort near present-day Saint Ignace was surrendered to the British without any military action. Captain Dobbins and his crew were taken by the British.  One version of the story is that the British released Captain Dobbins, his ship and his crew after they all took an oath to never take up arms against the United Kingdom.  Once released, Dobbins promptly sailed the Salina to Detroit.  Michigan’s Territorial Governor William Hull led the force that President Madison assumed would easily invade Canada in the summer of 1812.  Most of Hull’s troops came from Kentucky and southern Ohio where they gathered, in the late spring, for the invasion of Canada.   General Hull spent much of the early summer building roads through the pervasive swamps of western Ohio so that his soldiers and munitions might get to Detroit for the invasion.  When he arrived at present-day Toledo, he was tired of slogging through the mud and swamps of Ohio so he put some of his equipment and men on ships that could easily sail on Lake Erie and the Detroit River to the United States fort in Detroit.  Hull did not know that his country had declared War on Britain but the English commander at Fort Malden—present-day Amherstburg—knew and seized the U. S. vessel as it sailed north toward Detroit.  Hull and his remaining, but depleted and poorly supplied, forces eventually got to Detroit.  He followed orders and tried to invade Canada in August, 1812 with his ill trained forces but promptly turned around in the face what General Hull thought was an overwhelmingly strong British military.

Captain Dobbins had the bad fortune to arrive in Detroit after Hull retreated from his ill-fated invasion of Canada.  The American forces needed ships and impressed Captain Dobbin and his crew into service.  Shortly thereafter General William Hull believed that the British were about to lay siege to Detroit as Chief Pontiac had done 49 years earlier so he surrendered the village to the British without firing a shot on August 16, 1812.  For that he was later court martialed and ordered to be hung, a verdict that President Madison stayed.

The British not only captured Detroit, but Captain Dobbins, his ship and his crew.  They apparently considered executing Dobbins since they assumed he violated a promise not to take up arms against the English.  Somehow, he escaped from the British in Detroit and sailed to his home port of Erie.

Upon arrival in Erie, a military office there insisted that Captain Dobbins go immediately to Washington to tell President Madison and the government’s leaders about the dire situation in the Northwest.  The president and Washington bureaucrats had not heard about the disasters in Michigan territory.  In that era, it was a six to seven day journey by horse and boat to get from Erie to Washington—about three days from Erie to Pittsburgh and another three long days to cross the Alleghenies to get to Washington.

Captain Dobbins had the obligation to convey terrible news to President Madison who assumed that General Hull's invasion of Canada from Detroit would go very smoothly and would be a key in a quick British capitulation.  Not only were the two strongest military outposts in the West—Detroit and Michilimackinac—in the hands of the British but they had been taken without a fight.  And the Army that the United States had cobbled together from Ohio and Kentucky volunteers was more or less useless. 

Captain Dobbins stressed that the United States needed a strong naval force on Lake Erie if they wished to survive an invasion that the British would likely launch in the summer of 1813.  He proposed and convinced the government to build ships at Erie so they could take on the naval forces of Britain and preserve United States control of Lake Erie.  He recommended Erie since its Presque Isle peninsula was covered with oak trees appropriate for building ships.  And that peninsula sheltered a fine harbor just behind the historic marker shown above.  Naval officials agreed and gave him a commission to build naval ships in Erie.  This was quite a chore.  Erie was a tiny village with few craftsmen, no industries and almost none of the resources you need to construct substantial naval vessels.   During the winter and spring months of 1813, the federal government sought to dispatch skilled craftsmen and equipment to Erie for this major construction project.  The British, simultaneously, built ships at Fort Malden in Amherstburg.

By the mid-summer of 1813, Captain Dobbins and his team had constructed nine ships in Erie; the two largest weighing 260 tons each and the smallest 30 tons.   The two large ones were designed by Noah Brown, a master shipbuilder who came from New York. He was, arguably, the nation’s most accomplished naval architect in the early decades of the Nineteenth Century when steam was beginning to replace wind as the source of power.  The credit for the Navy having seaworthy ships in 1813 goes to Noah Brown.  By July, the British ships were ready and they sailed across to Erie where they knew a U. S. fleet was being constructed.  British commander, Roger Heriot Barclay, decided to blockade the Erie harbor and started doing so on July 20.  However, he ran out of supplies on the 29th of July and returned to Fort Malden.  While he was gone, Oliver Hazard Perry, who had been given command of the U. S. Naval forces in Lake Erie, sailed his nine newly constructed ships out of Erie’s harbor.  His first stop, in early September, was in Sandusky where he met with General William Henry Harrison, the future president, whom President Madison had appointed to replace disgraced General William Hull.  Perry departed from Sandusky and sought the British Navy.  On the morning of September 10, Perry sighted six British ships sailing east from Amherstburg on Lake Erie near South Bass Island and its Put-in Bay.  Perry had selected a blue flag with the slogan “Don’t Give up the Ship.’  When he wished to commence the battle late on the morning of September 10, he raised that flag.  Perry’s strategies were much more effective than those of the British commander and by 2:30 the United States Navy accomplished what may be their greatest victory.

At the start of the naval battle, Captain Perry had nine ships with 54 canons and 532 seamen. Commander Barclay had six ships with 39 canons and 502 men.  Twenty seven United States navy men died in the three hours battle and 96 were wounded.  The British lost 41 with 94 wounded.  All of the surviving British sailors were captured by Captain Oliver Hazard Perry.

The most famous battle report to a commander in the history of this nation is the summary of the Battle of Put-In-Bay that Oliver Hazard Perry sent to General William Henry Harrison:

"Dear General: We have met the enemy and they are ours. Two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop. Yours with great respect and esteem, O.H. Perry".

If United States naval forces had been wiped out instead of the British, it seems likely that the English would have retained control of forts at Detroit and the straits of Mackinac.  No one knows whether the British would have sent sufficient troops and naval power to totally conquer the United States.  They did have the forces and leadership to invade Baltimore and Washington during the summer of 1814.  So it may be that the ship building ken of Daniel Dobbins and Noah Brown explains why Detroit is no longer a component of the British Commonwealth.

Daniel Dobbins was not involved in the key naval battle at Put-In-Bay.  I believe that he was captain of a supply ship on Lake Erie at the time.  Following the War of 1812, he remained in the Navy until 1826.  Then he took a position improving the harbors at Ashtabula and Erie and later managed the Erie and Chautauqua Steamship Company.  Subsequently, he was put in charge of two revenue cutters that operated out of Erie.  I assume those ships assisted in collecting import duties and did some of the tasks now accomplished by Homeland Security.  He died at age 80 in Erie.

Pennsylvania Historical Marker: Erected 1993
Description of the Battle of Lake Erie:
Photograph: Ren Farley; November 13, 2016
Description updated: January, 2017

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